This is a guest post by Michael Davidson.
On Friday, an essay entitled “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women” was published on lds.org, and the reactions from some quarters of the internet were entirely predictable. One of the most common complaints I’ve seen is that the Church is claiming that the word “ordain” doesn’t mean “ordain.” The most cogent of these observations came courtesy of April Young Bennett, who argues:
The authors attempt to explain away the ordinations of female Relief Society officers in Nauvoo by stating that “Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart.” Maybe they did sometimes, but not in this case. In the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Joseph Smith explained that Emma Smith did not need to be ordained at that meeting as she had already been ordained previously, just like men who have already been ordained in the modern church do not need to be ordained again to take on new callings. Instead, Emma Smith received a blessing that is similar to the modern practice of “setting apart” while Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney received ordinations.
In support of her assertions, Ms. Bennett provides a link to the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society from the Joseph Smith Papers Project website. It is instructive to read exactly what was recorded about the ordinations of Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney.
Elder Taylor was then appointed to ordain the Counsellors— he laid his hands on the head of Mrs Cleveland and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to the Elect Lady, even Mrs. Emma Smith, to counsel, and assist her in all things pertaining to her office &c.
Elder T. then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Whitney and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to Mrs. Smith, the Prest. of the Institutio[n]— with all the privileges pertaining to the office &c.
He then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Smith and blessed her, and confirm’d upon her all the blessings which have been confer’d on her, that she might be a mother in Israel and look to the wants of the needy, and be a pattern of virtue; and possess all the qualifications necessary for her to stand and preside and dignify her Office, to teach the females those principles requisite for their future usefulness.
Each of Mrs. Cleveland and Mrs. Whitney were ordained to be counselors. No mention is made of priesthood office, nor was there any mention of the conferral of any priesthood to Emma Smith, Sarah Cleveland or Elizabeth Whitney. Which leads to the main point of this post: “ordain” has never meant conferral of either the Aaronic Priesthood or the Melchizedek Priesthood in the Church.
When we look at the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, the word “ordain” is not used. Section 13 of the Doctrine and Covenants reads, in full, “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.”
Think about the last time you’ve been to the ordination of a deacon. The young man in question sits down and hands are placed on his head. At that time, two important things happen. First, the Aaronic Priesthood is conferred upon him, and then he is ordained to the office of deacon within that Priesthood. At this point, he has been given the Aaronic Priesthood; not the first part of the Aaronic Priesthood, not a fourth of the Aaronic Priesthood, but all of it. He only has the authority to use that Priesthood in accordance with office to which he has been ordained. When he is later ordained a teacher, priest, and perhaps a bishop, he will never get any more “Aaronic Priesthood.” Instead, he will simply get the responsibility of exercising new duties entrusted to those that hold that priesthood. (Don’t take my word for this, you can check out the Church’s “Family Guidebook” which spells this out precisely. The Handbook of Instructions is similarly specific on this.)
The same is true with the Melchizedek Priesthood. When Elder Renlund was ordained an apostle this month, he didn’t get more priesthood. He’s held the Melchizedek Priesthood for a long time. Apostle is merely a new office in that priesthood for him.
It should be noted that the essay published on Friday clearly recognizes this distinction. The authors note that “Joseph Smith received priesthood authority from heavenly messengers; with that authority, he organized the Church, conferred priesthood upon other men, and ordained them to offices in the priesthood,” clearly differentiating between the conferral of priesthood and the ordaining to specific offices. Putting a fine point on it, the essayists state “neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women or ordained women to priesthood office.”
In putting an even finer point on it, the essayists go to the source, John Taylor, whom the feminists point to as the man who ordained Mrs. Cleveland and Mrs. Whitney, who specifically refutes the feminists’ position. He stated clearly that “the ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those sisters.” It seems that we can trust that John Taylor, the man who actually laid hands upon the heads of those sisters, knew of which he spoke.
Taking this back to the title, the feminists behind Ordain Women should rethink their demands. Simply ordaining women won’t do anything for them if the priesthood isn’t conferred upon them first, but it’s not the first time that group has put the cart before the horse.