Shouldn’t they be called ‘Confer Women?’

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, 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.

17 thoughts on “Shouldn’t they be called ‘Confer Women?’

  1. Excellent analysis.

    After Sacrament Meeting, my husband and I went to see my youngest daughter in concert. So I wasn’t in Relief Society. Apparently there was discussion about whether or not women can give blessings of comfort or healing. And my oldest daughter told me my presence was required. However, I don’t think I would have been a great help because I now know that policy prohibits women from giving such blessings, even though policy in the past used to permit such blessings. So even though I have given voice to such blessings in the past, I wouldn’t do so now, unless the policy got updated and I knew the policy had been updated.

    On the other hand, I have added a vial of consecrated oil to my keychain since I never know when I might need to grab the closest priesthood holder to administer a blessing…

  2. Excellent post. I doubt that the agitators will stop to digest the very cogent analysis that you’ve provided because their goal is not to understand the will of the Lord, it is to force the Lord to change the Gospel to fit the politically correct agenda of the day. It has ever been so and will always be so with those who kick against the pricks.

  3. It’s to be expected that OW and April Bennett will never be happy until they have their exact, two-year-old tantrum throwing way. Best to ignore and move on.

    Great essay Michael, I always am glad when you post for M*.

  4. Nice distinction/analysis, Michael. Technically, though, you can’t “confer women”; neither does it make sense, but I digress.

  5. Thanks everybody. I thought about not mentioning OW at all, but they are the individuals that have made the most noise about the RS Minute Book and so I felt it would be odd to leave them out, but I do generally agree with you Joyce.

    And Tiger, I agree, but I thought it sounded funny. 🙂

  6. But the most distinct information In the Minute Bookisthe clear effort Joseph and Emma made to find those who were involved in sexual sin.

    They are twisting English to claim there is some female right to priesthood while everyone seems to ignore the hunt for those who are not pure.

  7. They refer to President Taylor in the essays, and later in life he did clearly state that the original members of the RS were not given the priesthood in any way, shape or form. It doesn’t matter to me what loose language Joseph used. We have the words from the man who actually set them apart as to exactly what was said and done.

  8. @sar, Looking at the link I am at a bit of a loss to follow his analysis, if there is any presented. His assertions are rather conclusory, and he doesn’t show any of his homework. He asserts that there wasn’t a distinction between conferral and ordination prior to 1900. While it is notoriously difficult to disprove a negative, he doesn’t provide a scintilla of evidence in support of his assertion, unless I’m missing something.

    The quote above from Pres. Taylor (from 1880) would suggest that he was familiar with the term conferral, and he specifically talked separately about conferring priesthood and ordaining to offices. I would be interested in whatever evidence Mr. Smith seems to believe support the conclusion he makes that the conferral/ordination dichotomy wasn’t present before 1900, if there is indeed any such evidence.

    He references D&C 107 specifically regarding the organization of the Priesthood, but this does not help his main thesis, and that revelation clearly delineates two priesthoods, which then have different offices within them, which is consistent with what I’ve written above.

    Of interest is the dismissal he gives of the language used in D&C 13, suggesting that the prophet Joseph was perhaps not remembering it clearly and claiming that “the whole angelic priesthood delivery mythos is in need of careful reanalysis.” It seems Mr. Smith may have some doubts about the reality of the restoration of the Priesthood as reported by Joseph Smith.

  9. @sar, And, incidentally, prior to publishing the comment above, I had found a scanned copy of the Second Edition of Gospel Doctrine at at the link below. I didn’t see any such “letter from the new Heber J. Grant First Presidency” in the introductory materials and so I made no mention of it. Upon further review, I did find a statement by the First Presidency in the addendum, on page 686, but it is not really as represented.

    The issue is raised that many in the Church at that point had been ordained in the following form:

    “By Authority of the Holy Priesthood and by the laying on of hands, I ordain you an Elder, (or other office, as the case may be), in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and confer upon you all the rights, powers and authorities pertaining to this office and calling in the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

    Pres. Joseph F. Smith was questioned about this form and the one he had taught (which is in concert with that used today), Pres. Grant, Pres. Lund and Pres. Penrose reported that Pres. Smith said that “it is a distinction without a difference” and “either would do.”

    It is interesting to note that present practice (consistent with Pres. Smith’s teachings) and the other mode set forth in the addendum that had been widespread, both involve a separate ordination and conferral. In both cases there is an ordination to a specific office and a separate conferral of “rights, powers, keys and authority.”

    To me, this represents continual revelation in the Church. The previous practice by some was not wrong, but the practice standardized by Pres. Joseph F. Smith and continued to this day is more consistent with the revelations, in particular D&C 107.

  10. In my own experience, God will speak a combination of comfort, admonitoion, and urgent correction to the mind that is misunderstanding something critical.

    With respect to the difference between ordaining (setting apart) and conferring the priesthood (in the examples cited by Michael Davidson clearly not synonymous with ordination), an insistence on defying Church leadership to the point of wresting power from them over the matter is clearly a line that, if crossed, poses danger to the soul of an individual.

    It is at the least demanding that presents be opened before Christmas, or otherwise before the due time of the Lord.

  11. I haven’t seen Bennett’s full argument; but it’s worth noting that the Nauvoo RS minutes did not refer to Emma’s prior “ordination” as a laying-on-of-hands priesthood rite. The “ordination” referred to was simply the revelation now known as D&C 25. From the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, pages 8-9:

    President Smith read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants; and stated that she was ordain’d at the time, the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.

    The 2d Epistle of John, 1st verse, was then read to show that respect was then had to the same thing; and that why she was called an Elect lady is because, elected to preside.

    Emma’s ordination was apparently to have been pronounced an “elect lady” by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. That’s a wonderful blessing, but it is not a priesthood “ordination” in any modern-day sense of the word.

  12. this is an answer to someone about a post on women and healing/ordination. I thought the answer was extremely well put.

    I can’t possibly know understand how it feels to be you, Reese. So I hope you don’t take my thoughts on this as judgmental, because I know you’re a great person (and your husband, too).

    From my perspective, your thoughts mistake a part for the whole. The three chapters you cite all discuss “healing”. This is a very broad term and, indeed, many people of both genders have a gift for healing in various ways that are pleasing to the Lord.

    The New Testament scripture cited by the Church says specifically “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:” (James 5:14)

    I think this is a narrower view of healing, specifically outlining blessings for the sick that include anointing, oil and laying on of hands.

    In my experience, the faith of those present in a prayer situation is much more important than the physical attitude assumed. And the tableau of women who do not have the priesthood laying hands on the head gives the sense of imitation and usurpation. The scriptures make it clear that laying on of hands is a procedure related to priesthood ordinances (see here:

    The priesthood is a very real power. As the fifth Article of Faith tells us, it can only be conferred by one who already has it and is authorized to do so. The act of assuming the attitude of performing priesthood ordinances while not actually having the priesthood gives the appearance of belief that the priesthood is merely a form to be assumed and not an actual power that is conferred.

  13. In the early days of the Church women did perform healing blessings which involved laying hands on the head of the one afflicted. They’d did not do this by virtue of the priesthood, but but faith.

    Since the middle of the last century the leadership of the Church has requested that women refrain from using the laying on of hands for blessings, specifically in a response from Joseph Fielding Smith to then-Relief Society’s President Belle Spafford. This particularly related to the remaining practice of women giving blessings to pregnant women. I infer from what I’ve read that the nature of such blessings was more involved than mere laying on of hands.

    Blessings by those who are women have continued at a low level across the decades amongst those who were unaware of the policy shift.

    In a similar vein, the gift of tongues used to be a major part of the worship experience for Saints. As recently as the 1980s an apostle manifested the gift of tongues in a public meeting (Elder Nelson in Rome, Italy – I was present and the event was reported upon in an Italian magazine/newspaper at the time). Obviously most modern members of the Church have never seen a manifestation of the gift of tongues and would find it he tableau of an member or apostle speaking in tongues to give a sense of imitation and falsehood. In fact, the termination of Elder Nelson’s ability to speak in Italian came about abruptly when he used a phrase that was perfect Italian, but beyond the vocabulary of most missionaries. After the meeting they’d we’re chatting about how odd it had been that Elder Nelson would speak in tongues but use incorrect grammar, and I informed them it was their lack of knowledge that led them to think Elder Nelson had used incorrect grammar.

    Of course women can give blessings by the power of faith using the laying on of hands when permitted by policy. They have done so in the past. They could do so again in the future. Right now policy requests that they not do so.

  14. It is all too easy for women to lose patience and take over for men who seem to be lagging. Men can do it too, but in my experience women are more often pushed by their perceived need to get something accomplished that they lose patience. In a culture where technology has eliminated most of the limitations women have because of our different physiology, ie. structure and type of muscle and skeletal attachment of ligaments, we can be led to see men as inhibiting factors instead of necessary to the best function of families.On Friday one of my daughters gave birth. I was part of the team that helped her through the labor and home delivery. I coached her breathing, sensed when she need massage or back support. Although her husband’s morale support was vital. I believe he was more than content to let ‘the women’ handle the nitty gritty of birth. Today he and her brother gave her a priesthood blessing to help her with the physical consequences of bearing a large, healthy, hungry child. Both the moment of birth and the blessing for health were sacred. I am grateful the Gospel sets apart a duty and privilege that is reserved for a father.

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