I was first introduced to the idea of women holding the Melchizedek Priesthood in the book called Sidney Rigdon: Portrait of Religious Excess by Richard Van Wagoner. Sidney claimed that Emma Smith was the first woman to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood (as I blogged about in Part 5). The current book I’m reading, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power by Michael Quinn, seems to support this idea, and goes into greater detail. Apparently, Brigham Young also supports this idea. I’ve changed some of the formatting, and modernized the spelling below, but according to Quinn on page 36,
The last major development in LDS priesthood is even less recognized today. In 1843 Smith extended the Melchizedek priesthood to LDS women through an “endowment ceremony” rather than through ordination to church office.
- For example, in 1843 Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith blessed Leonora Cannon Taylor:
- “You shall be bless[ed] with your portion of the Priesthood which belongeth to you, that you may be set apart for your Anointing and your induement [endowment].”
- Thirty–five years later, Joseph Young (a patriarch and senior president of the Council of Seventy) blessed Brigham Young’s daughter:
- “These blessings are yours, the blessings and power according to the Holy Melchi[z]edek Priesthood you received in your Endowments, and you shall have them.”
The decline in women’s awareness that the endowment ceremony gives them Melchizedek priesthood corresponds to the decline in women’s status in the LDS church during those same years. In the process, twentieth-century Mormons–both male and female, conservative and liberal–have identified priesthood with male privilege and hierarchical administrative power. Therefore, some recent writers regard as insignificant the concept that endowed Mormon women had (and continue to have) the Melchizedek priesthood without ordained office and hierarchical status.
I must say that I agree that modern Mormons always associate priesthood with administration. On the other hand, I can remember as a deacon, teacher, and priest, being told the priesthood is “the power to act in the name of God.” So, even though women may not hold an administrative office, it is fascinating to me that Quinn uses a different definition to discuss women’s priesthood power “to act in the name of God.” Isn’t this a more important use of priesthood power?
Quinn continues this line of thought on page 37,
By contrast, early Mormons understood that priesthood meant divine power (separate from individual faith) that was conferred on mortals and was centered on a relationship with the powers of deity. For example, Brigham Young (using the word “share” that was often used to explain women’s relationship to priesthood) defined the priesthood’s power without reference to ecclesiastical office or church administration:
An individual who holds a share in the Priesthood, and continues faithful to his calling, who delights himself continually in doing the things God requires at his hands, and continues through life in the performance of every duty, will secure to himself not only the privilege of receiving, but the knowledge how to receive the things of God, that he may know the mind of God continually; and he will be enabled to discern between right and wrong, between the things of God and things that are not of God. And the Priesthood–the Spirit that is within him, will continue to increase until it becomes like a fountain of living water; until it is like the tree of life; until it is one continued source of intelligence and instruction to that individual.
Then Young continue his remarks to a gender-inclusive audience: “Upon who[m]ever are bestowed the keys of the eternal Priesthood, by a faithful life, [they] will secure to themselves power to see the things of God, and will understand them as plainly as they ever understood anything by gazing upon it with their natural eyes…” It is in this theological context of priesthood that Young later declared: “Now, brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God.”
To early Mormons “priesthood” signified something greater than ecclesiastical status, hierarchy, administrative power, decision-making, or prestige in an earthly church. My analysis of the Mormon hierarchy emphasizes those external manifestations of power, but there were other significant dimensions of priesthood in early Mormon thought.
For an extensive history of LDS women and the priesthood, check out this article from Sunstone, which goes into great detail, called “A Gift Given: a Gift Taken” by Lavina Anderson. So, do any of you endowed LDS women realize that you hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, and have authority to act in the name of God?