Tag Archives: women and the priesthood

They called on his name

I’ve noted in the past how important it is to me that in the Book of Moses, both Adam and Eve call upon the name of the Lord. They worship together, they work together, they teach together, and they mourn together. Once there is a child and a grandchild (in total, 3 generations) which believe the Lord, then these three men call on the name of the Lord together, and a priesthood is born (this is my reading of these events in the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price — see 6:4).

But there are other places, of course, where people call on the name of the Lord, or thank God by sacrifice and offering. Individuals do, all of Israel does, etc. But there are a few other interesting scriptures that I want to highlight.

In Alma 12, Alma has just been describing the Garden of Eden story. Then just a few verses later, he is explaining that God had a plan for men to return to him, and “sent angels to converse with them, who caused men to behold of his glory. And they began from that time forth to call on his name.” If we follow this Moses story, then this might mean men as in a group of men who begin to establish a priesthood, or it might mean “men” as in “humans,” and we might be talking about Adam and Eve.

Genesis has a similar verse in 4:26.

I’m sure there are more (that I want to find and think about!) but the last one I want to mention today is Sariah and Lehi. Even though 1 Nephi 5 is sometimes held up as a time where women are shown as weak and complaining — I have a different reaction to the chapter. She strongly shares her concerns, Lehi or the Lord doesn’t repremand her, and when her children return she knows “of a surety” that God is speaking to Lehi. This is the story of how Sariah gains her unshaken faith. Really, it’s a moment between her and God more than anything else.

But that’s a tangent. What I really want to point out is what happens after they are all reunited, after she feels comfort and knows of a surety. It says, “and it came to pass that they did rejoice exceedingly, and did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord; and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel.” Note that they (Lehi and Sariah) did rejoice, offer sacrifice and offerings, and gave thanks to God. There is a sense in which they are playing out the Adam and Eve story, pre-3-generation priesthood creation. 🙂

(Also, Nephi mentions right away that Adam and Eve are on the plates.)

Warning – for anyone actually reading these, I may possibly rework this post at any point. 🙂  Or, I might possibly totally forget I had posted this.)

Priestess in my family

I’m a sloppy blog writer, so apologizes as always —

There are so many ways in which my role as a mom (parent) over my children is similar to the role of the priest over a group of people. The Book of Mormon’s priests considered the sins of the people to be their fault unless the priests taught the people sufficiently. D&C 68 states that if parents do not teach their children to understand the gospel by age 8, the sins of the children will be on the heads of their parents. That’s a striking similarity, I believe. And a serious one. I never want to just write about these things to say “hey look women are cool too” — I want to seriously think through what work God has given me.

In addition, the temple gives certain roles, gifts, powers, and knowledge  to me that certainly give me a responsibility. It may be that these are not exercised fully outside of the temple, or family, or callings within a priesthood structure, but they are certainly still serious.

In addition to those thoughts, I am so struck, maybe even convinced, that the Book of Moses sets up Eve and Adam as a two-person priesthood pair that presides over their family. It is only after there is a righteous son and grandson, in a sea of wicked family members, that the word “priesthood” actually appears. This priesthood seems to be a structure set up to induce preaching in each generation, by those called of God and with authority to perform ordinances. But within each family, there is potentially a mother and a father with the same roles and rights and responsibilities that Eve and Adam had.

That is, I think it is fair to say that each woman is a priestess within her own family, and this is especially the case if she has been to the temple to be initiated and endowed.

Recently I reviewed this Primary song. You’re familiar with it. It says, “Mine is a home where ev’ry hour is blessed by the strength of priesthood pow’r, With father and mother leading the way.” Mine is a home where every hour is blessed by the strength of priesthood power. That is your responsibility, sisters, to help your home be a home that is blessed every hour by priesthood power. It isn’t just when Dad is there. It’s not just when Mom is there. It’s not just when a priesthood ordinance or blessing is being performed. It’s every hour as covenants are kept. –Julie Beck



MSH Paper: Stewardship and Hierarchy in a Secular Age (Final version)

“We have learned by sad experience,” says Joseph Smith in what is now D&C 121, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” These sobering and troubling words were written to the early saints while Joseph himself lay oppressed in a small jail cell. Why is it that this happens? Why are the saints—or in fact “all men,” as Joseph puts it—so quick to exercise unrighteous dominion?

This question is, I think, connected to the theme of our conference. Within the context of secularism, we’re naturally wary or suspicious about hierarchy—about hierarchies in general. We look back through history and find examples of kings oppressing their subjects, masters oppressing their slaves, parents oppressing their children, and those of higher social and economic status oppressing the poor and needy. And from where we stand, the most natural conclusion we draw as we review the injustices of history is that hierarchy, as such, is oppressive.

In this paper, however, I want to suggest that Mormonism points in a different direction—in the direction of the possibility that hierarchy need not lead to oppression. Obviously, at the very least, Mormonism’s commitment to structured priesthood must point in such a direction. But even as it points in such a direction, Mormonism arguably agrees in important ways with our secular perspective. D&C 121, for instance, by using the language of “almost all,” shares our suspicion that hierarchy rather naturally leads to oppression. And yet the same “almost all” suggests the possibility nonetheless of a hierarchy without oppression. That is, D&C 121 says that, somehow, it is possible for someone to receive stewardship over others and not treat them wrongly. So, how is it possible?

In response to such a question, we might be tempted just to think that non-oppressive hierarchy is possible simply or exclusively when the virtuous occupy positions of authority. More commonly put colloquially, we’re tempted to say that the key is just to “be a nice person.” But in this paper, I’ll argue that the problem addressed in D&C 121 most likely stems from failing to distinguish appropriately two different sorts of hierarchy—one that I’ll call the hierarchy of stewardship, and one that I’ll call the hierarchy of spiritual capacity. Drawing on the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, I’ll argue that where these are distinguished, hierarchy can exist without oppression. So that I can focus on a couple of scriptural texts that illustrate the separation of these two hierarchies, I’ll take more or less for granted, in this paper, that where the two hierarchies of stewardship and spiritual capacity coincide or end up confused, oppression is the inevitable result.

To begin, I want to look at D&C 121 a little more closely. I think the key word in this verse is “suppose.” “As soon as [human beings] get a little authority, as they suppose , . . . they will begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” They suppose they have authority and then begin to oppress.

They suppose they have authority, Joseph says. The way the word is used here seems to suggest that they don’t have authority—and yet the context makes perfectly clear that those in question here unmistakably do have stewardship (at least, they have had conferred on them the “rights of priesthood”). The rhetorical force of the passage suggests that these priesthood holders both do and do not bear authority, that they both are and are not part of a hierarchy. Better put: at first read, the word “suppose” almost seems to suggest that the prophet sees a complete lack of hierarchy at work in priesthood, and that it’s only when a priesthood holder supposes that there’s any hierarchy that oppression arises. Certainly, this is a rather amiable reading of the passage in our secular age.

My aim here, though, is to suggest another possible reading. Let me state my reading from the outset, and then I’ll draw on some theoretical resources to flesh it out. What I want to suggest is that the supposing of D&C 121 is an overlaying of one sort of hierarchy onto another—that is, a confusion or a coincidence of radically distinct hierarchies, which when confused, inevitably leads to oppression. Unrighteous dominion, in other words, is a direct result of doubling one sort of hierarchy with another.

To get clear about these two hierarchies, and about what it would mean to distinguish them, I want to turn to Ranciere. In his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Ranciere claims that there are almost always two hierarchies present when a teacher instructs a student. The first he calls the hierarchy of will—that is, the fact that the teacher or the master exerts pressure or authority over the will of the student. The teacher makes demands, and the student is expected to obey. The second hierarchy, almost always present, he calls the hierarchy of intelligence. This second hierarchy is usually hidden. The teacher assumes she or he has a higher intellectual capacity than the student, while the student assumes she or he has an inferior intellectual capacity. This double assumption has a kind of intuitive appeal. Why else would the teacher need to step in and explain the material to students if they were able to understand the material on their own? It can’t necessarily be proven that teachers have greater intellectual capacity than others, but it is an assumption that keeps the basic pedagogical order functioning. For Ranciere, what characterizes most educational situations is that these two hierarchies are not only operative, but they’re assumed to coincide. Each, as it were, justifies or implies the other. The teacher or the master is intellectually superior, and so therefore the student must obey.

This, I suggest, maps more or less directly onto the situation described in D&C 121. Just as Ranciere’s teachers or master “suppose” that they have greater intellectual ability and that this secures their position in a hierarchy of will, those appointed to a position within a priesthood-based hierarchy might naturally “suppose” that they must have greater spiritual ability and that this secures their position in a hierarchy of stewardship. The word “suppose” perhaps does a bit more work here as well. Ranciere emphasizes the fact that no one attempts to prove—nor does anyone feel the need to prove—the existence of a hierarchy of intelligence in the pedagogical situation. In a similar vein, no one attempts to prove—nor does anyone feel the need to prove—the existence of a hierarchy of spiritual capacity in ecclesiastical hierarchies. It’s simply “supposed.”

My perspective here, then, is that those who exercise unrighteous dominion ultimately “suppose” an authority that is not given them, an authority not stated in scripture. Coupling the real hierarchy of stewardship with a parallel (but ultimately imaginary) hierarchy of spiritual capacity, they go beyond scripture and cannot help but exercise dominion in an unrighteous manner. But scripture, I believe, clearly insists that all human beings actually are equally capable of understanding spiritual things. Mormon scripture encourages all to pray and seek personal revelation. It directs that all members receive the gift of the Holy Ghost after they are baptized, and D&C 46 says that everyone receives spiritual gifts. King Benjamin says all are beggars before God, and Ether 12 says that God makes us all weak together. And all the same, Mormon scripture commits believers also to the hope that everyone on earth has the full potential to be exalted! Of course, that’s not to say that all equally act on their potential, or that all do so in the same ways or with the same experiences or at the same time as another. But one must never let that lead to a belief that anyone is spiritually superior to anyone else. There are simply distinct experiences in spiritual development, what Ranciere calls in the area of education “adventures in the land of knowledge.” At any rate, all have the capacity to understand spiritual things. And no one can prove that they have a greater capacity than someone else. This only gets assumed, or “supposed.”

Ranciere calls the realization of one’s intellectual capacity, usually via the practical separation of the two hierarchies, “intellectual emancipation.” From a Mormon theological perspective, I think we might call a realization of one’s spiritual capacity, or the disentangling of every position of authority from any imaginary hierarchy of spiritual superiority, “spiritual emancipation.” In education, emancipation is usually the result of a teacher who believes in students’ intellectual capacity, such that the students are redirected away from the teacher and towards the material itself. That is, emancipatory teachers eliminate or ignore the social fiction of intellectual hierarchy, insisting solely on a hierarchy of will. They exercise their will always and only to place students in a direct intellectual relationship with the material they’re to learn. They constantly persuade and push students to work harder and pay more attention to the material.

In a similar vein, leaders in a hierarchy of stewardship can treat those under their care in two different ways. When leaders justify their position as stewards by imagining they bear a position of superior spirituality, they are unlikely to trust those supposedly spiritually inferior to them to receive their own inspiration. In practical terms, they’re more likely to micromanage others’ callings, or to explain how to live commandments in every detail. They’re likely to carry an imagined burden of responsibility, as if everything rides on their own understanding of spiritual things. On the other hand, when leaders don’t feel the need to justify their position in a hierarchy of stewardship, they can’t help but trust others’ spiritual capacity. They point others away from themselves to God and to scripture, trusting they can also understand things of the Spirit. And this trust, frankly, is vital if others are to grow spiritually – to, for example, receive answers to prayer, to trust in God’s love, or simply to repent. In short, we could say that “spiritual emancipation” is possible when leaders refuse to add any hierarchy of spiritual capacity to the ordained hierarchy of stewardship. As D&C 121 puts it, one’s real power or influence over anyone can “only” come this way: “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” These qualities come into their own, I want to say, in when spiritual equality is assumed.

Now, is it really possible for someone in a hierarchy to claim spiritual equality to those under their care and still retain a place in a hierarchy? That is, is it possible, as I have claimed, to disentangle the hierarchy of stewardship from the hierarchy of spiritual superiority? For a few minutes, I want to review two places in Mormon scripture where I believe something precisely like this is presented.

The first comes from the Book of Mormon, in the story of Alma’s preaching in Ammonihah. You might remember that, according to the story, when Alma first preaches in Ammonihah, the people there reject him specifically because they think he has no power or authority over them. They say, “And now we know that because we are not of thy church we know that thou hast no power over us; and thou hast delivered up the judgment-seat unto Nephihah; therefore thou art not the chief judge over us.” They understand Alma only as a person within hierarchies that don’t apply to them anymore. They see no reason that Alma can claim superior authority over them, so they easily reject his call to repent.

After a walk, a visit from an angel, and a good meal at Amulek’s house, Alma is ready to try again. This time, luckily, he ends up with an opportunity to explain how he understands his role as a high priest. On my reading, he spends most of his sermon explaining that he comes neither as a person of superior rank in administration nor as a person of superior spirituality. I see him making three specific claims regarding equality:

First, he points out that church administration is only one way to understand priesthood. Priests were ordained long before the creation of the Nephite church. In fact, in Alma’s time, the Nephite Church has only been around for two generations! Alma reminds his audience that, according to their scriptures, the first priests were ordained to teach the very things that angels taught Adam and Eve. While Alma also has a place in a church administrative hierarchy, he puts that aside and instead claims a different sort of role: he is coming to them as a high priest after the holy order, whose only assignment really is to preach. He occupies a position of stewardship, but one that’s uncoupled from the ecclesiastical setting.

Second, Alma points out that this role as a priest does not indicate that he is spiritually superior to his hearers. He claims that every person is on equal standing before God, though not every person acts in faith or seeks out spiritual understanding. This point is especially important, because it’s precisely in the context of defending his place in a hierarchy of priestly stewardship that Alma insists on spiritual equality before God.

Third, Alma explains that the gift high priests have received through their faith is to “enter into God’s rest,” but then he goes on to promise the people that if they “humble [themselves] before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, [they can] also enter into that rest.” This seems to suggest not only that Alma sees the people as equal to him in spiritual capacity, but also that he sees it necessary that they give up their belief in superiority if they would begin to repent and develop spiritually. To prove that this is possible, he tells the story of Melchizedek converting an entire city!

Thus Alma makes clear that he is not coming to teach because he believes himself superior in spiritual things. He is not trying to exercise power or authority over anyone. So what is he left with? Only persuasion and long-suffering. Alma believes he can still be a priest without a hierarchy of spiritual capacity to justify his calling and stewardship. He uncouples his position of responsibility from any hierarchy of spiritual capacity. And he points to Melchizedek as his role model: a man who had faith and then successfully preached and encouraged his people to also have faith.

Does it work for Alma? Well, though not everyone likes what they hear from him, we do read that “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent, and to search the scriptures.” That last detail, I think, is particularly striking. Those who feel the force of Alma’s words begin to trust less in the interpretations of the Ammonihah priests and more in their own capacity to understand the scriptures. And it’s worth noting that a few verses later, the Ammonihah priests choose to burn those very books of scriptures during their horrible massacre.

This whole story perfectly illustrates what I hear in the words of D&C 121, clarified with reference to Ranciere. I think the same can be said of the text of D&C 84. Obviously less narrative in tone, here I’ll choose to be briefer.

D&C 84 teaches that those who hold the priesthood, perhaps especially those holding it in a full or more complete way, receive some remarkable blessings. But D&C 84 also teaches that these same blessings are available to those without the priesthood. For example, verse 35 says that “All they who receive this priesthood receive me,” but the next verse adds “he that receiveth my servants receiveth me.” There’s thus a kind of arbitrariness about stewardship, one that undermines any coupling of a hierarchy of stewardship with any spiritual hierarchy. Similarly, further along, D&C 84 states that both priests and non-priests can receive a knowledge of heavenly covenants. Verse 40 says those who receive priesthood receive a specific oath and covenant. But verses 47-48 say that “every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father…And the Father teacheth him of the covenant which he has renewed and confirmed upon” those who hold the priesthood. Here again a certain spiritual equality is clearly assumed precisely in the context of some being appointed stewards and others not. Further, the covenant in question, which I take (in light of textual links to the letter to the Hebrews) to be the Abrahamic Covenant, is given, according to the revelation, “not for your sakes only, but for the sake of the whole world.” So while some receive heavenly blessings in connection with their place in a hierarchy—that is, as priests—others receive the same blessings in connection with a rather different place in the same hierarchy—that is, as those who receive such priests. The hierarchy of stewardship is, it seems, arbitrary, and certainly unrelated to any spiritual hierarchy. Like Alma, the priests of D&C 84 are sent to persuade, bearing testimony and calling people to repentance.

What I think these two texts display is the possibility and the productivity of interpreting D&C 121 in a Rancierean vein. They demonstrate one powerful way of understanding what it means to “suppose” that one has authority, in such a way that unrighteous dominion follows. And also, these two texts demonstrate that it’s possible not to “suppose” one has authority, even as one remains in a position of stewardship within a hierarchy. In our context—not only in the context of our secular age, but also in the context of practical matters in Mormon culture – both daily lived applications and also heated and complicated debates over universal access to priesthood hierarchy—I believe getting clear about the nature of hierarchy and stewardship is a place to begin.

Receiving the Blessings of the Oath and Covenant

More many years I’ve heard and thought about the idea of enjoying the blessings of the oath and covenant of the priesthood. At first it seemed so general, something like “enjoying the blessings of the priesthood” like blessings when you’re sick, etc. Then I took it to mean something a little stronger, such as ordinances that have been restored because of the restoration of the priesthood through Joseph Smith. When I went to the temple, I thought about temple ordinances. But what about the oath and covenant of the priesthood? How do you enjoy that? So I’ve spent years and years studying what the oath and covenant might be. Sometimes it’s led me back to the beginning: the oath and covenant is just another way of saying priesthood generally, so the blessings of it are the same as the blessings of the priesthood. My recent studies in Hebrews, D&C 84, and D&C 132 lead me in a somewhat opposite direction: the oath and covenant has something to do with those who receive the highest priesthood, the keys of the priesthood, who are prophets and exalted on earth. But of course, that seems to have little to do with me, except for the idea or promise that potentially anyone could build a Zion and have it translated up to heaven and/or have their calling and election made sure while here on earth, etc. etc. But those are things you wait for. You don’t seek after appointments to higher ordinances.

And yet, there’s a sense in our discourse at least (and I think in the scriptures?) that the blessings of the oath and the covenant are meant to be felt now, and by  many. So I’ve been thinking about that. And I think I’ve finally hit on something that makes sense to me. The “oath and covenant of the priesthood” may very well be something grand and attached to the highest forms of priesthood, such as the keys held by the president of the high priesthood (President Monson, currently). But the fact that those keys are on the earth has ripple effects that do bless me and millions of others.

It’s something like the distance that D&C 84:39 uses in its wording. Our blessings are “according to” the oath and covenant, which “belongeth to” the priesthood. It doesn’t belong to me, nor does it need to, in order for the blessings to be poured out and reach to my home. The blessings aren’t just for those who receive the oath and covenant themselves; the blessings are “according to” or “in accordance with” or “follow from” or “exist because” someone holds the keys of the priesthood.

Perhaps this is actually exactly what the verses in D&C 84 leading up to verse 39 are trying to say:

36 For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me;

37 And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father;

38 And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.

39 And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.

Interesting: Smoot hearing minutes

I had heard of the Smoot hearings, but I had never thought to search a pdf of them until this morning! Here are a few interesting moments I’ve found so far:

pg 193-196 or so: if a leader of a Church says he believes something, does that imply that he taught it as true and binding on the Church?

pg 187-190: in what way exactly do women have authority in the Church?