In Michael Quinn’s book Origins of Power published in 1993, the historian explains why the temple endowment grants women the Melchizedek Priesthood. According to Quinn on page 36, (formatting changed)
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 will add that garments are known as “garments of the holy priesthood”, and are worn by men and women. The ceremonial clothing worn in the temple is referred to as the “robes of the priesthood” and is worn by both men and women.
I agree with Quinn 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?
Not everyone agrees with Quinn. Last October, I wrote a post titled, Mormon Women Blessing the Sick, as a follow up to my post on Women with Priesthood in Ancient Christianity. Jonathon Stapley was the first to correct me, saying
Equating early Mormon female healing with evidence of female priesthood is folly. Kris’ and my paper on female ritual healing is finally coming out in January (JMH). We treat most of your questions and clean up the historiography a bit.
In the interim here is our paper on the development of Mormon healing to 1847, including the role of women.
Stapley commented further,
Moreover, power, or the gifts of the spirit are incoherently conflated with priesthood. Now there is no question, as you note, that some have tried to say that priesthood is the power of God or the authority to act in God’s name; however, every day people pray in the name of Jesus that don’t hold the priesthood and no one seriously believes all spiritual gifts are constrained to priesthood office.
Stapley and Kristine Wright have documented numerous instances of Mormon women blessing the sick through anointing with oil, washing the sick (similar to temple ceremonial washings), and using the laying on of hands. Rather than calling these priesthood blessings, Stapley and Wright refer to these as “gifts of the spirit” available to all. In February, I reviewed their article called The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847. From page 59,
The idea that all believers could have access to healing power is illustrated by an area of practice often misunderstood by modern observers-ritual healing by women.54 Though female healing was not formalized until the later Kirtland period, forms of the practice were exhibited earlier. Despite Smith’s early revelation that the elders be called to lay hands on the sick, when Joseph Smith Sr. First gave patriarchal blessings publicly in 1835, he sometimes bestowed the ‘gift of healing’ or the ‘power to heal’ on women.55 One of the extraordinary accounts of healing during this period in Kirtland during this period in Kirtland was later recorded by Sarah Studevant Leavitt, decades after the fact. While her daughter lay critically ill, Sarah prayed fervently. In response, an angel appeared and instructed her ‘to call Louisa up and lay my hands upon her in the name of Jesus Christ and administer to her and she should recover.’56 This ritual formulation is precisely that contemporarily described by William McLellin and Orson Pratt.
What’s interesting to me is that healings performed by women was not rare, and I don’t understand why it has vanished from the church. Bored in Vernal will discuss Stapley and Wright’s latest research, published in the current issue of the Journal of Mormon History called Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism. It seems to me that Stapley/Wright and Michael Quinn agree on “the idea that people had access to the power of God and the implicit authority to wield it.” But this point about whether women hold the priesthood seems to be a bit of a semantic argument. Stapley says it is “folly” to compare female healings to priesthood, but apparently Quinn disagrees. Both discuss how healings related to the temple, especially the Kirtland Temple. Do you agree with Quinn or Stapley? What do you make of women blessing the sick?