In our next conversation with Dr. Jonathan Stapley, we’ll talk about the Mormon idea of a priestess.  Of course, that inevitably leads to a discussion of the Ordain Women movement.  Would it be acceptable to Ordain Women if women could heal by laying on of hands, or do they want ecclesiastical authority?

GT: The scriptures talk a little bit about a priestess.  Could you see an office of a priestess or if women became ordained, or would they still just be a priest?

Jonathan:  Let me take a step back and frame that within the context of my book, what I would argue.  The term priestess is a function of what I call the cosmological priesthood of the temple. Look, I don’t follow the theological assertions of, for example, the Ordain Women movement. So, I don’t feel like I can fairly characterize what they’re asserting.  But my sense is that they are asserting for an ecclesiastical parity.

GT: That would be my hunch as well.

Jonathan: And so I would argue that even though they might be referencing or they might point to evidence of the cosmological priesthood in the past, they would be pointing to that and making assertions about ecclesiastical priesthood bureaucracy at the present. And so, I think that it’s important to carry, anytime that we’re talking about the past and in the LDS tradition and the relation between women and the priesthood, we have to make those important distinctions between ecclesiastical and kind of temple cosmological priesthood dynamics.  And so, that being the case, I think there are lots of ways within the Mormon tradition that is faithful to the revelations and our historical development that can involve women more prominently in our ecclesiology and our liturgy than is currently present. I think that’s a non-controversial statement to make.

GT:  If, say in October General Conference, President Nelson got up and said, you know, we’ve studied a Jonathan Stapley’s work. We looked back at these ritual healings that women used to do. We’re bringing that back. Do you think that would be good enough for people like were the Ordain Women movement?

Check out Jonathan’s answer.  What do you think?

In April 2014, Elder Oaks gave a sermon on women and priesthood.  Dr. Jonathan Stapley said this was no ordinary talk.  He called it theologically groundbreaking!  I was a bit surprised how revolutionary Stapley felt the sermon was.  It seemed to me to be a response to the Ordain Women movement which was asking for women to be allowed to attend the priesthood session of General Conference.  I saw the address under a different light than Jonathan.

GT:  I remember just thinking, “Oh, this is just to placate the Kate Kelly people and to say, ‘Women, you’ve already got priesthood.  You just didn’t know it yet.’”  But you’re saying this is a theological change.

Jonathan:  When Elder Oaks delivered that sermon, I was looking around like, does anyone else [recognize this?]  This is mind-blowing.  I couldn’t believe it. And everyone else was just like, “Oh yeah, this is just Elder Oaks.”  Revolutions happen sometimes a very subtly apparently.

Jonathan: It’s certainly a linguistic shift and language frames our reality. So, it is certainly, for example, an interesting piece from Elder Oaks’ sermon was he was quoting in many parts from a sermon that Joseph Fielding Smith gave to the Relief Society in a general Relief Society meeting.  And in this meeting Joseph Fielding was as I remember, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time, discussed women’s authority in the church and how they were heirs to a great heritage, but also heirs to authority and their capacity of the work in the Relief society and the temple. But he was quick to say, you have authority to do this work. You have authority in the temple, but authority is not the same thing as priesthood.

Jonathan: And Elder Oaks takes this sermon he talks about, he quotes Joseph Fielding Smith, how women have this great authority in the church and this great heritage. And then he stops and says, what else can this authority be except priesthood? Right? So, it’s this really wonderful kind of re-imagining of what these terms mean. At the same time, reaching to our past to grab hold of our past and make sure we’re still connected, but also in very interesting and creative ways, refashioning it in a way that makes more sense for the present.

In our next conversation we will talk about alternative medicine, faith healing, and even what has been referred to as magic.  Are there similarities between people like Julie Rowe and early Mormon practices like seer stones?  Dr. Jonathan Stapley compares the similarities!

Jonathan:  In the face of pharmacological a failure or a clinical failure in medicine, Mormons have been open to a blessing from a priesthood officer or an authorized healer, whether they’re male or female throughout our history. So, we’re open to the miraculous. Now, Latter-day Saints, also have been open to other aspects of supernatural cures. So, whether it’s a botanical cure or a special prayer.  In the 20th century, these impulses—so the cunning folk that is no longer battling witches, but instead a botanic healer is manifest in society complementary to alternative medicines. So, Mormons are not in any way holding a monopoly, a complementary and alternative medicines. You can go to the bookshelves of your favorites on Whole Foods Market that’s frequented by the liberal elite, and you can hang out with evangelicals and the south and they are both doing similar things in this area of complementary and alternative medicine. When faced with a challenge, humans want hope.  They find hope in people offering these alternative cures. Now in Mormonism, we have really interesting relationships with these, alternative cures.

Sometimes it’s strictly botanical, but sometimes, for example, there was a popular healer, Julie Rowe, who was part of this Christ-centered energy healing movement.  The Church has spoken out against a little bit recently in the past several years, but there are individuals that function again on the peripheries of society that are willing to provide hope to those that need it. And I won’t say that Julie Rowe has. You can trace her lineage through successive waves of cunning folk thought to the present. I don’t think that that’s necessarily true, although there are remarkable parallels between energy healing and magnetism that was popularized in the 19th century. I don’t think there’s a direct lineal descent from the cunning women to Julie Rowe, but I do think that they serve a similar function in society and by understanding one contextualizes the other.

Some questions for everyone:

  1. How would supporters or Ordain Women react if women were allowed to anoint with oil to bless the sick?  Is that enough?
  2. Is a priestess only for the next life?
  3. Do you think Oaks talk was groundbreaking?
  4. Do you agree with Stapley’s similarities between early Mormon healing practices, and today’s alternative medicine from people like Julie Rowe?