We’re continuing our series on the “Gospel Topics Series” book, edited by Dr. Matt Harris and Dr. Newell Bringhurst. Dr. Margaret Toscano is back to discuss the Gospel Topics essay on Women, Temple, and Priesthood. We’ll find out more of her background in writing the book and discuss the essay’s strengths.
Margaret: I’m excited that the book came out. We actually worked on this for a long time. At the very end, I actually had to add some new material, because there had been a couple of important changes in terms of women’s place in the Church. A couple of months right before Signature [Books, the publisher] put it out, I added material. It was maybe four or five months before it came out. So, that was interesting, too, to see how the LDS Church is a church where things can change. That was an interesting addition that happened.
GT: Well, cool. So one of the things that I really liked about the book as a whole was that Matt and Newell asked each of the writers to talk about the strengths of the [Church] essay, the weaknesses of the essay, what was left out. Could you start us off with what you really liked about the essay, and then we’ll talk about the weaknesses?
Margaret: Well, first of all, I was just happy that the essay came out. I think it was really important for the Church to acknowledge that Joseph Smith made a lot of statements of connecting women and priesthood, and also the temple. So, the very fact that they have an essay that addresses the questions of, “What is women’s relationship to the priesthood? What did Joseph Smith say? How does that relate to what’s in the temple? And how do Joseph Smith’s statements relate to what we have in the Church today?” So, from my perspective, the very fact that they address the topic, I saw as very significant. I think it’s important that there is the possibility of looking at difficult questions in the Church, whereas sometimes things have been pushed under the rug a little bit. I’m glad that this came out.
Margaret: I think it’s significant that the Church essay on Joseph Smith on Priesthood, Temple and Women, came out in 2013, which was the same year that Ordain Women happened. [Ordain Women was] where you had, first, an online group. It was advocating for women’s ordination. Then there were a couple of actions where women went to the Conference Center and asked for admission to the priesthood session. So, the fact that the essay came out at the same time, obviously shows–I think it’s obviously– I mean, I don’t know if there’s complete proof, but you can say, “This was a response to what was happening in the Church.” I think that, in spite of the fact that Ordain Women [is now really out of the news, but] it was very important for a while. Then in 2014, after Kate Kelly was excommunicated, it sort of went quiet. It’s still there. We still have a group. The website is still there; you still have women who are advocating for ordination. But I think that also it became more acceptable in the Church, maybe even in Sunday school or Priesthood or Relief Society, to talk about the issue of women’s ordination. So that conglomeration of events, the Ordain Women movement, the Church essay, the other things, meant that people began to talk about these issues. I see that as very positive, just that we can talk about them and say, “Well, what do we really know? What is the Church’s position?” So, that for me is the most important thing [the Church essay represents].
GT: Let me go on there for just one second, because I know Matt had mentioned on another interview that the Church had considered putting out an essay on Masonry and the Temple, but they decided not to. So do you think that it was because of Ordain Women that– or to put it a different way– if Ordain Women hadn’t come out, do you think the Church might have avoided talking about women and priesthood?
Margaret: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think they may have still talked about it, because it has been one of the big issues. Even without Ordain Women, I first started talking about women, and Joseph Smith, and the temple and priesthood back in 1984. It has been an ongoing discussion that obviously feminists bring up. But I think even [for mainstream] women in the Church, there’s been a lot of discussion about women and priesthood. I think definitely Ordain Women pushed it in that direction.
In our last conversation, Dr. Margaret Toscano explained what she liked about the Gospel topics essay on women and priesthood. This time, Margaret will look at weaknesses of the essay.
Margaret: My general critique really centers around two things. On the one hand, I feel like that they’re not willing to look at all of the evidence, that they pick out evidence that supports their thesis. And maybe I should state what their thesis is. Their thesis is, they start out with this idea that people who look at the statements of Joseph Smith to the Relief Society of Nauvoo, they’re going to be surprised by the priesthood language that Joseph uses in relationship to women. So, how do you reconcile that? So I say that the thesis of the Church Essay is that Smith’s statements about women and priesthood do not mean what they seem to mean. When he says that “I’m going to make of you a kingdom of priests,” he’s not talking about priests in the sense of like a priesthood office or something. He’s referring to the temple, and that the temple only refers to family units and temple sealings, and men and women being sealed so that they can go to the celestial kingdom and become like God.
So, they say, “Well, that kingdom of priests only means, kind of like kings and priests, queens and priestesses in the temple.” But I would argue, what are kings and priests and queens and priestesses in the temple? Is that self-evident? Right? They seem to think it is. The other thing that they say is that Joseph Smith never ordained women to any priesthood at all, and that the temple priesthood does not have any authoritative keys connected to it, and that the Relief Society was never intended to be a priesthood organization. So, of course, he made that statement where he says, two things: “The Relief Society should be organized in the order of the priesthood”; and Joseph Smith also said that the Relief Society “should move according to the ancient priesthood.” They kind of say, “Well, those statements of Joseph Smith don’t mean what you might think they mean at all. Really, Joseph Smith’s views on the priesthood and women in the temple are exactly the same as what leaders today believe and teach.”
So they say that there’s no difference between Joseph Smith’s teachings, and the current leaders teachings at all. And so, “You don’t need to look at that language at all.” From my perspective, I say, “Well is there any evidence from Joseph Smith, from the Nauvoo period, that can contradict their central thesis and argument?” Obviously, I think there is. So I see that as a weakness in the sense that–I don’t want to say that it’s disingenuous. I think that the authors are convinced of their thesis. But the very fact that if you’re convinced, why won’t you look at contrary arguments? That’s where I have a problem with it.
What are your thoughts of women & Priesthood essay? Has Ordain Women gone “out of style”? Do you think Joseph made Relief Society a priesthood quorum?