Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Welcome Change

When my sister-in-law began having a fair amount of success on her mission in Chicago, I shared with her that in the early days of the Church, ordinances (e.g. baptism, washing & anointing) were used not only as salvific rituals that heal spiritually, but physically as well.[1] It was only after temple anointings were revealed that anointing was used in healing rituals. The current process of anointing with consecrated oil followed by sealed blessings was adapted from the temple ordinance. The temple itself was also considered a place of healing to which people would go to be relieved of their sickness. These gifts of healing acted as evidence of the Church's restoration for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It also acted as a way of purging and distinguishing between God's power and what was considered "folk magic" in the 19th century. Baptism for healing was the most common form of ritual healing (imagine baptizing someone in the font rather than giving a blessing), but this eventually fell out of practice by the early 20th century.[2] The most interesting part, though, was that LDS women were prominent healers. Healing was considered a gift of the Spirit and a blessing of the temple, not a formalized priesthood practice.[3] Then again, priesthood early on was understood as the means, power, and authority by which God organizes and exalts His people.[4] Over time, priesthood became conflated with the hierarchical, corporate structure that we know today. Some scholars have gone as far as to say that women have been receiving the priesthood ever since the temple endowment was established (women are prepared to become queens and priestesses in the temple endowment).[5] This, however, depends on how we define "priesthood." My own views regarding modern practice are similar to those of Nate Oman.

The Church has a rich history, much of which is lost on modern members. It is unfortunate because, in my opinion, some of the greatest evidences for the restoration of the gospel are found in some of the earliest customs that are no longer practiced. As I wrote to my sister-in-law, "So, don't ever feel out of place as a sister missionary. You are as much of a healer and revelator as any of the "priesthood-holding" elders if not more."

The Church may be agreeing, given President Monson's announcement at the beginning of General Conference lowering the age for both male and female missionaries. Several thought-provoking responses have been written,[6] though my favorite has been Rosalynde Welch's Times & Seasons article. Neylan McBaine's (of The Mormon Women Project) insightful Facebook comment pointed out, "This isn't about increasing missionary effectiveness or bumping our numbers. This is about creating a future culture of equal scripture scholarship, increased opportunities for cooperative leadership in platonic settings, and reducing the stigma of unmarried girls on the BYU campus."[7]

I'm personally thrilled about the change. I think it is a long overdue step in the right direction and a recognition of the changing dynamics of society. This is what continuing revelation is all about: changes for the better, for the here and now. Changes that will make both sexes better human beings and better disciples of Christ. There is still much to do in the Church, though I think the leaders are wisely cautious about implementing changes too fast. The Church is no longer an isolated theocracy, but a global community interacting with various governments and organizations. Careful analysis and earnest prayer are in order.

Perhaps the service time for sisters will be extended in the near future.[8] Perhaps priesthood keys will be extended to female members or the priesthood will take on the more nuanced definition found among early saints. Perhaps there is something even more wonderful in store.

Then, maybe, the way elders talk about sisters will stop sounding like this:



Update: The Church has already seen a spike in new missionary applications, many of which are female. It is possible that the Romney presidential campaign opened the door for a missionary revolution.


1. See Jonathan A. Stapley, Kristine Wright, "The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847," Journal of Mormon History 35:3 (Summer 2009).

2. See Jonathan A. Stapley, Kristine Wright, "'They Shall Be Made Whole': A History of Baptism for Health," Journal of Mormon History 34:4 (Fall 2008).

3. See Jonathan A. Stapley, Kristine Wright, "Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism," Journal of Mormon History 37:1 (Winter 2011); Linda King Newell, "The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood," in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992).

4. See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005), Ch. 10 "Exaltation: 1832-33."

5. See D. Michael Quinn, "Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843," in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992).

6. See Benjamin Park, "(Re)Conceptualizing our Gendered Missionary Image," By Common Consent (Oct. 6, 2012); Brad Kramer, "Thoughts On Today's Announcement," By Common Consent (Oct. 6, 2012); Joanna Brooks, "LDS Church Drops Missionary Age for Women to 19," Religion Dispatches (Oct. 7, 2012).

7. For an excellent read on gender and the Church, see McBaine's 2012 FAIR presentation "To Do the Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Gendered Participation Within Church Organizational Structure." V.H. Cassler argues that the telos of eternal marriage is ultimate gender equality.

8. Elder Holland said that extended service times were considered, but it was decided, "One miracle at a time." (at 29:35)

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