For many years the Priesthood ban has been a matter of embarrassment and consternation to many Mormons. It makes us seem close-minded and exclusionary as a church, and seems to contradict many of our scriptures and core teachings–God not being a respecter of persons, all are alike unto God, etc. We struggle to explain it to our non-Mormon friends, and sometimes wish that it had just never happened. And to add insult to injury, we’ve had to endure many folk-theories justifying the ban, theories that are non-doctrinal and even offensive at times. So, it has finally come time to fully disavow the ban, once and for all.
Well, it turns out that a recent internet post inspired me to propose a forthright and direct disavowal that does not ignore the messy and painful history behind the ban. I realize my disavowal is imperfect, but here goes:
“In theology and practice, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the universal human family. Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of His children and makes salvation available to all. God created both genders and esteems them equally. As the Book of Mormon puts it, “all are alike unto God.”
The structure and organization of the Church encourage gender integration. Church members of different genders regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, as missionaries, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Despite this modern reality, the Church does not ordain women to its priesthood.
The Church was established in 1830, during an era of when the society of the United States was patriarchal. At the time, many women lived in practical servitude, and sexism and prejudice were not just common but customary among Americans. Those realities, though less familiar today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion. Many Christian churches of that era, for instance, were segregated along gender lines, and church leaders were all men. From the beginnings of the Church, both men and women could be baptized and received as members. Toward the end of his life, Church founder Joseph Smith openly stated that the Relief Society–the women’s organization–would become a kingdom of priests. There has never been a Churchwide policy of gender-segregated congregations.
During the first century of the restored Church’s existence, women were authorized to anoint and bless other women by the laying on of hands. In temples, women were authorized to perform the priesthood ordinances of washing and anointing.
By the turn of the century, President Joseph F. Smith publicly announced that women should no longer anoint and bless other women, though thereafter women continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Joseph F. Smith, subsequent Church presidents restricted women from performing ordinances, except in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood restriction. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
The Church in an American Sexist Culture
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a sexist culture in which men were afforded great privilege. Women could not vote nor own property, were not permitted to practice many professions, and did not have the same rights to divorce as did men. Women who had children out of wedlock were shunned and disparaged. They had fewer educational opportunities than men, and were viewed as the weaker sex.
The justifications for the priesthood restriction echoed the widespread ideas about female inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of female “servitude” throughout American history. According to one view, which had been promulgated by Mark E. Peterson and John Widstoe, women do not have the priesthood because they have motherhood. Other theories suggest that women do not need the priesthood because they are more spiritual than men, or that they are too busy to take on another responsibility.
Removing the Restriction
Given the long history of withholding the priesthood from women, Church leaders believe that a revelation from God is needed to alter the policy, and they are making ongoing efforts to understand what should be done. In the 1990s, President Hinckley did not feel impressed to lift the ban because women were not agitating for it.
As the Church grows worldwide, its overarching mission to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations” seems increasingly incompatible with the priesthood restriction. The Book of Mormon declared that the gospel message of salvation should go forth to “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” While there were no limits on whom the Lord invited to “partake of his goodness” through baptism, the priesthood restriction creates significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spreads in international locations with egalitarian gender beliefs.
Church leaders are pondering promises made by Joseph Smith that women members would one day become a kingdom of priests. They are listening to the prayers of faithful women and men, such as those who support Ordain Women, who testify to the heartbreak that many women experience by being excluded from the full blessings and responsibilities of priesthood service.
A revelation lifting the priesthood ban will be a landmark revelation and a historic event. Those who are present when it occurs are likely to describe it in reverent terms. Not one of us who is present on that occasion will ever be quite the same after that. Nor will the Church be quite the same.
The Church Today
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that being female is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions taken by Eve in the Garden of Eden; or that women are inferior in any way to men. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all sexism, past and present, in any form.
The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is “no respecter of persons” and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of gender—is favored of Him. The teachings of the Church in relation to God’s children are epitomized by a verse in the second book of Nephi: “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God…”