SALT LAKE CITY — LDS leaders continued their recent effort to address challenging contemporary questions about Mormon practice and doctrine by publishing two new scholarly essays Friday that address the roles and authority of women in the church.
The first, "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women," is longer, complex and nuanced. The other is about the longstanding belief in a Mother in Heaven, a distinctive teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Approved by the First Presidency, the essays describe the enormous contributions women have made to gospel ministry since the earliest days of the church. Many LDS women and scholars were encouraged by their publication, calling them important contributions and a step forward.
"First, I was overjoyed to see that essays had been penned on these topics," said Valerie Hudson, co-author of "Women in Eternity, Women in Zion" and the George H.W. Bush Chair of International Affairs at Texas A&M. "Latter-day Saints have needed these topics addressed. ... Second, I was very happy to see that belief in Heavenly Mother has been 'certified' as being doctrinal through the imprimatur of the essay on lds.org."
The priesthood essay stated that both Mormons and others often "mistakenly equate priesthood with religious office and the men who hold it, which obscures the broader Latter-day Saint concept of priesthood."
That concept requires a full understanding of the use of priesthood authority by women in the church, according to the essay, especially in LDS temples, the ultimate form of Mormon worship.
Women and priesthood
The priesthood essay provided historical context for current dialogue about what the essay called "women's ministry." It pointed out that in 1842 — when American women could not vote, own property or earn money without turning it over to their husbands — LDS founder Joseph Smith created the Female Relief Society "in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the church."
While it said that neither he nor any other church leader ordained women to the priesthood, it clearly stated that women do exercise priesthood authority without ordination.
"I think the essays are a tremendous step forward in clarifying the diverse and nuanced definition of what priesthood really is," said Neylan McBaine, author of "Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact." "Not all of our priesthood is gendered, and I think this essay is remarkable in how broadly it defines priesthood."
The idea of a broader concept of priesthood was one of the two most important sentences in the essay, Hudson and McBaine said.
To them, the other vital statement was that "the priesthood authority exercised by Latter-day Saint women in the temple and elsewhere remains largely unrecognized by people outside the church and is sometimes misunderstood or overlooked by those within."
"That's the most remarkable part of the essay," McBaine said. "It's incredible for them to actually draw attention to that. And then to add, 'Women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office' — a reference to a talk by Elder Dallin H. Oaks last year — to have that appear in an official church statement, that women exercise priesthood authority? That's very exciting."
The essay said Joseph Smith taught the temple ordinances to men and women in the final years before his death and promised that they would endow men and women with "power from on high."
"These revelations and ordinances," the essay said, "imparted new understanding of the interdependent relationship of women and men."
Women and authority
LDS women serve in ways that would require ordination in many other religious traditions, the essay stated, such as when they lead Relief Society, Young Women and Primary organizations; preach and pray in congregations; participate in priesthood councils; and serve as missionaries around the world.
In each case, as Oaks said, they are acting with the authority of the priesthood.
"It would be impossible to quantify the impact women have in and on the church," said Sheri Dew, author of "Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes." "Right now in more than 180 nations, there are literally hundreds of thousands of women serving in presidencies on both local and general levels of church government who provide leadership for the millions of women, young women and children of the church and who sit as standing members of major councils that direct the affairs of the church.
"And that doesn't count all of those who teach, proselytize as full-time missionaries, officiate in priesthood ordinances in the temple, pray in public meetings and expound doctrine. I have been unable to find any other organization, let alone any other church, where as many women have as much bona fide leadership opportunity and influence as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Every Mormon woman who has been to the temple knows that women perform ordinances there, McBaine said, adding that this essay will open up discussion about the meaning of that practice.
The essay provided important factual, historical context to the conversation about women and the priesthood in the church, but while it goes into depth with its 58 footnotes, it isn't exhaustive, Hudson and McBaine said.
Both felt more could have been shared about the 19th-century LDS practice of women giving healing blessings. The essay acknowledged the history but stated that women were seen to have a gift of the spirit without the priesthood. The practice was discontinued by LDS Church President Heber J. Grant in 1926 based on the Biblical directive to "call for the elders."
That explanation didn't satisfy Hudson.
"In short, this is not, and cannot be, the final word on the subject, as the essay seems as conflicted as the present-day membership on these issues," she said.
The church does plan to provide additional scholarly information about the early roles and ministries of Mormon women.
In March 2016, the faith's official Church Historian's Press will publish "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women's History," by Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook and Matthew J. Grow.
LDS historians say that's a big deal because it's the first book the press will publish other than those from the multi-volume Joseph Smith Papers project. Known colloquially in the church history department as the Relief Society documents project, it will provide a major resource for learning about the way women preached, taught, worked and acted in their roles and responsibilities in the early church.
The essay on Heavenly Mother added little that was new, experts said, but it was welcomed particularly on the heels of the mention of her in a talk at the faith's general conference earlier this month by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve.
The essay surveyed 171 years of statements about a Mother in Heaven and reiterated that Mormons follow Jesus Christ's teaching to "always pray unto the Father in my name."
The two new pieces are the 12th and 13th in-depth essays about topics of special public interest in church history and doctrine published by the church in The Gospel Topics section of lds.org in the past two years.
The Heavenly Mother essay first appeared online Thursday night after it was leaked to Reddit. The essays had been ready for weeks, church spokeswoman Kristen Howey said, but officials were waiting to post them until they could be translated into other languages.
The church chose to move forward Friday after the leak.
The 13 essays are an effort to provide the most historically accurate information about subjects like polygamy and the past restriction on blacks and the priesthood, according to church officials. They are designed to counter questionable and inaccurate sources with academically rich essays, many of which have dozens of footnotes and are written by historians and scholars.
Each Gospel Topics essay was approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
"I think the church history department and the church really have to be commended," said Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. "These essays represent a really significant step forward in terms of transparency, honesty and reckoning with hard questions and contribute a level of confidence and maturity to the discussion."
Gospel Topics pages enhanced or added at LDS.org since November 2013 include "Race and the Priesthood," "Becoming like God," "First Vision Accounts," "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah" and "The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage."
The other essays are "Are Mormons Christians?" "Peace and Violence among 19th-century Latter-day Saints," "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," "Book of Mormon Translation" and "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham."