Thursday, August 26, 2004

I'm not a heretic, I swear

Lately I've been experiencing something new to me. I would never bring this up in a church setting for fear of causing shock and disapproval (I need people to like me and think I'm normal) but you all won't judge me, right? Thanks.

So what I've been feeling. I guess you could call it priesthood envy. It's always bothered me that men hold the priesthood and women don't, mostly at an intellectual level, because as a feminist, it just didn't seem fair to me. This is the first time that I've felt it emotionally. It's not that I want to be a bishop or a general authority; what I'd really like is to be able to give blessings, especially to members of my family. When I'm sick or feeling particularly discouraged I'll ask my husband for a blessing. It's always a source of comfort and strength and healing. And sometimes I wish that I could do the same thing for him. The other night he was exhausted after a long day at work and struggling with the changes that are going on in his life and generally just depressed. I did my best to console him, and as I listened to his fears I found myself wishing that I could give him a blessing. In fact, I suggested that he call someone and ask for one, but he didn't want to. We have no idea who our home teachers are and he didn't feel like his need was urgent enough to bother the bishop at home late at night.

My envy is furthered by the fact that I've been reading a wonderful book called Women's Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints 1830-1900. It's a collection of firsthand accounts of women in the early church. This was a time when the understanding of church organization was still evolving (actually, I guess it still is now) and roles were not so clearly defined when it came to the priesthood. Women often gave blessings, seemingly without questioning whether or not they had the authority.

Patty Bartlett Sessions was a midwife who kept a daily diary during the trek west. Her entries combine details of the mundane with the spiritual. "Thursday Feb 4: My birthday. Fifty two years old in the camp of Isrial Winter Quarters. We had brandy and drank a toast to each other desireing and wishing the blessings of God to be with us all...Eliz Snow came here after me to go to a little party in the evening...Told her it was my birthday and she must bless me...I then went to the party. Had a good time singing praying speaking in toungues." A few days later: "Monday Feb 8: Finished making soap." She also writes of administering to the sick alongside her husband. "Wednesday Feb 17: I visited the sick. Mr. Sessions and I went and laid hands on the widow Holmans step daughter. She was healed."

In a letter to her husband, Bathsheba W. Smith (mother of George Albert Smith and future president of the Relief Society) writes of how she cared for her baby son when he was ill. "George Albert was sick last saterday and sunday. He had quite a feavor. I was vary uneaseey about him. I was afraid he was going to have the feavor. I took him to the fount and had him baptised and sinse then he has not had any feavor...I anointed him with oil a good many times." Baptism was used not only to initiate church membership, but also repeatedly to cleanse of sin and to cure illness.

As an older woman, Lucy Meserve Smith wrote a historical narrative of her life as a polygamous wife in the Salt Lake valley. One entry in particular provides insight into how she viewed the priesthood. "One evening after the rest of the family had retired I knelt down to pray and I was grasped by the wrist very tightly and it seemed as though there was something held over my face so it was very difficult for me to breathe or utter a word. Said i, old felloa you can figure away, but you've got the wrong pig by the ear this time...The Holy Spirit said to me they can do no harm where the name of Jesus is used with authority. I immediately rebuked them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood conferred upon me in common with my companion in the Holy Temple of our God. All that evil sensation left me immediately."

This view that the priesthood was jointly held by married men and women was prevalent in the early church, and couples often gave their children blessings together, with the mother anointing with oil and the father sealing the anointing. In 1910 President Joseph F. Smith said, "If a woman is requested to lay hands on the sick with her husband or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, 'By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested'" (Improvement Era 10, February 1907, page 308.)

I know there must be a reason that things are done differently now. I trust the leadership of the church. But a part of me can't help feeling a bit wistful when I read of the experiences these amazing women had. One of the most beautiful traditions for me to contemplate was when women would bless one another during childbirth, anointing various parts of the body with an accompanying prayer to ease the pains of delivery. From pregnancy to watching their children get married, parenting was a team effort by the women in the Mormon community. It's probably my raging IVF hormones, but I wish our society was a bit more like that now. Except I'm really glad we have general anesthesia and epidurals.


  1. Chelsea, have you seen this discussion?

    Some interesting things along the same line.

    I don't know where I fit on this issue, but I'd guess I'm further over on the side that makes some uncomfortable. At least theoretically. I'm willing to be patient, but in my opinion, the current state of affairs regarding women and the priesthood is not going to go on forever.

  2. Thanks for the link, that was very interesting. That Gaia sure has a lot of information, doesn't she? :)

    I think I'd have to agree with you that eventually things will change (although like I said, I would never voice that opinion in Relief Society). I wonder what it would take for such a change to take place?


Give it to me straight!

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