“Could you explain the term ‘prophetess’ in the Bible?” Ensign, Dec. 1980, 31–32
Daniel H. Ludlow, director of teacher support services, Church Educational System In general, this term seems to be used in the Bible to describe a woman who had a special gift of prophecy or foretelling or to show that a certain woman had an abundance of the Spirit in understanding or teaching the gospel plan. Of course, it is possible that some women were prophetesses in both senses of the word.
The gift of prophecy is a special spiritual endowment that is available to every worthy member of the Church. Elder Bruce R. McConkie has said: “Every member of the Church—acting in submission to the laws and system which the Lord has ordained—is expected to have the gift of prophecy. It is by this gift that a testimony of the truth comes.” (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, p. 542.)
One definition of a prophet or prophetess, then, is one who knows by the Holy Ghost that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Moses prayed, “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them” (Num. 11:29). Thus, a woman who had an abundance of the special gift of testimony may have been referred to as a prophetess.
The term can take on additional depth and meaning, however. Elder George Q. Cannon wrote: “The spirit of the Church of God is that manifested by Moses. … The genius of the kingdom with which we are associated is to disseminate knowledge through all the ranks of the people, and to make every man a prophet and every woman a prophetess, that they may understand the plans and purposes of God. For this purpose the gospel has been sent to us, and the humblest may obtain its spirit and testimony” (in Journal of Discourses, 12:46).
Add to these two meanings—having the testimony of Jesus, and having a broader understanding of the plans and purposes of God—is a third usage that relates directly to foretelling or prophesying. President Joseph Fielding Smith has said: “Our sisters are entitled just as much to the inspiration for their needs of the Holy Spirit as are the men. They are entitled to the gift of prophecy concerning matters that would be essential for them to know as it is for the men.” (Take heed to Yourselves, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971, p. 259.) Thus, as a woman with a special gift for poetry can be called a poetess, so could a woman with the spiritual gift of foretelling be termed a prophetess.
However, there are possible additional usages. The term may have been used to suggest a woman’s relationship to a prophet, as in describing the wife of Isaiah (Isa. 8:3). But this possible usage appears to be quite infrequent, albeit a potential usage of the term. (See Judg. 4:4, Luke 2:36, Ex. 15:20, and 2 Kgs. 22:14, all of which identify a woman as a prophetess and also identify a relationship to a man.)
Another possible usage of prophetess would be to indicate a leadership status. President Joseph Fielding Smith observed: “We read that in earlier days of Israel women were active and had duties to perform, that there were actually prophetesses among them. Such a noted character was Deborah, who is spoken of as being a prophetess unto whom the people went for counsel, and she became a judge in Israel. It appears in the account of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, that Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, who is spoken of as being a prophetess (Ex. 15:20), evidently had been given authority, particularly in relation to the affairs of the women of Israel.” (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1965, p. 5.)
This leads to the question of a Church position for a prophetess. For example, the word prophet is used in the Church to refer to a specific office or calling in the Melchizedek Priesthood. Thus, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are sustained as “prophets, seers, and revelators.” Further, the term prophet is often used in referring to the President of the Church. However, in these usages, the term prophetess is not used as a female counterpart to a prophet. That is, there is no office, calling, or position of prophetess within the priesthood, nor any other area of jurisdiction, nor were there in olden times such priesthood offices or callings that could have given rise to such usage.
Consequently, although the term prophetess has a wide range of possible usages, the general intent of the biblical term likely has to do with the sister having an abundance of the Spirit of the Lord, one gift of which is the gift of prophecy.