Women and men enjoy many opportunities for service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both within local congregations and at the Churchwide level. Among other things, Latter-day Saint women preach sermons in Sunday meetings and the Church’s general conference; serve full-time proselytizing missions; perform and officiate in holy rites in the Church’s temples; and lead organizations that minister to families, other women, young women, and children. They participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels. Professional women teach Latter-day Saint history and theology at Church universities and in the Church’s educational programs for youth. Because only men are ordained to priesthood office, however, questions have arisen about women’s standing in the Church. This essay provides relevant historical context for these important questions and explains Joseph Smith’s teachings about women and priesthood authority.
The restoration of priesthood authority through the Prophet Joseph Smith is a fundamental doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Early in his ministry, Joseph Smith received priesthood authority from heavenly messengers; with that authority, he organized the Church, conferred priesthood upon other men, and ordained them to offices in the priesthood.1 By this same authority, Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society as part of the structure of the Church, which formally defined and authorized a major aspect of women’s ministry. All this was done to prepare the Saints to participate in the ordinances of the temple, which were introduced soon after the founding of the Relief Society. At the time of his death, the revelatory vision imparted to Joseph Smith was securely in place: women and men could receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples, which would help prepare them to enter the presence of God one day.
The restoration of priesthood authority came at a time of intense religious excitement in the United States. This excitement was driven in part by questions about divine authority—who had it, how it was obtained, and whether it was necessary.2 In the early 19th century, most Christians believed that the authority to act in God’s name had remained on the earth since the time of Jesus’s mortal ministry. Joseph Smith taught that Christ’s priesthood was lost after the deaths of the ancient apostles and had been newly restored through angelic ministration. Even so, many Latter-day Saints initially understood the concept of priesthood largely in terms common for the day. In 1830s America, the word priesthood was defined as “the office or character of a priest” and “the order of men set apart for sacred offices,” identifying priesthood with religious office and the men who held it.3 Early Latter-day Saints likewise thought of priesthood primarily in terms of ordination to ecclesiastical office and authority to preach and perform religious rites.4 As in most other Christian denominations during this era, Latter-day Saint men alone held priesthood offices, served formal proselytizing missions, and performed ordinances like baptism and blessing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Unlike those in many other churches, Latter-day Saints extended priesthood ordination broadly to laymen, as directed by revelation. Over time, an extensive structure of priesthood offices and quorums was established. From the beginning, this structure was governed by revelation under the direction of priesthood leaders holding “keys.”5 The keys of the Melchizedek priesthood, given through divine messengers to Joseph Smith and later passed to others, bestowed the “right of presidency,” the right “to administer in spiritual things,” and the “right to officiate in all the offices in the church.”6
Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the nature of priesthood and keys grew as a result of revelations received by Joseph Smith. An 1832 revelation taught that the greater, or Melchizedek, priesthood held “the key of the knowledge of God,” and that in the ordinances of the priesthood, “the power of godliness is manifest.” Joseph Smith was charged, like Moses, “to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God.”7 In 1836, angelic messengers committed priesthood keys to Joseph Smith that would enable church members to receive temple ordinances.8 In an 1841 revelation, the Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, where He would reveal to His people “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof.”9 The culminating ordinances of the priesthood were to be found in the temple and would help prepare men and women to enter into God’s presence.
Latter-day Saint women in the Church’s earliest years, like women elsewhere, participated actively in their new religious community. They ratified decisions by voting in conferences;10 they furnished the temple with their handiwork; they worshipped alongside men in meetings and choirs; they shared the gospel with relatives and neighbors; they hosted meetings in their homes; and they exercised spiritual gifts in private and in public.11 Early revelation authorized women to “expound scriptures, and to exhort the church.”12 Even so, like most other Christians in their day, Latter-day Saints in the early years of the Church reserved public preaching and leadership for men.13
Revelatory developments in Nauvoo afforded women new opportunities to participate in the Church and expanded Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the eternal relationship between men and women. The organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842, marked a significant step in these developments.14 Wanting to provide charitable support to men working to build the temple, a group of Latter-day Saint women planned to form a benevolent society, mirroring a popular practice of the time.15 When they presented their plan to Joseph Smith, he felt inspired to move beyond such precedents. As Sarah Granger Kimball, a founding member of the Relief Society, later recalled, the Prophet told them he had “something better” for them and said he would organize the women “in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the Church.”16
The women named their new organization “Relief Society.” It was unlike other women’s societies of the day because it was established by a prophet who acted with priesthood authority to give women authority, sacred responsibilities, and official positions within the structure of the Church, not apart from it. The women were organized, as Apostle John Taylor remarked at the founding meeting, “according to the law of Heaven.”17
Joseph Smith charged the women to “relieve the poor” and to “save souls.”18 He stated that his wife Emma Hale Smith’s appointment as president of the Relief Society fulfilled a revelation given to her twelve years earlier, in which she was called an “Elect lady.”19 He also declared to the Society, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”20
Sarah Kingsley Cleveland, counselor to Emma Smith, expressed the women’s sense of divine authorization when she said, “We design to act in the name of the Lord.”21 Emma Smith called upon each member of the Society to be “ambitious to do good,” declaring that together they would do “something extraordinary.” She anticipated “extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”22
Two aspects of Joseph Smith’s teachings to the women of the Relief Society may be unfamiliar to members of the Church today. First is his use of language associated with priesthood. In organizing the Relief Society, Joseph spoke of “ordain[ing]” women and said that Relief Society officers would “preside over the Society.”23 He also declared, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God.”24
These statements indicate that Joseph Smith delegated priesthood authority to women in the Relief Society.25 Joseph’s language can be more fully understood in historical context. During the 19th century, Latter-day Saints used the term keys to refer at various times to authority, knowledge, or temple ordinances.26 Likewise, members of the Church sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office.27 On these points, Joseph’s actions illuminate the meaning of his words: neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women or ordained women to priesthood office.
In later years, words like ordination and keys were more precisely defined, as when President John Taylor, who acted by assignment from Joseph Smith to “ordain and set apart” Emma Smith and her counselors, explained in 1880 that “the ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those sisters.”28 Women did receive authority to preside in the women’s organization and to appoint officers as needed to conduct the organization in the pattern of the priesthood, including being led by a president with counselors.29 By the time of President Taylor’s statement, women-led organizations were also in place for young women and children. These organizations also had presidencies, who acted with delegated priesthood authority.
The second aspect of Joseph Smith’s teachings to the Relief Society that may be unfamiliar today is his endorsement of women’s participation in giving blessings of healing. “Respecting the female laying on hands,” the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes record, Joseph said that “it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith,” and admonished, “if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”30 Some women had performed such blessings since the early days of the Church. At that time, Latter-day Saints understood the gift of healing primarily in terms of the New Testament’s teaching that it was one of the gifts of the Spirit available to believers through faith. Joseph Smith taught that the gift of healing was a sign that would follow “all that believe whether male or female.”31
During the 19th century, women frequently blessed the sick by the prayer of faith, and many women received priesthood blessings promising that they would have the gift of healing.32 “I have seen many demonstrations of the power and blessing of God through the administration of the sisters,” testified Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney, who was, by her own account, blessed by Joseph Smith to exercise this gift.33 In reference to these healing blessings, Relief Society general president Eliza R. Snow explained in 1883, “Women can administer in the name of JESUS, but not by virtue of the Priesthood.”34
Women’s participation in healing blessings gradually declined in the early 20th century as Church leaders taught that it was preferable to follow the New Testament directive to “call for the elders.”35 By 1926, Church President Heber J. Grant affirmed that the First Presidency “do not encourage calling in the sisters to administer to the sick, as the scriptures tell us to call in the Elders, who hold the priesthood of God and have the power and authority to administer to the sick in the name of Jesus Christ.”36 Currently, the Church’s Handbook 2: Administering the Church directs that “only Melchizedek Priesthood holders may administer to the sick or afflicted.”37
Joseph Smith said that his instructions to the Relief Society were intended to prepare women to “come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood.” This would be accomplished through the ordinances of the temple.38 These new ordinances taught the nature of God, the purpose of life, the meaning of eternal life, and the nature of humankind’s relationship to divinity. They brought men and women into a covenant relationship with God.
Joseph Smith’s teachings about temple ordinances provide further context for his priesthood-related teachings to the Relief Society. Joseph spoke of establishing a “kingdom of priests.”39 He had used similar terms earlier when speaking of the relationship of all the Saints to the temple.40 This “kingdom of priests” would comprise men and women who made temple covenants.
In the last two years of his life, Joseph Smith introduced temple ordinances and covenants to a core group of men and women. In May 1842, he officiated in the first temple endowments—a ritual in which participants made sacred covenants and received instruction regarding God’s plan of salvation.41 Joseph Smith began sealing (or marrying for eternity) husbands and wives and then initiated women into the endowment by the end of September 1843. He taught men and women that by receiving temple ordinances, culminating in the sealing ordinance, they entered into an “order of the priesthood.”42 By the time of his death, he had given these ordinances to several dozen men and women, who met together often to pray and to participate in temple ceremonies as they awaited completion of the Nauvoo Temple in December 1845.
Temple ordinances were priesthood ordinances, but they did not bestow ecclesiastical office on men or women. They fulfilled the Lord’s promise that his people—women and men—would be “endowed with power from on high.”43 That priesthood power was manifest in individuals’ lives in many ways and was available to adult members, regardless of marital status. The endowment opened channels of personal revelation to both women and men. It bestowed a greater measure of “faith and knowledge” and the “help of the Spirit of the Lord”—power that fortified the Saints for subsequent hardships they would face as they traveled 1,300 miles across a forbidding wilderness and settled in the Salt Lake Valley.44 It prepared endowed Latter-day Saints to go forth “armed with thy [God’s] power” to “bear exceedingly great and glorious tidings … unto the ends of the earth.”45 Indeed, through the ordinances of the temple, the power of godliness was manifest in their lives.46
During the Nauvoo era, Latter-day Saints came to understand that all people are children of heavenly parents and that it is the ultimate destiny of faithful men and women to become like them.47 Additional revelation about the eternal nature and purpose of marriage accompanied these teachings. Joseph Smith taught associates that marriage performed and solemnized—or “sealed”—by proper authority in temples would last into the eternities.48
These revelations and ordinances imparted new understanding of the interdependent relationship of women and men. As Bishop Newel K. Whitney expressed it shortly after receiving his endowment, “Without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth. It takes all to restore the Priesthood.”49 Mary Isabella Horne, a member of the Nauvoo Relief Society, later expressed joy in being “co-laborers with our brethren in building up the kingdom of God.” “In all the ordinances received in the House of the Lord,” she said, “woman stands beside the man, both for the living and the dead, showing that the man is not without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord.”50
The priesthood power bestowed in the Nauvoo Temple—and by extension, in temples today—extends beyond this life, for temple ordinances make possible the exaltation of God’s children.51 The ordinances of the temple, Joseph Smith taught, would create a “welding link” between all members of the human family, one family at a time, extending backward and forward in time.52
When a man and a woman are sealed in the temple, they enter together, by covenant, into an order of the priesthood.53 If they are faithful to their covenants, they receive “honor, immortality, and eternal life,” “exaltation and glory in all things,” and “a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”54 Some do not have the opportunity to marry in this life, and many experience broken family relationships. Because God is just, every child of God will have the opportunity, either in this life or in the next, to accept the gospel and receive all promised blessings (including eternal marriage), conditioned upon faithfulness.55
In some respects, the relationship between Latter-day Saint women and priesthood has remained remarkably constant since Joseph Smith’s day. As in the earliest days of the Church, men are ordained to priesthood offices, while both women and men are invited to experience the power and blessings of the priesthood in their lives.56 Men and women continue to officiate in sacred ordinances in temples much as they did in Joseph Smith’s day. Joseph taught that men and women can obtain the highest degree of celestial glory only by entering together into an order of the priesthood through the temple sealing ordinance. That understanding remains with Latter-day Saints today.
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. Latter-day Saints 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.
Since Joseph Smith’s day, Church prophets, exercising the keys of the priesthood, have adapted structures and programs in a world in which educational, political, and economic opportunities have expanded for many women.57 Today, Latter-day Saint women lead three organizations within the Church: the Relief Society, the Young Women, and the Primary. They preach and pray in congregations, fill numerous positions of leadership and service, participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels, and serve formal proselytizing missions across the globe. In these and other ways, women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office.58 Such service and leadership would require ordination in many other religious traditions.
Priesthood blesses the lives of God’s children in innumerable ways. Priesthood defines, empowers, ennobles, and creates order. In ecclesiastical callings, temple ordinances, family relationships, and quiet, individual ministry, Latter-day Saint women and men go forward with priesthood power and authority. This interdependence of men and women in accomplishing God’s work through His power is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.
Originally published October 2015.
“Relief Society: A Restoration of an Ancient Pattern,” Daughters in My Kingdom, chapter 1
“Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” The Joseph Smith Papers