The high point in my Church career so far came at age two, when I stood and recited the first four Articles of Faith from memory in Sacrament Meeting . Alas, early precocity did not usher in mature perspicacity, and I confess that these days, while I can still recite most of the Articles as stand-alones with some accuracy, I’m hard pressed to string them together in any recognizable series. (I can, however, rattle off all the books of the Old Testament in order to the tune of “Praise to the Man,” thanks to the heroic efforts of my Sunday School 14 teacher.) Aside from a naturally dull wit, my difficulty comes from not knowing what to make of the Articles as a set of rhetorical objects: they’re neither systematic nor comprehensive nor, it seems to me, precisely reflective of Mormon particularity, either historically or currently, and I’ve yet to detect any unifying internal logic in the sequence.
Until the other day, when, for some reason, I was considering Articles Six and Seven:
6 We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.
7 We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.
It occurred to me that these two articles, at least, do form a coherent dyad with an internal logic: both articles itemize the forms of divine power in the earthly church—-the Kingdom of Heaven in the Kingdom of God—-and taken together the articles neatly parse the two dominant (and antithetical) modes in which that power is exercised, the institutional and the charismatic. The Sixth gestures toward the structural governance, with its layers of office and complex organizational relationships, with which we identify Priesthood authority—-the sine qua non of our present-day Restoration narrative—in most contexts. The Seventh, in contrast, refers to those charismatic displays of visionary religion—the signs that follow those who believe—through which the power of God flows free of institutional channels of authority, ungoverned, unpredictable, and ineffable.
Two things struck me about Seven. First, charismatic power can be exercised by any worthy believer, regardless of gender, age or office, and in this way it works as a centrifugal, democratizing force : we have accounts of early Mormon women and children, as well as priesthood-holding men, speaking in tongues, interpreting, healing, receiving visions. Second, however, these charismatic displays have disappeared almost entirely from present-day first-world LDS experience: healing and prophecy have been absorbed into the priesthood structure of Six, the gifts of tongues have been rationalized into MTC language learning, and visions seem to have simply vanished from our shared religious experience. There are a number of plausible explanations for the curtaining of charismatic religion, mostly variations on the descent of the iron cage of a disenchanted modernity with its rationality and technology—and many of which I find convincing (although I, for one, am quite partial to many aspects of modernity, rationality and technology).
The present relationship of women to the power of God in its various forms is a contested issue, one might removedly observe. It’s tempting to put sexism—sinister or benign, personal or cultural, structural or discursive—in the driver’s seat of historical causality when considering the withdrawal of women from some exercises of divine power in the Church. But perhaps it is an encroaching modernity, not a persistent sexism, that has driven this particular stretch of history. This possibility raises nearly as many questions as it answers, of course, many more disquieting to me than the prospect of an inherited cultural gender bias: why, for instance, do women seem to be so receptive to visionary and charismatic manifestations? I think it’s useful, in any case, to situate questions of women’s history in as many contexts as possible—six or seven, at least.
Which leaves, of course, the biggest question of all: which article is it, again, that begins with “We claim”?