On 30 March 1842, Joseph Smith spoke to the Relief Society. He said that he “was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul[‘]s day” (Citation).
This post analyzes Joseph Smith’s statement. It assumes that he meant “kingdom of priests” in a fairly literal manner and applied it specifically to the Relief Society. I’m going to anticipate and respond to objections to these assumptions before I get to the statement itself.
- First objection: he was speaking metaphorically of a kingdom of priests. I do not think this is the best reading because:
- Joseph Smith generally did not take Old Testament phrases such as “kingdom of priests” metaphorically but rather literally (would that he had thought that polygamy was a metaphor for something else!).
- Another use of the phrase “kingdom of priests” by Joseph Smith implies a more literal usage (citation).
- Joseph Smith had just said that the Relief Society should “move according to the ancient priesthood.” While by itself I don’t think that this statement would prove that Joseph Smith saw the Relief Society as a priesthood, it provides another layer of evidence that Joseph Smith was not speaking metaphorically about the Relief Society as a kingdom of priests.
- This statement was heavily modified before inclusion in the History of the Church; the changes make it so that Joseph is speaking about the church in general and not the Relief Society (citation; the easiest way to find the right paragraph is to search for the phrase “kingdom of priests”). There is no explanation for the modifications had the statement been understood as metaphorical; the changes only make sense if the statement was taken literally and not thought to mesh well with then-current LDS practice.
- Second objection: in Exodus 19:6, which is the only canonized use of the phrase “kingdom of priests,” the Lord tells Moses to tell the people that they will be a kingdom of priests if they are obedient. But, as we know, not everyone (not even all the males) were priests in Moses’ time. Hence, being a “kingdom of priests” does not mean that each member of the community is a priest. Hence, Joseph Smith’s use of the phrase does not mean that the members of the Relief Society would be priests. My response: I agree with the analysis of Ex 19:6, but not its application to Joseph Smith’s use. In Moses’ case, an entire group of people is addressed and only some of them would be priests—this is true. But for the parallel to hold for Joseph Smith, then he would be addressing the Relief Society and some of them (maybe not all of them, but some of them–not none of them) would be priests.
With that out of the way, we can get down to business. By necessity of having only a very brief statement, everything I write here has an element of speculation and is therefore tentative. Of course I wish we had a three-hour discourse where Joseph Smith explained in detail precisely what he meant, but we don’t. It seems to me that our options are to think about what we do have or to ignore it because it isn’t as clear as we might wish. I’m going with the former option, even if it means weighing some scanty evidence and making some best-guesses.
The first issue to address is this: when Joseph Smith refers to the kingdom of priests in Enoch’s and Paul’s days, is he referring to male-only groups or to groups of women?
If he is referring to male-only groups, then it is interesting that he in announcing his intention to have the females in his day be a kingdom of priests as they were. However, I don’t think that this is the better reading for two reasons:
1. While Joseph’s intention was to make the Relief Society into a kingdom of priests, he did that in the context of the Relief Society, not with the women combined with the men. He envisioned the women as a kingdom of priests, but also as a society of women–not a mixed-gender society. Gender was a relevant category in the work he was doing here, even if being female was not incompatible with being part of a kingdom of priests. So I don’t think he is talking about male-only kingdoms of priests in prior times, because that would not have made sense of the creation of a female-only group here. Had he envisioned these groups from Enoch’s and Paul’s time as male-only, then presumably he would have invited the women to disband the Relief Society and join in with the men. But that isn’t what he did.
2. There is no logical reason to mention Enoch and Paul (as opposed to the far-more-logical Aaron and Jesus) if one wanted to refer to times when men were organized as priests.
Several aspects of Joseph Smith’s statement interest me. First, why mention Paul and Enoch? There are two possibilities here:
- The only two times women were organized as a kingdom of priests were in Enoch’s and Paul’s days.
- Women were so organized at other times, but there is something Joseph Smith wanted to highlight by calling attention specifically to Paul and Enoch.
I’m not sure how to determine which of those two readings is preferable. Perhaps attention is drawn to Enoch to suggest that one cannot achieve a Zion society without the women being properly organized as a kingdom of priests. Or perhaps the point is that only nearly-perfect societies will have women organized as a kingdom of priests, but that idea is hard to reconcile with a kingdom of priests in Paul’s day, since he lived in a time when the nascent church was plunging into apostasy. So maybe the point of mentioning both Enoch and Paul is that women can be organized into a kingdom of priests in a variety of spiritual circumstances. I’m not sure. I’m also open to the possibility that there is no special significance to mentioning them as opposed to leaders from other eras.
Here’s the interesting thing about the reference to Enoch: you can quibble about Paul (and I will in a minute), but there is not one word about women in reference to Enoch (OK, his daughters get a passing mention in the genealogy—see Genesis 5:22—but that’s it). Even when more information is given about Enoch in modern revelation, no mention of women in his time is made (see D & C 107:48-57 and Moses 6-7), although there is a promise that more information about Enoch will be forthcoming. But Joseph Smith tells us that during Enoch’s time, the women were organized as a kingdom of priests. Note this carefully: there is not one canonized word letting us know about this female kingdom of priests in Enoch’s day, but Joseph Smith lets the women of Nauvoo know that it existed. In other words, absence of evidence in the canonized accounts is not, per the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith, a reliable indicator of a lack of female priests.
(As an aside, in some of the later non-canonical writings about Enoch, there is the idea that some of the sins of his time involved transmitting secrets and mysteries to women which should not have been given to them. As with all of this type of literature, it is impossible to determine if these stories were generated centuries later out of whole cloth or whether they contains a grain or two of truth based on the actual historical events. One is tempted to speculate that legends of women priests from Enoch’s time morphed, as sensibilities changed, into the idea that the women were given unauthorized knowledge. But this is extremely speculative. Citation [see 16.3]; see also this.)
As far as Paul goes, there is nothing in the canonical writings that speaks directly of the existence of a female kingdom of priests. Again, one conclusion is that lack of solid canonized evidence of female priests should not be interpreted as lack of female priests. But with Paul, unlike with Enoch, there are a few hints that women were occupying roles that we would consider coherent with the idea of a kingdom of priests. There is great debate about these texts (partially because of their inherent ambiguity and partially because their interpretation has very high stakes for the debates over the roles of women in the various Christian churches), but Phoebe may (or may not) have been a deacon (Romans 16:1-2) and Junia may (or may not) have been an apostle (Romans 16:7). Again, this is too scanty of evidence upon which to conclude that there was a kingdom of priests in Paul’s day, but that is precisely my point: we would never conclude such from the canonical record. We would conclude such from Joseph Smith’s words. Therefore, Joseph Smith has taught us that women have occupied roles far more expansive than the canon reflects.
One thing that interests me about Joseph Smith’s statement is that he mentions Paul and Enoch when the logical referent would have been Moses, given that it is from Moses’ time (and only from Moses’ time) that we have a canonical reference to the idea of a “kingdom of priests.” So why doesn’t he say “as in Moses’ day”? I’m not sure. Perhaps because the promise of a kingdom of priests—which was contingent upon obedience (see Exodus 19:5)–was not realized and so there was no actual kingdom of priests, female or otherwise. (Maybe if the people had been obedient, everyone—not just the Levites—would have been priests; compare Numbers 11:29 and Joel 2:28.) But I’m just speculating.
Because of the way Joseph Smith’s statement was edited in the History of the Church, the idea of the Relief Society as a “kingdom of priests” was not a feature of LDS thought during the history of the Church. But the idea of associating woman and priesthood was not completely foreign to the early church. Brigham Young preached, “Now, brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God” (Citation). Later, belief about women and priesthood morphed to the idea that women held it jointly with their husbands: “Is it possible that we have the holy priesthood and our wives have none of it? Do you not see, by what I have read, that Joseph [Smith] desired to confer these keys of power upon them in connection with their husbands?” (Apostle Franklin D. Richards, Woman’s Exponent, 1 September 1888). As late as 1907, Joseph F. Smith would write, “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,’” (Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era, February 1907).
Unfortunately, I don’t think the extant records make clear entirely what Joseph Smith envisioned for the Relief Society. But we do have this one data point from Joseph Smith’s time: “Some little thing was circulating in the [Relief] Society, that some [women] were not going right in laying hands on the sick . . . [Joseph Smith] ask’d the Society if they could not see . . . that wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them— and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues” (Citation). Susa Young Gates would write much later that “the privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet in those first [Relief Society] meetings have never been granted to women in full even yet” (Young Women’s Journal, March 1905).
This is probably the part of the post where you expect me to say something like “and therefore Mormon women should exercise the priesthood.” Well, sorry, but no. I personally vacillate between thinking that (1) a male-only priesthood is an unfounded tradition of our fathers and (2) a male-only priesthood is a divinely-inspired, necessary corrective in a fallen world where masculinity is constructed in perfectly horrible ways. So I’m not advocating for anything here; I’m just thinking about what Joseph was thinking about. (And remember that what he was doing was organizing the women differently and separately from how he was organizing the men.) And maybe trying to make a chapter of the Restoration a little better known. In the recent NYTimes article about Mormon women, General Relief Society President Linda Burton was quoted as saying that the church stands to benefit as “men’s vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete” (Citation). I think Joseph Smith’s vision of the capacity of women was perhaps broader than we have understood. I am grateful to belong to a church that believes that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. I suspect we will all—feminists, traditionalists, and fence-sitters such as myself–be a little surprised at what those things may be.