A Kingdom of Priests: A Support for Female Ordination

Note: Many thanks to my wife Anne Stewart, whose wide research on this subject bolstered my own efforts. Her assistance with this article was essential and invaluable. It is her beautiful, informed and spiritual example that has been an inspiration to me in seeking Wisdom.


“The [Relief] Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.”[1]

 The context of this remarkable statement was Joseph Smith speaking at the third meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female organization Relief Society on March 30, 1842 (although in those days the Relief Society was an autonomous organization that was yet still connected to the Church in its purpose). Joseph Smith was a guest speaker nine times to the Relief Society before it was disbanded right before his death (and reinstated a decade later when Eliza R. Snow urged Brigham Young to give the organization a second chance). The Minutes were recorded in the official Relief Society Minutes Book in Secretary Eliza R. Snow’s own hand,[2] which are now available online from the LDS Church’s official Joseph Smith papers.

The above statement by Joseph Smith is one of the many pieces of evidence that have made me side with faithful Mormon feminists in the recent brouhaha over the issue of women’s ordination in the LDS Church. To me, this shows that Joseph Smith was considering an expanded priesthood role for women, specifically through the mechanism of an autonomous Relief Society. Unfortunately, conflicts with Joseph’s wife Emma and other women over polygamy, his martyrdom in Carthage Jail, and Brigham Young’s retrenchment tendencies when he felt his authority was being challenged, derailed this possibility of female priesthood being enforced in its fullness (although the Mormon temple endowment, especially the Second Anointing, was indeed a partial fulfillment, which I will briefly and respectfully discuss later).

Women’s roles in the Church are not an issue of “doubt” for me, although there have been times in my life where doubts have certainly raised their unsettling concerns, as they have for most honest inquirers. In the end, however, investigating an expanded role for women in the Church has rather had the opposite effect. I am filled with faith and the Spirit when I’ve prayerfully studied the issue and realize that statements from Joseph Smith (like the one above) and LDS scriptures show that gender issues are not so cut and dry as many Mormons would have us believe, and that revelation still has to come line upon line, precept upon precept to the Latter-day Saints. We are not an “unchanging” Church, but rather an eternally progressing Church that is still striving to live up to its potential of building Zion upon the Earth.   

Rather, doubts have come when I’ve considered the confusing “separate but equal” rhetoric issued to defend the lack of priesthood authority given to women. I feel nothing but alienation, confusion, and darkness when I prayerfully consider such justifications of gender inequalities. Trying to adopt such attitudes in the past have NEVER brought me peace, but rather a repressed unease. I feel farther from our Heavenly Parents when I consider such a constricted view of my mother, my sisters, my friends, my nieces, my in-laws, my aunts, my wife, my daughter, my Heavenly Mother. I not only feel farther from my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, but nearly as tragically, I also feel more distant from those beautiful women in my life. Whether I throw women on a pedestal or in a pit, we are not, at that point, on equal footing. That distance is created.

And I don’t want distance—I long for closeness, friendship, kinship, and fellowship with the women in my life. I have had a long, personal history with women. I have seven sisters. The majority of my friends in Jr. High and High School were female. My mother was a vitally important influence in my life. Many of my historical and literary heroes are women, from Joan of Arc, to Emma Smith, to Charlotte Bronte, to Lorraine Hansberry. My wife is my best friend, and I long for a beautiful, empowering future for my 3 year old daughter. As a general rule, I tend to feel closer and more connection to women than I do with men. Some may not think that I have much “skin in the game,” because I am a privileged, white male in an equal rights struggle. Yet this issue is quite personal to me, and it is spiritually urgent.


I also feel distance from the Church I love when I discover there are those who have a rather un-Christian “if you don’t like it, then leave” attitude. There are some who I have seen similarly say, “Well, go join the Community of Christ, their women have the priesthood” (formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or RLDS, a separate faction of the Mormon tradition). I’m sure the good people of the Community of Christ would welcome folks like me with loving, open arms. Yet, as I currently am, I can’t join them, not in good conscience.

I’ve studied Community of Christ/RLDS history, I’ve attended their meetings, and I even wrote a play about the early days of the RLDS Church. So I know a thing or two about the Community of Christ now.  As much as I admire their faith, inclusiveness, progressive intelligence, and commitment, I can’t join their Church because they have rejected Joseph Smith’s later teachings from the body of their Church and practice: the sealing power, The King Follett Sermon,  the ordinances of the temple, proxy baptism and ordinances for and in behalf our deceased ancestors, Heavenly Mother. Rather, they have clung to what I consider to be false, Trinitarian ideals. They have downplayed the First Vision and, to a much lesser extent, even the Book of Mormon (for a good insight into the strengths and shortcomings of the current relationship of the Community of Christ to Joseph Smith, see Community of Christ historian Roger Launius’s essay “Is Joseph Smith Relevant to the Community of Christ?” ).  

And despite later retroactive admissions made by Community of Christ historians about Joseph Smith’s polygamy (although those concessions are not always made by their general membership, as evidenced by some of the comments I heard in their Sunday School), I can’t accept the Community of Christ’s earlier denials of the importance of Joseph Smith’s history of polygamy in the Mormon narrative, as complicated, contradicting, heartbreaking, and messy as that scenario was.

Joseph claimed that angels taught him the principle of plural sealing, which we call Eternal Marriage. Whether he understood those principles correctly or deployed those principles correctly, to me, is a matter of debate. The evidence of under aged marriages and elements of unrighteous dominion in implementing those principles, tends to make me believe that there were, indeed, some egregious errors made in sincere zeal and human folly, which I’m willing to accept. Yet the whole Mormon narrative falls apart if Joseph was lying concerning that angel with a flaming sword who commanded him to teach about those unpopular principles.[3] And the Community of Christ’s dismissals concerning that widely documented history, I certainly don’t believe, despite the Community of Christ’s other victories and insights.     

Aesthetically and theologically, the Community of Christ have become more Protestant/Evangelical than Mormon and, if I have certain issues with the current LDS status quo, my issues with the Community of Christ would be manifold. I cannot betray my understanding of the work that Joseph Smith accomplished, and the spiritually confirmed truths I believe he taught, even though I do find the Community of Christ’s ordination of women admirable and appealing (not to mention their lack of institutional, racial prejudice that my own LDS community eventually had to come to terms with in 1978).

 It was those who were historically loyal to Joseph Smith, even when he was unpopular and controversial, who earned my trust in the Mormon Narrative, even when I occasionally disagree with certain positions or actions of theirs that I have found in their histories (just as they often disagreed with each other). Yet they were the ones who braved the storms, faced the mobs, took the bullets, were thrown into prison, and were willing to commit to unpopular teachings, sometimes at the risk or ultimate cost of their lives. John Taylor. Jane Manning James. Lorenzo Snow. Wilford Woodruff.  Brigham Young. Eliza R. Snow. Parley Pratt. Zina Huntington.  Helen Mar Kimball. Mary Elizabeth Lightner. David W. Patten. Elijah Abel.  Heber and Vilate Kimball. These are names that have meaning to me because of the sacrifice and faith they employed while others took the easier path.

My great-great-grandfather Alvin Franklin Stewart joined the Church in the 1840s and moved to its headquarters which were then stationed Nauvoo, Illinois. He was one of the body guards that accompanied Joseph Smith down to Carthage Jail, and he guarded over them on the journey there as they slept. Joseph Smith dismissed Alvin and the other guards to go home before Joseph Smith was gunned down by a mob in that jail. Although Joseph Smith had told those with him that he knew those at Carthage were going to kill him, he probably saved my great-great-grandfather’s life from that mob, and my whole family line, by telling Alvin, and the others who had offered him their protection, even at the risk of their own lives, to go home. Alvin viewed Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies after their assassination, perhaps very aware how easily it could have been him sharing those caskets.

I literally owe my life, my father’s life, my 10 siblings’ lives, my children’s lives, and the lives of our associated ancestors and relatives, to Joseph Smith’s bravery and willing self-sacrifice in facing that mob without the assistance he could have easily commanded. [4] Instead of clinging to what physical protections that were being offered him by guards like my great-great grandfather (not to mention the Nauvoo Legion), Joseph chose to brave the storm with only a few select individuals[5] and saved the lives of his friends.

Alvin Franklin Stewart was also at the meeting where Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon were vying for the leadership of the Church after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. Although my great-great-grandfather’s journal (which I’m assuming contained the account) was destroyed in a flood, my family’s oral history says that he claimed he was one of the individuals who saw the “mantle” of Joseph Smith fall on Brigham Young. For those unaware of that period of Mormon history, that means, if the report is accurate, that he was one of the many people who claimed a vision in which he saw the actual countenance of Joseph Smith come upon Brigham Young, indicating the leadership the Lord wanted the Latter-day Saints to adopt.

Instead of immediately settling into the “promised land” of Utah, my great-grandfather Alvin and great-grandmother Camera Olga Owen Stewart (who were both married by Heber C. Kimball in the Nauvoo Temple), stayed behind in Winter’s Quarters to assist in the transportation of others to Utah.

So when I am confronted with the option of leaving the Church that my forefathers and foremothers sacrificed so much for, and which I owe so much to, even over an issue of conscience, I just can’t bring myself to that possibility. The spiritual witnesses I have experienced in connection to my faith, which are many, have been nothing short of miraculous. So when people on both sides of the divide ask, because of my concerns with gender in the Church, “Why do you even stay then?” I think of the words that Peter gave Jesus when asked, “Will you also go away?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life.” [6]

I have nowhere else to go but this Church. This is where I have found peace, this is where I have found Christ, and this is where I have found a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who speak to me and listen to me and understand me, despite my imperfections. It is here that I have found Grace beyond my inadequate comprehension. I respect all other sincere faiths, and find much that is good and much that is inspired when I study them, but my beliefs and conscience keep bringing me back here, my Mother Faith. It’s like when Robert Bolt has his protagonist Thomas More say in A Man For All Seasons: “But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not, but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.”[7]

Thankfully, a number of the current leaders of the Church have proven to be more charitable and welcoming than some of its members. I can’t sufficiently say how very impressed I was with the frankness, the honesty, and the charity in President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s message for the LDS General Conference this last October. His comments were timely considering much of the persecution I have seen feminists and other intellectuals receive from fellow members of the Church:


One might ask, “If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?”

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.

In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves…

To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here.Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result.

Some might ask, “But what about my doubts?” It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.[8]

It was satisfying to see the Mormon blogosphere light up in joy after this talk. Scholars, feminists, and other religious misfits finally felt some vindication, recognition, and compassion from their religious leaders.  Despite what may have been said by others, with President Uchtdorf there was none of the old distrust against “intellectuals” nor any dismissiveness against “discordant voices.” Instead of sending supposed “apostates” out into the cold, he validated their concerns. He recognized human imperfection in the leadership (“And, to be perfectly frank,” he said, “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine”[9]). He opened his arms to all the supposed black sheep and said, “There is yet a place for you here.”

In his statements President Uchtdorf completely rejected the cruel and condescending dismissals I’ve seen presented by some members of the Church who do not want to invest the time or mental/spiritual energy required to address the concerns of the questioning or the disaffected, and therefore simply write them off. Instead of taking the shortcut of the cutoff, President Uchtdorf truly believes in Christ’s injunction to leave the 99 and seek after the one.And I’m certain, especially considering the context of what was happening with the Ordain Women movement during last Conference, that the good under-shepherd President Uchtdorf also meant to include the Mormon feminists in his welcoming invitation.



 It’s interesting with Joseph Smith’s statement to the Relief Society that he points to two particular spiritual periods as being examples of kingdoms of female priests: the times of Paul and Enoch. Initially on the face of it, citing the apostle Paul to bolster the argument for female ordination makes no sense.  Paul has more of a reputation of being a misogynist (see, for example, 1 Timothy chapter 2 in the New Testament) than a women’s liberator.[10] So why did Joseph Smith cite Paul as an example of making women a “kingdom of priests”?

The answer to that question shows just how well Joseph Smith had searched his Bible. He sought a deeper understanding than what was contained in the King James Translation, and strived to understand what the text in the original language implied. At the time of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Joseph was still having a hard time with even mastering English (his wife Emma said that, “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon[11]).

Yet Joseph later made a concentrated effort with not only improving his native grammar, but attempted to become a master of other languages as well. Thus he made studies in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (as well as some study of German, so that he could read Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, which he highly praised). For example, he brought a Hebrew scholar, Joshua Seixas, into Kirtland to teach him and other leaders of the Church, and this Jewish scholar highly praised Joseph’s ability in the language:

Mr. Joseph Smith Junior has attended a full course of Hebrew lessons under my tuition; & has been indefatigable in acquiring the principles of the sacred language of the Old Testament Scriptures in their original tongue. He has so far accomplished a knowledge of it, that he is able to translate to my entire satisfaction; & by prosecuting the study he will be able to become a proficient in Hebrew. I take this opportunity of thanking him for his industry, & his marked kindness towards me.[12]

Joseph makes mention of this intense interest in understanding the original language of the Bible in his own 1835-1836 Journal (this entry is from February 17, 1836; some spelling errors are retained, as found in the Joseph Smith Papers):

“…attend[ed] the school and read and translated with my class as usual, and my soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to the study of languages until I shall become a master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough, at any rate as long as I do live I am determined to make this my object, and with the blessing of God I shall succe[e]d to my satisfaction…” [13]

Thus Joseph Smith was marching hopefully on the path of a linguistic scholar, which is an important thing to consider with what follows in our analysis of Pauline texts in the New Testament.

Although the priesthood office of deacon was originally reserved for full grown men in Joseph Smith’s day (and with weighty responsibilities attached , as outlined in Doctrine and Covenants section 20), nowadays the office is given to LDS boys at the age of 12. It has become a rite of passage into the brotherhood of Church authority, more of a personal coming of age than the more laborious duties attached to it in past times.

In the first century after Christ’s death and resurrection, however, the role of a deacon seems to have had even weightier consequence than the modern LDS deacon’s duty of passing the sacrament. Rather, a deacon seems to have been a local leader and authority in a particular geographical area, it seems to me more akin to a bishop in modern LDS context[14] (in fact, Paul pairs deacons with New Testament bishops in Philippians 1:1).  

Early instances of the use of the word “deacon” in the Bible then would have been of interest to Joseph Smith, especially in linguistic terms. It occurs in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 16, rendering it as “diakanon” in the original Greek. However, the King James Translation does not retain the original meaning of the word, but rather renders it as “servant” (and, remember, that Joseph Smith says that Mormons only believe in the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly”[15]). There are other subsequent translations of the Bible that retain its original meaning, however.

The politics behind the erroneous translation of deacon in the context of Romans 16 (especially since it is properly translated in other passages) becomes apparent when it is revealed who the authoritative priesthood title is being addressed towards: Phoebe, a woman.  

The translators of the King James Version and other similarly reticent religious linguists had ample motivation to change the meaning of this word, considering later Christianity’s reticence to bestow ecclesiastical authority on women.

Phoebe DeaconessI appreciate V.K. McCarty’s analysis of these purposeful mistranslations:

In the two verses headlining Romans 16, Paul calls Phoebe three Greek nouns which the NRSV translates as “sister” (adelphen) and “deacon” (diakonon) and “benefactor” (prostatis). Here, it is informative to note how other Bible translations handle these terms; the earlier Revised Standard Edition (RSV) translates adelphen, diakonos and prostatis as “sister, deaconess, helper,” and the King James Version (KJV) as “sister, servant, succourer.” Although earlier translators used more subordinate terms, such as helper and servant, more recent commentators interpret diakonos as minister, which is offered as the alternate translation in the NRSV.

In analyzing her exercise of authority, it now appears more likely that Phoebe served as the leader of her congregation and that diakonos, although not yet an ordained order of the church, was an official title of leadership as indicated by the earlier usage of the term in Rom. 11:13 and 12:7. Thus, Robert Jewett maintains that “it is no longer plausible to limit her role to philanthropic activities.” Furthermore, the possessive qualifier, deacon of the church in Cenchreia makes it more likely that she was one of their group leaders rather than a traveling minister. So, by enjoining the hearers of the letter to receive her in a manner befitting the saints, Phoebe should be welcomed with honors suitable to her position as a congregational leader.[16]

Now comparing the modern LDS context of the word deacon to the ancient New Testament context of the word would be difficult, especially with how little is known about the structure of the “priesthood” in New Testament times.  But it seems clear from the context of Romans 16 that Paul was referring to Phoebe as an ecclesiastical and authoritative figure.

Of course, this reference to female priesthood in Romans 16:1 is not the only one contained in the Bible. Joseph Smith only had to scroll down a few verses in Romans to verse 7 to discover another instance:

…Paul praises a woman named Junia as “outstanding among the apostles.”  Despite the modern mistranslation of her name as masculine “Junias” or “Junius,” no commentator prior to the 13th century questioned that this apostle was a woman. For example, John Chrysostom, whose writings often express misogyny, wrote of Romans 16:7, “O how great is the devotion of this woman that she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!” This unanimity of testimony over a millennium is particularly striking since it remained during a long period of eroding toleration of women’s ministries in the medieval church.  The reason for the witness is simple: all the ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts commending the outstanding apostles in Romans 16:7 read either “Junia” or “Julia”, both feminine forms.

Both Junia and Julia were very common ancient Greek woman’s names, whereas the masculine alternatives suggested by modern commentators have no manuscript evidence to support them.  “Junius” and “Junianus” suggested by some, are perfectly good Roman men’s names.  However, they occur in NO ancient manuscript of Romans 16:7! Of the hypothetical name “Junias,” Bernadette Brooten writes, “What can a modern philologist say about Junias?  Just this: it is unattested.  To date, not a single reference in ancient literature has been cited by any of the proponents of the Junias hypothesis.  My own search for an attestation has also proved fruitless.  This means that we do not have a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed.”  Note that Brooten is not only speaking of the lack of this name in NT manuscripts, but in ANY ancient manuscript, Greek or Latin, secular or sacred!

Certain early manuscripts do contain a variant name, but it, too, is feminine.  “Julia” is found in P46, it, cop, eth, and Ambrosiaster.  P46, a papyrus manuscript dating about 200 AD, is one of the most ancient and reliable Greek mss of the NT extant.  In Romans 16:7, P46 reads “Julia,” which can only be feminine.  What does this mean?  That in Romans 16, St. Paul commends a noteworthy woman apostle.  It also means that translators who found a woman apostle unacceptable made up the name “Junias” to substitute their own word for the Word of God.  That is how important limiting women’s freedom has been to religious legalists.  We will find that this attitude and practice have been all too common.[17]

Thus one of the highest authoritative designations given in both Mormonism and early Christianity, the office of an apostle, was here clearly given to a woman, by the name of Junia. Junia had met Paul in prison, after she and her husband Andronicus had been thrown into prison for preaching the Gospel together from place to place.[18] Paul, who considered himself the “least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9) seemed to hold this fellow prisoner for Christ in specific esteem, calling Junia “outstanding among the apostles.”

In addition to these clear instances of female authority in the New Testament age, others notable mentions can be added.  Paul hailed Prisca, Mary, Tryphaena, and Tryphosa as “co-workers,” which implies that they were more than lay members, and of special note in the community to receive special salutations.[19]

An interesting structure of the Church in New Testament days was the existence of “house churches”… perhaps an institution equitable to LDS “wards.”

Wherever Christianity was spread, women were leaders of house churches. Mary, the mother of John Mark, presided over a house of Hellinistic Jews in Jerusalem. It was on her door that the astonished Peter knocked to announce to the Christians assembled there that he had been liberated from prison by an angel (Acts 12:12-17). Apphia presided with two others as leaders of a house church in Collosae (Philem. 2). Nympha in Laodicea, Lydia in Thyatira, and Phoebe at Cenchreae supervised the congregations that met in their homes (Col. 4:15; Acts 16:15; Roma. 16:1).[20]   

Leaders of these house churches were called prostatis in the Greek, a position also attributed to the apostle Junia.[21]

In addition to ecclesiastical positions, women played a strong economic role in the Church. Funding of much of Christ’s ministry often came from women, such as Joanna, mentioned in Luke 8:1-3, who not only helped fund the ministry, but also traveled along with other women in Jesus’s company, a mixing of genders that was highly taboo in their culture.  Mary Magdalene and Susanna were also among this group of women disciples who were willing to offer up their funds to the cause of Christ.[22]

Back to Paul’s epistles, we also have this telling statement from him, which have direct (in my opinion, purposeful) corollaries with other Mormon scriptures which I’ll discuss later:There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine). [23]

These kind of statements in Christian and Mormon scripture fly in the face of our obsession with defining gender roles and distinction. In God’s eyes there is no important distinction, but rather we are “all one in Christ Jesus.”

Thus it is clear to me that when Joseph Smith, in seeking to understand the Bible in its original linguistic context, encountered these apparent contradictions. Instead of resisting the cognitive and ecclesiastical dissonance these textual revelations caused in a19th century worldview, Joseph Smith sought out the will of the Lord to help him synthesize them.  This led to his statement to the Relief Society that he “was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day.”


And, yes, Paul was not the only supporting figure mentioned by Joseph Smith in his call for a female nation of priests. He also called upon the fascinating and enigmatic figure of Enoch.

Joseph Smith’s designation of Enoch’s period as a time of female priests may be a little less clear cut than his allusion to the evidence laid out in Paul’s epistles. However, the scriptural personage of Enoch had special signification to Joseph Smith, thus it’s a weighty reference.

In 1830, within the first year of newly organized Mormon faith after the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith began his own revision of the Bible. Included in this “translation,” which was actually more of a revelation considering Joseph wasn’t working from the original texts or manuscripts at that time, was an expanded version of the story of Enoch, which is now included in the Book of Moses in the LDS Pearl of Great Price. Enoch was a figure Joseph came very much to relate with, using the code word/pseudonym of Enoch when trying to elude his enemies.[24] The account is one of the most affecting in the LDS canon, portraying an emotional, relatable God that can shed tears (to the astonishment of Enoch) and the establishment of a city that would become a central concept in Mormonism—the city of Zion.

It’s this concept of Zion that I believe caused Joseph to refer to Enoch in his reference to female ordination.  Enoch comes on the scene in the Old Testament in Genesis chapter 5, as the son of Jared and the father of Methuselah. In interrupting the genealogical sequence it was relating, the account takes some time with Enoch, telling us that he “walked with God” and then that “he was not; for God took him.” This sudden disappearance of Enoch in the Biblical account is expanded in Joseph Smith’s account of Enoch in Moses chapter 7. Instead of just Enoch disappearing as an individual, like Moses, it’s an entire community, the city of Zion, taken up into heaven because of their goodness. The basis of this worthiness is outlined in verse 18, “And I the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there were no poor among them.”

This Utopian ideal of Zion, of a truly equal society without any poor, comes up often in the revelations to Joseph Smith. A similar instance happens in the Book of Mormon, after Christ’s visit to the Nephites and Lamanites in the Americas after his resurrection. So affected by the things taught to them by Jesus, the entire society reforms from their previous divisions, prejudices, and conflicts, and create one, whole society:

And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all coverted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift…And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell among the hearts of the people. And there were no envying, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God. There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs of the kingdom of God. [25]

This sense of unified love, absent of social class or conflict between different groups of “-ites,” is pivotal to understanding the revelations that shaped Joseph Smith’s mind and heart in his understanding of Enoch’s Zion. In the revelation Joseph Smith received concerning the “Law of Consecration,” a system where social classes were erased and everyone was provided for according to their needs, special emphasis is placed in providing for the poor and needy, while avoiding ostentation in dress and manner:

And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me….for inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these, ye do it unto me. For it shall come to pass, that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel. And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands; and let all things be done in cleanliness before me. Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer. [26]  

Similiarly, King Benjamin gives one of the most moving speeches in the Book of Mormon, which culminates when he asks, “Are we not all beggars?” Later, he continues:

…O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance ye have one to another. And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth.[27]

 But how do these passages about compassion, non-judgment, and the decrying of social class and economic disparity relate to feminism and female ordination?  There is yet another Book of Mormon passage that I believe ties into these others very neatly:

For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.[28]

The phrase “all are alike unto God”…how far does that go? The above quotation seems to indicate that God doesn’t recognize a significant difference between those who practice different religions (including the Jew, the Gentile, and the heathen), neither race (black and white), neither social mobility or class (bond and free), nor, tellingly for this essay, gender (male and female). This ties directly into the Utopian ideal mentioned above in the quotation from 4th Nephi, “…neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs of the kingdom of God.” All these barriers and distinctions we build up around each other, and between each other, such human-made boundaries all dissolve in the face of our Eternal Father and Mother.  “Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another,” another revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants says. [29] In the eyes of God, we are all one:

For what man among you having twelve sons [and also, in this context, daughters], and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons [and daughters] and saith I am just?

Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.[30]

This is the essence of Zion. This is the balance that was achieved among Enoch and his people. And this is why Joseph Smith referenced Enoch in his allusions to female ordination. I believe he was saying that Zion cannot be established, we cannot be lifted up like Enoch and his city Zion was, until all such fences and definitions creating distance between us are abandoned…including our notions about men and women being so significantly distinct from each other. Yes, in some ways, physically we’re different, but that can be said of hair color or eye color or skin color. When it comes to the worth of our souls, to the contributions we give, to the opportunities we are given, to the responsibilities and obligations expected of all of us…all are alike unto God.

It is also important to note that in referencing Enoch, Joseph Smith brings the possibility of another correlation between the ancient prophet and Joseph Smith’s fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the concept of a Heavenly Mother.

The Book of Enoch, which was lost to the world for many centuries, except through scattered fragments (as well as a quotation in the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament, which shows that the New Testament Church took this book as scripture), was re-discovered in 1773 at Abyssinia. The Ethiopic manuscript was translated into English in its first edition in Europe by Richard Laurence in1821, and made widely available in America in 1838.[31] The manuscript of the Book of Enoch would have been unavailable to the American Joseph Smith, since the Book of Moses, in which Joseph Smith’s account of Enoch is contained, was dictated in 1831, seven years before Laurence’s translations was available in the U.S. However, although the two documents are very different, yet there are some striking similarities, thematically and otherwise, not only between the two texts, but between The Book of Enoch and Mormonism in general. Not the least of these similarities is the idea of a lost goddess worship.

The Book of Enoch references a figure known as Wisdom, also known as Ashera, names for the Hebrew goddess that was once worshipped along with Yahweh in Israel. This goddess worship was expunged from Jewish worship by the Deuteronimists and King Josiah in the 7th century BC. [32]One of the references to her in The Book of Enoch says:

 Wisdom found not a place on the earth where she could inhabit; her dwelling therefore is in heaven. Wisdom went forth to dwell among the sons of men, but she obtained not an inhabitation. Wisdom returned to her place, and seated herself in the midst of the angels. But iniquity went forth after her return, who unwilling found an habitation, and resided among them, as rain in the desert, and as dew in a thirsty land. [33]

Thus this Wisdom, this Wandering Woman, a goddess who was rejected, has a corollary in Mormon belief as well. Joseph Smith revealed the concept of a Heavenly Mother to some Mormon women in the 19th century:

Susa Young Gates told of Joseph Smith’s consoling Zina Diantha Huntington on the death of her mother in 1839 be telling her that not only would she know her mother again on the other side, but “More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.” Susa went onto say that Eliza Snow “learned the same glorious truth from the same inspired lips” and was then moved to put this in verse [the Mormon hymn “O My Father,”  originally titled “My Father in Heaven”, also “Invocation, or The Eternal Father and Mother”]. David McKay recorded that during a buggy ride on which he accompanied Eliza Snow, he asked her if the Lord had revealed the Mother in Heaven doctrine to her. She replied, “I got my inspiration from the Prophet’s teachings[;] all that I was required to do was use my Poetical gift and give that Eternal principle in Poetry.”[34]

Thus the inclusive ideas of gender in Joseph Smith’s theology weren’t just beginning to encompass Mormon ideas of priesthood, but also Mormon ideas of the nature God, just as the Book of Enoch had. When the creators of the universe in the book of Genesis in the Bible said that that they were going to create humankind “in our image, male and female,” Joseph Smith and the ancient writer of the Book of Enoch understood that literally. God was represented by both the male and female.

Although my own covenants that I have made prevent me from going into much detail about the LDS temple ceremony and ordinances, I think it safe to say that there are promises towards an exapanded role for women on earth and in the eternities. Although Joseph Smith often stated that he hadn’t been able to give to the Saints all that had been revealed to him because of their unbelief, yet in Mormon temples, whose holy ordinances and practitioners are considered an extension of the priesthood, Joseph Smith caused the priesthood rituals performed therein to be performed both upon men and women and by women and men. It is in that holy place that the closest approximation of what Joseph Smith was beginning to work into the Church is seen. Unfortunately, he was gunned down and martyred before he was able to give us the full benefit of his revelations.  



One of the most common justifications I have heard for withholding priesthood from women is something akin to this rationale: “Christ didn’t ordain women to the priesthood, he didn’t call any women apostles…we are just following the pattern he has set.” Although, I appreciate the impulse of the sincere believers in Christ who use this rationale, there are some flaws with it.

First, as I’ve already stated in this essay, the evidence is overwhelming that right after Christ’s resurrection, the leadership of the newly founded Christian Church did call women into the priesthood and into leadership within the ministry. So, unless one wants to argue that the apostles were in apostasy during this period for allowing this supposed heresy, and that Paul was out of line in recognizing female apostles and deacons in his epistles, then the argument falls flat.

Secondly, if we were to take this rationale to its logical extreme, we could also say that, yes, perhaps Christ didn’t ordain any women priesthood, but he also didn’t ordain any Gentile priesthood, or African priesthood, or South American priesthood, or Asian priesthood, or Aboriginal priesthood, or Polynesian priesthood, or a person of any other race or country or culture that we currently ordain in the Church. Everyone that Christ ordained to the priesthood was of Israelite descent.  

In fact, Christ in general didn’t even preach or minister to anyone not of the House of Israel (in which he included the Samaritans, as evidenced by his conversation with the Samaritan woman, and other instances), unless they showed him extraordinary faith and tenacity.  For example, we have this account in Matthew 15:22-28:

And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

When I first encountered this scripture as a young teen, the first time I read the Gospels in their entirety, I was both appalled and fascinated by this story. To see Christ giving a Gentile woman the silent treatment as she plaintively entreated him, only to see Jesus follow up that offense by calling her a “dog,” this was almost too much for me, coming from the perfect Son of God. But as I studied it more, the more it appeared that there was more to the story than was on its surface.  

It appeared possible to me that Jesus “tested” people, to show them the quality of their own faith (or the lack therein, as he sometimes proved with Peter and others). Thus by initially denying the woman’s request, with an offensive slur no less, it’s possible that he was testing her perseverance and the tenacity of her faith. When Christ said, ask and ye shall receive, he was speaking in plain and literal terms.

Either that, or this may have been one of those cases where Christ himself had to learn a lesson, where he learned grace for grace, line upon line, like the rest of us, or as the Gospel of Luke puts it, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature.” Whether that is the case or not, Jesus certainly reversed his offensive sayings to the Gentile woman, by commending the quality of her faith. In either case, whether it tells us about the way he tests us, or whether it tells us about the way he himself had to progress, this story deepens and complicates the nature of Christ and our understanding of him. 

In his statement, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” however, I think he spoke that with the utmost sincerity and conviction. The direction he had received from his Father was that he was to go to the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel. That was his specialized, personal mission, which was to have great effect. So in that mission, he also only called Israelites.

However, from those Israelites, he meant that mission to spread, and gave missions to others. As recorded in Luke 24:44-48:

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things (emphasis mine).

So Jerusalem was just the beginning, the initial mustard seed that would soon spread throughout the entire world. In that context, I believe it is also important to understand that, although Christ initially denied that Gentile woman, it was but an initial delay, not a refusal. A day would soon be upon her when she would not be denied any blessing of the Gospel, and if Paul’s epistles and references to a female priesthood are to be believed, she would not be denied any authority or responsibility within it either. She would join the Israelites, and she would also join her brothers in serving her God, by blessing, and by being blessed; by serving, and by being served; by sealing, and by being sealed. 

The early Church was not to remain as it was, Christ did not want it as it was. Christ said that “No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.”[35] And in the book of Revelation it says that the Revelator saw in vision, “…a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.”[36] The vision also showed that, “…God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”[37]

Thus in a society which saw a great change in their religion going forth unto the Gentiles, and unto the uncircumcised; where Peter saw a vision from God telling him to put away the old prejudices and distinctions, and a voice from heaven told him, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common;”[38] where women were being called apostles and deacons by Paul; where God was making a new heaven and a new earth…and yet then to hold upon the old, the traditions of the fathers, all that is in the process of passing away…that is akin to clinging to a sinking ship, while the Captain calls you to board the new one.

There were many in the Church, including James the Bishop of Jerusalem (and, initially, even Peter), who were reticent about the changes that were happening in the Church, and were deeply uncomfortable with Paul advocating an expanding priesthood and Church membership of Gentiles…but God eventually showed that “all are unlike unto God,” and “what God hath cleansed, call not thou common.”   

And yet I don’t think we even have to look to the post-Resurrection Christ to show his revolutionary attitude towards women. For examples, Doug Clark expounds upon the circumstances of Luke 13, when a woman calls upon the aid of Jesus:

The synagogue in Capernaum was about 20 meters wide and 40 meters long, and like the mosque, it was a man’s place. On the Sabbath it would be filled with men because Jesus the Teacher was there (Luke 13:10—17). He was going to expound the Word of God. Everyone expected to hear great and revolutionary things from this brilliant new authority on the Law. But as Jesus took the scroll of the Law and began to teach from it, all of a sudden, in the back of the room, He saw a woman who was bent over. For many years she had been a prisoner of an evil spirit that had bound her and kept her a cripple.

Jesus then did five things that are astonishing because what He did broke through the cultural mold of that day. First, He called this woman forward from the place of the women (the back of the room) to the place of the men (the front of the room). He interrupted the teaching of the Word of God–the most sacred time in Jewish life–to minister to a woman.

Second, Jesus broke culture by speaking to her. The Jewish writer Alfred Eidersheim wrote that there were rabbis who prayed every day: “I thank Thee, God, that I was not born a Gentile, a dog, or a woman”…

Jesus broke culture a third way: He laid hands on her. Eidersheim explains that in Jesus’ day some Pharisees were called “the black-and-blue Pharisees.” Why? Because they were so strict in their observance of the Law they would not even look at a woman. If they sensed that a woman was going to cross their path, they would close their eyes tightly and walk straight ahead. Sometimes they would smack into a wall or fall over an ox cart and receive their bruises. Here, in contrast to the example of the “black-and-blue Pharisees,” Jesus laid His hands on a woman.

Fourth, Jesus affirmed her worth in society. These men in the synagogue were probably thinking, What is she doing in here? What is He doing? He’s touching her. Look at what He’s doing in God’s holy place.

Jesus knew their hearts and said to them, “Don’t you loose your ox or donkey and take it to be watered on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:15). They all knew they broke the Sabbath by watering their animals. Jesus continued, “This woman is worth far more than any animal you have. This woman is not an animal; she is a ‘daughter of Abraham’ ” (Luke 13:16). By saying this, He restored her rightful position.[39]

This wasn’t the only instance where Jesus pushed against the gender norms of Jewish society at the time. The fact that he had female disciples at all was uncommon , and the mingling of the male and the female that happened under Jesus’ jurisdiction would have been absolutely controversial, which didn’t go unnoticed, even by his disciples.

For example, when the disciples come upon their leader speaking to the Woman of Samaria at the well, they reacted with more than a little shock, “And upon this came his disciples, and marvelled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?”[40] Even the Samaritan woman herself was startled to have this Jewish rabbi speak to her, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?”[41] She brings up two reasons why Jesus wouldn’t want to talk with her, she was a Samaritan, and she was a woman.

Yet Jesus continues in this vein throughout his ministry. Women are constantly mentioned to be in his company, even apparently intimate friends as he was with Mary and Martha of Bethany (John 11:5 reads “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus”). There is even mention of some women who are of ill repute (at least in the eyes of the self righteous who are judging them) being among Jesus’ friends and disciples, which shocked many onlookers. Female disciples are noted throughout the Gospels, when women were not allowed to be disciples or students under a rabbi. Just in this context alone, Christ is taking a defiant stand against the traditional gender roles of his time.

And in these records these women have names, they have relationships and personalities and families. They are not the faceless, identity-less groups of women which we may find, for example, in the accounts of the very gender conscious (or rather, unconscious) Nephites in the Book of Mormon (the Lamanites, on the other hand, who Jacobs commends for the treatment of the their women, had no qualms mentioning Abish in a prophetic, missionary oriented role, or commending the spiritual gifts of their queen, Lamoni’s wife). Under Christ’s leadership and under Christ’s care, women found themselves on a more equal footing than they had been before. They see progress in their station in life. 

In my LDS faith community, there has been much ado about a statistic that Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell gathered in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. The Study that 90% of Mormon women oppose female ordination, while 48% of Mormon men approved of female ordination.[42] However, a Pew Research Center Study concerning female ordination put the number of Mormon men against female ordination up to 84% ,[43] showing a huge discrepancy between the two studies (although the 90% of Mormon women opposing ordination remains the same in both studies).  Christ would have faced even more stringent opposition to his gender bending among traditional Jews in the context of his society, among the women as well as among the men.

One such example of this sort of opposition initially came from Martha of Bethany, who otherwise was supportive of Christ’s cause, albeit in a traditional way (again, John 11:5 says that Jesus “loved” Martha, Mary, and Lazarus). Yet when Martha sees her sister Mary at the feet of Jesus, having him teach her, that was a huge taboo (see http://department.monm.edu/classics/Speel_Festschrift/vandewater.htm). The fact that she was sitting at his feet—traditionally, the stance of a student or disciple, which women were barred from—learning from Jesus as if she were a man who could claim that privilege, this was outrageous. Martha then called upon her sister Mary to help in what Martha deemed to be their proper role…serving the men.

Christ’s kind, but unyielding support of Mary’s choice, to engage in theology instead of housework in that moment, is instructive as to how Jesus viewed the female’s right to engage in the work and word of God, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” [44]

Jesus told Martha that the dishes could wait. And we all know that Jesus wasn’t above helping with the dishes himself later, stating elsewhere that the greatest among us is willing to be a servant. Rather, he seemed to be saying that there are things that are more needful in certain moments. He said that what Mary wanted to learn at the feet of Jesus was more important than keeping up the appearances of gender roles. So even if 90% of Mormon Martha’s clamor against the 10% of Mormon Mary’s that want an expanded role in the kingdom of God, it appears clear to me Jesus would want the Relief Society to come out of the Church kitchen and join the men in the chapel in learning of the teachings and responsibilities of the things of God.

But I know that some will argue that Jesus expanding women’s roles in some areas does not necessarily constitute a support of female ordination in his lifetime. However, there are some other tantalizing hints about his feelings about women joining the “kingdom of priests.”

There is an event recorded in all four Gospels[45] that has far reaching implications regarding the subject of female priests. In Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper (perhaps one of the lepers that Jesus healed, thus the celebration?), there was a dinner being held in Jesus’ honor. Martha (in her typical way) was serving the meal, while Jesus was reclined at the table. However, all four Gospels tell us that a woman came in (the Gospel of John identifies her as Mary) and anointed Christ with an expensive perfume (some accounts say his head, some say wiping his feet with her hair…I tend to believe that it was all of the above).

While those present argued with Jesus over the propriety of having a supposedly sinful woman (only Luke makes this accusation, likely an unfounded one since none of the others mention any disrepute being attached to her, or perhaps the familiarity she took, as well as her independent nature caused some of the disciples to pass this judgment) touch him in such an intimate manner (Jesus is once again rejecting the traditionally Jewish prohibition of men allowing women to touch them), as well as the cost of the perfume, which Judas argued the money could have been used for the poor. Rather, I think there is something even more important happening here. Christ says to “leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”

That word “intended” implies Christ’s foreknowledge of this event…perhaps he was even the one who instructed Mary to perform this ordinance. And an ordinance it does seem to be, a priesthood ordinance. The word Christ, or Christós in the Greek, translated from the Hebrew Māšîaḥ (or Messiah, in English), literally translates to “anointed.” There is nowhere else in the New Testament that shows Christ being “anointed” other than this very vital moment with Mary. Very few moments in Christ’s life are included in all four Gospels, but this is one of them. So it seems that Christ, the Anointed, derives his very title from this act performed upon him by a woman. Thus how could this anointing have any significance, so much significance that we have incorporated it into the very name of Jesus the Christ, if it was not performed by the power of God, the priesthood of God?

In early Roman Catholic tradition, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are the same person. In the Gospel of John, we only hear of Mary Magdalene after Mary of Bethany drops from the narrative. Except for a reference to Mary Magdalene being part of the entourage of Christ and being healed of seven devils, there is no mention of Mary Magdalene until the crucifixion and resurrection, just as there are no references to Mary of Bethany during the crucifixion and the reusrrection. Nowhere in the Gospels are these two supposedly separate Mary’s seen together in the same place, and often where one drops off, the other picks up. Thus, if the original Catholic tradition is right, and these two women by the name of Mary are, in fact, the same woman, then why the separate titles?

While some have interpreted Mary Magdalene to mean “Mary from Magdala,” I have read it disputed in several places[46] that Magdala was even a place in Jesus day, rather more accurately translating the place mentioned in Matthew 15:39 as Magadan. Nowhere in the Gospels does it ever directly say that Mary was from Magdala, or Magadan, but rather simply calls her Mary Magdalene, in the same way that the Bible refers to one of the apostles as Simon Peter. In fact, Luke 8:2 says that she was “called Magdalene.”

In the Book of Revelation, there are two references to those who are to overcome world receiving a “new name”. In chapter 2: 17 it says: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written…” And then in 3:12, it says, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”

Thus, in the Christian tradition (and more specifically in Mormon belief, in our temple worship), there is particular significance is receiving a new name as a sign of a new spiritual life. This re-naming of Christ’s most trusted apostles happens in a few instances in the Bible. As stated before, Simon is re-named Peter, translated from Petras, the rock. The brothers James and John, are re-named Boanerges, which translates into the Sons of Thunder. Saul is re-named Paul, which translates from the Greek into humble. And all of these figures, who are given special significance in the New Testament, also receive very special visions. Peter, James, and John see Moses, Elias and Elijah bestow authority upon Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. Paul is given a vision of the resurrected Christ in the Book of Acts. All of these special figures were given new names and given glorious visitations.

And if they are indeed the same person, thus it was so with Mary of Bethany/Mary Magdalene. After the many commendations that Mary of Bethany received, and her prophetic (and prophesied of) anointing of Christ, it appears to me that she received a new name, Magdalene (remember, Luke says that she was “called Magdalene” not that she was from Magdala). Magdalene translates from the Hebrew Migdal, meaning tower or fortress, and from the Aramaic Magdala, meaning “elevated, great, magnificent.”[47]

The significance of this name is not lost on those who want to connect Mary Magdalene to a female priesthood. Several apocryphal traditions show Mary Magdalene being thus so “elevated,” receiving a special place in Christ’s church. Some sources claim that she had received special, hidden knowledge that had been kept back even from the apostles, thus causing conflict between her and the other apostles. Of course, this preference shown to Mary begins after she was one of the few who was brave enough to support Christ by being present when he was on the cross, when so many others of the apostles had fled, and thus Christ appeared to her first, before any of the other followers of Jesus:

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not [the better translation is the more intimate “hold me not”] ; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.[48]

Even when Mary, and the other women he appeared to after her, are sent by Jesus to declare the resurrection to the apostles in Luke 24:10-11, the apostles treated the women contemptuously with a seemingly misogynist attitude, reflecting the attitude towards the words of woman in their culture, “It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.”

In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, found in the great discovery that is the Nag Hammadi Library, there is similar attitude displayed by Peter when Mary presents him with knowledge that he had not been privy to:

“Did He really speak with a woman without our knowledge (and) not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?”

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour?” Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been hot – tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as He commanded us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said.” … and they began to go forth [to] proclaim and to preach.[49]

Now considering that this is from a Gnostic, apocryphal source, there are a lot questions regarding the text and its authenticity. But I think that the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants section 91 is helpful when Mormons deal with apocryphal texts:

 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.

Saint Augustine called Mary the “Apostle to the Apostles,” which is very literally true when the literal linguistic context of the word is brought to the fore. The word “apostle” derives from the Greek word apostolos, which translates to “one who is sent.” Thus, whether or not one accepts that Mary Magdalene had the priesthood office of an apostle, she was indeed the first person to become a special witness of Christ’s resurrection, and she was the first “one who was sent” to declare that resurrection, to the very apostles themselves. Their initial rejection of her witness and testimony showed that they were not initially prepared for such a female apostle and had yet many changes to make before they could fully accept the new wine the Lord wanted them partake of and the new garment he wanted them to put on. Will the same be said of us?

The timing of Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the Gospels is also interesting, coming as it does right after Judas’s suicide. Due to the suicide, there was a vacancy in the quorum. Although Matthias was called in Judas’s place in the first chapter of Acts by the casting of lots, it’s interesting to wonder if his visitation to Mary and his call to her to proclaim her revelation was his own indication of her calling, if the others of the apostles had been willing to accept her testimony. Again, he had called the original 12 himself, and appeared to Paul in his resurrected form later (not being a member of the 12, but rather an “apostle to the Gentiles), thus a personal visitation of the sort that Mary received, in relation to a high calling, seems appropriate to the pattern.

The Lord has a way of offering a blessing, but allowing us to reject it. It is telling that after the resurrection, there is absolutely no mention in the New Testament of Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany. Nothing is said of either of those variations of Mary in the Book of Acts, or any of the epistles of Paul, Peter, John or James. Could this be that, because of their initial rejection of Mary’s testimony, she was brought away from them? There are different traditions about what happened to her.[50]  One tradition says that she went to Ephesus. Another says that she was sent to Europe, landing in France with Lazarus, Martha, Salome, Maximin, and Joseph of Arimathea. One has her as a prophetess in a cave, receiving revelations, but separated from a corrupt society (which brings to mind Ether in the Book of Mormon, beholding the downfall of his people from his high perch in a cave). Or perhaps like Enoch and his city of Zion, is it possible that she was brought to Heaven to live with her Lord, whom she had anointed? In whatever context she could be placed, she had been made separate from those who had initially rejected her, a holy Wandering Woman.



Thus, I believe we have a challenge put before us, Mormons, Catholics, and other Christians alike. Is the female “kingdom of priests—as in Enoch’s day, as in Paul’s day,” that Joseph Smith refers to—and possibly even in Christ’s day, as the New Testament seems to allude to—will it be too much for us to accept? No revelation will be forced upon us as a culture. It must be a matter of “ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Are we tied to the traditions of our fathers so much that we can’t fathom the “new earth” that Christ wanted to give us, where all are alike unto God, “male and female”?

[2] LDS Women of God, http://www.ldswomenofgod.com/?p=1013, July 10, 2009 (accessed October 15, 2013).

[3] Not only Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages, but also his polyandrous marriages, as well as the New Testament bestowal from Christ to Peter, “Whatsoever ye shall seal on earth, shall be sealed in heaven,” all make me wonder if we truly understand the sealing power, even today. We strive to defend traditional marriage so vehemently in the Church, yet Joseph seemed to be overthrowing the entire concept (at least as an earthly institution) and replacing it with revelations about the sealing power. How far did this sealing power extend? Is it related item for item to what we consider as marriage, or does it go beyond those boundaries? When Christ says that in Matthew 22:30 that in the resurrection we neither marry, nor are given in marriage, yet then also says in Mark 10:8 that men and women, although “ twain” (separated) yet “shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh,” is he referring to a completely different process than what we call “marriage”? Those are obviously very complicated questions, with no easy answers. To address them adequately in this essay would derail the topic at hand, but it’s a question I may explore further in the future.      

[4] Alvin’s son, my great-grandfather and namesake, Mahonri Alma Stewart was born in Utah in 1861. Thus, if Alvin Franklin Stewart had stayed and died at the hands at the same mob that killed Joseph, yes, I literally would not be here (at least not in my current body and form).

[5] John Taylor, and Willard Richards were with Joseph and Hyrum Smith when they died. Taylor and Richards survived, Taylor just barely with grave wounds, and Willard miraculously (and through a fulfilled prophesy) just got a nick under his ear.

[6] John 6:67-68

[7] P. 91, Vintage Books, New York, 1960

[8] “Come, Join With Us,” October Conference 2013,  http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng (accessed October 15, 2013).

[9] Ibid.

[10] I have had read intriguing theories that interpret Paul’s sexist comments in the New Testament to be later interpolations to counter his otherwise revealing allusions to female leaders. I don’t know how sturdy the evidence is for this, but it’s a theory I’m willing to investigate. 

[11] [Emma Smith interview], The Saints’ Herald, vol. 26, pp. 289, 290 [October 1, 1879].

[12] Glen W. Chapman, “Joseph Smith was a Highly Intelligent Person,” http://chapmanresearch.org/PDF/Joseph%20Smith%20a%20Highly%20Intelligent%20Person.pdf (Accessed October 15, 2013).

[13] The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 1, 1832-1839, The Church Historian’s Press, Salt Lake City, 2008, p. 186

[14] See V.K. McCarty’s “Phoebe as an Example of Female Authority Exercised in the Early Church,” The Sophia Institute, Third Annual Conference, December 3, 2010, http://www.academia.edu/1132713/_Phoebe_as_an_Example_of_Female_Authority_Exercised_in_the_Early_Church_by_VK_McCarty  (accessed October 15, 2013).

[16] “Phoebe as an Example of Female Authority in the Early Church,” p. 5.

[17] Reverend Kathryn J. Riss, “Women’s Ministries in the Early Church,” God’s Word to Woman, http://www.godswordtowomen.org/rissjunia.htm (accessed October 15, 2013).

[18] Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests, Harper San Franciso/Harper Collins, 1995, p. 33

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p. 128.

[22] Ibid, p. 32.

[23] Galatians 3:28, emphasis mine.

[24] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Vintage Books/Random House, New York, p. 139

[25] 4 Nephi 1: 2-3, 15-17

[26] Doctrine and Covenants 42: 31, 38-42

[27] Mosiah 4:19, 21-22

[28] 2 Nephi 26:33

[29] Doctrine and Covenants 136:23

[30] Doctrine and Covenants 38:26-27

[31] Charles Gill, Introduction to Ricard Laurence’s translation of The Book of Enoch; Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co., 1883; p. vi-viii

[32] See many of the brilliant books and essays by noted Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker, who is a Methodist, to learn more about this fascinating topic.

[33] Richard Laurence [translator], The Book of Enoch, p.49.

[34] Linda P. Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven”; included in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminsim [edited by Maxine Hanks]; Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1992; p. 5.  

[35] Mark 2:22

[36] Revelation 21:1

[37] Revelation 21:4-5

[38] Acts 10:15

[39] “Jesus and Women,” Enrichment Journal, http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200102/024_jesus_and_women.cfm (accessed November 1, 2013).

[40] John 4:27

[41] John 4:9

[42] Grant Hardy, “Why Do Mormon Men Want Women to Have the Priesthood More Than Women Want it for Themselves,” Beliefnet/Flunking Sainthood,  http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2010/12/why-do-mormon-men-want-women-to-have-the-priesthood-more-than-women-want-it-for-themselves.html (accessed November 15, 2013).

[43] Michael Lipka, “Big Majority of Women (Including Women) Oppose Women in the Priesthood,” Pew Research Center, October 8, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/08/big-majority-of-mormons-oppose-women-in-priesthood-including-women/  (accessed November 15, 2013).

[44] Luke 10:41

[45] Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12: 1-8

[48] John 20: 11-17

[49] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/mary.html

[50] This collects a few of the traditions, which can also be found in various other sources:  http://www.fairhavenspress.com/what-happened-to-mary

7 thoughts on “A Kingdom of Priests: A Support for Female Ordination”

  1. Thanks for this heart-felt and well-researched piece, Mahonri. You brought up a lot of interesting points I hadn’t considered before. I’m not sure about your conclusion, however. It seems that you’re supporting the group Ordain Women, but you’re not explicit about whether that’s the case or why it’s the case (if it is). I think that ambiguity might represent an assumption on your part that we have only two options: change nothing or embrace the approach of Ordain Women.

    I don’t think it’s the case that we only have two options, and I’ll explain why in a follow up post of my own. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Sure, I think there are more options. For one, the idea of a male priesthood and a female priesthood is one that has been bandied about, and for a lot of people, I can see how that would make sense. However, in the instances in the New Testament where women are mentioned in connection to the priesthood, the offices are not feminized, as we are sometimes wont to do. Phoebe is called a deacon, rather than a deaconess. Phoebe is called an apostle, rather than an apostle-ess (that is SO not a word, my spell check is telling me). There does not seem to be separate office according to gender (although prophetess is used liberally in the Old Testament and New Testament, I suppose). For them moment, I’m personally unconvinced for that track of thought, however, although I was once leaning in that direction.

    I don’t discount well supported hypotheses, so I’m open. But from my understanding of my research into the scriptures and Church History, the Ordain Women movement certainly does sit well with me, at least in theory. Whether they always take the proper course of action in their approach, who knows? But they’re doing their best to live up to their consciences, so I commend them and support their efforts.

  3. A quick comment on Junia. I used to point to Rom. 16:7 as possible evidence for female apostleship (and it still may be) until I read Burer and Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7,” New Testament Studies 47 (2001). A better translation would be that Junia and Andronicus were “well known” or “famous” among the apostles. The NET commentary sums it up nicely:

    “The term ἐπίσημος (epishmo”) is used either in an implied comparative sense (“prominent, outstanding”) or in an elative sense (“famous, well known”). The key to determining the meaning of the term in any given passage is both the general context and the specific collocation of this word with its adjuncts. When a comparative notion is seen, that to which ἐπίσημος is compared is frequently, if not usually, put in the genitive case (cf., e.g., 3 Macc 6:1 [Ελεαζαρος δέ τις ἀνὴρ ἐπίσημος τῶν ἀπὸ τής χώρας ἱερέων “Eleazar, a man prominent among the priests of the country”]; cf. also Pss. Sol. 17:30). When, however, an elative notion is found, ἐν (en) plus a personal plural dative is not uncommon (cf. Pss. Sol. 2:6). Although ἐν plus a personal dative does not indicate agency, in collocation with words of perception, (ἐν plus) dative personal nouns are often used to show the recipients. In this instance, the idea would then be “well known to the apostles.”

    It also has an excellent summary of Rom. 16:1 for Phoebe:

    “It is debated whether διάκονος (diakonos) here refers to a specific office within the church. One contextual argument used to support this view is that Phoebe is associated with a particular church, Cenchrea, and as such would therefore be a deacon of that church. In the NT some who are called διάκονος are related to a particular church, yet the scholarly consensus is that such individuals are not deacons, but “servants” or “ministers” (other viable translations for διάκονος). For example, Epaphras is associated with the church in Colossians and is called a διάκονος in Col 1:7, but no contemporary translation regards him as a deacon. In 1 Tim 4:6 Paul calls Timothy a διάκονος; Timothy was associated with the church in Ephesus, but he obviously was not a deacon. In addition, the lexical evidence leans away from this view: Within the NT, the διακον- word group rarely functions with a technical nuance. In any case, the evidence is not compelling either way. The view accepted in the translation above is that Phoebe was a servant of the church, not a deaconess, although this conclusion should be regarded as tentative.”

    Phoebe was obviously a minister of some sort for a local church and I’m inclined to see it as an office, largely due to the use of “prostatis” in 16:2 (the KJV renders this “succourer”). As April DeConick points out in her book ‘Holy Misogyny’, the word “has a long history in Greek literature, meaning literally, “one who stands before.” Its most general use is to indicate the president, ruler, chief, leader or patron of a group” (pg. 65). It is also used in other NT epistles to describe church leaders.

  4. Interesting enough, the fact that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection has actually been used as evidence for the empty tomb of Jesus. It is highly improbable that the writers would want to use fake female testimonies in a 1st-century Jewish context.

    And I strongly recommend April D. DeConick (Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University), ‘Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter’ (Continuum, 2011).

  5. While serving as a fulltime missionary for the LDS church, I found myself morning after morning scouring my scriptures during personal study time seeking authority for what I was doing. I knew the work I was doing was of equal power, and sometimes straight up better quality than the ordained Elders who I served along with. I knew I had been called and set apart for the work, and I knew by the pain I felt in breaking my heart daily in the work that I had been called to it by God. So I read my quad front to back, and back again, and attempted to spend some time with the stories of every woman I came across.
    I saw women portrayed in every possible light. I saw the faithless daughters of Lot, and the victimized daughter of Jeptha. I saw the courage of Ruth and Rahab, and the sorrows of Rachel and Mary. I saw Israel poetized variously into queen, bride, harlot, virgin, wife, daughter, and mother—she is forsaken, rescued, chopped in pieces, raped, betrothed, and wooed. The sexual metaphors go on and on to describe the intimate relationship the Lord has with his church, and varying levels with which they return his love. I vividly remember, early on in my mission, readying what has become for me the most important female voice in the scriptures. Unsurprisingly, she appears in that sacred text, Moses 7:

    “48 And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?
    49 And when Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept, and cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth?”
    This was it. Here was the voice I had been looking for. Mother Earth—mother of all things living on the earth—this was my voice, and so many exhausted women, who sought only peace on earth and good will for men (and women). Here is the voice of a Heavenly Mother who had poured all of her creative power into creating a world to the point that she was now within it. Like a woman in the agony of the birthing process, she seeks only to rest, to have it over. To be free and clean again. Here is the voice of Heavenly Mothers—speaking from the depths of her creative pain—driving Enoch to tears before the Lord. Enoch adds his voice to hers, “When will she rest?”
    She will rest, but not until heaven and earth (father and mother, Israel and Jehovah, terrestrial and celestial) are united again. Not until the great work of redemption is finished. Perhaps this is why we cannot hear her voice as clearly as our Heavenly Father’s. While he speaks to us from outside and above, her voice is within us, and we are within her. Hers is the voice of every wave that crashes and bird that sings. Her power warms the earth under our feet, and keeps our bodies moving in rhythmus as we circle the sun from day to day and year to year. She is ever busy, moving the cycles of life, death, and regeneration forward across the earth.
    It is impossible to imagine this woman, this eternal mother, without the power that makes God God. The power of the priesthood, according to our current narrow definition, is the authority to act in God’s name. For man (us) to serve as He (and She) would serve. From what I know of mothers and fathers, when it comes to healing the sick, yes, father is there to lovingly speak words of comfort, while mother is getting you a bowl to lose your lunch in and making up just the right medicine. She might even start making your favorite soup for when you are feeling a bit better. Mothers and Fathers are different. I love them both. I need them both.
    That said, it would be truly lovely to bless and pass the sacrament. I would love to serve my brothers and sisters the Lord’s Supper and to commune with them through that service. It would be absolutely terrifying to be a bishop, but hell if I wouldn’t be a damn good one. The women of this church, particularly those is leadership roles, seem to be far more interested in modeling the strong and devoted Martha than the passionate and devoted Mary. As for me, I want to sit at the feet of Christ and commune and I want to wash dishes with him after. I want to sit at Mary’s feet, even, and hear her special witness.
    In God’s house I have had hands laid upon me and been endowed with power from on high. I am a priestess in the Kingdom of God in a way that no other organization on earth can offer me. There are those in this church, leaders and sisters included, who do not yet recognize the power I (they too) have been given, and so I am thus far excluded (excused?) from using the administrative aspects of my power. That’s ok. Someday that might change. That’s ok too. For now I will do all I can to be an instrument in the hands of God, to witness for his name, and to respect my Heavenly Mother—especially in her earthly form, Earth herself. And I will be unafraid to tell anyone who cares to hear it my feelings on the subject.

  6. When Joseph Smith wrote that the Relief Society was to “move according to the ancient Priesthood,” it seems he probably meant that it would be directed in accordanced with Priesthood governance. In this sense, it does “move according to that Ancient Priesthood” today, as does the Sunday School, Primary, and other organizations.
    Further, when he allegedly stated he was going to “make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day…” his meaning is unclear. He did not say “priestesses,” he said “priests.” Perhaps this is a reference to women’s roles in the Temple as ordinance workers? Its meaning is opaque, since he used the male form of the word “priest.”
    Viewed in an unbiased manner, Smith’s meaning in this single statement is unclear. It seems best to resort to the scriptures for a resolution.
    I’ll acknowledge that there are a few scattered quotes that arguably indicate that Joseph Smith may have considered women’s roles in the Temple to be a Priesthood of its own. But nothing in the historical record gives any kind of unequivicable statement that men and women were to baptize or otherwise perform a role identical to men.
    The scriptures themselves are far more dispositive. The JST to First Corinthians 14:35(KJV), Joseph Smith states that Paul wrote “it is a shame for women to rule in the church.”
    D&C 20 uses, dozens of times, exclusively male pronouns and other masculine words to refer to priesthood offices. It contains no mention of ordaining women to the priesthood.
    The oath and covenant of the priesthood, in D&C 84, states: ““They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham…” There is no mention of daughters.
    On balance, whoever much we may want it to be otherwise, there is no unequivicable historical evidence providing support for female ordination, but much evidence against it.

  7. TLM,

    I appreciate your comments. Obviously, I don’t agree with them, as my essay more than makes clear. There’s no reason to genderize the words “priest,” “deacon,” etc. as there is no reason to gender the words in the first place. For example, when Phoebe is called a Deacon, Paul doesn’t bother trying to make the word deaconess, just as (as you rightly point out) Joseph Smith doesn’t gender the word priest in the context of his comments to the Relief Society.
    The JST was put down in the 1830s, Joseph’s comments to the Relief Society was in the 1840s. There’s a whole decade in there where A LOT of Joseph Smith’s thinking and revelations progressed.
    As to the oath and covenant, there’s a lot of times in the scriptures where it refers exclusively to men, including in regards to salvation. Are you telling me that we should translate all of those scriptures exclusively to men? Now THAT’s a slippery slope.
    There is much more scriptural and historical support for female ordination, than many of the other doctrines revealed to Joseph Smith. I know you’re far from convinced, but I wouldn’t have included the information I have if I hadn’t found it persuasive. I think there is a much stronger case for it than you give it credit for. For example, I find nothing unclear about Joseph’s statement (and the examples he gives), and the fact that it made it both into the temple endowment and the second anointing makes it pretty explicit to me the direction he was headed for. But, again, you’ve read the essay, so know my mind on that matter.

Comments are closed.