Q&A on Mormon Priesthood (Part 1)

Q&A on Mormon Priesthood (Part 1) March 28, 2012

As a follow-up to Michael Haycock’s clarification of what it means to be a Mormon priest or bishop, I did a two-part Q&A about Mormon theology, hierarchy, and culture. My questions are in bold, his answers follow, and he has no culpability for my choice of pictures.

Q: Why is the Melchizedek Priesthood reserved to men? Are there any roles reserved to women?

Hoo boy. The first question is a loaded one, because it cuts to the quick of the issue of Mormonism and gender, on which you might be able to adapt the Jewish adage to Mormons: two Mormons, three opinions. Some will say it’s a relic of 19th Century social normativity further reinforced by the post-WWII culture; some will say it’s divinely inspired and tailored to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the respective sexes; some will say women are so spiritually inclined that they don’t need leadership positions to teach them how to be that way.

Me? I’d say I don’t know. Maybe it will change in the future, but I won’t pretend to have foreknowledge.

The official LDS Church response to the second question would be (and has been) “Of course!” While that is technically true, it needs some qualification.

Women can be called to many positions, from teaching to family history consultant to Cubmaster (Cub Scouts leader). However, there are many positions exclusively reserved for men (including some that are a little baffling) and those that are exclusively reserved for women are mostly either 1) overseeing fellow females or 2) seemingly based on stereotypical gender roles and perceptions. Included in these are positions in the Relief Society, the organization that incorporates the women of the LDS Church; Young Women, which serves girls ages 12-18 (and mirrored by its male counterpart organization, Young Men); and Primary, the organization that cares for children in the church. In the past, many of these organizations had a huge degree of autonomy: they had their own budgets and regional bulletins, and generally ran genuinely parallel to the male hierarchy.

However, as the LDS Church began to greatly expand outside of the American Mountain West in the 1950s and 60s, the patchwork organization of the Church, many times based on neighborliness and kinship, was deemed no longer robust enough to maintain international unity. In a long process known as Correlation, Church curricula were standardized, the ecclesiastical hierarchy clarified and streamlined, and the women’s organizations were brought under greater direct Priesthood (read: male) supervision and direction, among other sundry things, reducing ecclesiastical autonomy for women.

That said, oftentimes the woman-specific positions are incredibly influential, although your mileage may vary based on the degree of traditionalism in the local leadership that oversees these positions. In my home ward, for example, the Relief Society president is delegated most of the responsibility for administering welfare funds. So yes, there is some position for women to influence the Church. Many are satisfied with that. Many are not.


(best picture that turned up when I googled ‘bar mitzvah’)

Q: Why do you think the Mormon church labels the open-to-all-men category as a ‘priesthood?’ What makes it different from other growing-older-and-affirming-commitment transitions like confirmation in the Catholic Church and bar/bat mitzvahs?

Historians would probably say that it’s a radical outgrowth of the Protestant “priesthood of all believers” conception. However, having grown up Mormon, I don’t see why the category of “priesthood” would depend on it being an exclusionary group (and I would love to hear how you got that perception). One of the ideas is that God disperses His power so that it can be shared as widely as possible. And since all men are given that authority to be priests – to act, in some degree, in God’s place – the terminology comes with it. Another LDS conception is that God wanted to make ancient Israel a “nation of priests and kings” and could not; with the LDS Church, he’s preparing us to fulfill that postponed divine desire.

I also have to admit that I’m not sure exactly what significance confirmation and bar/bat mitzvahs have in their respective traditions. Perhaps the biggest difference is that such transitions in the LDS faith are not usually celebrated. They generally pass quietly; one Sunday, a 12-year-old boy is interviewed, and the next, he is ordained, ready to participate in the officiation of the Sacrament (LDS version of communion/Eucharist, basically). It’s supposed to be a time of added responsibility (that’s when boys and girls can first receive callings to preside over their peer age groups), but the sometimes the biggest shift is that they start going to the classroom of another age group.

In fact, I think LDS baptism would be the closest to those. For children, even if they’ve been raised LDS, the earliest they can get baptized is age eight. Since a baptism doesn’t fit into the regular Sunday meeting schedule (as do Priesthood ordinations, for example) and instead get its own service, there’s more attention given to them. And even though LDS children are listed in church records from birth, it’s when they’re baptized that they’re actually considered full members, accountable for their sins.

(Mormons don’t do this)

Q: What determines whether an eight-year-old is ready to accept baptism? From discussions of posthumous baptism, I thought baptism in LDS is mainly a prerequisite to everything else not something that necessarily changes you in and of itself. Why not baptize infants?

An eight-year-old receives an interview with her bishop in which he ascertains that her beliefs, commitments, and understanding of baptism are appropriate; children are instructed to prepare for this time as much as they can. If the bishop deems the child unprepared, the baptism could be postponed. In some cases – especially in cases of severe mental disability – baptism is actually regarded as unnecessary because the person, not having a consciousness of right or wrong (and thus free of sin) or a comprehension of the significance of baptism, is regarded as not needing the forgiveness made possible by adherence to the covenants made at baptism.

The thought concerning baptism for the dead is a tad different in that respect from baptism for the living. Because of the impossibility of getting consent from the deceased, we cannot assume they’ve given it; it is thus seen as something that can been rejected (leaving it as if it had never been performed). There might be people, though, who would consent, and for them, it’s necessary that the ordinance be performed in the flesh, with a living body (hence, by living proxies – and here again we get the importance of the material body!). The idea of the baptism’s efficaciousness being contingent on consent is constant, but practicality rules out the possibility of ascertaining consent in the case of the dead (we don’t hold seances, after all). In fact, in the cases in which we know that the dead died under the age of eight, there are actually no baptisms performed or their behalf.

For other questions on infant baptism, I’d refer you to Moroni 8 in the Book of Mormon. On baptism for the dead, Joseph Smith’s words on the subject are in Doctrine and Covenants 128.


Part two of our Q&A is now up!

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  • Nice answer to the second question. I think we can explain why only some people are priests anthropologically (I’m hesitant to send folks to Pascal Boyer, but he’s the only one I know of who’s given an explanation–maybe others can make better recommendations) but I don’t know about a theological explanation. Certainly the practice is nearly ubiquitous, but that may not say anything at all about its defensibility. (The only other example I can think of in which ritual and doctrine are not part of a specialized vocation are among the Dene First Nations people, who have no specific shaman or, at least, do not rely on that shaman exclusively for spiritual guidance, since all Dene have–or had, before dramatic demographic changes in the last few centuries–shamanic abilities and/or responsibilities. Citation: a lecture by Professor Shelley Rabinovitch at Queen’s University.)

    Anyway, this is an interesting topic: why is priestcraft, as Boyer calls it, specialized? What happens when it isn’t?

  • So, theoretically speaking, could living consenting people also have their baptism done by proxy?

    I’m asking from curiosity, not to make it seam strange. As for the strangeness I might note that we living Catholics can marry by proxy, CIC Can. 1105. It doesn’t become sacramental until consummated though, and that obviously can’t happen by proxy.

  • ChristianH: Funny that the man you cite uses the word “priestcraft”! In the LDS context, that has a very particular meaning (originating, I believe, mostly in the Book of Mormon): the practice of false religious leadership used for one’s own material or reputational gain.

    Gilbert: The answer would be no, Mormons do not believe in baptizing living people by proxy. In fact, in order to avoid any misunderstandings, it is LDS policy to require permission from surviving family members for proxy baptisms for anyone who has died within the past 95 years. However, Mormons can perform baptisms for any deceased direct ancestors. For example, I have an LDS friend whose family is ethnically Jewish; thus, despite the prohibition on performing baptisms on behalf of Holocaust victims, his family has baptized their ancestors that died during that time.

    • I wouldn’t put it past Boyer to use the phrase priestcraft knowing that meaning full well. In his context,without that knowledge, such a phrase still has an aura of falseness to it. Boyer’s book (the one I read) is called Religion Explained and is written from an atheist anthropological (rather than secular anthropological) perspective. Dawkins quotes him from time to time. His book is professional, though, and well-researched (unlike Dawkins, then). He has incredible difficulty connecting the stuff he does the most work on–“simple” religions built out of obvious neurological processes–to the complex, deeply historical monotheistic (or atheist!) religions we encounter today, like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. (I throw quotation marks around “simple” because I think it’s misleading, but I couldn’t think of another word.) But I think it’s informative if you are willing and able to push critically at his connections.

  • Jerevangalical

    We are having a difficult time with mormons down here in Texas. Can you explain what exactly you mean (using scripture) “God wanted to make ancient Israel a ‘nation of priests and kings’ but could not.” I have read the Old Testament backwards and forwards, God didn’t want them to have priests OR kings. HE warned them repeatedly against this sin. AND carried out HISjustice on the tribes if Israel. Also what do you mean “but could not?’ Thanks!

    • JohnH

      Jerevangalical: Exodus 19:5-6 for the Lord wanting to make Israel a nation of priests (see also 1 Peter 2:9). Also, Numbers 11:29. There are a few more similar scriptures in the Old Testament.
      As for could not, see for instance Exodus 32.

      • Priests != Kings

        • JohnH

          You really are fairly Ubiquitous.

          Well, the phrase does appear in some translations of Revelation 1:6, in particular the KJV. However, to be blunt, Michael H is endowed (per his blog saying he was a missionary in Argentina) and was therefore almost certainly slipping in the LDS temple terminology in with the Biblical terminology, likely without meaning to.

  • JohnH

    This is one of the best explanations of women and the priesthood among LDS that I have seen in a while.

    I would also like to add that in LDS temples women do officiate in priesthood roles among women. In the past it was common for women to give blessings to their children and to other women, the practice appears to have fallen out of general favor, but there is nothing against it. Further, as found here: http://www.lds.org/ensign/1993/04/because-i-live-ye-shall-live-also , wives are priestesses to their husbands and participate in their husbands priesthood.