Mormon feminist activism in recent years has sparked discussion about the role of women in the church and priesthood. The newly published essay “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women” by the LDS church discusses some of these concerns and lays a new foundation for the church’s position regarding women and the priesthood by bringing to light and interpreting historical information from the past.
Indirectly referred to, but not specifically mentioned in the essay is the “Anointed Quorum,” also known by other titles such as the “Quorum of the Anointed,” or “First Quorum” or “The Priesthood,” or “Holy Order” or “Holy Order of the Priesthood” or “”Holy Order of the Holy Priesthood”. Details about the Quorum of the Anointed can help inform some of the discussion invoked by the essay.
The Anointed Quorum was initially started by Joseph Smith in May 1842 with nine men receiving their endowments. Emma was not invited to participate, perhaps due to her strong opposition to plural marriage. The quorum soon became inactive.
When church patriarch Hyrum Smith accepted the principle of plural marriage, he and other existing members of the quorum were re-endowed. And when Emma reluctantly accepted plural marriage by participating in plural marriage ceremonies with Joseph Smith, she was brought into the quorum and its organization was completed with the ordination of Joseph Smith as its president. Emma’s membership in the quorum was apparently essential to its full organization.
Other couples joined the quorum where they engaged in washings, anointings, endowments, and prayer circles. The quorum usually met every other Sunday where men and sometimes women transacted quorum business. Women participated in important quorum matters such as authorizing an official church proclamation (“A Proclamation to the Kings of the Earth”), and a petition to congress for relief.
After Joseph Smith’s death and upon the partial completion of the Nauvoo temple, many church members engaged in the rituals practiced by the quorum. Later, quorum meetings ceased due in part to the high number of quorum members, and due the frantic efforts to cope with the forced exodus from Nauvoo. Today, many members of the church continue to engage in the same rituals as the Anointed Quorum — although knowledge of this quorum is largely forgotten by the modern church.
The essay builds an argument that women were not ordained to priesthood office, that the word “ordain” did not always infer priesthood ordination, that Emma’s “ordination” as Relief Society president did not confer priesthood to her, and that no woman was ever conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood:
- “Mormons sometimes used the term ‘ordain’ in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office” 
- No church leader “conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women”
- “John Taylor, who acted by assignment from Joseph Smith to ‘ordain and set apart’ Emma Smith and her counselors, explained in 1880 that ‘the ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those sisters.’” 
A quick reading of this argument may leave the impression that when women were ordained in the past, it was never in the sense of priesthood ordination. One might also assume that because John Taylor said the priesthood was not conferred on Emma when being ordained president of the Relief Society– that priesthood ordination for women never occurred. But additional details from the minutes of the Quorum of the Anointed shed light on another option — that Emma was ordained to the priesthood, but not in conjunction with the Relief Society, nor to a priesthood office.
Over a year after the Relief Society was organized, the minutes of the Quorum of Anointed state that Emma and Joseph were “anointed & ordained to the highest & holiest order of the priesthood” and Joseph was “ordained” its president. This example is explicit in stating that Emma was ordained to the priesthood (rather than in the sense of being set apart, or receiving an office within the priesthood). John Taylor’s 1880 statement about ordaining and setting apart Emma to the presidency of the Relief Society is a matter separate from her ordination into the Quorum of the Anointed.
Emma was ordained to the priesthood associated with the Anointed Quorum, the same that is used in temples today. The essay statement that none of the church leadership “conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women” becomes more difficult to resolve in light on Emma’s ordination to the “holiest order of the priesthood.”
Emma Smith and other women participated in quorum business, and performed ordinances, but were not ordained officers in that quorum, as confirmed by the essay: “Temple ordinances were priesthood ordinances, but they did not bestow ecclesiastical office on men or women.”
The essay marks an exciting point in time for Mormons today – the realization that “priesthood authority exercised by Latter-day Saint women in the temple and elsewhere remains largely … overlooked by those within [the church].” This opens the door to further conversations, policy changes and theological explorations.
 For details on the Anointed Quorum, see D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, Signature books, 113-116, 491-519; Devery Anderson, The Anointed Quorum in Nauvoo, 1842-45, Journal of Mormon History Vol. 29, No. 2, 2003; Devery Anderson & Gary Bergera (editors), Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.
 The interchangeable nature of the two terms “set apart” and “ordain” works in both directions. For example, some prophets of the church were not “ordained” to their callings – but were rather “set apart” as prophet, seer and revelator of the church. At other times they were “ordained”.
 The essay notes Joseph Smith saw the revelation designating Emma as the “Elect Lady” being fulfilled by Emma’s appointment as Relief Society president. The essay does not mention Emma was to be “ordained” as the “Elect Lady” and have an “office” (D&C 25:5,7). Smith may have envisioned a priesthood role for “Elect Lady” and/or president of the Relief Society. The terms “Presidentess,” and “Presiding High Priestess” were used in an unofficial capacity in pioneer Utah to refer to the president of the Relief Society (Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, Maxine Hanks, editor, Signature Books, 1992, chapter 17, http://signaturebookslibrary.org/women-and-authority-17).
 “Meetings of anointed Quorum [—] Journalizings,” 28 Sept. 1843, quoted in Quinn, p. 495. This was a second anointing. See David John Buerger, “The Fulness of the Priesthood”: The Second Anointing in Latter-day Saint Theology and Practice”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
 Her “ordination” as president of the Relief Society is beyond the scope of this post. Caution must be exercised about Taylors recollection of events 38 years after the fact, and should be corroborated with contemporary documentation before being accepted. Views of priesthood and keys were continually evolving, and care needs to be taken about imposing a later understanding onto earlier events.
 To argue that the essay is correct that no church president has “conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women,” one could argue that the “highest & holiest order of the priesthood” to which Emma was “ordained” was not part of the Melchizedek or Aaronic priesthood. However the Melchizedek priesthood was sometimes referred to the “Holy Order” (see Alma 13: 18, “But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people.”). Barring that, one must argue about the semantics of the word “conferred.”