Moving “According to the Ancient Priesthood:” Margaret Toscano’s Vision

Margaret Toscano, “Priesthood Matters: Should Mormon Women Follow the Example of the Catholic Womenpriest Movement?” talk given at Sunstone Symposium 27 July 2012.

In an impassioned speech at the Sunstone Symposium last month, Margaret Toscano called for both leaders and members of the Church to “accept the revelation God gave to the Church in 1842 through the Prophet Joseph Smith when he addressed the newly-formed Female Relief Society in Nauvoo.” Margaret interprets the Prophet’s statements that he would make the Relief Society a “Kingdom of Priests” and that they should “move according to the ancient Priesthood” as a promise which was never fulfilled. “…the women of the Church have never wielded the priesthood key given to them by God through Joseph Smith,” Margaret states. “If they had, they would currently be functioning in priesthood offices within the official Church structure.” Indeed, she sees this as a “central mission of the Restoration.”

While I am sympathetic to the idea that women should be (or perhaps already are) ordained to some sort of priesthood, I view Joseph Smith’s ideas of women and priesthood as somewhat gender essentialist. That is, the ordinances Joseph restored gave women the possibility to become “queens and priestesses,” and allowed for women’s authority to manage money, curriculum, spiritual gifts, and resources within their own structure, but did not include ordination to priesthood offices within the Church. As I have studied Joseph’s directions regarding women and priesthood in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, I have seen a Masonic influence in his words. I believe that when he spoke of “turning the key” to women, he meant that he was restoring the knowledge and power to enter into communion with God and act in his name. Margaret herself has pointed out in other writings that priesthood was not connected with hierarchical office or corporate management as it operated in the early Church and in restoration scripture.

My understanding may seem to fit into all of Margaret’s three categorizations of women who resist ordination for women in the Church. They are:

  1. Those who believe it is not God’s will for women to have the priesthood; they are equal, but different. Men have priesthood, women have motherhood.
  2. Those who do not want priesthood offices but believe women should have more control over their own organizations.
  3. Those who do not believe in the hierarchical, corporate nature of the Church and do not want to be part of an abusive priesthood system.

It’s true; I do believe in a form of gender essentialism, that women’s authority operates in a separate sphere than men’s, and that the hierarchical priesthood system that exists is a corruption of what was intended. But I agree with Margaret that Joseph envisioned something different than what we have today. Is there a way to restore balance and autonomy to women while addressing the above three concerns, and remaining true to Joseph’s original conception of priesthood?

In her talk, Margaret suggests that women act “where they stand” to improve their spiritual and institutional power and authority. These actions could include

  • Praying for leaders to receive further revelations
  • Exercising gifts of blessing, healing, teaching and writing with priestly authority
  • Following the example of the Catholic womenpriests movement in getting LDS men to perform “rogue ordinations”
  • Ordain each other to priesthood offices in the tradition of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery after they had received keys from angelic visitors

Margaret encouraged leaders and members to do all they could within their range of comfort to enable women to act in priestly roles.

Two models which Margaret did not mention and which we already have in place in the Church could be expanded to accomplish these goals. The first is the separate but equal view of the Relief Society, Young Women’s, and Primary organizations. As it stands now, a Relief Society (or other auxiliary president) is under the direction of a Priesthood leader—the Bishop. But a structure is already in place where she could instead be guided by a Stake Relief Society President, who is in turn directed by the General Relief Society Board under a General President and two counselors. If the buck stopped there—with any decisions of the General Relief Society Presidency being absolute and final in regard to female financial, educational, social, and spiritual issues—then these auxiliaries might truly be separate but equal.

The second model is the idea of an “exalted couple.” Within Mormonism there is a theological concept that a Heavenly Father and Mother act unitedly in the position of God. In our temples, this concept is repeated with a temple president and Matron, who are called as a couple to supervise temple activity. This is also seen with a Mission president and wife. It would not be difficult to extend this idea to include married men and women acting together in the calling of Bishop. The wife could extend callings and give interviews to women and young women, while the husband did the same for men. Meetings and decisions could happen with the equal input of both sexes. Apostles could be called as couples, as well as Prophets. This arrangement would promote understanding and union between the two groups that neither Margaret’s vision of women’s ordination to priesthood offices, nor the “separate but equal” model can approach.

The resistance I feel to Margaret’s vision for women and the priesthood is not so very great. I do agree with her that women have not fully utilized the power that the Prophet intended them to have. The energy Margaret put forth in her talk was beautiful. At the end of her speech, I leapt to my feet. I’d like to include some of her closing words to give you a taste of what I experienced as I listened to her presentation.

…I believe the initiative and leadership for this movement must come from women themselves, otherwise we are defeating the very goal we are pursuing: gender equality. This is not merely an abstract concept. It affects all of us on a daily basis: how we interact with others, how we feel about ourselves and our potential, what we think we can do and be. I call upon my sisters to have a new vision of yourselves. Think of yourselves as priestesses, as instruments for the power of God, of the divine spirit working through you to bless and revive our world…

“Put on your Strength, O Daughters of Zion!” I am paraphrasing Joseph Smith’s interpretation in D&C 113 of a prophecy from Isaiah. Joseph explains that for Zion “to put on her strength is to put on the authority of the priesthood, which she, Zion, has a right to by lineage…to return to that power which she had lost.” I think that the gendered pronouns here are prophetic. The LDS Church will never be right with God, nor can it fulfill its mission to bless the whole world, until women are ordained to the priesthood and begin to act in the priestly roles, including apostle and prophet. We were called to this mission in 1842, six years before the famous Seneca Falls conference that led the way in women’s rights in this country. We should have been at the vanguard; instead we have dragged far behind. We, the daughters of Zion, must act now. We must put on our strength, the authority of our priesthood, in order to prepare for the return of Zion, our Heavenly Mother.



Moving “According to the Ancient Priesthood:” Margaret Toscano’s Vision — 23 Comments

  1. Although this would probably be impractical, I kind of like the idea of combining your two models and have couples called together to a priesthood office and a corresponding Relief Society position. So you could have the Bishop and Relief Society President be a couple, the President of the Church and the General Relief Society President be a couple, etc. The first three General Relief Society Presidents were wives of the President, but I don’t know if that was just a coincidence. I just thought of this idea, so there are probably problems with it that I haven’t thought of…

  2. I also find the idea of calling couples to priesthood callings a compelling one. My concern with such a model is that if not carefully implemented, it could perpetuate the Mormon leaning towards a “familiolatry” which tends to marginalize singles/ the unmarried. On the other hand, the idea reflects my own sense that the Priesthood women share with men due to Temple ordinance is greater than any ecclesiastical office, and really operates apart from that.

    On the broader topic of women holding priesthood (ecclesiastical callinge being a separate issue in my mind), I would hope that the church would take the moral and social lead on at least ONE “civil rights” issue at least ONCE in my lifetime. I’d like to think that this is that issue. Whatever the resolution of how women exercise their God-given priesthood authority outside of the confines of the Holy Temple, let us hope it is both innovative and rooted in LDS tradition — and most of all, that it is empowering and value-affirming.

  3. Did she really suggest ‘rogue ordinations’? Really? That seems to me about the most unproductive thing I could think of in moving the discussion along. This kind of thing tends to seem more of seeking a wider and more solid schism than the expressed desire of education and reform.

    I guess I find there to be a significant and gaping difference in productively stretching the boundaries of the ecclesiastical reigns to positively show the possible potential possibilities, and, for all intents and purposes, starting one’s own Church, with a complete disregard for and dissolving the concept and structure of hierarchical stewardship.

  4. David T, I didn’t give this review the background it deserved. Margaret’s presentation was part of a session which was discussing the Catholic women-priest movement. The first speaker, Jill Peterfeso, is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s doctoral program in religious studies, and she spoke about the recent ordinations of Catholic women. These were done privately by a bishop in good standing, beginning in 2002. The context of Margaret’s remarks was the theological and spiritual underpinnings for this idea in Mormon practice and doctrine.

    It’s true that stretching these boundaries can be schismatic–as has been seen in the Catholic Church. Margaret’s paper did cover the dangers of moving outside acceptable boundaries and acting in “sacred disobedience.” She spoke with the view that “change cannot happen without putting our membership in danger,” (as she knows from personal experience).

    David, you “find there to be a significant and gaping difference in productively stretching the boundaries of the ecclesiastical reins to positively show the possible potential possibilities, and, for all intents and purposes, starting one’s own Church, with a complete disregard for and dissolving the concept and structure of hierarchical stewardship.” Women who sincerely desire change and who are trying to stretch boundaries often find themselves accused of this. Personally, I feel that there can be a lot of leeway in dissolving the existing hierarchical structure without damage to “the gospel” or true religious principles.

    What about the hierarchy are you so committed to that this disturbs you? I’d like to hear more.

  5. I really love what Robert J Mathew said. That the way we define PH is just one small part of the power of God that we in our limited minds break up the power and call it differnt things. But D&C 88 is quite clear that it is the light that fills the whole earth. I am not sure ordination is necessary. But what is necessary in my opinion is to understand that we do have access to God and power to do amazing thing in the world. I think women are hurt not by being excluded from PH in the church because they have no hierarical power although that is a problem too. But by the lack of encouragement and instuction to women about how to access the power of the divine and use it to bless others on earth.

  6. The only unrighteous dominion I have seen in the church was by a sister whose husband had been called as bishop. She asked people to call her Sister Bishop and started telling people that she was receiving revelation for their lives.

    Our SP finally had enough and released this bishop well before the customary 5 years.

    That’s one “hell no” vote for couple priesthood callings.

  7. Cheryl,
    My questions are, do you think that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the restored Church of Jesus Christ and that it is led by apostles and prophets called of God through inspiration and revelation?
    If you believe the first to be true, do you think that God would let his chosen servants withhold the priesthood from women if it were His will that they hold the priesthood?
    Do you believe that a prophet of God would dare disobey an edict from God concerning this?


  8. ” I feel that there can be a lot of leeway in dissolving the existing hierarchical structure without damage to “the gospel” or true religious principles.

    What about the hierarchy are you so committed to that this disturbs you? I’d like to hear more.”

    I actually do agree that there can be a lot of leeway in dissolving the existing hierarchical structure without damage to “the gospel”. I simply don’t think progression will happen when it is declared already dissolved. For Latter-day Saints as a body and as a unified Church to progress, the dissolving will need to come from the existing hierarchy. I do not disagree with stretching the limits practically, and find nothing at all wrong with expressing and publishing thoughts of what dissolved and re-adjusted boundaries could hopefully look like. Presenting the ‘Vision’, to to speak. I believe such things played a great role in the events of 1978. What I do believe is that there is a line that, when crossed, would involve certain actions that would lead to chaos rather than unity. At this point, I certainly think completely bypassing the ‘keys’ of ordination stewardship is part of that.

  9. I preface my comments by saying that I have long enjoyed Margaret Toscano’s writings and was very moved by her account of her excommunication proceedings on the PBS documentary, “The Mormons.” Furthermore, the September Six incident, which happened while I was a student by BYU, impacted my personal journey profoundly. So, I have long viewed those most directly impacted by this small-scale inquisition sympathetically.

    At this time, however, I feel ambivalent about the tactics Margaret is advocating here. Principled disobedience perhaps has a role to play in moving a good cause forward, but in the short term it looks more like an excellent way to end up exactly where she and Paul have landed–excommunicated. I lament the fact that they were excommunicated, but I can’t help, at this remove, and from an admittedly distant vantage point, but think that their approach to advocating change contributed to the results.

    It is important for me to clarify where I am coming from here. I believe women hold the Melchizedek priesthood through the endowment. I do believe that the Relief Society was intended to be a priesthood organization, and that, were it not for the assassination of Joseph Smith, Jr., it may have developed more along those lines. I view as lamentable the retreat of women’s expression of their spiritual gifts and leadership as a result of Correlation and other changes. All of these things make me deeply sad.

    One wonders, however, whether Margaret’s model for female Mormon priests is actually in keeping with Joseph Smith’s vision, or if it is her own. And so, I further wonder whether the limited success of this strain of Mormon feminism is not due to profound disagreement, sometimes only felt on a subconscious level, with the imposition of a model of women priests in Zion that is, in fact, incongruous with the Mormon tradition as many women experience or intuit it.

    Unfortunately, there is too little conversation going on to judge. What I do know, from personal observation, is that many women do not find an approach like Margaret’s attractive. And, if they don’t, what is the likelihood that a movement of rogue ordinations will lead to anything more than a small spike in excommunications?

    What I have been surprised by over the years is the willingness of a number of more conservative Mormons to consider the expansion of women’s roles in the Church. For this reason, I believe that change is inevitable. As an older generation passes away, and younger leaders, who are more open to the Spirit’s promptings on this issue, rise up, change will come. The 1978 revelation came through a presiding prophet’s prayer. Did it involve outside pressure? Yes. But I wonder whether the decisive pressure wasn’t governmental more than internal.

    Tertullian once stated that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. Perhaps the excommunications of disobedient women and men who engage in rogue ordinations will hasten the time when changes regarding the role of women in the Church will occur. It is not for me to say. Still, I remain inclined to wonder whether the vision being presented here is in keeping with Joseph Smith’s initial vision, or it is something quite different.

  10. I want to clarify a couple of aspects of my post.

    First, let me add something I neglected to include the first time:

    “Principled disobedience perhaps has a role to play in moving a good cause forward [in the LDS Church], but in the short term it looks more like an excellent way to end up exactly where she and Paul have landed–excommunicated.”

    I am a firm believer in civil disobedience in general. My only question is the prospects of success for spiritual disobedience in the LDS Church. It could be that it has already been more successful than I know, and I am merely revealing my ignorance. I am happy to be educated.

    Also, I want it to be clear that I personally believe that both men and women should share equally in the power through which organizations are directed. What I am uncertain about is how the LDS Church will get to such a state of affairs from where it is, or whether it will in exactly the way Margaret Toscano seems to advocate.

    It is a complex issue, and one that I am probably ill-equipped to write on, but I do want to participate in the discussion, because I feel strongly about it.

  11. Trevor Luke said: “As an older generation passes away, and younger leaders, who are more open to the Spirit’s promptings on this issue, rise up, change will come.”

    I would like to understand what you mean more clearly. Is it your viewpoint that the current, and past leadership of the church are and have been close minded spiritually? This is a question I raised in an earlier post. Do you believe that the church is led by prophets called of God by inspiration and revelation? Do you believe that any such prophet would dare go against an edict from God on the matter?


  12. Hello, Glenn-

    I think it is possible for a prophet not to be open to something the Spirit might inspire, because prophets are yet human beings. I can’t point to a specific case, but I believe it is theologically possible in Mormonism. It is not my understanding that prophets are not liable to human foibles. They are not considered to be equal in that respect to Christ, who was able to withstand all temptation. Do you see things differently?

  13. Trevor, I see strong validation for your position as President Uchtdorf said in the latest Worldwide Training Meeting, “Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t seek revelation or answers from the scriptures … because we think we know the answers already… as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?”

  14. Thanks, David T. It is easy to run afoul of others’ sensibilities when opining on issues of revelation from higher authorities in the Church. Joseph Smith spoke of the resistance of the saints to new knowledge and revelations. I would be surprised if this generation had significantly improved in that regard. What I think I should add to all I have said here is that I know what I would like personally–men and women to share governance of the Church equally–but I don’t view it as my place to chart the course or determine the timing. I believe it is the right thing, but it is a matter that is entirely out of my hands.

  15. Trevor, I know that every human is imperfect. I know of no scripture that says that women can never hold the priesthood. Therefore, I would not be adverse to a revelation that would extend the priesthood to all worthy men and women.

    However, there is the question of why did not God institute it from the beginning? Why is there no woman in the Godhead? If God had given women the priesthood from the beginning, there would not be these questions. It would have been an established order.

    However, I do believe that if it were something that God wanted to happen in the past, He would have so instructed His prophets in times past to begin the ordinations. I feel that as a whole, the leaders of the church have been open to the Spirit. I believe that whatever changes may come down the pike will be made will be in accordance with God’s will, and that His apostles will act in accordance with God’s will.


  16. Glenn, my understanding of the temple is that women do have the priesthood. We may disagree on that, and that is of course fine, but my interpretation of these issues comes out of that, as well as various biblical references to female prophets and apostles.

    Since I believe that there were female prophets and apostles in the past as well as women with the priesthood now (albeit, without explicit offices therein), I can’t say that God did not institute it from the beginning, because I believe He did. I also cannot aver as a matter of knowledge that He did. It’s my personal opinion. I don’t know why they were not more prevalent in the past. Perhaps the time was not right, people were not ready, and so forth.

    One of the strengths of Mormonism, as I see it and you have acknowledged, is progressive revelation. We don’t know everything; we know we don’t know everything; and we know that more will be revealed. When all is said and done, many things that we take for granted as true now, may not be as we thought of them. It could be that women and men share godhead together. I prefer to imagine that this may be true.

    I think the place where you and I could potentially get into conflict is on the issue of the spirit in which I write what I am writing. Let me be clear: all of this is my personal opinion and represents my vision of how I would like things to be. I think there is a certain amount of evidence that suggests it may be so. However, I am not telling anyone else what to believe, and I am not advocating any course of action. All of that is above my pay-grade, so to speak.

  17. Trevor, I know of no scriptural basis for discerning that any woman was called to be an apostle. I realize that there were several women prophets in the Old Testament but that does not signify that they held the priesthood. The official LDS Guide to the scriptures opines that such was not the case. That has not been declared official doctrine though, that I am aware of.
    There will come a time “in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:” (Acts 2:17)

    I believe that this time is already upon us. Reading some of the diaries and articles by early women converts to the church, it is evident that many of them were moved upon by the spirit to utter prophecies.

    In an earlier post you mentioned that you were doubful of Margaret Toscani’s call for “principled disobedience.” I think that you are correct in those misgivings. Maybe if the sisters that feel marginalized in today’s church were to contemplate the roles that those prophetesses played, they might glean and understanding of how they can ensure that their own influence can be felt more broadly.

    The prophetess Deborah, in the Old Testament, was also a judge over Israel. That, to me, is astounding, knowing how male dominated the Israelites were at the time, and still are.

    We are not given any details about how Deborah received her judegship nor how she became a prophetess. However I would not think that it came through “principled disobedience” but rather through her own spiritual intitatives. Just my opinion.

    As for a conflict betwen you and I, there is none. We have slightly different opinions on some subjects, but the world would be a boring place if everyone agreed on everything. I do appreciate the courteous manner in which you express your opinions and areas of disagreement.


  18. As an outsider and nonbeliever, and perhaps more importantly as a social scientist, I find some of the conversation about changes within Mormonism in these comments problematic. Respectfully, I understand the meaningfulness for believers to speak in terms of revelation and openness to inspiration; but from an outside perspective, it is a nonsensical way to speak about social change. From a social scientific perspective, revelation is simply one of the ideologies at play within Mormonism, rather than an ultimate causal explanation for change. I would suggest, again, with all due respect, that it behooves even change-minded or progressive Mormons to think in more grounded terms about change within their community.

    There are a couple of rules of thumb, sort of basic assumptions about social change, that could serve as far better beginning places for the discussion and ways to look to the future of Mormonism and, perhaps, its shift into more socially and ethically responsible path. For many here, perhaps even all of us, what follows is probably review of ideas already known. But I think it worthy to think through their implications in questions of change within Mormon community. If you’ll permit, let me point briefly to a three basic dynamics and two corollaries that are good starting places:

    1) The overarching concept is that social change always occurs in an interactive historical (time) and social (space) context. That is, it is always an interactive adjustment or adaptation to contextual or environmental shifts (shifts can be either inside or outside the community). I would argue that from Joseph Smith’s prophetic creation to the Proclamation to the World in 1995, the revelations and prophecies of Mormonism have been and are always responses to perceived needs within the environment. From a sociological perspective, revelation is a cultural tool or frame to justify and motivate social change within Mormonism, but not a literal event or cause. Revelation is different from other motivations of social change in that it is tied to the community’s notion of the sacred, but it is similar to all other forms of social change in that it is a communal response/adjustment to needs experienced within the environment and historical moment.

    2) Social change is always bound up in relationships of power. Whereas power can be tricky (it’s really only known by its effects) because it can be hidden, I would say that the institutional church makes some forms of power painfully obvious within Mormonism. Depending on the power structure involved, those with more power will have the ability to lead or guide the direction of change (although people on the bottom may resist and withhold in ways that put pressure on the coercive power above them). Within Mormonism, the structures of priesthood and its attendant ideologies of revelation and divine direction must be accounted for in any analysis of how Mormonism has changed, or in any prediction or plan about how Mormonism might be made to change in the future. In other words, at an empirical level, it’s not about generational “openness” to revelation (although I understand how believers may interpret it that way) as it is about those in power having the power to effect change. On the surface, the lines of power most salient to Mormonism seem to be (off the top of my head):
    • subculture to dominant culture
    • dissident religion to government
    • male to female (gender)
    • rich to poor (economic power within the church, and between the church and outsiders)
    • race & ethnicity (American vs. non-American; white vs. “cursed”; etc.)
    • church authority to laity (on the surface this seems complex since the church has a “lay” priesthood, but I think that even a surface level analysis of social power within the church reveals very clear coercive power moving in direct lines from the top down, both symbolic power (i.e., the power to define the meanings of roles and relationships) and direct coercive power (e.g., “courts of love”).
    • etc.

    3) As I mentioned above, there has to be a need, a reason for the change. Some change or shift in the relationship between the community and the broader society must necessitate the change. The need for change is usually characterized by a disjuncture between world view and lived experience. Responses to the need can be of four sorts (very generally speaking):
    a) adjust the world view to match the lived experience
    b) adjust the lived environment to match the world view
    c) a combination of a and b
    d) ignore the disjuncture and hope it goes away (denial)

    4) (Corollary 1) Very generally speaking, change can bubble up from the bottom or be imposed from the top. Within Mormon history (and its present) and given the belief structure that supports its institutions (e.g., the discussion in comments above about revelation and inspiration), I would argue that it is nearly always top-down within Mormonism, with leadership putting out fires and/or working to maintain the power structure. But that top-down change is always in response to one of the relationships listed in No. 2 above. But I must add a huge caveat here. The institutional power flows within Mormonism give an amazing coercive power to those on top, the general authorities (so much so, that in creating the arguments above, many of our own community here have cited general authorities to make their points). This has led in Mormonism’s past to cultural tensions being solved by fiat from the top, being *ordered* by an authority to change one’s thoughts and feelings rather than to make a substantial adjustment in Mormonism itself.

    5) (Corollary 2) Power tends to work to maintain and/or increase itself. This is evident in the church’s history of leadership among general authorities and local authorities, and perhaps even more evident in the church’s gradual adoptions of modern bureaucratic (i.e., corporate) structures since WWII.

    One of the more disturbing and ethically suspect aspects of Mormonism, from my research, is this particular coercive tendency within the church hierarchy. The members’ sincere belief in the inspired/God-directed nature of the church gives hierarchs an incredible amount of power to coerce adherents into believing and behaving as they wish, to meet the needs of the larger church and ignore the emotional, spiritual, and material needs of individual members. From my research, I would give a strong caution against relying on “revelation” as the source of positive or progressive change within the church, as the history of Mormonism seems to indicate instead a tendency to use revelation to coerce the membership into conformity and obedience.

    Where I think our two perspectives on change—faithful and academic—coincide is the observation about generation. Young Mormons as a group seem to be (speaking anecdotally here, as I haven’t researched this specifically) liberalizing on current social issues (especially gender and sexuality), as they have before on race issues. So time will, perhaps, lead to changes.

    To be clear, I do not object to believers/adherents (Mormons) interpreting change within Mormonism as being divinely guided or “revealed”—after all, this is a common phenomenon among adherents of any tradition, who feel a profound connection to their tradition, both in terms of world view (i.e., what constitutes “reality” and “truth”) and identity formation. But I do strongly believe that a revelation frame, while rational within the Mormon system, does not serve us well in our efforts to understand and explain change either in Mormonism’s past or its present, or to predict or plan for change in Mormonism’s future. We must instead seek detailed descriptions of the environmental and historical contexts and the tensions they generation for the Mormon community and seek to understand how those with the power to do so may may respond.

    I would argue that in most cases within Mormon history, the tendency has been for the institution to either a) retrench and coerce its members into maintaining beliefs and practices that don’t make sense in the context; or b) to effect change in order to ensure the church’s continued survival.

  19. Hello, J. Todd Ormsbee. It’s great to see you. Last we ran into each other on Facebook (earlier today). I’ll be brief.

    First, thanks so much for getting into the important nitty-gritty regarding the mechanisms of change in Mormonism. It is something I do not feel qualified to speak about, and, frankly, it is something I choose not to discuss in that way for some of the reasons you point to in the post itself. The issue is a sticky one, and it has caused more than one person to run afoul of church authorities. Every person who holds membership in the LDS Church and desires to continue to do so will think carefully about how they discuss it in a public context. I doubt it is a coincidence that Margaret, who advocates rogue ordinations, has been excommunicated for some years now.

    At the same time, I would say that, while I do not understand revelation, and will not try to defend it to you, I would also not omit it as something inconsequential to the process of change in Mormonism. One can represent the 1978 decision to extend the priesthood to all worthy males as something that was forced on the Church by numerous other forces, but I don’t accept that the claim to revelation was something foisted on the rubes in order to make them cooperate. I am not accusing you of doing this, but your argument does tend toward a stronger dismissal of revelation as a force for change in Mormonism than I think is warranted.

    You say that, “We must instead seek detailed descriptions of the environmental and historical contexts and the tensions they generate for the Mormon community and seek to understand how those with the power to do so may may respond.” I agree that we must seek those things, but I think that more can be understood about the role of revelation in negotiating the tensions. It does not matter if one accepts or dismisses revelation as divine, it is nevertheless an important part of the process through which change occurs, as much, say, as a business meeting, an accountant’s ledger, or a survey administered to endowed members.

    Just my 2 cents.

  20. I hope I didn’t come off too negative above. To be clear, *all* human groups are fraught with power relationships and all human groups contain coercive powers within them and all human groups react and adjust in interactive relationships of individual/group to the environment.

    For me, I’m a consequentialist, which means that I would evaluate or judge change in terms of its effects or consequences. But the mere existence of power inequality within the church is a banality.

    Further, that the power structures are sacrilized is likewise commonplace within religious groups, so that is not a judgment of mormonism either. And again, I would judge based on the *effects* of the particular mormon case.

    I think we can safely say that Mormonism’s flow of power and change can have both positive and negative effects.

    To be fair, because I have been researching people who leave Mormonism, I tend to see the negative impacts more starkly. Both my own experience with Mormonism and my large Mormon extended family, not to mention being relatively well read in the history of religion generally (especially other alternative/new religious movements), make me alive to the possible abuses in the ways Mormonism is structured. I don’t think the construction of “priesthood” *necessarily* leads to negative effects; but I do think it makes it likely and easy.

    Thinking out loud:

    In conversations with my Mormon extended family (especially cousins who are my age and younger), I think that many younger people feel like they have a responsibility to make sure the church and Mormonism generally doesn’t veer off in harmful directions. But I fear, along the lines of Trevor’s comments above, that their power to direct the direction of the church is limited. My more liberal cousins (e.g., gay friendly) have all stopped practicing at this point. My older relatives are deeply torn. One refrain I heard often from my informants in my research and that my aunts and uncles have all said to me is that they selectively listen to the authorities in the church and ignore the stuff that is “negative” or doesn’t make sense. In a way, this is a powerful and strong position of resistance, and one that is quiet and under the radar of open, public criticism of the church. I do think that such decisions to resist in those ways can ultimately change the entire belief structure of Mormonism from the inside out, but only if its widespread and only if it eventually makes its way upward into the hierarchy. I know that local Bishops often exercise incredibly amounts of discretion with their own wards (e.g., the famously liberal Cambridge ward in Massachusetts). But it will have to go up higher than that.

  21. Trevor’s comment, that “Every person who holds membership in the LDS Church and desires to continue to do so will think carefully about how they discuss it in a public context” strikes me as reinforcing some of Todd’s observations on the nature of power and change in the contemporary LDS hierarchy.

  22. Yes, Mina, and it was quite intentionally done. I am not put off by Todd’s contribution here. Not in the least. He introduced a whole discourse and methodology that had yet to be mentioned. I am happy he brought it in, since the discussion had started to fall into the usual patterns.

    Todd (if i may), I wasn’t bothered by your post. Thanks for bringing these considerations to the table, and I hope you continue to read and comment. I think it is entirely appropriate and necessary to evaluate the impact of various structures on the dynamics of an organization like the LDS Church, and I don’t want you to feel unwelcome to do so. I would still say that the complex phenomenon of revelation is worthy of study, but I do not say so in order to signal any discomfort with your methodology or observations.

    I look forward to reading your work on those who leave Mormonism, since it is a subject with which I have some familiarity, having observed the process in people around me for over a decade now. If I could summon a single word that sums up my perception of the feelings of those who leave (before they do) it would probably be “trapped.” It is interesting to me, not to mention sad, that people come to feel so constricted within the LDS Church. I take that seriously, and I don’t think it is something that can be entirely laid at the feet of those who come to feel that way.

  23. Wasn’t this why Margaret was excommunicated? Why would any faithful member of the church care about her opinion?