Thank you. So far this morning you’re seeing a demonstration of why I have the best job in the world, because of the great people that I get to work with, both living and dead. I always say I work with dead people, but the living people I work with are pretty awesome too. So it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here with you today. I was tempted just to leave Jenny’s pretty slides up here, because mine are not as pretty as hers, but we’ll make the best of it anyway.
So the title for this presentation, Takeaways from the Gospel Topics Essays, represents the fact that I needed to provide a title long before I’d actually figured out what I was going to talk about. But as I focused on preparing the actual talk, I decided to keep it. But before we’re done, the takeaways may turn out to be a little different than what you might expect—that is, I am going to talk about the content of the essays, but I’m also going to turn more broadly to considering some questions and implications related to how we use history and how we discuss contemporary issues.
So, the landing page on LDS.org for the Gospel Topics essays currently includes this statement: “Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.”
This is a pretty straightforward and accurate explanation of the project. It began around 2010, when leaders convened a committee and commissioned them with developing in-depth, accurate, balanced, and faithful answers to questions about difficult issues in Church history. Over the course of the project, historians in the Church History Department worked with a committee of Seventies to develop and write the essays. Scholars from outside the department also participated in discussions, reviewed manuscripts, and in some cases contributed substantial material. The finished essays were published between October 2013 and October 2015.
It’s important to stress that these essays were extensively reviewed and approved by Church leaders, up to and including the Twelve and the First Presidency. Few Church publications receive this same level of review and involvement of senior leadership. Some readers and members have wondered how official the essays are. I’ve seen them dismissed as “PR statements,” whatever that meant in the mind of the person that said that. So it’s worth emphasizing that the Gospel Topics essays are Church statements. We were very cognizant of this fact as we worked on them. The essays were to be published by the Church as Church statements and were not simply expressions of a given scholar’s work or of any individual’s views. This information has been stated repeatedly, but people are still curious to know who wrote the essays. So before someone sends up that question on a card, let me say this: I will use the term “we” here to describe this team of historians, writers, editors, leaders, and executives who developed the essays. I was part of that group, but many of us, all of us who were involved, would attest that the finished product represents the thinking, writing, and input of so many different individuals that it would be truly inaccurate to say that any one person wrote them. There is an old cliché we all know, about the dreadful quality of anything written by committee, but in this case, as in many of the products of the Church History Department, we feel that the collaborative model we follow in the involvement of many people, with their unique voices and perspectives made the essays much stronger.
So by way of review, or overview, depending on how familiar you are, already there are thirteen essays, counting the three on plural marriage separately, which is not how they’re listed on the website right now. They’re available at LDS.org/topics/essays, and they’re also available on the Gospel Library app in the Church History section. Members are encouraged to read them and use them in family discussion, in classroom instruction, and in personal study. Their content has been and continues to be incorporated into curriculum materials, including seminaries and institutes.
One of the most significant aspects of the Gospel Topics essays is that they have been or are being translated into multiple languages – we think about twenty so far. It’s an ongoing process, making them available to non-English speaking members of the Church throughout the world. Those of us who speak English and live in Mormon strongholds don’t always recognize how critical that is and how much more we have access to than many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. So it’s significant that these are receiving that level of dissemination and resources.
Several of the essays cover standard historical subjects related to Joseph Smith, such as accounts of the First Vision, translation of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. I want to put in a plug, so to speak, for a couple of the lesser-known ones which deal with theological topics from a historical perspective: Becoming Like God and Are Mormons Christian? These are lovely little pieces, and they do an admirable job of laying out some core doctrines and beliefs. They would make excellent subjects for family home evening lessons, for Sunday School, or other Church lessons. And when we read them in conjunction with the other essays I’m going to talk about today, they actually do bear fairly directly on issues about gender.
So since we’re talking about women’s experiences today, it seems fitting for me to discuss the essays that focus most directly on women and gender. Plural marriage, of course, is often framed as a women’s issue, and we felt it was important to include the voices and experiences of women in writing about plural marriage. But since there have been several excellent presentations on polygamy at Fair in recent years, I’m not going to really spend any time talking about those today. So the other two essays in this category of “women’s topics” are: Mother in Heaven and Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women.
If you’ve read them, you know that Mother in Heaven is very short – by far the shortest of the Gospel Topics essays. We tried different approaches to incorporating this topic into one or more of the other essays but ultimately decided that it would work best as a stand-alone statement. Perhaps the most important thing about this one is that it exists in the first place. What I mean by that is that in developing this essay we had to confront the folk doctrine that Heavenly Mother is such a sacred subject that it can’t be spoken about openly. That’s despite the fact that Church leaders have spoken of Heavenly Mother throughout our history, and including even in the Family Proclamation that refers to heavenly parents. So this essay does important work by presenting the belief in a Heavenly Mother as one that is not off-limits, so to speak. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother, it says, “is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints.” We own that; we claim it; we believe it. At the same time, the origins of the idea are obscure, and it has never been fully elaborated. There’s no question that it can be traced to Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo period, as the essay’s references to Zina D. H. Young, to Eliza R. Snow, to W. W. Phelps demonstrate.
Over time many Latter-day Saints, leaders and lay members alike, have found inspiration and meaning in the image of a Divine Mother alongside a Heavenly Father. The lack of extensive knowledge about our Mother in Heaven, however, makes for a complex situation. The essay acknowledges “that our present knowledge about a Mother in Heaven is limited,” but then goes on to make three affirmative statements: (1) “We have been given sufficient knowledge to appreciate the sacredness of this doctrine and to comprehend the divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents,” (2) “This pattern is reflected in Paul’s statement that ‘’neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord,’” and (3) “Just as we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven.” While the essay does reiterate that we do not pray to Mother in Heaven or Heavenly Mother, its affirmative stance on the subject opens up space for mention of her in Church sponsored spaces and establishes a clear baseline from which those discussions can take place.
The longer and more substantial essay that bears directly on women’s experience and issues is Joseph Smith’s Teachings on Priesthood, Temple, and Women. So let me just say first a little bit about the background on this one. As we all remember clearly (and as was reflected in some questions Jenny fielded), the early years of this decade saw the emergence of vigorous discussions about women’s issues, women’s status in the Church, women and priesthood, women and healing, women and temple. These discussions were carried on primarily online in the blogosphere but also included online meetings, in-person events, publications, even demonstrations. I am of course referring to Ordain Women, but not only, because there were many other groups, individuals, and venues involved in a wide variety of these conversations, and that continues to be the case today. The essay was not conceived or written to be an answer to any one group or movement or argument.
As we looked at the many unfolding discussions, we wondered what we could say that would make a helpful contribution. We were keenly aware that our mandate was to explain history, not to pronounce doctrine, understanding of course that the two are often tightly interconnected. What we noticed was that many of the discussions about women’s issues drew in some way on history. They appeal to historical sources in one way or another to advance an argument, to describe a vision of how things should be, to invoke a precedent, primarily drawing on statements made by Joseph Smith to the Nauvoo Relief Society. Often such uses of the sources were decontextualized or rested on incomplete or frankly inaccurate renderings. So this seemed like something we could address.
The outpouring of new work on Joseph Smith, the Relief Society, much of it coming from our department, as you’ve just heard, gave us a wealth of material to draw on. So the essay is built around four main points. First, Latter-day Saint understanding of “priesthood” developed over time. It’s difficult for us now to read back into the early historical sources and recapture what they meant by “priesthood.” In some respects our current definition – priesthood as “the power of God” – represents a process of increasing abstraction. While the idea of priesthood as power and authority was always inherent in the revelations, it originally had a more concrete sense as well. To capture this sense, it might be most helpful to render priesthood with a hyphen: priest-hood. As the essay points out, the fundamental definition of priest-hood in Joseph Smith’s day tightly connected priest-hood with priests: the office or character of a priest, the order of men set apart for sacred offices. That’s from Webster’s dictionary of the day. Priest-hood required priests; it referred to people. In other words the collective use of the priest-hood to refer to the people who had been ordained to priest-hood office is inherent in the earliest understandings and usage of the term. I’ll come back to this point in a little bit.
In Joseph Smith’s lifetime the meaning and structure priest-hood expanded from this baseline understanding, but the baseline understanding was always there. Priest-hood meant acting in a priestly way. What is that? It was in essence mediating between God and man, channeling the power of God or, as the preface to the revelations, Doctrine and Covenants 1, implies, priest-hood enabled every man to speak in the name of God the Lord. The expansion came as offices, councils, quorums, and presidencies were established to balance the implications of a universal lay priest-hood with the need for order. It also came in conjunction with the expansion of the meaning and nature of ordinances. Here, two revelations are key.
The landmark revelation on priesthood of September 1832 (we have it as Doctrine and Covenants 84) teaches that priesthood holds the key of the knowledge of God and that its ordinances manifest the power of godliness. Moreover, this power is associated with seeing the face of God and entering into his rest. As we would say it now, priesthood is thoroughly implicated in exaltation. This revelation suggested a connection between priesthood and the temple. The revelation of January 1841, Doctrine and Covenants 124, explicitly affirmed this connection. In the temple, it taught, the keys of the holy priesthood are ordained, and it was a place where the Lord said he would “reveal mine ordinances” unto His people. He would show Joseph Smith “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof.”
In one sense this takes us quite some distance from priesthood as authority to baptize and administer the sacrament, but the baseline definition of priesthood in the collective sense is still present in these revelations. “This house, and the priesthood thereof” can be read to mean the temple and how people will act in priestly ways therein. In my view this meaning of priesthood makes this verse more intelligible than if we try to read priesthood only as an abstract power. In any case, this is the first key point in the essay: understanding of priesthood and related terms and concepts expanded over time through revelation to Joseph Smith.
Second point: the organization of the Relief Society extended authority, responsibility, and official position within the Church to women. This step represented a departure from earlier LDS practice and from broader American norms. In this section the essay considers the sources that bear on the sense in which women received authority, responsibility, and official position in the Church. On the one hand, Joseph Smith used language associated with priesthood to commission organization and its officers. For example, as Jenny quoted, Sarah Kimball, the young woman who initiated the sewing project that became the Relief Society, said that Joseph told her that he would organize the women “in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the Church,” or alternately, (and another time she rendered it as) “under the Priesthood after the pattern of the Priesthood.”
Joseph Smith himself at the inaugural meeting of the Society outlined an ambitious commission for Emma and the sisters. “He propos’d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them,” (and I’ve kind of bold-faced the language here that sounds like priesthood language), “and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office – that he would ordain them to preside over the Society – and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church; and if they need his instruction – ask him, he will give it from time to time. Let this Presidency serve as a constitution – all their decisions be considered law; and acted upon as such. If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.”
Later he also declared that he now turned “the key to you in the name of God.” Admittedly, there is compelling ambiguity in all of these statements, and they have fueled many claims and debates about what Joseph really intended the Relief Society to be and how far he believed the women’s authority extended.
The essay contextualizes the central terms. So for example, “ordain”was used in many contexts at this time, only some of which explicitly refer to priesthood office. Likewise, “key”was a term with multiple meanings and had not yet settled into the precise priesthood definition the way that we use it today. The “pattern of the priesthood” is probably best understood as referring to the established pattern of a presidency with three members. Yet all of these words do and did have meanings related to priesthood, and Eliza R. Snow, for one, would sometimes suggest later that Joseph had organized something like a female quorum. Still, as the essay points out, whatever implications might be imputed to such statements, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever actually ordained women to priesthood offices in the same sense as men’s.
Another context the essay does not point out is Joseph’s own statements to the Relief Society in which he emphasized “the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted him or her,” and told the women always to “concentrate their faith and prayers for, and place confidence, in those whom God has appointed to honor, whom God has plac’d at the head to lead.” He didn’t say whether he meant male or female officers, leaders there. But his charge to the women to “correct the morals and strengthen the virtues of the female community” in order to save the elders the trouble of rebuking, certainly suggests that he saw women serving a supporting role. And his statement that “it is natural for females to have feelings of charity,” and that the women were “now placed in a situation where you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms,” may suggest that at least some of his gender views were within the norms for the day.
So on balance then, the point the essay makes, which I’ve elaborated on, is simply that it is difficult to translate directly from Joseph’s statements to the Nauvoo Relief Society into current understanding, definitions, and practice, but that the organization of the Relief Society did establish an official presence and recognized authority for women in the Church. And we should not overlook the importance of this significant step. It was a departure—a significant departure—from past Latter-day Saint practice and from broader cultural norms. Women’s auxiliaries and benevolence societies generally existed outside and separate from the male administered official organization. And in addition of course, Mormon women believe that their organization was unique by virtue of having been organized by a prophet and by prophetic vision and authority. That foundation remained in place despite the vicissitudes of Relief Society over the next two decades. Ultimately, Joseph Smith’s successors have honored his precedent and even built upon it to establish Relief Society and other women’s organizations as part of the Church.
In this section the essay also takes on the question of women’s participation in healing rituals. That subject of course could be the subject of an entire presentation, and so I don’t have time to say very much about it today. The essay briefly traces the trajectory of this practice and shows that it grew out of an understanding of healing as a gift of the Spirit, available to all with sufficient faith to exercise it in the name of Jesus. In the early twentieth century, against a backdrop of Joseph F. Smith’s priesthood reform movement, this understanding faded as leaders came to emphasize that it was preferable to call for the elders, as directed by James in the New Testament and reiterated in modern revelation.
The essay does not discuss, and it’s much more difficult to document, the changing sensibilities of modern Latter-day Saints, as we entered into the twentieth century, that serve to render nineteenth century healing and charismatic practices as strange and perhaps a bit old-fashioned. These changes included, most notably, shifting understandings of charismatic spiritual expression, but also the embrace of modern medicine which changed women’s traditional patterns of caregiving and brought new views of the body and healing. Taken together, all of these factors contributed to bring female participation in healing rituals to an end.
The third major point in the essay is this: temple ordinances expanded the meaning of “priesthood,” based on a new understanding of the interdependent relationship of men and women in achieving exaltation. Temple ordinances did not bestow ecclesiastical office on men or women, but introduced them jointly, when sealed, into an “order of the priesthood.” Here we come to the heart of the matter: the relationship of priesthood and temple. It is important to understand that Joseph Smith’s organization of and teachings to the Relief Society unfolded at precisely the time he was introducing the endowment, and he himself framed them in terms of that relationship.
On March 31st he declared to the Society that he was going to make of the society a “kingdom of priests.” This statement of course invokes Exodus 19:6 and takes us back to the reference in Moses in Doctrine and Covenants 84, the priesthood revelation, where it talks about entering into the presence of God, and this was Moses’s charge and by extension it’s now Joseph Smith’s mission. On April 28 he gave his most doctrinally dense and significant sermon to the Relief Society. He characterized it in his journal as a “lecture on the priesthood” showing how the “sisters would come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood.” To the sisters that day he arose and said that the purport of his being present on the occasion was to make observations respecting the priesthood and give instructions for the benefit of the Society. He stated that the Church is not now organized in its proper order and cannot be until the temple is completed and promised “that the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them, that they may be able to detect everything false.”
Less than two weeks later, he initiated a small group of close associates—all men—into the endowment. It took another sixteen months before women received the endowment, likely due to Emma’s fluctuating feelings about plural marriage and Joseph’s desire that she be the first woman to be endowed. But it is clear that the intention was always for women to be included. This is evidenced by the statement of Newel K. Whitney. He was very effusive, and he addressed the Relief Society just a couple of weeks after he was one of these first men to receive the endowment. He said, “Without the female all things cannot be restored to the Earth—it takes all to restore the priesthood.”
By the time of the prophet’s death, a few dozen men and women had received the endowment and other sealing ordinances. As reflected in the words of Joseph Smith’s statement that is canonized in Doctrine and Covenants 131, temple ordinances introduced men and women jointly into an “order of the priesthood.” So this group, this early group, that received these ordinances, met together frequently to receive temple related instructions, to perform ordinances, and to pray. At least some members of the group referred to it collectively as “the quorum.” As Jonathan Stapley and others have argued, this group understood themselves to be the priesthood—that is, they understood that temple ordinances created a network of people sealed in eternal relationships, and that network represented the structure of the celestial kingdom. That network was the priesthood – sort of back to that collective idea of priesthood.
A statement that appeared in the Times and Seasons in May 1842 captures this understanding. It’s attributed to the editor, who was nominally Joseph Smith at the time. We know John Taylor was doing most of the day to day writings, so it’s likely that it reflects collaboration between the two of them. This is how they expressed it: “The Heavenly Priesthood will unite with the earthly, to bring about those great purposes.” They’re looking forward to the completion of the temple and all of the blessings that this is going to bring. “And whilst we are thus united in the one common cause, to roll forth the kingdom of God, the heavenly Priesthood are not idle spectators, the Spirit of God will be showered down from above, and it will dwell in our midst.” So that is – there was a priesthood on each side of the veil.
So here we return, as I said, to the earlier point about the collective sense of the priesthood being people. But in the context of Nauvoo Temple teachings, the priesthood included women. Here again, because we are now so familiar with temple ordinances and procedures, we may miss the profound gendered implications of these developments. The essay notes that temple ordinances were unfolded in a context of expansive doctrinal developments: “Latter-day Saints came to understand that all people are children of heavenly parents and that it is the ultimate destiny of faithful men and women to become like them.” Joseph Smith taught that “marriage performed and solemnized and sealed by proper authority in temples would last into the eternities.” But it’s more than eternal marriage, as wonderful is that doctrine is.
The idea that men and women are interdependent in achieving exaltation, that ultimate salvation is not achieved alone – this was truly radical theology. Still is. Women are not saved by men or separately from men. They’re not merely appendages or afterthoughts. Women are central to the plan. The women and men who received these new ordinances and these new doctrines rejoiced in them and believed that they had found the key to understanding that statement by Paul, “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man in the Lord.” I couldn’t begin to calculate the number of times you see people in the nineteenth century quoting that statement and finding meaning in it as it is related to the temple.
As the essay notes, temple ordinances did not bestow ecclesiastical office on either men or women in the structure of the Church. They were all about creating kings and queens, priests and priestesses who would jointly rule and reign in the celestial kingdom. This brings us to the final point of the essay – this interdependence of men and women in accomplishing God’s work through his power – is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. As it points out, much has changed since the 1840s, both in the Church and society at large, in terms of women’s status. At the same time, some things have remained remarkably constant. Women’s organizations and women’s leadership within the structure of the Church, though they have certainly undergone permutations, are firmly established. We could say the same thing about men’s priesthood offices as well. There been many permutations in those kinds of things over the years. We have maintained the understanding of exaltation as a potential achieved jointly by men and women sealed in a covenant relationship. And for over 170 years, the work of the temple has been quietly carried on with women taking their absolutely essential place in that work.
So that’s the gospel topics essay—that’s the content and the context for how it was written, for what it says, for how we understand the teachings that Joseph Smith gave. So the central question we might ask now then, in relation to this and other discussions, is: What authority do we grant history? When someone says Joseph Smith said this or did this, what is being claimed or implied? Most historians would not make a simplistic argument that we should “restore” Joseph Smith’s ideas in the current Church. But this is often implied or explicitly claimed when his teachings are cited. On the other hand, those original ideas, many of which have unarguably faded or been reconfigured, do provide evidence of latent potential and meaning within the concepts that have become routinized in current practice. So it’s inevitable that their exploration will continue to raise questions.
This brings up the tension inherent in the concepts of Joseph Smith as the definitive foundational prophet of this dispensation versus the concept of continuing revelation—not just the concept of the doctrine. And I don’t mean to suggest that the two are incompatible. But if taken to extremes one can eclipse the other. And this is sometimes the case in discussions that appeal to historical sources to make an argument about current issues. Moreover, when we emphasize the principle of continuing revelation, we often do so with an implied construct of progressive or progress. That is, continuing revelation has brought us closer and closer to some perfect or absolute ideal of practice or understanding. And that’s probably true in many cases.
But what if continuing revelation also simply represents the Lord’s willingness to help us interpret and apply very capacious concepts like priesthood according to the needs and contexts of a different time? What if a concept and not just a concept, but an eternal reality of something like priesthood, is so broad and contains so much potential that as mortals we cannot ever comprehend or implement it in its fullness in this realm? Well then we would certainly need continuing revelation to guide us in understanding and using it in any given time.
By now it should be clear that drawing on historical sources to bolster any given argument—not least about women and priesthood—is not a simple proposition. History is essential if we want to understand how people thought, what happened, what changed over time, and how. But those historical facts do not compel current action. And our understanding of the past will always remain incomplete and tentative. This makes it problematic for us to simply import historical ideas and statements in service of current debates. Moreover, we can rarely find a historical precedent that does not contain some element that is foreign, unintelligible, or even distasteful to us. So regarding the current subject, for example, the people who embraced these radical expansive doctrines enacted through Nauvoo Temple ordinances, did so within a framework of male headship and female subordination that we have largely discarded. If we invoke Nauvoo era teachings as definitive on matters of women and priesthood, must we resurrect those ideals? Or, conversely, do they negate the parts that we find meaningful today? Of course not. Obviously not.
I would argue that history, sources such as the Nauvoo Relief Society teachings, are ultimately most useful to think with. They can help us understand how we got to the present. They can help us see things anew. They can give us ideas and inspiration, but they do not compel us. Ultimately, we need revelation to guide both our understanding of the past and our practice in the present.
I would like to also just reflect for a moment on how discussions of these issues, particularly about women and priesthood, play out and unfold in our community. I have seen, I think many of us have seen, a genuine divide among the Saints, especially women, between those who get it and those who don’t. Get what? you might ask. But that’s the point. Each side, those who see problems and questions and those who see simplicity and clarity, tends to believe they get something that the others don’t. And polarization quickly ensues. I want to appeal to us to truly listen to each other and exercise charity and empathy especially for those who struggle. Questions about women and priesthood, including questions about women giving blessings, are often dismissed as agitation by dissenters. And while there’s no doubt that that can be true, in my experience such questions often arise from a place of faith and a genuine desire to access and express the power of God – the same ideas that drove the early Latter-day Saint women.
Now I’m not advocating any particular practice or outcome, but I think we could consider and could benefit from considering why so many women seem to feel the current practices and structures do not give them full access to this power or still in some way leave them wanting. It’s easy to be dismissive and say they just don’t understand. Maybe. But is it entirely an individual problem? Is it just woman’s fault for being insufficiently humble? Or spiritual? Are there other factors we might consider? Again, I’m not advocating a specific agenda, but I’m speaking from the experience of someone who has engaged very deeply with these issues and has seen the very real pain and faith and desire behind them. We’ve not entirely worked out the relationship between theology, ecclesiology, and culture—especially in relation to gender. And it may not be possible to do that in this life. This ought to make us humble, compassionate, and careful in how we approach these questions. Thank you.
Question: Are there future plans for more gospel topics essays? If so, what topics are being considered?
Answer: The short answer is no, not right now. And if there were, I really couldn’t say anything about it. So.
I’m going to take some of these general questions about gospel topics essays first.
Question: I’ve heard of some members who are just in encountering difficult issues for the first time on the topics pages. Is there an unintended consequence of raising questions rather than answering them or maybe in the attempt to answer them?
Answer: And the answer to that is yes. Yes, we’re very aware of that, that there’s going to be a balance of people who have heard of these issues and are bothered by them, people who’ve never heard of them, and now they’re bothered by them. But on the whole we felt that it was important and beneficial for the Church to own these topics and to speak to them. And we did this project with an eye to the rising generation – that what is perhaps a difficult or painful departure for one generation will become the baseline for the next generation. And so our children can grow up knowing about seer stones and plural marriage and things like that, as just part of their baseline understanding about the Church. And so, to the extent that it is troubling to some people to encounter these things, we’ve done our best to try to mitigate that. But, on the balance, we feel like it’s important. And I would just say another thing that I’ve noticed as being part of this project and the work that I do. We deal a lot with people who have questions and with issues and with difficulties. And while a lot of times the facts get cited as the problem, I don’t know that that’s always true. I think, and again I don’t want to be judgmental or uncompassionate here about very real issues, but you know the facts are the facts. I work in a building of people who know all of the facts and who have testimonies and temple recommends and you know, and so forth. So I think a lot of times there are deeper issues going on. And I don’t say that dismissively. I think it’s important to have the facts out there, but I also think it’s important to help people work through what their unpacked assumptions are and what the deeper issues are that may be driving discomfort when any given fact comes to light.
Question: Researcher Jonathan Stapley in The Power of Godliness, and I did refer to Jonathan and his book The Power of Godliness which came out this year. It’s a history, he calls it a Mormon cosmology and liturgy, but it’s how Mormon practices reflected our understandings of authority and priesthood over time. It’s a little book, but it’s an amazing contribution. So, in that book, the writer makes clear that the priesthood given to women in the temple is an additional priesthood meant for use in the eternities of the temple. And I can see how we could get that out of it. It’s not to be confused with the Aaronic/Melchizedek Priesthood. So do you feel the Gospel Topics essay “Joseph’s Teachings” intended earthly priesthood for women?
Answer: Well, I can speak to the Gospel Topics part of that, which is that we didn’t really intend to argue one way or another for any particular issue or outcome. We’re historians. We tell you what’s in the sources. We do our best to put them in context. We didn’t, you know, write with an agenda. It’s been interesting to see how discussions about priesthood have unfolded over the last few years. And Elder Oaks has kind of shifted and kind of taken us in an interesting direction with an expansion of the idea of authority, and the relationship of authority and priesthood and trying to include women in that. I can’t speak to how that will unfold. [unintelligible audience comment] The book I just cited is by Jonathan A Stapley. It’s called The Power of Godliness. It’s published by Oxford University Press. I think they have it in the bookstore. I requested that they would.
Gosh, these are all good questions. Okay.
Question: Do you see that the Gospel Topics essays are very elementary, and do you believe they should have greater detail?
Answer: As a historian, I think they should have a lot more detail. But there was a balance to be struck in what was appropriate and how we were conscious of writing to a wide variety of members with different education levels and backgrounds. And so we were trying to strike the right balance, making sure that they were detailed enough but not bogging down. And that’s why we have the footnotes. We have links to other sources so the additional detail is there for those who want to pursue that.
Okay, let’s see. All right. Here’s one that I’m not sure how to respond to.
Question: The Church chilled discussion of Mother in Heaven by excommunicating members in the 1890s. That’s true in general. There were a lot of discussions about women and priesthood that played into some difficult cultural conflicts. What’s the context today of discussions about Mother in Heaven?
Answer: I can’t speak for the Church. I don’t even know what that would mean. It has been interesting to see changing sensibilities about this and how, just in recent years, references to heavenly parents have become much more common in General Conference and official discourse in the Church. I think it represents a recognition that we need to think about women, and we need to include women in our discourse. I’m not really sure what else to say about that.
Question: Why do you think God didn’t see to it that scripture was more explicit that there is a Heavenly Mother?
Answer: It’s a great question. I don’t know. I would hesitate to speculate. We could get into a whole theory of scripture there.
Question: Who decided what topics were to be included in the essay topics? What has been the response of the essays?
Answer: The topics were developed through discussion of this committee through a sense of knowing what the discussions were that were going on, to a sense of understanding that we needed to do better in the Google wars. And knowing what the topics were that were driving those kinds of online discussions that are, that can be, very damaging. And the response to the essays has, frankly, been pretty wide. It’s been pretty varied. On the whole I think it’s been quite positive. It still amazes me how many people don’t know about them. And so that’s one of the reasons that we’re here today, is to make sure that word gets out about the work that’s being done in the department and all the great resources that are available. I think a lot of people, whatever they think about this specific contents of the essays, found it very exciting and refreshing to have something from the Church that was this laid out and in this tone and in this manner and this forthrightly. That those are some of the things that I’ve heard.
Question: And what is the most authoritative statement you know of that restricts certain callings like bishop to men?
Answer: And that gets into a really long discussion as well. Okay, all right. I’ve been warned to go on vacation at the 1st of August next year. You know it’s a really good question, and it’s one that’s going to keep coming up. If it’s male priesthood, and what senses is priesthood male? If that’s a Divine pattern, then where is the definitive source for that? Some of the revelations—I’m thinking of section 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants – come close where they talk about priesthood being passed down from the fathers to the sons. But there’s definitely room to clarify that.