A Kingdom of Priests

On 30 March 1842, Joseph Smith spoke to the Relief Society. He said that he “was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul[‘]s day” (Citation).

This post analyzes Joseph Smith’s statement. It assumes that he meant “kingdom of priests” in a fairly literal manner and applied it specifically to the Relief Society. I’m going to anticipate and respond to objections to these assumptions before I get to the statement itself.

  1. First objection: he was speaking metaphorically of a kingdom of priests. I do not think this is the best reading because:
    1. Joseph Smith generally did not take Old Testament phrases such as “kingdom of priests” metaphorically but rather literally (would that he had thought that polygamy was a metaphor for something else!).
    2. Another use of the phrase “kingdom of priests” by Joseph Smith implies a more literal usage (citation).
    3. Joseph Smith had just said that the Relief Society should “move according to the ancient priesthood.” While by itself I don’t think that this statement would prove that Joseph Smith saw the Relief Society as a priesthood, it provides another layer of evidence that Joseph Smith was not speaking metaphorically about the Relief Society as a kingdom of priests.
    4. This statement was heavily modified before inclusion in the History of the Church; the changes make it so that Joseph is speaking about the church in general and not the Relief Society (citation; the easiest way to find the right paragraph is to search for the phrase “kingdom of priests”). There is no explanation for the modifications had the statement been understood as metaphorical; the changes only make sense if the statement was taken literally and not thought to mesh well with then-current LDS practice.
  1. Second objection: in Exodus 19:6, which is the only canonized use of the phrase “kingdom of priests,” the Lord tells Moses to tell the people that they will be a kingdom of priests if they are obedient. But, as we know, not everyone (not even all the males) were priests in Moses’ time. Hence, being a “kingdom of priests” does not mean that each member of the community is a priest. Hence, Joseph Smith’s use of the phrase does not mean that the members of the Relief Society would be priests. My response: I agree with the analysis of Ex 19:6, but not its application to Joseph Smith’s use. In Moses’ case, an entire group of people is addressed and only some of them would be priests—this is true. But for the parallel to hold for Joseph Smith, then he would be addressing the Relief Society and some of them (maybe not all of them, but some of them–not none of them) would be priests.

With that out of the way, we can get down to business. By necessity of having only a very brief statement, everything I write here has an element of speculation and is therefore tentative. Of course I wish we had a three-hour discourse where Joseph Smith explained in detail precisely what he meant, but we don’t. It seems to me that our options are to think about what we do have or to ignore it because it isn’t as clear as we might wish. I’m going with the former option, even if it means weighing some scanty evidence and making some best-guesses.

The first issue to address is this: when Joseph Smith refers to the kingdom of priests in Enoch’s and Paul’s days, is he referring to male-only groups or to groups of women?

If he is referring to male-only groups, then it is interesting that he in announcing his intention to have the females in his day be a kingdom of priests as they were. However, I don’t think that this is the better reading for two reasons:

1. While Joseph’s intention was to make the Relief Society into a kingdom of priests, he did that in the context of the Relief Society, not with the women combined with the men. He envisioned the women as a kingdom of priests, but also as a society of women–not a mixed-gender society. Gender was a relevant category in the work he was doing here, even if being female was not incompatible with being part of a kingdom of priests. So I don’t think he is talking about male-only kingdoms of priests in prior times, because that would not have made sense of the creation of a female-only group here. Had he envisioned these groups from Enoch’s and Paul’s time as male-only, then presumably he would have invited the women to disband the Relief Society and join in with the men. But that isn’t what he did.

2. There is no logical reason to mention Enoch and Paul (as opposed to the far-more-logical Aaron and Jesus) if one wanted to refer to times when men were organized as priests.

Several aspects of Joseph Smith’s statement interest me. First, why mention Paul and Enoch? There are two possibilities here:

  1. The only two times women were organized as a kingdom of priests were in Enoch’s and Paul’s days.
  2. Women were so organized at other times, but there is something Joseph Smith wanted to highlight by calling attention specifically to Paul and Enoch.

I’m not sure how to determine which of those two readings is preferable. Perhaps attention is drawn to Enoch to suggest that one cannot achieve a Zion society without the women being properly organized as a kingdom of priests. Or perhaps the point is that only nearly-perfect societies will have women organized as a kingdom of priests, but that idea is hard to reconcile with a kingdom of priests in Paul’s day, since he lived in a time when the nascent church was plunging into apostasy. So maybe the point of mentioning both Enoch and Paul is that women can be organized into a kingdom of priests in a variety of spiritual circumstances. I’m not sure. I’m also open to the possibility that there is no special significance to mentioning them as opposed to leaders from other eras.

Here’s the interesting thing about the reference to Enoch: you can quibble about Paul (and I will in a minute), but there is not one word about women in reference to Enoch (OK, his daughters get a passing mention in the genealogy—see Genesis 5:22—but that’s it). Even when more information is given about Enoch in modern revelation, no mention of women in his time is made (see D & C 107:48-57 and Moses 6-7), although there is a promise that more information about Enoch will be forthcoming. But Joseph Smith tells us that during Enoch’s time, the women were organized as a kingdom of priests. Note this carefully: there is not one canonized word letting us know about this female kingdom of priests in Enoch’s day, but Joseph Smith lets the women of Nauvoo know that it existed. In other words, absence of evidence in the canonized accounts is not, per the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith, a reliable indicator of a lack of female priests.

(As an aside, in some of the later non-canonical writings about Enoch, there is the idea that some of the sins of his time involved transmitting secrets and mysteries to women which should not have been given to them. As with all of this type of literature, it is impossible to determine if these stories were generated centuries later out of whole cloth or whether they contains a grain or two of truth based on the actual historical events. One is tempted to speculate that legends of women priests from Enoch’s time morphed, as sensibilities changed, into the idea that the women were given unauthorized knowledge. But this is extremely speculative. Citation [see 16.3]; see also this.)

As far as Paul goes, there is nothing in the canonical writings that speaks directly of the existence of a female kingdom of priests. Again, one conclusion is that lack of solid canonized evidence of female priests should not be interpreted as lack of female priests. But with Paul, unlike with Enoch, there are a few hints that women were occupying roles that we would consider coherent with the idea of a kingdom of priests. There is great debate about these texts (partially because of their inherent ambiguity and partially because their interpretation has very high stakes for the debates over the roles of women in the various Christian churches), but Phoebe may (or may not) have been a deacon (Romans 16:1-2) and Junia may (or may not) have been an apostle (Romans 16:7). Again, this is too scanty of evidence upon which to conclude that there was a kingdom of priests in Paul’s day, but that is precisely my point: we would never conclude such from the canonical record. We would conclude such from Joseph Smith’s words. Therefore, Joseph Smith has taught us that women have occupied roles far more expansive than the canon reflects.

One thing that interests me about Joseph Smith’s statement is that he mentions Paul and Enoch when the logical referent would have been Moses, given that it is from Moses’ time (and only from Moses’ time) that we have a canonical reference to the idea of a “kingdom of priests.” So why doesn’t he say “as in Moses’ day”? I’m not sure. Perhaps because the promise of a kingdom of priests—which was contingent upon obedience (see Exodus 19:5)–was not realized and so there was no actual kingdom of priests, female or otherwise. (Maybe if the people had been obedient, everyone—not just the Levites—would have been priests; compare Numbers 11:29 and Joel 2:28.) But I’m just speculating.

Because of the way Joseph Smith’s statement was edited in the History of the Church, the idea of the Relief Society as a “kingdom of priests” was not a feature of LDS thought during the history of the Church. But the idea of associating woman and priesthood was not completely foreign to the early church. Brigham Young preached, “Now, brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God” (Citation). Later, belief about women and priesthood morphed to the idea that women held it jointly with their husbands: “Is it possible that we have the holy priesthood and our wives have none of it? Do you not see, by what I have read, that Joseph [Smith] desired to confer these keys of power upon them in connection with their husbands?” (Apostle Franklin D. Richards, Woman’s Exponent, 1 September 1888). As late as 1907, Joseph F. Smith would write, “It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, ‘By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested,’” (Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era, February 1907).

Unfortunately, I don’t think the extant records make clear entirely what Joseph Smith envisioned for the Relief Society. But we do have this one data point from Joseph Smith’s time: “Some little thing was circulating in the [Relief] Society, that some [women] were not going right in laying hands on the sick . . . [Joseph Smith] ask’d the Society if they could not see . . . that wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them— and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues” (Citation). Susa Young Gates would write much later that “the privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet in those first [Relief Society] meetings have never been granted to women in full even yet” (Young Women’s Journal, March 1905).

This is probably the part of the post where you expect me to say something like “and therefore Mormon women should exercise the priesthood.” Well, sorry, but no. I personally vacillate between thinking that (1) a male-only priesthood is an unfounded tradition of our fathers and (2) a male-only priesthood is a divinely-inspired, necessary corrective in a fallen world where masculinity is constructed in perfectly horrible ways. So I’m not advocating for anything here; I’m just thinking about what Joseph was thinking about. (And remember that what he was doing was organizing the women differently and separately from how he was organizing the men.) And maybe trying to make a chapter of the Restoration a little better known. In the recent NYTimes article about Mormon women, General Relief Society President Linda Burton was quoted as saying that the church stands to benefit as “men’s vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete” (Citation). I think Joseph Smith’s vision of the capacity of women was perhaps broader than we have understood. I am grateful to belong to a church that believes that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. I suspect we will all—feminists, traditionalists, and fence-sitters such as myself–be a little surprised at what those things may be.






21 comments for “A Kingdom of Priests

  1. Beautiful analysis. To me, this points more to the intent of a gendered Priesthood than anything else. I, too, look forward to when we have a more complete view of this, that we as a people and a Church may move ever upward. Organization is always difficult, and one wonders why there were no women called as apostles in Josephs time, even after this pronouncement and the organization of the RS. There was certainly ample opportunity. Could the possibility of a female leader have been even harder to accept than polygamy?

  2. Ah, very nice! It’s useful to point out where our assumptions of “the status quo has been such since the days of Joseph Smith” fail, without using that history as a social weapon.

    I’ve got some good notes on Exo 19:6 somewhere. As I recall, there’s a minority view that it should be translated differently.

  3. Frank,

    Actually, there wasn’t really “ample” opportunity. Only one apostle was ordained between the 1842 organization of the Relief Society and Joseph’s martyrdom – Amasa M. Lyman. The Quorum was actually rather stable through most of the Nauvoo years. Lyman was only ordained because Orson Pratt was excommunicated for 5 months, then readmitted to the Church and the Quorum. Lyman’s then removed from the Quorum and added as a counselor in the First Presidency a few weeks later.

    Now, that’s not to say that one opportunity isn’t a big enough window for a woman to be called, it certain could have been. However Lyman’s ordination came only a few months after the organization of the RS. Joseph (and the Lord) may have thought that just organizing the RS was enough boat rocking for right then and so delayed. Same caveat that Julie used: this is just speculation. I’m not sure of any of this. Just meditating on what may have been going through Joseph’s head at the time.

  4. I read Joseph’s references to Paul and Enoch to purposely exclude Moses – highlighting the major differences between their eras: Enoch and Paul had the Melchizedek Priesthood and Temple Ordinances among them, and Moses’ people had the preparatory law only.

    Assuming that reading is correct, it seems that Joseph is once again pointing to the temple, and how to more fully prepare oneself to serve there. For the men, we have Priesthood quorums to prepare us for temple service and to officiate in temple ordinances; the women need a directly complementary organization to prepare them to officiate in the temple ordinances, and the Relief Society is that vehicle.

    At least that is how I make sense of the 2 paragraphs preceding Joseph’s above-quoted statement (e.g. “only accept the worthy into the society, “select Society of the virtuous”, “principle object to purge our iniquity”, and “when instructed, we must obey”.).

  5. FWIW, I suspect that the reference to Paul is a textual reference, specifically to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which I think is a pretty key priesthood text for Joseph Smith. Not sure how to read Hebrews into this discussion, but I suspect that is the bit of Paul he’s thinking about.

    (And yes, I know that Hebrews in all likelihood is not a Pauline text, but Joseph Smith clearly thought it was.)

  6. And this is where I become a caricature of myself and link to something about the “cosmological priesthood“. I have a chapter coming out late this year and am working on another that gets into this in more detail and specifically the conceptions shifted and evolved with time. But I think that there are boatloads of extant documents from the period that show how this statement is situated entirely in JS’s burgeoning temple cosmology.

  7. Interesting analysis. However, on page 2 of your citation (Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes), there is the following note:

    “Prest. Smith propos’d that the ladies [gentlemen] withdraw, that the Society might proceed to business”

    Zooming in on the original, you will see that the word ‘ladies’ is crossed out and a word is written in above it (which appears where the [gentleman] entry comes from).

    That seems to indicate that Joseph Smith was speaking to a group consisting of men and women. Thus when he states “he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day”, and was speaking to a mixed company, it could mean that he really meant that he was going to make the Society at Nauvoo, or the society of Latter Day Saints, (a society of men and women) a kingdom of priests rather than just the Relief Society specifically.

    That line of thinking appears to align better about what we learn of the priesthood in D & C 107:40-52 (only part of which is quoted here):

    “The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made.

    This order was instituted in the days of Adam, and came down by lineage…”

  8. I should probably stop myself.

    I’m travelling so can’t check, but I’d bet that the pencil is from when the historian’s office borrowed the minutes in the 1850s for the JS history (this is when all those edits were introduced). Probably GAS.

    D&C 107 was compiled long before the Nauvoo cosmology was even close to being revealed. I’ve written about that but will restrain myself.

    Thanks for your patience.

  9. Jason, I think it is pretty clear that his use of the word “society” in this particular context can refer only to the Relief Society. Otherwise, I don’t know how you can make sense of his previous reference to the too-quick growth of the society, etc. Also, the fact that Joseph Smith withdraws supports the idea that it is the men who withdraw so the “Society” can get down to business. (Meaning that “ladies” might have been written first, but was an error.) Thus, the word “society” is short for Relief Society and not a general reference to society at large here.

  10. I don’t know the current scholarship on the issue and look forward to J Stapley’s paper. However it does seem like there’s some round about reasons to think that he was organizing the Relief Society in a manner somewhat akin to how women were brought into Masonry in Adoptive Masonry. There are quite a few interesting parallels between Adoptive Masonry and both the temple and Relief Society.


    One can push the Adoptive Masonry parallels too much of course, just as often people push the Masonic connection to the temple a bit too much. (There’s a lot different in the temple) However the first Relief Society meeting was held in the Masonic hall the day after Joseph had risen in Masonry there in a controversial fashion. Some of the terminology used for the Relief Society had the time had pretty clear Masonic parallels too.

    In any case regardless of the history I think the Apostles would want pretty clear new revelations to significantly change current practice. After all it is hard to know independent of revelation how many of the changes made by Brigham Young on up through Heber J. Grant were correct or not. Likewise we are missing so much about Joseph’s views more revelation is needed. Also I tend to think 19th century Mormons tended to see Mormonism through perhaps too Masonic a lens. i.e. I tend to see a lot of temple changes removing certain Masonic elements as inspired removal of accidental trappings.

  11. Julie, do your two positions of the final paragraph have to be incompatible? Perhaps the current males-only policy derives largely from the traditions of our fathers *and* the Lord lets us keep it for now because it’s helping lots of guys overcome the natural man in ways that are helpful to themselves, their families and communities.

  12. So what has always puzzled me is if Joseph intended to make the Relief Society a kingdom of priests as of Enoch’s day, and if this implies ordination then why didn’t he do it during the two years that followed before his death? While there might not have been opportunity to ordain a woman an Apostle due to the stability of the Twelve, there was plenty of opportunity to ordain them a Deacon, Teacher or Priest, Elder or even Bishop if that was intended. At the time, none of these offices were intended for youth as the first three are today. He had time to ordain African Americans to the priesthood between 1836 and 1844. So if the parallel that is used, that just as blacks would received the priesthood so would women, then why wasn’t it done?

    Now, it’s possible that given the extraordinary tasks that had to be accomplished – building a temple, sending out missionaries, teaching the temple ordinances, starting polygamy, dealing with legal challenges, and leading the Church – that he simply could only do so much and ran out of time to complete what he proposed to accomplish. It’s recognized that he saw women as having the right to administer to the sick along side their brethren / husbands without any ordination as has been mentioned in the OP. Women could even administer to the sick on their own.

    As it is, we are left attempting to read the tea leaves and absent further revelation on the matter – unless Stapley has some bombshell to unveil – we can’t draw any firm conclusions from what Joseph meant with this phrase. It could intend ordination or it could intend priesthood power through the temple ordinances or it could intend something else.

  13. The Ordain Women campaign achieved their goal in making their position and goals known to the presidency of the church. It can be argued whether or not the means they took in achieving this end were dignified; it is unclear if they understood, or cared, that by using public/media avenues they would create negative coverage of the church, thus hindering missionary work and creating internal dissent. However, be that as it may, I respect these women for pursuing something they believe to be right, despite the criticism and discord it has created within the church.

    But, as mentioned, they achieved all that anyone wanting to make a change to the church can hope for. Their cause and message was made clear to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. The topic was clearly discussed, pondered, meditated on, prayed over, and a clear answer was received and relayed to the church. At this time it is not the will of the Lord to ordain women to the priesthood. Novels can be written on the essential role of women in the church, of their divine nature, and how within the church they are to be treated with the utmost respect, but this does not change the fact that currently, their role does not encompass priesthood ordination.

    It is at this point in these women’s journey that my disappointment in their actions begins. To continue this campaign, to continue to picket, to continue seeking media coverage (as if enough voices of mortal men and women can change the will and position of God), and to continue to stir up contention (intentionally or otherwise) from within and without the church, in direct opposition to the words of church leaders, tells us that these sisters no longer care about the truth, neither do they believe in modern day revelation, nor trust in the Lord’s appointed leaders. They clearly have not come into this cause hoping for change yet willing to accept God’s will, but with the mindset that their efforts will only cease once their will is realized and their aims are achieved.

    Yet I believe these sisters are just that, my sisters. I do not wish for them to leave the fold or stray from the gospel that I love and know to be true. I hope they find peace in the answer the Brethren have given. However, if they feel that they have received inspiration and testimony that their cause is true, then they cannot still believe that this church is true, in which the leaders, set apart as prophets, seers, and revelators , have told them that this is not the Lord’s verdict. There are churches that ordain women to the priesthood, and perhaps in joining one of these churches these women will find the resolution they were looking for. Perhaps they will realize they were mistaken. But I pray that they will not continue to try to force the hand of the Lord and unrightfully change the gospel that I treasure. I pray that this discord will end, that church can be as one body again, and that the work of the Lord can roll forward to all corners of the earth.

  14. “The topic was clearly discussed, pondered, meditated on, prayed over, and a clear answer was received and relayed to the church.”

    Where, exactly, is this clear??

  15. We are meant to infer this, clearly, from the silence, Kristine. Weren’t you lis… — er, that is, were you listening??

  16. I *knew* I should have taken that class on the hermeneutics of silence and PR boilerplate in grad school!!

  17. “The topic was clearly discussed, pondered, meditated on, prayed over, and a clear answer was received and relayed to the church.”

    Huge echo of what Kristine said. The generous interpretation would be to ignore the clear vibe of, “what an impertinent question that should never have been asked and doesn’t merit serious consideration” with respect to the question of female ordination itself.

    I will grant you that they have been trying, in their own way, to address some of the hurt. But in doing so they have failed to really listen to what the hurt people are saying, and consequently failed to offer any real comfort or correction of wrongs. The best one can say about it is that sweetly and earnestly putting a band-aid on someone’s elbow when they have a gunshot in their knee is maybe.better than nothing.

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