Throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, women have played an important role in it. These women worked through the authority of the priesthood to accomplish amazing things. During the publication run of the Woman’s Exponent, from 1872 to 1914, there are several representations of women acting with priesthood authority. Through the pages of the newspaper, both women and men provided insight into the essence of priesthood in this dispensation and how women related to it. From administrative organization, to healing the sick, to the priesthood as it relates to the temple, many aspects of the priesthood were given voice in the issues of the Woman’s Exponent.
Authority to Administer in the Relief Society1
Beginning in the first issue of the Exponent, and reprinted on occasion in subsequent issues, Eliza R. Snow published a historical sketch of the Nauvoo Relief Society.2 During the founding meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith outlined the responsibilities of the organization and organized the women similar to a priesthood quorum. The sisters were charged with encouraging their male counterparts in doing good, caring for the poor, acting with charity, and promoting morality among female Latter-day Saints. The men in priesthood quorums had already been charged with visiting the homes of Church members and encouraging them to pray.3 Both men and women were to care for the spiritual welfare of their fellow Saints while encouraging them to do good works.
Joseph Smith clearly outlined an administrative structure for Relief Society that was in some ways similar to the structure of priesthood quorums. “He proposed that the sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two counselors; that he would ordain them, and let them preside over the Society, just as the Presidency preside over the Church.” Not only did Joseph Smith clearly outline the main responsibilities of the group, but he also provided for presiding officers to see that those responsibilities were carried out. He used terms traditionally associated with the priesthood: “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.”4 This structure, as outlined by Joseph Smith, set up a female parallel to the male priesthood quorums both in ministering and in organizational structure. However, instead of being governed solely by their priesthood-holding male counterparts, Joseph wanted the women within the Nauvoo Relief Society to administrate over the organization themselves.
In the spring of 1844, amid rising tensions in Nauvoo, the Relief Society was discontinued. Two decades after the Saints arrived in Utah, Brigham Young called for the reestablishment of the Relief Society. The following year, Eliza R. Snow was solicited as the champion of the cause. It was not until June 1880 that she and her selected counselors were formally ratified as leaders.
In September 1880 Snow and her counselors were set apart by John Taylor, who had presented their names for a sustaining vote. This required priesthood blessings for each of the sisters, and those blessings were subsequently published in the Woman’s Exponent. The publication of such blessings seems unusual to Church members today, but they provide interesting insights. They provide a glimpse into the thinking of certain priesthood leaders regarding leaders of the Relief Society and the nature of the authority bestowed on them. Prior to setting the sisters apart, John Taylor explained that the setting apart did not constitute an ordination to a priesthood office but that these women had a portion of the priesthood in connection to their husbands. Taylor set Snow apart to “preside over the Relief Societies in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This calling imbued her with “power and authority.” It further outlined her responsibilities to “expound the Scriptures, and to bless, elevate and strengthen [her] sisters.”5
Healing the Sick
Aside from administrative authority to direct Relief Society work, female utilization of the priesthood was largely confined to the temple. However, there are some notable exceptions. Healing the sick, which is associated with male priesthood holders today, was understood differently in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For a period of time, a subset of women practiced the art of healing. Dating back to Nauvoo and into the late 19th century, prophets instructed that healing was a gift of the spirit. “For women, blessing the sick was a natural extension of their work as the primary nurses and caregivers in times of illness. In particular, Latter-day Saint women often anointed and blessed other women in cases of pregnancy and childbirth.”6
During the July 1880 Salt Lake Stake Relief Society meeting, wherein Eliza R. Snow and her counselors were set apart, a special promise was given to first counselor Zina D. H. Young. In her setting-apart blessing, John Taylor stated, “Thou shalt have the gift to heal the sick.”7 Healing the sick, in this context, was a special spiritual gift bestowed upon Zina. Her utilization of this gift became an avenue through which she cared for the poor and acted with charity in very personal ways. Both as a counselor to Eliza R. Snow and beyond, Zina had many opportunities to minister to and heal women, embodying the essence of what Relief Society meant.
Questions regarding sisters’ participation in healing continued, and the Exponent provided an effective medium through which to communicate answers to questions. In September 1884 a question-and-answer column was published in the Exponent with responses provided by Eliza R. Snow. After being asked whether or not setting apart was required for sisters to be able to administer to the sick, Snow replied:
It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with all mighty power.8
In her response, Snow quickly associates the spiritual gift of healing with the temple endowment—the apex of female connection to the priesthood. In the temple, women and men are endowed with power. Those women who were obedient to promises made in the temple had access to additional blessings in the eyes of Snow.
In an address given at a special meeting of the Relief Society (and published in the Exponent), Apostle Franklin D. Richards also emphasized the relationship between temple ordinances and increased access to blessings. He declared: “There was one thing that our wives were not made special partakers of, and that was the ordination to the various orders of the priesthood which were conferred upon us. Aside from that, our sisters share with us any and all of the ordinances of the holy anointing, endowments, sealings, sanctifications and blessings that we have been made partakers of.”9 In other words, while women may not have been ordained to priesthood offices, they shared equal access to all of the blessings and privileges allowed by faithfulness to covenants made in the temple.
Blessings of the Temple
Beginning with Emma Smith in Nauvoo, there has been a strong relationship between Relief Society presidents and temple work. Presidents serving on a Churchwide level, including Emma Smith and continuing through the administration of Bathsheba Smith, oversaw female temple workers.10 Thus, these women directed not only Relief Society work for the Church but also temple work for women in the Church. Bathsheba Smith, in particular, often spoke publicly about her work in the Endowment House and temples, several instances of which appeared in the Exponent. In 1905, while speaking at the General Relief Society Conference, she stated:
I am happy in my labors, but I like to work in the temple—that seems to be my work. . . . I was in the Nauvoo temple from the first day to the last, nearly every day, as long as we worked there; and I have been in the Endowment House about seventeen years, working, and other places; the Manti and Logan temples I have worked in and now I have been in the Salt Lake temple twelve years. . . . I love the temple work.
Not only did Bathsheba love her work in the temple, but she encouraged the women of the Church to participate in temple ordinances for themselves and for the dead. “I am sure you will never be sorry for it,” she promised.11
In 1905, when this address was given, some women in the Church were already regularly working in the temple. The Exponent documents some of their meaningful experiences. A memorial essay published in the Exponent highlighted Presendia Lathrop Kimball’s life, including her involvement in temple work. Kimball, as quoted in the memorial essay, explained: “Sometime in the fall of 1851 I was in delicate health and was obliged to retire from the duties of the Endowment House which had been so beneficial to me, though I still felt the blessings I had received therein accompanied me to my home and in the daily routine of daily life. I was so happy I scarcely knew how to be thankful enough for the blessings God had bestowed upon me.”12 This example, although specific to Kimball, illustrated the feelings of joy and fulfillment women received through working in the temple.
While women throughout the Church found different ways to serve and care for others, the height of their efforts was manifested through temple work, both for the living and for the dead. In the temple, like in their Relief Societies, they were given power and authority to oversee the female work of the Church, including ministering to the sick and the poor. Through Relief Society administration, healing, and temple work, Latter-day Saint women both acted in cooperation with priesthood holders and were authorized to act for themselves. Their efforts, both among their fellow Relief Society sisters and beyond, can still be explored within the Woman’s Exponent today.
Top Image: Leading women of Zion, circa 1867