Last year, Taylor Petrey published a book called Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Mormonism and it became popular and got flattering reviews. I saw no critical reviews and no response from the Church's self-appointed apologetics organizations, but I recognized from the book's impact that they couldn't just ignore it like they did Moroni and the Swastika. I reached out to Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship - even before I lost respect for FAIR, Interpreter was the organization I trusted most to do an intellectually honest job - and said they ought to put someone on it. On August 23, Steve Densley responded that "a reviewer has been working on 'Tabernacles of Clay.' Apparently, he has found that there is so much to say about that book that we will likely be publishing a number of reviews that address the book in sections. It sounds like we should have the first part ready for publication within the next few weeks." So I waited a few weeks, then a few more weeks, then a few more weeks, and then I concluded that they had found it too difficult and given up.
On March 5 of this year, they published the first and so far only review from Gregory L. Smith. It's very long and has 504 footnotes. Brother Smith spends most of it documenting Dr. Petrey's misuse of sources in the first two chapters. "So serious are these problems that," he writes, "on one level, it is astonishing that this work would be published by a university press. Granted, the book’s ideological agenda and subject matter is popular in some quarters,4 and such works have their place — if they are honest with themselves and their readers about what they are.5 But what Tabernacles offers is not good history. Tabernacles of Clay is a good argument for the necessity of review by experts in both the theology and history of the Church of Jesus Christ when academic presses do 'Mormon' studies. Experts in queer and gender theory might find it compelling; anyone familiar with the religious sources ought to know better." He isn't wrong. Nonetheless, the sources themselves are so interesting that I still wanted to read the book with this caution in mind. So I did.
For this post I will focus only on part of his conclusion that I wanted to share because it stuck with me:
One can expect further pressures on LDS institutions and culture as they continue to swim within a broader environment that is still moving away from so-called traditional values. Resisting these trends, church leaders have expressed dim prospects for any considered change on teachings regarding same-sex marriage.22 At the same time, these teachings are producing an increasing strain on church members, especially younger members who have grown up in a world that is more open and accepting of nonnormative identities and relationships. When recently surveyed, 60 percent of regularly attending millennial Mormons (eighteen to twenty-six years old) and 53 percent of older millennial Mormons (twenty-seven to thirty-nine years old) believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Latter-day Saint support is growing rapidly in all age groups. In 2016, overall Mormon support for this statement was at 48 percent, double what it was just ten years before. Among Mormon millennials who have left the church, they cite “LGBT issues” as the third most important reason they disaffiliated. The generation gap is massive on this issue and has only grown, despite persistent LDS messaging from the top.23
No lies detected. I saw Lynne Thigpen portray a police chief on the game show "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" before I was old enough to know what police were, so it never in my life would have occurred to me that women (or black people) shouldn't be police chiefs. For example.
The ban on female ordination is not, strictly speaking, analogous to the ban on ordination of males of African descent. Black men and women before 1978 were also denied the temple ordinances necessary for eternal families and exaltation, and were said to be under a curse because of things they did before they were born. (On the other hand, black men before 1978 could serve in Sunday school presidencies, which don't require priesthood, but women still can't. Figure that one out.) I actually agree with the logic that people don't have to be the same to be equal, and as long as everyone in the Church is eligible for the same eternal blessings, their role or position in the earthly organization doesn't matter. The President of the Church is no greater than someone who's given a useless made-up calling to make them feel included. So I consider priesthood ordination a far less important issue than whether women are treated as equal partners in marriage and whether they can pursue careers outside the home without men like my bishop calling them to repentance. I'm totally agnostic on whether it should happen at all.
Nonetheless, I have little patience anymore for the reasons people make up to explain why women aren't ordained, reasons that are usually patronizing to women, demeaning to men, or both. And if you go back a few decades, the reasons just become even more blatantly sexist and that should be quite a red flag about how made up they are altogether. Rodney Turner's 1972 book Woman and the Priesthood taught that, notwithstanding "[w]e believe men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression", women are punished for Eve's transgression to this day. Nowadays we've made the different-but-equal paradigm work by changing the definition of "preside" and disregarding the statements well into the 1970s (or in the temple until 2019) that unambiguously assigned men to a position of authority over their wives. Anyway, I'm not an activist for women's ordination but I do enjoy annoying people by pointing out the inadequacy of the reasons they make up to justify the lack thereof. Michael Otterson was honest enough to cite the one and only actual known reason: precedent.
And while I'm on the subject,
God may, in fact, have some legitimate reason for this division of labor. Even that wouldn't necessarily preclude it from changing in the future. I don't believe for a moment that women's anatomical or mental differences make them intrinsically, eternally, and divinely incompatible with priesthood ordination. I find the notion absurd. I don't predict, as such, a change to this policy within my lifetime, and yet I won't be the slightest bit surprised if it happens either. There have already been several adjustments to the scope and visibility of women's role in the Church within the last decade, largely in response to Ordain Women and other internal feminist movements (copied from my Brief History of Women in the Church of Jesus Christ):
October 6, 2012 - President Thomas S. Monson lowers the minimum age of missionary service for women from 21 to 19.
April 3, 2013 - The Church announces, "The role of sister training leader has been created as more female missionaries serve in missions around the world. Sister training leaders will be responsible for the training and welfare of female missionaries assigned to them and will be members of and participate in, the new mission leadership council."
April 6, 2013 - At the close of the Saturday morning session, Primary general presidency first counselor Jean A. Stevens becomes the first woman to pray in General Conference.
October 5, 2013 - For the first time, the priesthood session is broadcast on the Church's website as all other General Conference sessions have been for years. Having been denied tickets by spokeswoman Ruth Todd, members of Ordain Women wait in the standby line and are turned away at the door one by one.
April 5, 2014 - For this and subsequent General Conferences, the female auxiliary presidencies (Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary) are relocated to sit in the middle of the First Quorum of the Seventy in the Conference Center, a far more visible position directly behind the pulpit.
April 2014 - The annually updated General Authorities chart (which previously included only men) is expanded to also include General Officers, including the Relief Society general presidency, the Young Women general presidency, the Primary general presidency, the Sunday School general presidency, and the Young Men general presidency.
November 14, 2014 - A policy change allows divorced women and mothers of young children to have or retain jobs as seminary and institute teachers. A memo notes, "This change makes it possible for families to decide what best meets their needs as it relates to mothers working while raising children. This policy is consistent with other church departments."
August 18, 2015 - A woman is appointed to each of three formerly all-male leadership councils - Relief Society general president Linda K. Burton to the Priesthood and Family Executive Council, Young Women general president Bonnie L. Oscarson to the Missionary Executive Council, and Primary general president Rosemary M. Wixom to the Temple and Family History Executive Council.
December 20, 2018 - Updated missionary dress and grooming guidelines allow sister missionaries to wear slacks during most weekly activities, though they "should continue to wear dresses or skirts when attending the temple and during Sunday worship services, leadership and zone conferences, baptismal services, and missionary training center devotionals".
January 2, 2019 - The initiatory is changed so that women are no longer anointed to be queens and priestesses "unto your husband". The endowment ceremony is changed so that women no longer covenant to "hearken to the counsel of your husband as he hearkens to the counsel of the Father", and no longer veil their faces during the prayer circle. The ceremony now speaks of "Adam and Eve" instead of "Adam" throughout while Adam refers to "we" instead of "I". The husband-wife sealing is changed so that the woman "receives" her husband just as he "receives" her, but the husband now covenants to "preside with gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned".
January 17, 2019 - The Church News begins announcing the call of "new mission presidents and companions [wives]" instead of just the mission presidents, though the wives had already been included in pictures and bios alongside their husbands.
January 24, 2019 - The First Presidency states in a letter, "Veiling an endowed woman's face prior to burial is optional. This may be done if the sister expressed such a desire while she was living. In cases where the wishes of the deceased sister on this matter are not known, her family should be consulted."
March 1, 2019 - One of a few policy changes allows mothers with dependent children to serve as temple ordinance workers. The First Presidency notes, "Members should review their circumstances and avoid placing undue burdens on themselves or their families as they consider these service opportunities."
October 2, 2019 - A policy change allows baptized women and children to serve as witnesses at baptisms, and endowed women to serve as witnesses at temple sealings.
January 2020 - The Church implements its new Children and Youth program for members aged 8-18 and cuts its 109-year-old relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. In the process it also ends the longstanding budget disparity between the Young Men and Young Women programs.
March 11, 2021 - The First Presidency creates the new position of international area organization adviser outside the United States and Canada, to be filled by women representing the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary alongside area authority Seventies.
Would anyone be so naïve as to think that the changes will stop there? Would anyone be so silly as to insist that they know where the changes will stop? Why am I even asking these questions? Of course they would and they will.
One of the best-kept secrets on my website is the most comprehensive history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and black people ever compiled. The only reason it's a secret is that Google hates me. For the better part of a decade I've gathered more information than any normal person needs or wants to know. Unfortunately, because the Church for a majority of its history has been led and primarily composed of white people, a majority of the available sources are also from white people. I relish every opportunity to hear from black Latter-day Saints in their own words. Rarer still, and possibly even more interesting, are opportunities to hear from black people who were never members of the Church but had something to say about it. I want to draw attention here to four such interesting sources. In the full compilation, I try to let sources speak for themselves as much as possible and only interject historical context and/or bias when I think it's necessary. But here on my blog, where my standards of scholarly rigor drop from almost nonexistent to nonexistent, I'll indulge myself in a whitesplaining commentary on each one.
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- Amelia Whitlock
"I don't know how well you know Christopher Randall Nicholson, but... he's trolling. You should read his blog. It's delightful."
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.