This address (its author is not named) appeared in the forerunner to the Relief Society Magazine. I am fascinated to see that many of the same questions or frustrations that plague some women today were stumbling blocks to women nearly a century ago, and to see how those women counseled each other in their rights and duties.
Would some be surprised to know that ours is hardly the first generation to feel a sting of disparity, or the need to tackle the issue head-on when they teach young women? Would it shake some firmly held opinions to discover that the 1971 correlation of the Relief Society did not disrupt some mythically independent women’s organization, and that the Relief Society always acknowledged the presidency of local priesthood authority? And notice how the Relief Society claims the “rightful jurisdiction,” even while submitting to priesthood authority, to settle questions (not just ask them) concerning the washing and anointing of the sick, among other matters.
As with all old documents posted on Keepa, I offer this for the sense it gives us of our own past, especially, in this case, the long history of women seeking to understand their roles in the Kingdom, not because it trumps any current instruction.
Occasionally inquiries reach the General Board concerning the duties and labors of new Presidents and Officers in the wards and stakes of Zion. The work of this society has been so long before the people, the method of conducting our meetings, of administering our affairs, has so long ago been settled by tradition and custom that it seems as if all ought to be familiar with them. And indeed, there are only general rules and general lines, which mark our labors. Wards, stakes and individual officers are allowed great liberty in the adjustment of details and in the conduct of their society affairs.
There is one rule, however, which should be written deep in the heart of every woman in this kingdom – and conned frequently by those who hold office in this great organization, namely, respect for the priesthood. No woman who slights or neglects this primary law of the church can hope to have that full degree of liberty and pleasure in her labors which is her privilege to enjoy.
We seldom hear the good old-fashioned counsel on this point that used to ring from our pulpits. But it is none the less a saving principle of the gospel. Obedience to law – obedience to the authority of the Priesthood.
Everybody is quite willing to admit that we should obey law – the laws of health, the laws of chastity, the laws of honesty, the laws of charity, and indeed all law and laws. Even those so-called laws of man, such as city ordinances, should be obeyed. And yet, could there be a law, without a law-giver and without an executioner of the law? What use would there be in having a law if there were no person to pronounce the law, no one to obey or to disobey it? No one to reward those who keep or punish those who break the law. Every community renders obedience to law, with few exceptions. If a law comes in contact with our prejudice or pleasures, we may try to evade the same, although we admit its justice. Today, women are restlessly trying to change laws in their favor. The women of this church should honor the law of God.
What is the Priesthood? It is the power to administer in the ordinances of the Gospel. Other churches have ordinances, many of them similar to those obtaining in this church; but none of them have the authority to administer those ordinances. This power and Priesthood was entirely lost during the Dark Ages, when the Catholic Church ruled the Christian world. By the way, there was one woman Pope appeared during those dark and stormy days in Rome. Associated with this Priesthood is the right of presidency. Out of this grows the functions and offices of the presiding authority; of the Church, and of every quorum in the Church. Those who preside over the auxiliary organizations receive their authority from the presiding Priesthood.
Women do not hold the Priesthood. This fact must be faced calmly by mothers and explained clearly to young women, for the spirit that is now abroad in the world makes for women’s demand for every place and office enjoyed by men, and a few more than men can’t enter. Women in this Church must not forget that they have rights which men do not possess. They have their own field, their own duties, their own privileges. It is cowardly to dodge this question in dealing with young women. But let the whole facts be stated. Then women will see how richly they are endowed and how righteously their place in this life and the life to come has been provided for.
Women in this Church, choose to be womanly. They choose to honor their fathers and husbands. They choose their own sphere and duties with that calm and gracious dignity which ensures to them a full life here and eternal happiness hereafter. There are some men, perhaps, that are the inferiors of some women, mentally, morally and physically. But a superior woman is not expected to look up to an inferior man in her own home – which is her sphere. When the one man comes who is the right one, he will be just one or more degrees superior in intelligence and power to the superior woman. But to all men, when in their priestly office, women owe the reverence due that priesthood. The man who holds that office and Priesthood may of himself be not the equal of some of the women who are associated with him in his ward or his public labors; but if he holds an office in the Priesthood and is sustained by his brethren in that office, women everywhere, as men who may be under his jurisdiction, should render that reverence and obedience that belongs of right to the Priesthood which he holds.
The women of the Relief Society have long ago proved the value of obedience to law, and to law-givers. So that, when we suggest to our new officers that they shall go to their ward or stake authorities for counsel, and shall never refuse that advice, we are only repeating the same things that have been told in this organization from its beginning. Especially was Sister Eliza R. Snow – that great Mormon woman who presided over the Society after we came to these Valleys, and those who have followed her, Sister Zina D. Young, Bathsheba W. Smith and our present President, Emmeline B. Wells – these have been insistent in their advice to the sisters to seek counsel of the Priesthood and to honor those who held it.
In any case where there is a question arising in your minds or between the members of your board, go to your bishop, or to the president of your stake and ask him or them for counsel. Then accept it. The presidency of a stake has complete jurisdiction over the saints who reside in that stake. All the quorums and auxiliary organizations are under their direct supervision, and their counsel on any given point would be final. The same with the bishop of any ward. It is true that the general board of any auxiliary organization has direct charge of the various stake and ward organizations under them; to arrange details of work, dates of conferences, mode of procedure, choice of officers, or plans and arrangements of all kinds. But if the bishop of a ward or the president of a stake should raise an objection to such plans or details, his wish would be paramount in his ward or stake – until such time as a harmonious settlement of the question at issue could be obtained between the general officers and that local presiding officer. This is the order of the Priesthood and this should be understood by all members. Men, as well as women, are subject to this law of the Church. Only so could there exist that perfect order which is the cornerstone of this kingdom.
We are asked concerning the customs of clothing our dead, washing and anointing the sick, the proper storing of grain, using outlines, choosing new officers; and all these questions come into the rightful jurisdiction of this society, and we will gladly answer according to the precedents of our Society. Yet any and all of these questions might be referred to the ward or stake Priesthood and their answers should be taken as final. We would always be glad to hear of such decisions, but would respect the authority in any given instance. This may be taken as the general rule or law of this Society.
Let the sisters of this Society study the organization of the Church, the wonderful plan of its foundation and thus acquaint themselves with the order of the Priesthood.
[“Address,” Relief Society Bulletin 1:2 (February 1914), 1-3.]