[Photo: Oscar Wilde, “An Ideal Husband”]
By Emily Belanger
When I heard about the changes to the language of temple ceremonies, I made plans to attend as soon as possible. Curious, with only a vague sense of what to expect, I made the 3-hour trip with family members.
There were positive changes in both the Endowment and Initiatory, to the point that I longed for a do-over. The “hearken to the counsel of your husband” covenant had taken me by surprise when I received my own Endowment, and it hadn’t helped that I was only given a split second to decide whether to agree or make a scene by refusing. The only way I could handle it in the moment was to add a mental qualifier in my silent conversation with God: “Only if my future husband is equally obligated to hearken to my counsel.” With the new language, I feel like that prayer has been answered.
So yes, hearing for myself that the covenant is indeed gone was a healing balm. I’m grateful for the change and even more grateful that God softened the hearts of the men capable of making that change, giving them the humility to change something they may not personally object to and the confidence to challenge more than a century of tradition.
And yet, when I participated in a proxy sealing, that healing balm lost a good part of its power. As I’d heard, a bride no longer gives herself to her groom. Like the groom, she receives her spouse, and that change makes the ceremony feel egalitarian. But the uneven giving/receiving was subtle compared to a new addition: the groom now covenants to preside over his family.
Honestly, I can’t decide which version troubles me more. I didn’t notice the giving/receiving disparity during my own wedding (it was the first temple wedding I’d ever attended), and if I had noticed I don’t know what I would have said.
But there’s no missing this new covenant, which takes a word that’s already outdated and hammers it home in the highest ordinance that any member of the Church can receive. It helps that the bride doesn’t covenant to follow, but if I were engaged today and faced the choice between marrying outside the temple or having that word in my new husband’s covenants, I’m still not sure what I’d choose.
Oddly, it almost seems like the Brethren are uncomfortable with that word as well, given how far they went out of their way to modify it in the vows. Husbands promise to preside “with gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” Given those words, I honestly believe that they were trying to communicate something other than “The husband is in charge.”
But no matter how many times we spin “preside” and insist it’s a part of equal partnership in marriage or that presiding in a marriage doesn’t mean the husband is in charge, we go to church week after week and see in our Sacrament Meeting program that the man who presides over the meeting is the man who’s highest in the Church totem pole. To see how fathers presiding in the home was originally taught in the Church, we don’t have to look too far into the past. Some of the recent examples I linked above both insist presiding is part of an equal partnership and imply that the father governs the entire family.
Even today, look in any dictionary, and you’ll find a definition that reinforces an authoritative understanding of the term:
to be in charge of or to control a meeting or event
1: to exercise guidance, direction, or control
2a: to occupy the place of authority : act as president, chairman, or moderator
b: to occupy a position similar to that of a president or chairman
Be in the position of authority in a meeting or other gathering.
to be in charge of an official meeting, ceremony, or other event
The consensus is painfully clear: the person who presides is in charge of whatever or whomever they preside over. And that is the exact meaning the Church once used in reference to fathers. The reason we teach that husbands “preside” is because the Church once openly taught that husbands were in charge of their families. It’s the same reason the directory software still lists my husband as the head of the household and the reason that home teachers and missionaries visit us for the first time and make the mistake of inviting my husband to call on someone to say the prayer.
Yet the Gospel teaches that spouses should work together in an equal partnership. That they have equal authority in the decision-making process. In short, the Gospel teaches that husband and wife are co-presiders over their family, if we’re using the definition of “preside” that every reputable dictionary uses. So why do we cling to the term “fathers preside” when it’s not at all what we mean? Perhaps today’s leaders are clinging to tradition. But why not just admit we see marriage more clearly today than we did several decades ago, thanks to the miracle of modern revelation?
We spent decades pretending that “hearken” meant “obey” in every context other than marriage. That game of pretend caused immense pain. How long will we pretend that “preside” doesn’t really mean “preside”?
It’s high time we cast off the false language of our fathers.
A few of the dictionaries I cited also list definitions relating to music, but that’s clearly not what the Church is talking about when they say that husbands preside over their family.
Yes, I do mean to say “the false language of our fathers.” The mothers of Mormonism have never had a chance to shape the temple language.
I took a course from Brent Barlow (one of the linked authors above) in the early 2000’s. For what it’s worth, he candidly admitted that he had previously been mistaken in his belief that the husband made all final decisions in the marriage. He even chastised male students who refused to marry a woman who wanted to work outside the home.
The temple is sacred and a sensitive topic to most members of the Church, so in this piece I have shared no current quotes from the Endowment ceremony and have made no allusions to any information that the ceremony instructs members not to repeat. I think sealing language is a different matter and something that prospective brides and grooms should know ahead of time.
Emily received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University in 2012. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia.