March Visiting Teaching: Under the Priesthood and after the Pattern of the Priesthood

When I first saw the title of this month’s message, I murmured. Then I worried about how to do this post and be true to myself, and not overly critical of the church or of Barbara Thompson, who is the author of this month’s message. So, I decided to flip the message and go from the end to the beginning, because that was the only way that I could make it work for me.

To start, one of the suggested questions was this:

What will I do this month to increase my ability to receive personal revelation?

There are a number of ways we know that we can increase our ability to receive personal revelation. The critical term here is “personal”. Prayer is personal, spiritual revelation is personal. Often times when I pray, I want the spirit to TELL me exactly what it is that I need to do. But this is in contradiction to the principle of agency. In agency, I need to make a choice and then pray to see if the choice is correct. I often feel guided when answering the prayers of others. But in cases where I seek direction for myself, I need to make a choice, and then pray to see if the spirit confirms my choice. Preparing myself to be in tune and to trust that the spirit takes time and practice. This leads nicely into From Our History section:

During the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, a group of sisters desired to organize to support the building effort. Eliza R. Snow drafted bylaws for this new group. When she showed them to the Prophet Joseph, he responded: “Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them. … I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”  A short time later, the Prophet told the newly organized Relief Society: “I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.” The sisters were expected to rise to a new level of holiness and to prepare for the priesthood ordinances soon to be administered in the temple.

I think it is pretty clear here that Snow organized the Relief Society, although Joseph Smith is credited with it. But Smith’s role was in organizing it under the “pattern of the priesthood.” In Rough Stone Rollingand subsequent interviews, Richard Bushman has mentioned that prior to the construction of the Kirkland temple the Smith, Oliver Cowdery, etc. practiced and experimented with different washings, anointing, rituals, ceremonies and prayed for confirmation of the process and symbolism to be accepted by God. They didn’t go with the first attempt, and even now, the temple ceremony has been modified and perfected from the first ordinances performed in 1836. (sorry I don’t have the RSR reference at hand)

In applying the earlier concept of prayer, wherein we make a choice, then pray for confirmation that it is right (or not), we see a pattern in the development and ongoing perfection of the temple and temple ceremony. I think this can be equally applied to the Relief Society in this manner: Snow organized the Relief Society and wrote by-laws. Smith, having spent years praying and seeking confirmation of the temple ordinances immediately applied concepts from which he had gained in the temple revelation process and applied them to the women’s organization. In combining the confirmation of the temple ordinance work specifically for women with the organization designed and outlined by Snow, the Relief Society was created. This leads to the next section:

To be organized “after the pattern of the priesthood” gave sisters sacred responsibilities. Julie B. Beck, Relief Society general president, explained: “We operate in the manner of the priesthood—which means that we seek, receive, and act on revelation; make decisions in councils; and concern ourselves with caring for individuals one by one. Ours is the priesthood purpose to prepare ourselves for the blessings of eternal life by making and keeping covenants. Therefore, like our brethren who hold the priesthood, ours is a work of salvation, service, and becoming a holy people.”

The above Beck quote can be difficult. “Priesthood purpose” is elusive- does this mean we have priesthood, as is stated in the temple? Or are we “like our brethren” and hold the priesthood, but not the priesthood keys? It is clear that there is a divide in responsibility- but it isn’t clear to what end. This is one of the great feminist debates. But- in focusing on the message for this month, the most powerful part to emphasize is that we are Queens and Priestesses. Consider these other quotes:

“We are priestesses and queens, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory” Chieko N. Okazaki, Disciples [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1998], 23.

“Inasmuch as we continue faithful, we shall be those that will be crowned in the presence of God and the lamb. You, my sisters, if you are faithful, will become Queens of Queens, and Priestesses unto the Most High God. These are your callings. We have only to discharge our duties.” Eliza R. Snow and the Woman Question by Jill C. Mulvay Fn, BYU Studies, vol. 16 (1975-1976), Number 2 – Winter 1976 264.

In application of this, it returns again to the concept of women seeking, receiving and acting upon our own revelation with authority bestowed by God. I think this is vital to understand. In this, we are not seeking “permission” from others; we are furthering our personal relationship with the Divine.  This is a protection for us against unrighteous dominion and a reminder that we have the divine right to inspiration as clarified the scriptural reference included in the message, Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-46.

To be organized “under the priesthood” gave sisters authority and direction. Eliza R. Snow, second Relief Society general president, taught that Relief Society “cannot exist without the Priesthood, from the fact that it derives all its authority and influence from that source.”  Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained, “The authority to be exercised by the officers and teachers of the Relief Society … was the authority that would flow to them through their organizational connection with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and through their individual setting apart under the hands of the priesthood leaders by whom they were called.”

This section can be problematic and hard to teach. The term “under” connotes a sense of expected subservience and “the priesthood” culturally normally refers to patriarchal dominion. But I don’t think the Relief Society was intended as an organization  under the authority of men. I think the Relief Society was an organization wherein the women to work under the direct authority of God.  Consider:

On 17 May Newell K. Whitney accompanied Joseph Smith and told the Relief Society women: “In the beginning, God created man, male and female, and bestow’d upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth—it takes all to restore the Priesthood.” Although Whitney had recently been initiated into the endowment and his remarks reflect his awareness of women’s forthcoming role in that ordinance, his words also reflect an anticipation that many held in that era: women’s role within the church including priesthood powers—at least in some form. On 28 April 1842 Joseph told the women: “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.” It is important to remember that “keys” were associated with “priesthood” and that Joseph turned the key to women rather than “in their behalf” as the History of the Church (4:607) would later report. It is clear that at its inception the Relief Society was not considered an “auxiliary” in the church as the Primary for children, Sunday School, and Mutual Improvement Association for adolescents would later be. –Linda King Newell, Women and Authority, ‘The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and The Priesthood’, accessed March 1, 2011.

This is brilliant! I can teach this! Later changes in the concept of the Relief Society re-directed it as an auxiliary. But this was not the original intention of the organization, as Newell has pointed out. This is important to me. Usually when a lesson is taught in regard to “supporting the priesthood”, I tend to roll my eyes and prepare for another lecture on how I am supposed to help Mormon men rule over me. I have never felt the spirit in these lessons. I do not have a testimony of this masculine pecking order. Therefore, I cannot teach it because I would be lying if I said I supported this, and lying cannot invoke the spirit. As a result of this and in order to teach this with my own sense of truth and testimony, I am forced to take an nontraditional route in addition to the Newell quote:

When we are confirmed as members of the church, all of us are ordained through the Melchizedek priesthood to have the Holy Ghost. To me, this means that whenever we follow the promptings of the spirit, we are acting and using Melchizedek priesthood authority within ourselves; in this, I believe we are vessels and carriers of this priesthood. Confirmation is an ordinance and when this ordinance is performed, we retain the Holy Ghost. Listening to the Holy Ghost and associated promptings, then acting upon that prompting is acting with authority under the priesthood direction of God. No mortal with a fancy priesthood office can become the middle man for this personal and direct relationship with God.

I think this again goes back to the question in regard to receiving personal revelation. Indeed, I find very little of this message having to do with traditional priesthood patriarchy. I find the real purpose is to invoke our Heavenly Parents’ gift of the Holy Ghost in obtaining and acting upon direction we individually obtain in personal revelation. In concluding the finish-to-start pattern which means ending with the beginning:

My dear sisters, how blessed we are! Not only are we members of the Church, but we are also members of Relief Society—“the Lord’s organization for women.”  Relief Society is evidence of God’s love for His daughters.

Doesn’t your heart thrill as you recall the exciting beginnings of this society? On March 17, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the sisters “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”

In application of the Relief Society as an entire organization that can be filled and directed by the spirit with authority (as in the Beck quote) is exciting. It is in this way that I see it as evidence of God’s love, because I am in a society that teaches me that I am to receive revelation and promptings directly from God, and no one can take that from me.

What’s more, this message has made me wonder. I wonder about the early beginnings of the church. I wonder about the keys held by the early Relief Society sisters. I wonder about prayer circles and the Mormon women who have historically offered blessings upon their children. When I think about these things, I can’t help but believe that the visiting teaching focus on the history of the Relief Society and the anticipated publication of the history of the Relief Society is in preparation of future revelation in regard to the role of women.

Ponder this scriptural passage associated with the message: Doctrine and Covenants 25:3 Behold, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou art an elect lady, whom I have called. This is the Lord’s blessing given to Emma at the start of the Relief Society. In this, I think it is essential to understand that the term “elect” was used because she had been electedto the office of Relief Society President, and that this election immediately became a divine calling. When we seek and elect righteous changes to be instituted in the church organization, then those changes are confirmed by God, just as we are confirmed at baptism.  Personally, I think the Relief Society is due for a major change. And I think this message is reminding us to seek inspiration and direction so we may collectivly prepare and call upon this change.

What changes or adaptations in regard to the Relief Society do you seek? Have you been praying for these changes and for inspiration in regard to preparations necessary for incoming revelation? How can you increase your ability to receive revelation?

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.


  1. Your post makes a number of interesting points. The organization of the Church has been shuffled about a few times. A number of programs are no longer present in their original forms (such as MIA.) However, the Relief Society exists today as an auxiliary, a natural evolution of structure. The General RS functions under the guidance of the Brethren in the same sense that the Church serves under Divine guidance. The RS president in a ward serves under the direction and calling of the Bishop of that ward and they cooperate to serve the members in their area. The RS president can and should seek inspiration in serving in that calling, and if worthy, will be given the direction that God intends. It seems that underlying your post is a distaste for serving “under” men, something that may be more an artifact of language than practice. As a Young Men’s advisor I serve “under” a pile of authority thicker than the scriptures I teach from, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that I can and should seek for guidance directly from God in my service. Mine is the duty to follow the guidance given by those who direct the work, as it would be for a Ward, Stake, or even General RS President. You seem to be almost trying to make the argument that the RS should/does exist as an entity separate from the Church. Why would you want that to be the case?

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think there is a patriarchal order that has evolved out of Victorian culture that positions men as bosses over the Relief Society, which I don’t believe was ever intended. I also believe that women hold the priesthood but that this direction is under-developed in Mormon theology. You also need to consider the declining role of women, especially post-world war II. Prior to then, Mormon women engaged in prayer circles, blessing circles, etc. but those seem to end with the Second World War. I can’t help but find that to be worldy-inspired oppression in comparison to women’s roles of the period within rudimentary feminist history.

    I understand what you are saying that- for example, you serve “under” the Bishop as a Sunday School teacher, etc. But I have personally been in more than a few meetings where I was inspired to change programs, add classes, focus on a topic, etc. and was told “no” by the “presiding” male. After a week or a month or sometimes after I had moved, they would come back and say they felt inspired to do that topic, so rescinded the “no”. Sure, it is nice that they bothered to seek revelation for the item I had been inspired to amend/add or change, but that process negates my whole reason for being called or seeking inspiration if my inspiration is ignored by those “over” me. So I question- is this the “Lord’s organization for women” or “the Lords organization for women who listen to men because women can’t get revelation without men”?

    As for your comment in regard to my wanting the Relief Society to be separate- that isn’t necessarily the case. Historically, the Relief Society was more independent of the church and in its role, paid of much church build debt, instigated educational programs, provident living, etc. Men can choose if they want to be ordained with the priesthood, women are assigned to be members of the Relief Society because of their age and sex. Bishops can call counselors, Relief Society presidents can suggest counselors, but must have permission of the bishop in order for a call to be extended. I want to choose if I have time or interest in being a member of the Relief Society, and I want the Relief Society and the women in it to have agency in regard to their counselors and callings.

    My general issue is that agency and inspiration for women in the church is often institutionally disregarded in the male hierarchy, and I do not think this is the intention of the first presidency. But as a result, it can be extremely difficult to teach women to blindly follow “the priesthood” when this term priesthood has become synonymous with “men”. That is why I think Thompson suggests in this message that women are to encourage each other to seek and receive inspiration in their own right.

  3. In reference to your experiences in being told “no” by the presiding leader, I think that issue isn’t particular to your being a woman. Quite the opposite, it’s a situation that arises frequently in all Church organizations. You did the right thing in sharing what you felt was an inspired idea, and if you followed the guidance of the presiding leader in *not* doing it if that was his direction then you also did the right thing. Your value in the Lord’s eyes is not diminished because someone else didn’t share that inspired vision.

    One of your points does resonate well with me, and that is the dark side of “default membership”. As a Scout leader I find that something can be lost by the boys being Boy Scouts by default rather than choice. The boys have a choice to embrace their scout-hood, or just kinda slum it. The Scouting program works best (and really at all) when the boys are there because they want to excel at the ranks, awards and values of Scouting. Because they didn’t necessarily make the choice, many aren’t fully engaged. Part of me wishes that only the boys who *want* to be Scouts became Scouts. But that’s not how the system is set up. Scouting is the activity branch of the Young Men here in the US.

    It’s very similar with RS, I expect. You do have a choice as to whether to participate. You could just not attend, if you don’t want to. Or you can attend and embrace the mission statement of the RS and serve with your chin held high. Or do what many do and attend because it’s “what you do” and miss that vision.

    I think one of the underlying differences of perspective between you and I is that I don’t think women are in any regard lesser because they have a different role. The discussion could almost be said to be a discovery of the different roles of men and women in general, not just in respect to RS.

  4. My recollection is “after the pattern of the PH” which you quote, not “under the PH.” Does it say “under the PH” somewhere? After the pattern is far different and in no way means under men’s direction.

    RS was never meant to be under the direction of men.

  5. I had a hard time when I first read this message, too. However, when I thought about it more, I realized that how I interpret it depends on how I interpret the word “priesthood”. I think it means “the designated power of God” rather than “men who are priesthood holders”. So, for the RS to be “under the priesthood” means that it falls under official power and authority of God. The RS is not a separate organization from God’s church that functions under our own (mortal) power and authority. Our organization was organized and functions under the power and authority of God – the priesthood. And being patterned after the priesthood shows that we are real, we are legit.

    Overall, I really like what Sister Beck is doing. I feel that through this history of the RS, she is teaching us to reclaim our own power given to us by God. We don’t need to wait for instructions from men to tell us what to do in our personal lives or in our collaborative efforts. The RS is organized under the priesthood of God and after the pattern of the priesthood of God – we have our own power and stewardships that come from God.

    Also, have you noticed that for the 3 months of 2011 so far, the messages have all been from our RS leaders – not just quotes from male church leaders? I think that is significant.

    • Thanks for commenting, Stephanie2. I agree with you, it is significant that the women are authoring, or at least allowing themselves to be known as authors of the Visiting teaching messages. I find it interesting- even historic– that both Thompson and Alvarez quoted Beck. I can’t recall the last time a “live” RS president was quoted, whereas the living prophet is often quoted.

  6. I just wanted to say that for the longest time I thought the word “March” in this post’s title was a typo. It was today that I connected, “Oh! It IS March and that’s why it says March.” Thank you for getting me out of February!

  7. Spunky,
    This is great as usual. Thanks for your comments. I agree that the RS we have today resembles very little the original organization, which was far, far more autonomous. They managed their own finances, came up with their own lesson manuals, had their own houses (!) and were not lodged within the church building, etc. The gradual move of RS to ‘under the priesthood’ is a very problematic move, IMO. It stuns me to think of men who don’t belong to RS and never will calling many of the shots for this women’s organization.

    As for what changes I want, there are many. But I’d love to start with
    – RS reclaiming control of its lessons and coming up with manuals that feature women’s voices and stories.
    -I’d also love to see the RS act with vision and purpose. The Elaine Jack era was the last one in which they had a real focus and goal: that of promoting literacy.
    -I’d also like to see RS presidents stay in for more than 5 years. How can the women in charge ever have any real impact and influence if no one can ever remember who they are because they have no staying power, particularly compared to apostles and GA’s who are around forever? On that note, I’d like more visibility for general RS leaders. How about a quarterly newsletter?
    -I’d like the general RS president to interface directly with the President of the church, rather than just an apostle.

    Ok, I’ll stop now.

  8. My mother really loved being part of Relief Society until it come under the correlation program and therefor under the priesthood. RS went downhill from then on. Our branch president asked us if we would take over the sacrament meeting on March 13 in honor of the RS anniversary, to which we enthusiastically agreed. And we were to assigned female speakers, again we were enthusiastic. However our enthusiasm was dashed when one of the counselors stated “Oh by the way the Priesthood will be the final speaker”. I was mortified to which I replied: “You’re kidding right, what more could “the priesthood” possibly have to say?” My blood boiled over!!

  9. “The Priesthood” will be the final speaker? That is the strangest comment I’ve heard in a long time. As if there is a personification of The Priesthood that can be put on the program.

    Thanks for this post.

  10. i also have a response to dbeacon, to clarify the problem many women feel with the auxiliary position of the church.

    it’s true, as you say, that our church is run in a hierarchical manner and the vast majority of callings, male and female, serve ‘under’ some other and are subject to that higher calling’s decisions. this can be a good thing, it brings order to the church. i understand that.

    what chafes is the hierarchical organization by sex, not just calling. yes, some men preside over other men by virtue of their calling, but ALL men preside over ALL women by virtue of their sex (their priesthood, yes, but priesthood is male in our church by definition and so women are excluded). if i were called to be ward clerk, i would not mind serving ‘under’ the bishop at all. but i am a woman, and so i will never, ever be called to ward clerk, or any position that gives me authority over or even equal voice with a man. i will always, always be serving ‘under’ the priesthood.

    can you say why this chafes? and i don’t mean to say that men and women need to be performing the same roles all the time – i agree with you (though many feminists do not) that men and women may be different enough to justify separate callings. but why must one ‘preside’ over the other? but in our church men preside over women. thus women’s voices are always at the mercy of men’s, because men have authority and stewardship. perhaps as a man it is not so obvious just how invisible and voiceless the church renders women, but as a woman it is hard NOT to see it.

    in my own experience, i’ll never forget how i felt on my first tour of the conference center in salt lake city, standing before the portraits of the prophets and authorities. row after row, room after room of men, men, men. presumably they had wives, but they were not mentioned anywhere. and where was i? how was i represented? women simply are not. nor are we in the scriptures, nor are we in the temple (well i guess eve does have ONE spoken line).

    ideally i believe men and women ought to have separate but equal roles in the church. but in reality, this is just not yet the case.

  11. I’m not a big fan of “separate but equal.” As American history has made abundantly clear, the “equal” in “separate but equal” is not all that equal after all. Why must men and women fill separate roles? Are we so uncertain that gender and sexual difference exists that we have to reinforce it by assigning only certain roles to men and others to women? If I am a bishop, will that threaten my identity as a women, leaving it no longer distinct from the identity “man”? Why are we as Mormons so insecure about the idea that there are in fact differences between men and women? If we were not insecure in that idea, we would not be threatened by the idea of men and women fulfilling the same roles and functions in the church, in their families, and in their societies. Obviously our biological differences will preclude us from participating in certain activities. I will never impregnate a woman, since I lack a penis. My brother will never breastfeed his children, since he has no milk-producing mammary glands. That’s fine. I just don’t see why the fact that our bodies are different and therefore impose certain limitations means that we should impose other, completely artificial, culturally- and tradition-bound limitations. Especially when those limitations not only hinder all of us in our efforts to reach our greatest potential, but also inscribe inequality and bigotry into the foundations of our religion as if they were the will of God.

    Sorry for the tangent. I, as a feminist, am perfectly happy to acknowledge that I am very, very different from men. But I just don’t understand making the enormous leap from “we are different” to “because we are different, we should definitely not fill the same roles.” If the difference exists, let it simply exist and inform our actions. If I am actually different from a man, then the way I do things and how I approach decisions and interact with others will be different by virtue of that difference. I don’t need to limit the kinds of things I do or the roles I feel in order to make sure that I underscore the fact that I’m different to myself and everyone else.

  12. I actually have a calling in which I preside over men, I am the director of a three stake family history center. Because I have several graduate degrees including a MLS and a lot of experience in family history, the men realize I know more than they do and I have free rein to do what I want. I realize that some men have more clout than I do in getting what I want (furniture, money appropriations, certain people called to positions) and I have no qualms about using them . I think the men in the stake presidency/high council are happy that I get done what they have no interest in doing.

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