The temporary, mistaken ban on allowing women to pray in sacrament meeting

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). I was listening to a Mormon Stories interview with writer Carol Lynn Pearson when I heard her say that in the 1970s, women were not allowed to offer prayers in LDS sacrament meeting. That caught my attention. I turned 17 in 1980 and had been to hundreds of sacrament meetings in the 70s. I called my mom and asked her if this was true. She said yes. She added that the ban bothered her enough to ask our Southern California ward bishopric for an explanation.

She told me that they told her the ban was in place because sacrament meeting was a priesthood meeting and that only priesthood holders could deliver prayers. Mom added a caveat, though. She stated that not long after her query, the ban on prayers offered by women ended. As she told me, the explanation was apparently that it had all been a mistake.

“A mistake?” This whole objectionable footnote to my church’s decade of the 70s, that included the end of its ban on blacks and tussle with the ERA, sounded so bizarre that I Google searched it, and found that mom was probably right — it had been acknowledged as a mistake, … sort of. Go to a 1986 post in the “By Common Consent” LDS-theme blog here. According to author Kevin Barney, in 1967, a ban on opening prayers was initiated under the “it’s-a-priesthood-meeting” reasoning. Apparently, that ban was rescinded soon after but the prohibition continued for a decade or more in some wards. In late 1978, church leaders, perhaps to settle the issue, had this published in “The Ensign:”

“The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve have determined that
there is no scriptural prohibition against sisters offering prayers in sacrament
meetings. It was therefore decided that it is permissible for sisters to offer
prayers in any meetings they attend, including sacrament meetings, Sunday School
meetings, and stake conferences. Relief Society visiting teachers may offer
prayers in homes that they enter in fulfilling visiting teaching assignments.

So that ended the debate? Maybe not. According to the blog, there is a claim that just before he died, Ezra Taft Benson made a statement that some assumed to mean that only men could open meetings in sacrament meeting. As a result, according to the 2008 blog post, there are some wards that don’t allow women to open sacrament meeting with a prayer. I haven’t been to a ward that follows the no-opening-prayer rule for women, as far as I can recall.

The comments to the blog post cited above are fascinating. There are quotes from old church general handbooks and Ensigns that state only priesthood holders can pray in sacrament meeting. One commentator says he went to a training session for leaders where he was told that women should not offer opening prayers.  For what it’s worth, I went through the most current “LDS General Handbook 2″ and there was nothing it that said only men could say the opening prayer in sacrament meeting. Personally, I doubt President Benson was capable of articulating coherent thoughts for quite a while prior to his death.

This is another fascinating footnote in LDS history that makes it so interesting; another example of the truism that God may be the same today, yesterday and forever, but his subjects can certainly display flighty, ever-changing personalities.

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22 Responses to The temporary, mistaken ban on allowing women to pray in sacrament meeting

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Such important issues for representatives of Christ to deal with! This is why I challenge anyone whose sole argument for something is “God said it.” (Gay marriage comes to mind.)

    In almost all cases, no, God did not say it. Some people who claim to speak for God said it. Yet these same people have demonstrated time after time that they portray lots of things as the will of God that are later overturned.

    Even if you believe the claims of such people that they have the authority to speak for God, that does not make them infallible. That does not rob you of the right OR the reponsibility to question any particular thing they utter. That infernal priesthood ban based on race was around for a long time before it was rectified, and all the historical evidence available to us indicates it was a huge mistake, brought on by the biases of human beings.

    There’s no reason on earth to believe that a similarly sized and similarly durable mistake can’t happen again.

  2. Bob Becker says:

    Reading only a few sentences in, I found myself thinking “this sounds very Ezra Taft Bensoish.”. Then I read further. Got it in one! Hey, maybe I am becoming a local….( grin).

  3. Ben Pales says:

    So an interesting foot note to this that not all may be aware of. There is a group that is asking, “lobying” the LDS Church to let women pray in their semi-annual General Conference. Surprisingly a woman has never prayed in one of the sessions, so I guess the ban continues.

  4. Jettboy says:

    D. Michael Martindale, you are not even a believer so why should I care what you say? I’ll take what someone says who claims to speak for God over you or anyone like you any day.

    • Taryn Fox says:

      God told me you need to talk less and listen more.

      Also apologize to Martindale and bake cookies for them.

      • Zen Wordsmith says:

        The oft-heard admonition of the [Apostle Paul], that
        woman should not speak in public gatherings, took
        place in an “Old dispensation of time”. [KJV 1611]
        Since restoration of the [Melchezedek] Priesthood,
        woman have had [all] the blessings afforded there
        spouce, however, [only] in the home setting.
        Relax the tradition and evolve, through the grace of
        [Jesus the Christ], and as [John the Divine] proclaims regarding supplication in prayer:
        …”Make a Happy Sound Unto the Lord”…

    • Neal Cassidy says:

      Believing someone who claims to be directed by random voices in their heads is perfeectly sensible if you agree with the voices. But what happens when different people hear voices directing them to do opposing things? If God is all powerful and is everywhere why not just speak to all of the people via the voices in their heads at the same time? It would solve a lot of confusion.

    • LMA says:

      Jettboy, that’s especially true since Martindale will only ever comment on the Church or matters of our faith adversely.

      Right here, we see an example. A mistake was made and it was corrected. Martindale only sees the mistake.

      It happens in Mormonism – not at all uniquely – that habits and practices develop around doctrines and ordinances. In the Catholic Church, this historical phenomenon has a name: “Sacred Tradition.” It is how any number of non-scriptural practices over time take on the character of revealed doctrine.

      It is a positive aspect of Mormonism that the Church as an institution (we say, “the Brethren”) is sensitive to this tendency, and from time to time will examine whether any practice or habit truly has a sound doctrinal foundation. If they find it doesn’t, they say so. We can understand this as the Church (the body of Christ) being led toward better harmony with the laws, commandments and principles of God.

      • Neal Cassidy says:

        So poloygamy at one time had a “sound doctrinal foundation” and then it didn’t? Mormon leaders defended polygamy as being biblical in nature. When did polygay cease being authorized by the bible. You accept what is said until it is no longer convenient or public opinion changes.

        • LMA says:

          “Poloygamy”? Oh well.

          Of course polygamy had a strong doctrinal foundation. It was a revealed commandment at the time it was practiced. It is a practice that God recognized and approved in the times of the ancient Hebrews, and part of the “restoration of all things.”

          It is no longer a commandment and is now prohibited. Those who believe in the scriptural authority of the Old and New Testaments, even without considering scriptures revealed in latter days, know that some commandments relate to time and circumstance, but are no less commandments for that.

          • Neal Cassidy says:

            “some commandments relate to time and circustance, but are no lees commandments for thay’[. Well then that would allow changes for any commandment at any time. What current commandments relate to time and circumnstance and what ones are for all time? Or is that just a excuse for disavowing those comandments that are no longer convenient or fit the current times?

  5. andrew h says:


    The “Ban” lasted as an institutionalized part of the Church well into the mid-to late 1970′s:

    From the 1976 CHI – “Brethren holding the priesthood should offer the prayers in sacrament meetings, including fast and testimony meetings.”

    From the August 1975 Ensign – “Prayers in Sacrament and Priesthood Meetings. Attention is called to the following instruction which appeared in the July-August 1967 Priesthood Bulletin.

    The First Presidency recommends that only those who bear the Melchizedek Priesthood or Aaronic Priesthood be invited to offer the opening and closing prayers in sacrament meetings, including fast meetings. This also applies to priesthood meetings.”

    Then, as you mentioned, in 1978 an announcement was made to end the ban. This announcement was relayed in the November 1978 Ensign.

  6. Pingback: 25 February 2013 | MormonVoices

  7. Velska says:

    Unfortunately, such “misunderstandings” are quite common in Mormondom; they are, however, found in other religions too. I know that, because I’ve been raised a Lutheran, and I joined the LDS Church as a young adult, and I had always been interested in religions.

    It really seems, that the more some Mormon leaders get to tinker with the members’ lives, the better. Endless discussions of whether caffeinated soft drinks are allowed; can one eat rum & raisins -flavoured ice cream, et.c.

    Often these come from overly zealous leadership, who wish to emphasise their “high” position (having ridden in the lift of the new multi-storey LDS Church administration building next to Salt Lake temple, or just having been in the temple itself. To top it all, one said to me once, that “an American” had told him this or that…

    And the Church leaders seem often to fight in vain to correct the misunderstandings and speculations, so that some people will die with their superstitions, being to set in their ways to examine themselves to realise they’d been wrong all along. That hurts one’s pride, too, to admit that. So some elderly Mormons will take to the grave the idea, that people with lots of pigmentation are somehow inferior or something as ridiculous as that.

    So, when I was growing up in a family with a nominally Lutheran background, I ran into people, who said dancing is a sin; so is laughing, playing cards (gambling being something that should obviously be unbecoming) or anything else one might enjoy. The Puritan Spirit is common, indeed.

    Some guys even think their wives must obey them and hold back their own ideas, because the guys “have the priesthood”, which is a completely moronic idea from someone who hasn’t read, or at least understood the 121st Section of the Doctrine & Covenants.

    Okay, I could go on, but let’s just say I love it when I can always whip out my “smartphone” and show people, what the Handbook says (find it usually at the front page of, or the public policy statements in the LDS Newsroom.

  8. ScottH says:

    Brigham Young is reputed to have written in a girl’s autograph book something like: “To live with saints in heaven above will be bliss and glory. To live with saints on earth below is quite another story.” Even people with the best of intentions are fallible.

    All organizations have their own cultural traditions. There is a constant struggle between holding to those traditions and moving to the broader culture. It is not always clear when it is appropriate to go one way or the other.

    I do recall the Sacrament meeting prayer ban. When I was a teenager (it might have been in response to the 1978 Ensign statement) our stake had women offer prayers in stake conference and directed bishoprics to ask women to pray in Sacrament meetings. Some of the men in my ward thought this was scandalous at the time.

    Having been in a position where I had to recruit members to offer prayers in Sacrament meeting, I can’t imagine eliminating more than half of the potential pool of potential candidates.

  9. E B says:

    I think this is an appropriate place for a reminder that there are three separate but related entities involved here: first, the gospel of Jesus Christ which never changes and includes all truth and Christ-like love.

    Second, the Church which teaches the gospel and sometimes changes policies to best meet that objective. Also note that the Church is administered by humans who err. Generally the things put forth by the Church that are accepted as doctrine have to come from the entire First Presidency, and sometimes the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for added weight, such as “The Family Proclamation.” (Yes, I think this answers the first comment posted in a doctrinal way.)

    Third is Mormon culture which doesn’t always have much in common with the gospel or the Church, it’s just the byproduct of a bunch of Mormons living and working in close proximity and it’s noticeably stronger in areas with higher LDS populations. That’s where old Church habits like the one mentioned die hard.

  10. Collin simonsen says:

    I just get the feeling, Mr. Gibson, that you take whatever opportunity you can get to insert doubt into your reader’s minds about the general authorities. Am I wrong?

    • Ben pales says:

      Explaining Church nuances and history is not leading others astray. If it leads you to search and question, then that is a good thing. If you have doubts, then that is for you to reconcile with yourself.

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      You’re not wrong–if truth means nothing to you. Doug just tells what happened. If reality challenges your faith, don’t blame Doug for it.

    • mlc says:

      Collin, you surprise me. Mr Gibson has always struck me as being a L.D.S. guy who delights in subjecting all things to historical scrutiny rather than hiding his head (and brain) in the sand. How you interpret historical facts and act on them determines whether something is “faith promoting” or “faith destroying.”

      Ignoring historical facts is, well…_______________ (you fill in the blank).

  11. Lasvegasrichard says:

    This isn’t something that the answer is founded in some obtuse scripture somewhere . This institution is founded on the claim of continuing revelation and the one true church . It appears the LDS God is a waffling liar or better yet … he talks to none of them , therefore they grope around in darkness .

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