(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 Apparently, that ban was rescinded soon after but the prohibition continued for a decade or more in some wards.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.