Reprinted with permission from Mormon Scholars Testify
I am a convert to the Mormon Church from Roman Catholicism, and gained my testimony as the result of spiritual experiences that I cannot deny. In this essay, however, I will discuss instead why, as a feminist, I remain a steadfast member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is very difficult to be raised in one of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), as I was, and not come away with some fairly unpleasant conclusions about women. Depending on the religion and sect involved, one may be taught that the first woman was feeble-minded or a murderess and that all her daughters are marred by that fact, that a woman’s body is unclean, that God meant women to submit to their husbands and in general be subservient to men, and that divinity is male and male alone. (Of course, echoes of such teachings can be found in other faith traditions besides the Abrahamic, as well.)
After decades of studying LDS doctrine concerning women (and carefully distinguishing it from LDS cultural understandings and practices, which in quite a few cases contradict that doctrine), I have been liberated as a woman from the erroneous and harmful beliefs about women that haunt those raised in Abrahamic traditions. How remarkable and in some senses ironic it still seems to me to have experienced “women’s lib” by conversion to Mormonism!
I will first review the main points of doctrine that make Mormonism the most feminist of all the Christianities in my view, and then proceed to re-tell the story of the Garden of Eden from the vantage point of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Restored Gospel teaches that the term “God” means an exalted woman and an exalted man married in the new and everlasting covenant (D&C 132:19-20). We are taught that there is no God without men and women loving each other as equals. Heavenly Father is not an eternal bachelor; he is married to our Heavenly Mother. In fact, the one who’s an eternal bachelor is Satan.
Second, the Restored Gospel teaches that all will have their male or female body forever. It is not a curse, but a great gift and a blessing that each soul had to prove itself worthy to have. Women readers, your breasts, your womb, your ovaries, are not unclean cursings; they are blessings. And the Restored Gospel also teaches me that I will be married forever, and that I will have children forever, and that the life of being a woman married to my sweetheart and having children forever is the life that will bring me the fullest joy in the eternities-as it has here on earth.
Third, LDS doctrine teaches that men and women are equals before the Lord and before each other. “Equal” does not mean “identical”-for example, there are no two men who are identical, and yet they stand as equals before each other and before the Lord. Can we imagine an understanding of equality that means that a man and woman, though different, can be equals before the Lord and before each other? That is the vision of equality that the Restored Gospel teaches.
Elder L. Tom Perry, an apostle of the LDS Church, said in 2004: “”There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family . . . They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.”[i] What an incredible vision, especially for a Christian denomination, many of which believe in some type of doctrine of submission of wives to husbands. The LDS do not preach submission of wives.
In my opinion, we cannot fully understand this revolutionary doctrine of the LDS Church unless we go back to the story of the Garden of Eden. Again, let us start with three main points of difference in the telling of that story from the vantage of the Restored Gospel.
Number one: the LDS do not believe that the Fall was a great tragedy. Rather, we believe that the Fall was foreordained, that it was for our progression, and thus the Fall was a blessing. Number two, the LDS do not believe that Eve sinned in partaking of the fruit of the First Tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And number three, because the LDS do not believe Eve sinned, we also do not believe that Eve was punished by God for her role in partaking of the fruit, but rather rewarded.
The Great Plan of Happiness devised for the children of God mandated that they leave their heavenly home, receive a mortal body as a blessing, enter into full agency by being separated from God, and then return once more to their heavenly home to be judged for how they used their agency. That is, the Plan was to be a “round,” if you will: it would take us from our heavenly home and, if we walked that path well, the plan would bring us back to our heavenly home, now much more like our Heavenly Parents, with much more knowledge, a fuller agency, a desire to choose the right, with so much more than we ever could have acquired if we had stayed in heaven with a pale or dilute version of agency.
Only the children could choose to leave, and to bring to pass a separation from their divine parents. And so in the Garden were placed a son and a daughter of God, and two trees. Two persons, two trees.
Both Trees represented doorways along the journey of the Great Plan. The First Tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, symbolized the doorway leading from heaven, and the ordinances of entering mortality with a mortal body, gaining full agency, and having the light of Christ awakened within. The Second Tree, the tree of eternal life, symbolized the ordinances of salvation and exaltation, and the doorway back to our heavenly home.
Eve was created second, then, not because she was derivative of Adam: she was created second to highlight that the giving of the gift of the First Tree was the gift to be given by women in the Great Plan.
[ii] It is through women that souls journey to mortality and gain their agency, and in general it is through the nurturing of women, their nurturing love of their children, that the light of Christ is awakened within each soul. And we should include in that list of souls Jesus the Christ. Even Christ our Lord was escorted to mortality and veiled in flesh through the gift of a woman, fed at his mother’s breast, and awakened to all that is good and sweet in the world. Women escort every soul through the veil to mortal life and full agency. It is interesting to think that even Adam, who was created before Eve, entered into full mortality and full agency by accepting the gift of the First Tree from the hand of a woman. In a sense, Adam himself was born of Eve.
If Eve was foreordained to give this good gift as her stewardship in the Great Plan, then she did not sin-and that is LDS doctrine. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle of the LDS Church, has said, “Some Christians condemn Eve for her act, concluding that she and her daughters are somehow flawed by it. Not the Latter-day Saints! Informed by revelation, we celebrate Eve’s act and honor her wisdom and courage in the great episode called the Fall.”[iii] We believe that our Heavenly Parents, and also all of the rest of God’s children, were happy and grateful that Eve offered her gift.
Eve, then, was not the worst among women; Eve was the best among women! She was the most courageous, the most full of faith. It was also right, then, that the first mortal being that the resurrected Jesus showed himself to was not a man; it was a woman. Jesus’ performance of the Atonement repaid Mother Eve’s faith in the Plan, her courageous opening of the door represented by the First Tree.
Did God curse Eve? We know that the ground was cursed for the sake of Adam and Eve-is this a cursing of Adam and Eve? In the teachings of the LDS Church, we do not believe that that was a curse meant to punish them-it was a curse meant to start that law of opposites that undergirds agency: virtue and vice, pleasure and pain, light and darkness, truth and lies (2 Ne 2:11-13). Eve was told she would labor in childbirth-was this a cursing of Eve? Again, from the LDS perspective, absolutely not. To have children, to be able to fully give the gift of Eve, is one of the most soul-satisfying parts of a woman’s life that she will either experience here or in the hereafter if circumstances have prohibited it here.
And then in the King James version of the BIble, we are told that Eve, as part of her punishment, was told that Adam would rule over her. Is that what the LDS believe? Actually not. Elder Bruce C. Hafen, a seventy in the LDS Church, says: “Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to rule over’ Eve, but… over in rule over’ uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling with, not ruling over…. The concept of interdependent equal partners is well-grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel.”[iv]
So the LDS alone among all Christian religions assert that not only did Eve not sin, but she was rewarded for her courage and wisdom, and God was assuring her that, just as she fulfilled her role in the Great Plan of Happiness, Adam would step up to the plate, and he would perform his role in the Great Plan of Happiness, and that would entitle him to rule with her. This is absolutely revolutionary and astounding doctrine among all the Christianities!
What gift will Adam give to further the Great Plan? The LDS believe that Adam and his sons will give the gift of the fruit of the Second Tree to the children of God, those who are worthy to receive it, just as Eve and her daughters give the fruit of the First Tree to all who are worthy to partake of it. The fruit of the Second Tree is the ordinances of salvation and exaltation administered by the sons of God. Just as the doorway through the veil into this life is administered and guarded over by the women, the daughters of God, so the doorway through the veil that brings us home is administered and guarded over by the sons of God. And those that have accepted the gift of the Second Tree from the hands of the sons of God will pass through that veil and back to that celestial place where they can be with their Parents once more.
Just as Adam was asked to hearken to Eve and received the fruit of the First Tree, Eve is asked by God to hearken to Adam in accepting the fruit of the Second Tree. We would be remiss if we did not see that there were two hearkenings, two gifts given, two gifts received, two stewardships.
That means that priesthood, in the LDS understanding, is not some extra given to men and denied women. Priesthood is a man’s apprenticeship to become a heavenly father, and it is clear from LDS doctrine that women have their own apprenticeship to become like their heavenly mother. The ordinances-and they are ordinances-of body and of agency-pregnancy, childbirth, lactation-the spiritual ordinances of the First Tree are not less powerful or spiritual than the ordinances of the Second Tree.[v] Women have their own godly power.
Some have erroneously felt that the Church and its male leaders preside over the members’ families, and that somehow that means that men are to rule over women. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Restored Gospel helps us see that the Church is intended to be the gift that the sons of God give to the family, just as the daughters of God give a great gift to the family. The Church, then, is but an auxiliary to the family, which stands above it in the eternal plan. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of the LDS Church, has said, “There might be wards and stakes in heaven-I don’t know anything about them-or there may well be some other organization that we don’t know much about. What we do know will exist in heaven is families. And most of what has been revealed about our afterlife, our eternal life, our celestial life, focuses on family organization….”[vi] The family is the divine organization, and we know from LDS doctrine that, in the family, women and men rule as equals. President James E. Faust, of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, said: “Every father is to his family a patriarch and every mother a matriarch as coequals in their distinctive parental roles.
“[vii] Notice the drumbeat, again, of equality.
I remain a steadfast member of the Mormon Church because, for the first time in my life, I understand why it is not a curse to be born a woman, and how it can be said with a straight face that men and women stand before God and before each other as true equals. I understand now that women are that they might have joy (2 Ne 2:25). And, odd as it may sound to some, I believe that one of the most profoundly feminist acts one can commit is to share the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. The Restored Gospel not only restores right relations between man and God, but right relations between men and women, making it the strongest, most progressive force for women in the world today.
Dr. Hudson Cassler is the author, co-author, or editor of many scholarly books and articles on international relations, national security, and foreign policy, including Foreign Policy Analysis: Classical and Contemporary Theory (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), Culture and Foreign Policy, Artificial Intelligence and International Politics, and, with Andrea Den Boer, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Populations (MIT Press, 2004).
[i] L. Tom Perry, “Fatherhood-An Eternal Calling,” Church News, 10 April 2004,:15, hard copy version only; the original wording is in the audio version of the 2004 April General Conference address at https://broadcast.lds.org/genconf/2004/apr/4/4_2english.mp3
[v] Analiesa Leonhardt, “The Sacrament of Birth,” SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 2010, https://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleLeonhardtBirth.html