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First prayer by woman offered at Mormon conference (video)

Published April 12, 2013 9:57 am

Woman's public prayer makes church history.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The benediction to the first session of LDS General Conference on Saturday didn't even last two minutes, but it made history: Jean A. Stevens became the first woman to offer a public prayer at the worldwide Mormon meeting.

Stevens, first counselor in the LDS Church's Primary general presidency, which oversees instruction of children under age 12 in the global faith, offered simple, unscripted words of gratitude and praise before millions of viewers.

"We are grateful for the restoration of the gospel, and with it the blessings of priesthood power, temple covenants, scriptures, and living apostles and prophets," she prayed. " ... We are so very grateful for the inspiring words and messages we've received, and the beautiful music that has all contributed to what we have felt this day."

Many believers — including Kristen Hanke Campbell in Indiana — found it hard to keep their eyes closed during the momentous prayer.

When President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the faith's governing First Presidency, announced that Stevens would offer the session's closing prayer, he did so without fanfare or noting the historic move, which comes 183 years to the day after the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Within minutes, though, social media lit up with the news.

"I cannot stop crying. True tears of joy," St. Louis resident Amber Whiteley, who had pushed for women to pray, posted on her Facebook page. "I am so full of joy and love for a Heavenly Father that answers prayers and inspires change."

Julia Durrant "was not prepared for the intense emotions that flooded me when I heard her speak and give voice to my thoughts," the San Francisco Mormon wrote in an email. "It was truly affirming that God, our Heavenly Parents, love and listen to our prayers."

Amanda Farr-Knickerbocker was thrilled.

"I wanted my children to listen to a woman offer prayers on behalf of the entire church," the San Diego Mormon wrote. "I wanted them to know that the church hears the voices of women, and that God does, too."

Some could hardly contain their emotions.

Utahn Lindsay Hansen Park worried that she threw her arm out "from the fist pumping and jumping up and down."

Mormon women have given prayers in their local congregations for more than 30 years, and have spoken at the twice-a-year churchwide General Conferences for decades. As far as historians can tell, though, no woman has ever before prayed at the general meetings.

When the LDS Church discontinued its annual two-day auxiliary conferences in 1970, "women's voices were completely eliminated from general church meetings," said Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

"I don't think this was a deliberate part of the process," Haglund wrote in an email, "it was the unintended consequence of the institutional systematization of patriarchy. ... The incorporation of women as speakers in General Conference and the recent emphasis on councils including women as the most important element of church governance can be read as an adjustment and improvement to the system."

Saturday's historic prayer was, she wrote, "a natural step in that process."

It was so seamless that some conferencegoers in downtown Salt Lake City were astonished that it hadn't happened before.

"I was so excited," said Laura Castillo, after the session. "I thought, 'Why not?' "

Though Randy Nicholls, of Auburn, Wash., hadn't heard any discussions of women praying at LDS General Conference, he was startled when he heard on the television who would be praying. He realized instantly that this was different, Nicholls said. "I was pleasantly surprised."

In January, a group of Mormons, including Whiteley, launched an effort called "Let Women Pray in General Conference." The activists urged the faithful to write letters to six high-ranking LDS leaders, including apostle Jeffrey R. Holland and three women who oversee church auxiliaries.

The drive reportedly generated about 1,600 letters from 300 participants, but a church spokesman said prayer assignments predated the "Let Women Pray" campaign.

With Stevens' prayer, Emilee Cluff, of Washington, D.C., said she feels "rescued."

"My struggles with feeling like I didn't belong in a society that promotes worth based on marriage and children — neither of which I have — has been lightened," she wrote in an email. "The feeling isn't gone, but [Stevens' prayer] helped it by leaps and bounds."

Natalie Hamilton Kelly, of Seattle, wondered how Stevens was feeling as she approached the podium.

"It is such an emotional moment for so many observers, I can't imagine how she must feel about it," Kelly wrote in an email. "I hope she writes about the experience afterward. I want to celebrate this beautiful moment with her."

pstack@sltrib.com Her historic prayer

"Our beloved Father in Heaven. We come before thee at the conclusion of this magnificent opening session of our General Conference, and we do so with an expression of our love for thee, and our great gratitude for the gifts thou hast given us, most importantly the gift of thy son Jesus Christ, our savior and redeemer.

"We are grateful for the restoration of the gospel, and with it the blessings of priesthood power, temple covenants, scriptures, and living apostles and prophets. We are grateful this day for President Thomas S. Monson, our beloved prophet. We pray for him. We support him and love him, as we do his counselors, the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and all who labor to assist in this great work.

"We are so very grateful for the inspiring words and messages we've received, and the beautiful music that has all contributed to what we have felt this day. And as we come to a close of this session of conference, we pray that thy spirit will abide with us, and that we may take with us an increased faith and hope in Jesus Christ, a more certain witness of his redeeming love and his great atoning sacrifice, and a deeper conversion to living and sharing his gospel.

"We offer this prayer in humility and in the sacred name of thy son, Jesus the Christ. Amen." Jean A. Stevens

• Has served as first counselor in the LDS Church's Primary general presidency since April 2010

• Earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah in mathematics

• Married Mark W. Stevens in 1973; five children

• Born in Salt Lake City in November 1952 to O. Claron and Helen Alldredge

Sources: 2013 LDS Church Almanac and lds.org