Mary Magdalene was the first person, the Gospel of Mark records, to witness Christianity’s most glorious event: the resurrection of Christ.
Now, Latter-day Saint girls and women will be able to act as official witnesses to two of Mormonism’s most sacred ceremonies: baptisms and temple “sealings.”
In another stride toward gender equity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Russell M. Nelson announced to general officers meeting Wednesday — before this weekend’s General Conference — that women can serve as witnesses to temple sealings and that any baptized member (starting as young as age 8) can be a “witness of the baptism of a living person.”
These duties were previously reserved exclusively for male priesthood holders.
Baptisms typically take place in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses but sometimes occur in rivers, lakes, oceans, even swimming pools. Of course, anyone can attend a baptism, but two members (before this change, they were male priesthood holders) act as official witnesses to ensure the ordinance is performed properly.
In another policy shift, Nelson said that any temple recommend holder (male or female) can serve as a witness at a “proxy baptism for a deceased person” in a Latter-day Saint temple. This change also extends to holders of so-called limited-use recommends. These are often teenage girls and boys.
Latter-day Saints perform baptisms for the dead in their temples, where the devout take part in their faith's most sacred rites. Members research their genealogies to find the names of departed ancestors. Living volunteers then perform vicarious baptisms for these souls in temples.
A proxy baptism doesn’t mean that person automatically becomes a Latter-day Saint in heaven. Mormon doctrine holds that those who have passed on can choose to accept or reject this ordinance. On Earth, those names are not counted as members.
Nelson also announced Wednesday that "any endowed member with a current temple recommend may serve as a witness to sealing ordinances, living and proxy.”
Previously, only endowed men could act as witnesses to temple sealings. (Male priesthood bearers remain the only members who can perform baptisms and sealings.)
Latter-day Saints teach that husbands and wives can be married, or “sealed,” for eternity in their temples. They also believe children can be sealed to their parents.
“We are joyful about these changes,” Nelson said in a church news release. “Imagine a beloved sister serving as a witness to the living baptism of her younger brother. Imagine a mature couple serving as witnesses in the temple baptistry as their grandson baptizes their granddaughter for and in behalf of a dear ancestor.”
Emily Jensen, a Utah writer and editor, welcomed Wednesday’s developments.
“After many years of writing about the beautiful theological and important practical reasons, as well as the historical precedents behind women witnessing, we all get to witness this change,” Jensen wrote in an email. “I cried the day my youngest child was baptized ... for our little family, that chance to [act as a witness] for her baptism was gone.”
Latter-day Saint teens are currently studying “the power of women’s witness in the New Testament as they were the first invited to witness Jesus Christ’s powerful — perhaps most powerful — priesthood ordinance of resurrection,” she said. “He has always known women’s witnesses were needed.”
Now that “standing as a witness” has been “formalized” for women, Jensen hopes that the church can embrace other ways “women can and should be working within our most sacred spaces, including holding babies during blessings, sitting and speaking more prominently in the chapel, taking leadership opportunities in all church governance, healing through blessings again and more.”
According to Latter-day Saint historian Benjamin Park, one of the first vicarious baptisms for the dead was witnessed by a woman. It happened in Nauvoo in 1840.
Harvey Olmstead agreed to baptize Jane Neyman “on behalf of her deceased son, [with] another fellow saint, Vienna Jaques, to act as witness,” the historian wrote in a blog post. “They marched down to the Mississippi River to perform the ritual. In order to properly observe the baptism and ‘hear what the ceremony would be,’ Jaques rode her horse into the water.”
Eventually, vicarious rituals were performed only in Latter-day Saint temples and the process became “standardized.”
“As the priesthood was routinized over the next century, so too were the guidelines for who could perform the baptism, who could be baptized, where the baptism could take place, and who could stand as witness,” wrote Park, a history professor at Sam Houston State University. “… It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that witnessing ordinances in the temple was firmly restricted to priesthood-holding men.”
Nelson, who has unleashed a wave of reforms, revisions and rescissions since taking the reins as the church’s 17th prophet-president in January 2018, said that “any adjustments made to ordinances and/or procedures do not change the sacred nature of the covenants being made. Adjustments allow for covenants to be planted in the hearts of people living in different times and circumstances.”
These latest moves come 10 months after the church unveiled sweeping changes to its temple ceremonies to include more inclusive language and remove wording and other elements that had been viewed as “sexist.”
“It is wonderful to see increasing evidence that the leaders of the church are actively seeking ways in which they can integrate women more fully into teaching, leading and worshipping in the church,” said Ariel Laughton, an independent Latter-day Saint scholar of religion and women’s studies in Houston. “Including women more fully in temple ordinances will not only allow temple work to move forward at a greater pace, but will also allow women a greater feeling of significance and belonging in the temple, a place in which many women haven’t always felt at home.”
On top of that, Laughton said, “the visual impact of women at the front of the room serving as official witnesses inside and out of the temple will have, I believe, a long-term effect upon younger generations, and will shape their understanding of gender roles in increasingly positive ways. I am looking forward to a future of even more expansive opportunities for women to serve in the church and the temple.”