Every year a new crop of young Latter-day Saints will turn 12 by December and will graduate from Primary, the faith’s program for children.
The boys will get a new title “deacon” and start passing the bread and water of the sacrament, or Communion, while the girls will start attending Young Women classes and get no new identity.
Why such a gender difference in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Tradition, says Sam Brunson, a Latter-day Saint tax law professor in Chicago, who often blogs about church issues on the By Common Consent website. In other words, “policy choices that church leaders made decades ago.” Yes, the Utah-based faith has an all-male priesthood, but is passing the sacrament really a priesthood function?
Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast with Brunson.
How did the practice of having teenage boys pass the sacrament get started?
The short answer is that men wanted to be Melchizedek Priesthood holders, the higher priesthood in Mormonism, and they didn’t want to do the things of the Aaronic Priesthood, the lesser or lower priesthood. You didn’t have Aaronic Priesthood quorums, [just] adult male Melchizedek Priesthood holders acting in [those roles.] Then the church decided, or local leaders decided, that they wanted to actually have these quorums and one of the ways that you could get the quorums full was to put young boys, teenage boys, ‘tween boys, in the roles. It was understandable why the adult men didn’t want to function in the Aaronic Priesthood, because for the most part, that [quorum] didn’t have a lot of responsibilities. In the 1870s and 1880s, some adult Aaronic Priesthood holders complained that all that they were really doing was cleaning the church buildings. And that seems to be essentially the role of a deacon. So adult men don’t want it. They start putting boys in. According to an article in the Journal of Mormon History titled “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices 1829-1996,” bishops in Utah decided, hey, maybe we can have the deacons and the teachers do stuff with the sacrament. … In the Kanab ward in 1873, a member objected, citing Doctrine and Covenants 20 [a Latter-day Saint scripture], which says deacons can’t administer the sacrament. And Bishop Levi Stewart responded that Brigham Young had said passing the sacrament was fine because passing the sacrament is not administering the sacrament. So it’s perfectly right if deacons pass the sacrament. …I’m sure that I learned that passing the sacrament was a priesthood duty of deacons — except that it turns out it not only isn’t but, if we follow our scriptures, it can’t be.
Why do you think it’s a bad practice?
Because it’s exclusionary. Passing the sacrament is a very visible, somewhat high-profile way to serve in the church. If you attend a Mormon sacrament meeting, you’re going to see people lined up getting the sacrament and handing [it] out. Where you are will determine what that looks like. Where I grew up in Southern California, our Young Men program, the boys ages 12 to 18, there were probably 30 of us. At my sister-in-law’s ward in Utah, I think that there were 50, 60 or 70. My ward in Chicago, I believe, we have five young men and four young women. And that’s ages 11 through 18. So if you attend my ward, you’re going to see maybe one boy passing the sacrament and five missionaries or other adult men. It’s something that girls could do because we do have four young women. We clearly can see that it doesn’t require priesthood. But the girls aren’t given the same types of visible responsibilities. … And they notice that exclusion.
What message would letting young women pass the sacrament send to young women and also to young men?
To young women, it would send a message that your services are valued, not just in serving girls and women, but in serving the entire congregation — just as young men do. The young women do things with the young men, but mostly they serve in their Young Women classes, they serve one another. Whereas, the young men have the opportunity to do all that same stuff, but they also pass the sacrament to the whole congregation — men, women, children, bishops, stake presidents, visiting authorities, and visiting stake Relief Society presidents. They have a chance to broadly and visibly serve in a way that the young women don’t. Letting young women pass the sacrament also sends a critical message to our young men, which is that girls are your equal. Girls can do the things that you do. …My daughters, in their athletic and educational endeavors, are equal with the boys. And this [would send] a message that not only are girls capable of doing the same things outside of church, but they’re also capable of doing the same things inside church.
Would it take a “divine revelation” to change it?
I don’t think so, because it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t instituted by revelation. All you’d have to do is change the words [in the church’s General Handbook]. Instead of saying deacon or priesthood, it [could just] say, “anyone ages 11 or higher who is an active member of the church.” If it requires revelation, then I hope and pray that church leaders are actively and aggressively looking for that revelation.
What positions in the all-volunteer organization currently held by men could be held by women?
A couple come to my mind. Sunday school presidents, for one. The handbook explicitly says that the Sunday school president needs to have a temple recommend and hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. But there is no reason for that. Teachers don’t have to hold priesthood. There’s nothing in [Doctrine and Covenants 20] or in scripture at all that talks about Sunday school presidents, much less priesthood qualification for Sunday school presidents. Similarly, ward clerks. They work with the bishopric. They do important things like keeping track of membership, keeping track of finances, things that have no priesthood connection and that women are going to be just as capable as men of doing.
What do you think about getting rid of the names of the Young Women classes?
I’ve just been speaking against tradition, but there’s an upside to tradition. Tradition is fun and it’s good and it can bind you together where it doesn’t unnecessarily exclude people. In my daughter’s experience, it probably is less meaningful because we have four young women. The girls from 18 down … are all in the same class. So we, in Chicago, don’t have these class divisions. But there is something cool about saying, “I’m a Beehive,” and looking at where the Beehive name comes from. When you’re in an organization, and it has a name that you’re unfamiliar with, you can find out what it is. It can tie you to your mother, if your mother was a member of the church. She has her Mia Maid experiences, you have your Mia Maid experiences. Or to the missionary that baptized you or, you know, whatever that relationship is. When we make things more generic, honestly, I think, to some extent, we make them more boring.
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