(RNS) — This week marked a momentous anniversary for Community of Christ, the Mormon denomination based in Independence, Missouri, that was formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Forty years ago this week, that church’s president announced women could start being ordained to the lay priesthood.

In this guest column, David Howlett, a historian at Smith College in Massachusetts, and Nancy Ross, a historian at Utah Tech University, discuss the sea change this new direction represented. — JKR

Guest columnists Nancy Ross, left, and David Howlett. (Courtesy photos)

Guest columnists Nancy Ross, left, and David Howlett. (Courtesy photos)

A guest column by David Howlett and Nancy Ross

In the early 1980s, Linda Booth was a young mother going back to school for a journalism degree. As she pulled into a parking lot at the University of Kansas on April 3, 1984, she heard some news that shocked her. A local radio station reported that the president of her denomination, Community of Christ (then RLDS), had received a revelation that women should be ordained to the priesthood. The governing conference of her church was then tasked with voting on it as a policy.

Booth sat in her car and thought, “Oh my goodness. It’s going to happen.” In silence, she cried tears of joy.

“It was as if the doors of the world and the church opened up for me,” she recalled.


Debate about women’s ordination started in earnest in Community of Christ during the early 1970s, mirroring larger trends in the U.S. at the time. Women’s rights was a pressing topic, as states debated the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), sexual harassment laws and labor issues. 

Mainline Protestant denominations latched onto these conversations in the 1970s. Many of them started ordaining women. More conservative churches held to tradition, which reserved priesthood for men. In the process, women’s ordination became a defining issue for churches, signaling whether they would be allied with progressive change or the emergent religious right. 

By that time, the RLDS Church was wrestling with its identity, balancing traditional and progressive factions. It had long celebrated its Latter-day Saints heritage and history. Church teachings embraced the Book of Mormon and the writings of the movement’s early leaders. 

But in the 1950s, RLDS Church leaders living in Independence, Missouri, started attending a local Methodist seminary. Seminary education opened up a broader world of Christian education, teaching and practice to church leaders. These educational experiences changed the direction of the denomination. 

At that time, the RLDS Church ordained some men to priesthood offices, where priesthood was required for many different kinds of pastoral and ritual activities. Speaking from the pulpit was largely limited to those with priesthood. Leadership roles in local congregations also required priesthood. The men who held priesthood had social status in the church. 

Those who resisted women’s ordination within the RLDS Church often charged advocates with being influenced by secular feminism. However, RLDS feminists did not need to look to secular sources to find support for women’s ordination. By the early 1980s, advocates in the RLDS Church had been talking about the issue for about a hundred years. 

In one important episode in the 1890s, a local priesthood leader ordained Emma Burton to give healing blessings to women. When local church administrators asked the leader to explain himself, he said he had been inspired by the Holy Ghost to ordain her. A local elder who witnessed the ordination complained and then published an article in the church’s official newspaper reaffirming that women could not be ordained to the priesthood. Later, a formal RLDS policy in 1905 declared that women could not be ordained until the church received new direction (i.e., a revelation from its president or a conference vote). Importantly, these episodes left the door open for future change.

1970s pressure for change

Modern advocacy for women’s ordination began in earnest in the early 1970s. Church leaders in Australia and New Zealand proposed legislation that affirmed women’s leadership in the church and asked church administrators to clarify their position on women’s ordination. The governing bodies chose not to discuss these proposals.

These administrative actions did not deter advocates.

In the mid-1970s, RLDS feminists who had been participating in consciousness-raising groups began to take on more direct advocacy. One of these groups was called AWARE, which stood for “Awake, Worship, Action, Renewal, and Education.” They held regular meetings, wrote letters to church leaders, published a newsletter, educated each other on women’s issues and feminist discourse and held retreats.

Such advocates for women’s empowerment embraced a variety of ideas about how to achieve their goals. Some wanted the church to ordain women or expand their roles. Others wanted the church to acknowledge the work that women already did in local congregations. The most radical position was held by those who wanted to abolish priesthood altogether. 

Approving women’s ordination

When the church president, Wallace B. Smith, read his revelation calling for women’s ordination in 1984, that was not the end of the discussion. The church had to approve it. Smith asked conference delegates to consider it for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book that articulated important questions, inspiration and values of the church and held by many as Scripture.

Wallace B. Smith in brief remarks on YouTube when he was president emeritus of Community of Christ, April 2, 2017. Smith died Sept. 22, 2023, at the age of 94. Video screen grab

Wallace B. Smith in brief remarks on YouTube when he was president emeritus of Community of Christ, April 2, 2017. (Video screen grab)

After intense debate, delegates voted to approve the new revelation by a margin of 4-to-1, effectively changing church practice. Women would now be ordained to priesthood offices. 

Ordaining women was a symbolic victory for feminists and advocates of the practice, and it signaled that Community of Christ had aligned itself with progressive churches. Women’s ordination also brought pragmatic benefits to the church as a whole. By 1996, the RLDS Church had a greater percentage of women clergy than any other mainline Protestant denomination.

The church benefited from this expanded pool of potential leaders, both then and now. For example, Stassi Cramm will be ordained as president of Community of Christ in June 2024. Her past leadership as an apostle and presiding bishop has helped the church through difficult financial crises in the past two decades. She is one of thousands of women currently serving in local or denominational leadership positions.

In the 40 years since hearing on the radio that women might be ordained in her church, Linda Booth, an apostle in Community of Christ from 1998 to 2019, has sat with many women considering their call to ordained ministry. Some struggle with knowing if they can fulfill their roles as priesthood. As she listens to them, she usually affirms several things.

“Your journey is also divinely led,” she tells them. “It’s that connection of divinity with humanity that leads us into a space where we can be the very best we can be. And not only be the best we can be. But more importantly, to help others be the best that they can be.” That for her sums up priesthood ministry.

(David Howlett is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Nancy Ross is the chair of the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Department at Utah Tech University.)

Related content about Community of Christ:

Kirtland Temple purchased by LDS Church for $192.5 million

Wallace B. Smith, great-grandson of Joseph Smith and pioneer for women’s ordination, dies at 94

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