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I am a convert to the LDS faith.  I say this in preface because my journey to that faith has been suffused with soul-wrenching questions about the divine nature of women.  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!  How utterly right it feels for this feminist to be a member of the LDS Church!

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, and that is a sign of his eternal damnation—a sign of Satan’s inability to progress to fully become like his Parents.

Second, the Restored Gospel teaches that all will have their male or female body forever.  The body 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 treasured 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, perhaps expressed this most eloquently 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.” [1]  And Elder Earl C. Tingey has taught, “You must not misunderstand what the Lord meant when Adam was told he was to have a helpmeet. A helpmeet is a companion suited to or equal to us. We walk side by side with a helpmeet, not one before or behind the other. A helpmeet results in an absolute equal partnership between a husband and a wife. Eve was to be equal to Adam as a husband and wife are to be equal to each other.” [2] 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.   It is my belief that misinterpretations of the Garden of Eden story have caused profound mischief among God’s children, and great heartache and even destruction.  To clear the waters downstream for our day, we must start with the original spring—and that is the story of our first parents.  Let us start with three main points of difference in the telling of that story from the vantage of the Restored Gospel, before delving into the story in great detail.

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 great “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, and a desire to choose the right—in short, 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 their heavenly home and effect a separation from their divine parents.  Our Heavenly Parents could not force their children to leave; that choice could only be the children’s.  And so each soul was asked to decide; and we know that many did not accept the Plan of Happiness, and thereby chose and caused their own form of separation.  For those who did accept, the “stage” for the great journey had to be created, and so a world and a Garden were formed.   In the opening scenes of the great saga of God’s children, into the Garden were placed one son and one daughter of God, and two trees.  Two persons, two trees.

Each Tree represented an important doorway 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, with its accompanying earthly ordinances of entering mortality with a mortal body, gaining full agency, and having the light of Christ awakened within. [3]  Remember the meaning of the term “ordinance” from the LDS Handbook (Volume 2): “An ordinance is a sacred physical act with symbolic meaning.”   Pregnancy, birth, lactation are all ordinances, then. [4]  The Second Tree, the tree of eternal life, symbolized the doorway back to our heavenly home, with its accompanying ordinances of salvation and exaltation.  We are much more familiar with referring to baptism, confirmation, sealing, and so forth, as ordinances.  However, it is worth pondering that there are ordinances associated with accepting the fruit of each of the Two Trees.

This understanding sheds new light on the question of why Eve was created second.  In my former religious tradition, Eve’s being created second was interpreted as showing that Eve was derivative of the more fully human Adam, he who was closer to divinity because he himself was no derivative.  This interpretation implies in course that men are naturally rulers over women.  However, if we assume, as LDS doctrine teaches, that men and women are equals, this cannot be a correct explanation.  To approach a more correct explanation, let us build upon what we already know.  Understanding that there are important ordinances associated with the fruit of each Tree, a further proposition may be advanced: there were two people and two Trees in the Garden of Eden because each person was foreordained to preside over the ordinances of one of the two Trees.

I assert, then, that Eve was created second not to show she was derivative of Adam, or subordinate to him: Eve was created second to highlight that the giving of the gift of the fruit of the First Tree was the gift to be given by the daughters of God in the Great Plan. [5] The Great Plan could not be put into effect until a woman arrived on the scene, and this is made plain as Adam must wait, unable to set the Plan in motion, until Eve arrives.  Why must he wait?  Because Eve, not Adam, was foreordained to preside over the ordinances of the First Tree.  It is through the work and power of 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 daughter of Eve, 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.

Women’s right to open the door to the Great Plan of Happiness—or to refuse to open it—resonates deeply with me, for I am a scholar of global gender inequality.  I believe it was just and proper that women be given the right to open the door to the Plan of Happiness.  Surely in the premortal existence women began to understand what would happen to them in the fallen world—rape, forced marriage, domestic violence, sex trafficking, treated almost as slaves throughout much of human history.  If no daughter of God was willing to open the door to mortal life, it would not be opened—and that would only be just.

It is also interesting to think that even Adam, who was created physically before Eve, entered into full mortality and full agency only by accepting the gift of the First Tree from the hand of a woman.  In a sense, Adam himself was born of Eve.  She opened the door for Adam, for he could not open it for himself.

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.” [6]  And Elder (now President Russell M. Nelson) has stated, “We and all mankind are forever blessed because of Eve’s great courage and wisdom. By partaking of the fruit first, she did what needed to be done.” [7] President Henry B. Eyring has expressed, “[Eve] helped her family see the path home when the way ahead seemed hard . . . You have her example to follow.  By revelation, Eve recognized the way home to God.” [8]

We believe that our Heavenly Parents, and also all of the rest of God’s children, were happy and grateful that Eve was brave and faithful enough to open that door and offer her gift. Eve believed the promise of our Christ—believed that Christ would overcome sin, sorrow, suffering, and death, which are the enemies of the mothers of the souls of God’s children.  What incredible faith that must have taken!  We were not weeping in heaven as Eve partook of the fruit of the First Tree; we were shouting with joy.

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.  It was no accident that the successful fulfilling of the promise of the Atonement was announced first to a daughter of Eve.

We also shouted with joy, I suggest, when Adam hearkened to Eve and accepted the fruit of the First Tree from her hand.  Only when both had partaken would the portal be fully open for all of God’s worthy children to walk the great round of the Plan of Happiness.  I would go further and assert that Adam’s hearkening to Eve and his acceptance of the gift of the fruit of the First Tree from her was no capricious, spur-of-the-moment decision, but rather the fulfilling of a covenant made by Adam in the premortal existence to do just that.  I believe that in the premortal existence, those of use who accepted the Plan covenanted to hearken to Eve and her daughters as they offered the ordinances of the First Tree to all who proved worthy, and to accept the fruit of the First Tree from them so that we might start our journey.  For the daughters of Eve, their stewardship over the ordinances of the First Tree constitutes their apprenticeship to their Heavenly Mother, so that by fulfilling that stewardship honorably they may grow to know as She knows and to become as She is.

If Eve was courageous and wise, if she was fulfilling the stewardship she had been foreordained to fulfill, why did God curse Eve?

 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 great law of opposites that undergirds agency: virtue and vice, pleasure and pain, light and darkness, truth and lies (2 Ne 2:11-13). If one of the central elements of the Great Plan of Happiness is a test of agency, then only in the context of opposites and opposition could agency be truly tested.  Eve was also 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.

But what of the third curse, that has been used for millennia to justify the subordination of women? After the above statements about the ground and childbearing are made, the King James version of the Bible states that Eve, ostensibly as part of some punishment, was told by God that Adam would rule over her.  Since we know Eve not only did not sin, but was courageous and wise in the Garden, this makes no sense.  Do the LDS believe that God told Eve that Adam would rule over her?  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.” [9]

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 in this passage of scripture that just as she admirably fulfilled her role in the Great Plan of Happiness, that Adam would step up to the plate and would successfully 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 God’s worthy children 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 represents 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 of God’s children 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 home where they will have the opportunity to be reunited with their Parents once more.

Adam covenanted premortally to hearken to Eve, and in fulfillment of that covenant he did hearken and received the fruit of the First Tree in the Garden. After that momentous step had been taken, Eve, now mortal, is then asked by God to covenant to hearken to Adam in accepting the fruit of the Second Tree.  She made that covenant.  We would be remiss if we did not see that in addition to two people and two trees in the Garden of Eden, there were two stewardships, two covenants to hearken, two hearkenings, two gifts given, and two gifts received.

When we step back and look at the whole plan from beginning to end, we cannot but rejoice!  This is a plan of equality between men and women, a plan of joyous cooperation between them, a plan of happiness indeed!

That means that priesthood, in the LDS understanding, is not some extra given to men and denied women.  What we call the priesthood is but a man’s apprenticeship to become like their Heavenly Father, and it is clear from LDS doctrine and its re-envisioning of the story of the Garden of Eden that women have their own apprenticeship to become like their Heavenly Mother.  There is a priestesshood, just as there is a priesthood.  The priesthood is the “eternal power and authority of our Heavenly Father,” according to Church manuals. [10]   That means we can safely assume that the priestesshood is the eternal power and authority of our Heavenly Mother.  The ordinances—and they are ordinances—of body and of agency, to wit, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—these spiritual ordinances of the First Tree are not less powerful or spiritual than the ordinances of the Second Tree. [11]  Women have their own godly power.

United in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, the priesthood and the priestesshood comprise the Priesthood, which is the combined full power and authority of God our Heavenly Parents.  This is the source of all divinity.

Some have erroneously felt that since men preside in the Church, that somehow that means that men are to rule over women in families here and in eternity.  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 in the Plan of Happiness, 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 the Church 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 . . .” [12]   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.” [13]   Notice the drumbeat, again, of equality between men and women.

What this re-envisioning of the Garden of Eden tells us is that the central drama in all societies isn’t treaties and wars and the price of oil, or how the stock market is doing.  The central drama of our mortal existence in the Great Plan of Happiness is male-female relations.  Think of the great lesson taught in Jacob 2 and 3—Jacob states that the Nephites, who have the Gospel and a temple and prophets and ordinances and scriptures, will be destroyed, while the Lamanites, who have none of these blessings, will be saved. How is this to be understood?

Jacob explains the key attribute that the Lamanites possess that the Nephites apparently do not share: “Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and wives love their children: (Jacob 3:7).  This is a crucially important lesson for us today: a society where love and equality between men and women have withered and died cannot live the Gospel of Christ.  You might as well start over and not let any further souls be born into such a society.  In a very real sense, the situation of women is a barometer of how near death a civilization is in the eyes of God.  Jacob’s teachings suggest that a society where the husbands love their wives, the wives love the husbands, the parents love the children and the children love the parents is the bedrock of the Gospel.  God can always send angels and call prophets and uncover gold plates, etc., if need be, to help such a people obtain the Gospel and its fullness.  But the bedrock must be there first.  That means that gender equality is not some politically correct ideal or a maraschino cherry placed last atop the Zion sundae . . . gender equality is at the very heart of Zion, for that is how our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother live.

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.

NOTES:

[1] 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 http://broadcast.lds.org/genconf/2004/apr/4/4_2english.mp3 . [Back to manuscript].

[2] http://lds.org/library/display/0,4945,538-1-4399-1,00.html . [Back to manuscript].

[3] For example, Elder David A. Bednar states,
“Our physical bodies make possible a breadth, a depth, and an intensity of experience that simply could not be obtained in our premortal existence.   Thus, our relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and act in accordance with truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies.  In the school of mortality, we experience tenderness, love, kindness, happiness, sorrow, disappointment, pain, and even the challenges of physical limitations in way that prepare us for eternity.  Simply stated, there are lessons and experiences we must have, as the scriptures describe, “according to the flesh.””  Daivd A. Bednar, “We Believe in Being Chaste,” Ensign, April 2013 conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/we-believe-in-being-chaste?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

[4] Analiesa Leonhardt, “The Sacrament of Birth,” SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 2010, http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleLeonhardtBirth.html . [Back to manuscript].

[5] Alma Don Sorensen, “The Story of Eve,” in Alma Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion, Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, pp. 68-101. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, November 1993, pp. 72-75 [Back to manuscript].

[7] Russell M. Nelson, “Constancy Amid Change,” Ensign, October, 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/constancy-amid-change?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

[8] Henry B. Eyring, “Daughters in the Covenant,” Ensign, April 2014, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/daughters-in-the-covenant?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

[9] Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen, “Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners,” Ensign, August 2007, pp. 24-29. [Back to manuscript].

[10] Aaronic Priesthood manual, “What is the priesthood?” https://www.lds.org/youth/learn/ap/priesthood-keys/what?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

[11] Analiesa Leonhardt, “The Sacrament of Birth,” SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 2010, http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleLeonhardtBirth.html . [Back to manuscript].

[12] Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, LDS Church, February 9, 2008, p. 12. [Back to manuscript].

[13] James E. Faust, “The Prophetic Voice,” Ensign, May 1996, p.4. [Back to manuscript].

ShareThis Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2016) “The Two Trees,” SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerTwoTrees.html, accessed <7 August 2017>.

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