Priesthood as a Puberty Rite

HawkgrrrlMormon 22 Comments

A unique aspect of Mormonism is that all males over age 12 can hold an office of the priesthood, and that they are expected to use that priesthood in service to both the community (sacrament, callings) and to individuals (healings, blessings, and acts of service).  When the church was first organized, most of the offices of the Aaronic priesthood were held by adult males, not teens.  Has teenage priesthood ordination evolved into a form of puberty rite?

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:  but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

What is a “puberty rite”?  In The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell discuss the importance of puberty rites.  When society does not have a ritualistic way to move young men to adulthood, those young men create their own rituals (e.g. violent street gangs, Lord of the Flies scenarios).  Those rites can be dangerous because they often run counter to the interests of society, but it is the failure of society to initiate those children into adulthood in concert with the society’s values that creates the problem.

In primal societies, there are teeth knocked out, there are scarifications, there are circumcisions, there are all kinds of things done.  So you don’t have your little baby body anymore, you’re something else entirely.  When I was a kid, we wore short trousers, you know, knee pants.  And then there was this great moment when you put on long pants.  Boys now don’t get that.  I see even five-year-olds walking around with long trousers.  When are they going to know that they’re now men and must put aside childish things? ~ Joseph Campbell

Moyers & Campbell discuss a puberty rite from the Aboriginals:

“When a boy gets to be a bit ungovernable, one fine day the men come in, and they are naked except for stripes of white bird down that they’ve stuck on their bodies using their own blood for glue.  They are swinging the bull-roarers, which are the voices of spirits, and the men arrive as spirits.

“The boy will try to take refuge with his mother, and she will pretend to try to protect him.  But the men just take him away.  A mother is no good from then on, you see.  You can’t go back to Mother, you’re in another field.

“Then the boys are taken out to the men’s sacred ground, and they’re really put through an ordeal–circumsicision, subincision, the drinking of men’s blood, and so forth.  Just as they had drunk mother’s milk as children, so now they drink men’s blood.  They’re being turned into men.  While this is going on, they are being shown enactments of mythological episodes from the great myths.  They are instructed in the mythology of the tribe.  Then, at the end of this, they are brought back to the village, and the girl whom each is to marry has already been selected.  The boy has now become a man. . .

“Now he has a man’s body.  There’s no chance of relapsing back to boyhood after a show like that.”

Priesthood ordination sounds a little tame compared to this particular ritual.  Maybe scout camp is a better analogy?  The obvious question is if that’s how a boy becomes a man, how does a girl become a woman?  Here is a contrast:

“The girl becomes a woman with her first menstruation.  It happens to her.  Nature does it to her.  And so she has undergone the transformation, and what is her initiation?  Typically it is to sit in a little hut for a certain number of days and realize what she is . . . .  She is now a woman.  And what is a woman?  A woman is the vehicle of life.  Life has overtaken her.  Woman is what it is all about–the giving of birth and the giving of nourishment.  She is identical with the earth goddess in her powers, and she has got to realize that about herself.  The boy does not have a happening of this kind, so he has to be turned into a man and voluntarily become a servant of something greater than himself.”

Clearly to our modern sensibilities, the idea that periods are the female equivalent of priesthood strikes a sour note (to say the least!).  And frankly, I never sat in a hut for a few days over it.  Perhaps I watched some reruns and ate mint chocolate chip ice cream, though.

However, one point to consider is that to become men, boys leave their primarily female-dominated sphere (the home) to join a male-dominated sphere (the world of men).  To do this, boys need to associate with men, and to join their ranks in a way that contributes to the society.  Priesthood initiation at age 12 seems to do just that.  What are your thoughts?  Discuss.

Comments 22

  1. I guess the real question is whether or not we want boys to become part of society as men, socialized, or not. I’ve thought of that a good deal.

    Though ice cream as a female coming of age ritual, that is an interesting thought.

  2. I think there is some accuracy to your argument and yet I wonder whether this shift to adulthood is loaded with other social constructs as well. For example, the youth program generally is a conflicting organization for it calls for adult responses in both YM/YW to gospel living (i.e. youth are expected to develop certain adult Christian virtues) and yet the simultaneously situated as ‘youth’ or non-adult. In fact most of the youth experience is a barrage of advice and activities that attempts to constrain our youth from participating in the adult world.

    I suspect that receiving the priesthood is less-socially significant in terms of rites of passage for the youth than dating at 16, getting your first suit, finally being able to go to dances and (dare I say it) breaking the law of chastity and hiding it from your parents.

  3. Wouldn’t receiving the Melchizedek priesthood, going thru the Temple, and then serving a mission be a better example of LDS transition into manhood?

  4. Similar to Judaism, where a young man is a Bar Mitzvah (Literally, Son of Commandments or Blessings) where he demonstrates to the community that he is ready and prepared to participate as a member of the congregation and understands the commitment to the faith.

  5. The challenge with your thesis is that in most of the traditional situations you describe, the feminine no longer has control after puberty of either sex. Women and mothers are limited to the first 12 to 13 years of life. This separation is not permitted in modern society.

    In modern society, the feminine seeks to neutralize the masculine as much as possible in the pursuit of equality that it has become necessary to create this artificial “in-between” world that keeps young adults within the innocent realm of childhood for as long as possible. The masculine has been so beaten down and marginalized that it has abandoned control of the transition entirely.

    In my opinion, this is why we have the crisis in masculinity and the substitution of war and “pseudo-manhood” for real manhood. Madison Avenue advertising has stepped in to define masculinity to the benefit of marketers and retailers.

  6. Justin (#03):

    I would agree with this observation – Going on missions, or to college, or marriage, more aptly defines the Mormon males right of passage, than does Priesthood ordination. I would guess that it is very similar for the females as well. This makes Michael (#05) point so interesting. There is very little dichotomy between the processes which bring about adult independence for either of the sexes. I also think this is social trend that exists in American society more broadly, rather than just Mormon. The distinction for Mormons is that, regardless of when you get married, or if you go to college, there is a point where you are expected to serve a mission, and thereby enter the adult world.

  7. Fairly much the mission is the rite of passage into adulthood for male members. Very few young men growing up active remain so if they don’t serve. We teach our young girls to date and ultimately marry ONLY the RM as we think it’s short for “Ready for Marriage”.
    This doesn’t pertain, of course, to the much older (High Priests age) men. I can’t remember the last time anyone ask ME about my mission, which is fine by me. I’ve already put a son through a mission. Now that I’m past fifty and on the downhill slope to old fogeydom, I guess I’m supposed to become humorless, culturally clueless, and bland.

    “Gawd” forbid!

  8. Post

    #1 – the trend in current society (at least according to Moyers and Campbell) is definitely away from gender-based socialization, but they would also say that it’s a loss.

    #2 – I do think there are some natural hallmarks of maturation as you mention; rejecting parental values, experimentation, and defining oneself based on differences from the preceding generation certainly falls into this category. But, doing this absent intentional societal rites probably also means that some YM get Peter Pan syndrome (which I think is becoming rather prevalent in society).

    #3 – those are also “milestones,” but I think they might be considered spiritual (and designed toward those aims) rather than sociological.

    #4 – Campbell & Moyers seem to feel that most current religious puberty rites are very watered down and insufficient to the task. Of course, if you ask me, “short trousers” hardly seem that effective. Perhaps this is a case of bias toward the familiar.

    #5 – It’s a fair observation that there is a tendency to domesticate the masculine in our modern society. That is certainly different that in more gender-differentiating cultures such as Arabic or Latin cultures. It is an interesting trend. As a predominantly Anglo-American church, this trend seems to prevail in our culture.

    #6 – I usually think of the mission requirement for YM as a sort of salt-peter remedy to control their sexual exploration at the time of greatest risk.

  9. Is the mission field really the adult world? On your mission, your whole life is programmed for you from the time you rise to the time you go to bed. You don’t worry about paying bills, or even making meals for yourself, depending on where you serve. You do get a dose of real life as you become involved in other peoples’ relationship, spiritual, and financial struggles, but very neatly get swept away into a new area every few months so you don’t get too attached. The mission teaches boys adult living skills that are invaluable, but how many men come home after their missions and still feel like being teenagers? How many feel unanchored when suddenly their programmed life has no structure other than that which they give it? In many ways, although I’ve been home from my mission for almost ten years, I feel like I’m only beginning to understand what it is to be a man and an adult (and I have a wife, 2 kids, a career and a mortgage!)

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think any of the “rites of passage” built into the LDS youth experience (priesthood ordinations, endowment, mission, temple marriage(?)) are absolutely clear indicators of a transition from childhood to adulthood, although I think all are intended to negotiate the transition at least in part. Fact is, Western culture has nothing to compare with Aboriginal rites of passage like the one Hawkgrrrl references. Our entire society has been structured to delay children from entering the adult world of social responsibility as long as possible. There are so many factors contributing to this difference that they cannot be listed here. It doesn’t make it better or worse to not have explicit rites of passage; it’s just a different way of doing things, and society would probably not be any better if we had our young men go out into the desert when they turned a certain age to drink the blood of other men or whatever. Those young men would still return to a life of curtailed freedoms, responsibilities, accountabilities, and trust, essentially placing them back into the realm of the child.

  10. #9 — I agree re: the modern missionary experience being less of a transition into independent manhood than it once may have been. The regimentation is greater now than it once was, compared to what I hear of my father’s experience in Brazil in the early sixties.

    The question is whether this is a chicken or egg. That is, are young Mormon men missing something of a mission’s coming-of-age value because of the increased regimentation, or is the increased regimentation necessary because young Mormon men, like young Americans generally, are more childish than previous generations?

    In an age where “children” are required to be kept on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 (!), it’s hard to argue that adolescence isn’t being drawn out. Thirty is the new 21; forty is the new thirty; seventy is the new fifty; dead is the new seventy, etc.

  11. I’m a huge fan of Campbell… and I know his ideas are that much of modern society is losing the mythical and mystic stuff that cultures had in generations past. However, that is the result of increased knowledge and discovery of our world.

    We focus on the practical and the efficient things to propel society.

    I think it is a great thing for young men to receive the priesthood at an early age and begin feeling important and grow out of the little boy phase, where they can do as little as possible and rely on mom to take care of them.

    My son is 11 and will be 12 in Sep. He has noticed his body changing and new hairs and that his sisters tell him he stinks and needs showers. It seems very natural to me that he is going through changes and needs to start thinking about taking on more responsibility. Behaviors that used to be cute when he was little are now just annoying…and he needs to learn new behaviors.

    I like the way the church has a youth program with initiation like the priesthood that is somewhat public…allowing him to graduate primary, graduate elementary school, and view himself as a “big kid” now.

    My daughters had their period and it was more celebrated in the home privately, as will my son’s puberty.

    But the church provides a public transformation from boy or girl in primary to YM or YW. I think it is a great thing for mormon culture.

  12. I’m very curious as to how priesthood evolved so that it starts so young when the leading quorums last so long. I would naively have thought LDS would have evolved more like Judaism in Jesus time, when you didn’t move out until you were 30. Maybe it’s economics, not sociology.

  13. Item #6 of Hawkgrrl’s last post – “Saltpeter”. Let’s hear it for how effective the missionary program is in corralling the efforts of healthy, rambunctious young lads, and having them put aside even proper female companionship (they’re supposed to have NEVER had sex, or, if they aren’t virgins, only once or twice…). Amazing. Methinks the Holy Spirit works overtime to keep ’em in line!
    Now..what of a slightly OLDER elder that embarks on a mission…with a bit of “experience” under his belt (presumably in ignorance prior to baptism). Is the mission still a rite of passage?
    I can only speak of my experiences thirty years ago. I was already on my own for quite some time. Needless to say the changeover to living IAW LDS standards was quite a cultural shock. Top that with I’m in the mission field hardly more than a year hence. Still, I didn’t really have too much issue with working or behaving. I was out to do my mission; else, I could have been working on my engineering education (which I did right away post-mission). Most of my companions seemed naive and immature. I attributed it to being their first time living on their own (almost all of them).
    But who am I kidding. Were one such as I to apply for a full-time mission nowadays, I’d be turned down due to prior “tomfoolery”, even though said “tomfoolery” proved no barrier to baptism. The Church has in effect decided that young converts with a “past” need not apply.

  14. Post

    Doug – “But who am I kidding. Were one such as I to apply for a full-time mission nowadays, I’d be turned down due to prior “tomfoolery”, even though said “tomfoolery” proved no barrier to baptism. The Church has in effect decided that young converts with a “past” need not apply.” This is actually one where I think the church’s bark is worse than its bite, provided the YM or YW is repentant / converted. The rhetoric may imply otherwise, but the reality seems to be that what was really done away with was sending someone on a mission in order to repent or become converted.

  15. #15 (Hawkgrrl)…for the sake of the upcoming generation of erstwhile ruffians, I hope you’re right!

    The late George Plimpton’s role as the pompous psychiatrist in “Good Will Hunting” comes to mind (“No more BALLYHOO”)…anyone ever had a bishop or Stake Prez like that guy?

    At least in LDS culture, we would’t have a besotted groom singing (off-key) “I’m getting married in the morning…get me to the TEMPLE on time!”

  16. Post

    Doug – I have theorized elsewhere that one reason for the increase in missionaries coming home early is the “raising the bar.” It just makes the percentage of those who have lived completely isolated and sheltered lives that much higher. ‘Cuz if you’re out whoring it up, you’re probably not living a sheltered life. While not all life experience is good, and I wouldn’t advocate breaking major commandments just for the sake of experience, kids who have made and learned from mistakes develop interpersonal skills that those who didn’t may not have.

  17. Firetag, you may have read the articles in BYU Studies by William G. Hartley, but if not I think they are excellent. He covers alot of this period and observes a number of the processes and concerns which directed these process.

    My feeling from these articles is that it was sociological in a way similar to what Hawk suggests. The Brethren were concerned about ‘unruly’ boys and used Priesthood responsibility to try and direct them. Though I would agree that economics perhaps created a space where boys now had more free time and were constrained to be on ‘the farm’ less frequently than before.

  18. I have a few thoughts/questions/concerns:
    1. The overall message I’m getting is that adolescence is being prolonged and we view this as a negative. Are we implying there is some age around which boys/girls naturally become men/women and hence they should act appropriately? I recognize that on the surface girls start menstruating and boys start stinking (for lack of something better), but this is only physical. Mentally, is a 13 year old girl ready to take on the challenges of adulthood? Perhaps we could argue that this is precisely because society tells them they’re not, but is that really true? My understanding of brain development (which is very little) is that the teenage years are very important in that regard. Perhaps there is a natural disconnect in the timing between physical maturity and mental maturity, that mental maturity lags the physical, and that society is now figuring that out and hence prolonging adolescence. I guess it’s not entirely clear to me that we are wrong for keeping our kids kids longer. Especially if life expectancy is ever increasing.

    2. I suppose I’m too much of a guy. Part of my hope for rite of passage for my son is to get him a gun and go out target shooting (after all this happened to me and dang it, it’s fun!). Perhaps start watching Sunday night football with me, go camping/fishing, and otherwise do a bunch of stereotypical guy stuff. My point is, I think it’s entirely possible to respect, love, and recognize women as entirely equal with men (that is, one is not better than the other), but still have vastly different likes/dislikes. I think too often, as #5 points out, we try to domesticate the masculine in the name of equality. But it’s not clear to me that equality has to mean that men can’t take pride in the stereotypical guy stuff. I am nearly positive that my second daughter would not want to have such a rite of passage. But my first daughter might like to get a gun and go target shooting (and I’ll be happy to oblige).

  19. Post

    jmb – I think you make a good point about life expectancy being longer. In a primitive culture, entry to adulthood happened when one was physically capable of making babies. In a sense, puberty itself is the rite of passage. However, we know in our modern society that 13-year olds make crappy parents.

    And I do agree that equality shouldn’t mean emasculating society, although it does seem to have evolved into that. Perhaps we need some sort of “celebrating manhood” thing. (But I still don’t like guns).

  20. Comment#17 (Hawkgrrl) – excellent point. With the “helicopter” parenting style that many well-meaning but completely anal-retentive LDS impose on their sons (got to get that boy on his mission, his every moment as a young lad is in preparation for that mission!), perhaps many simply haven’t developed the coping skills for the bumps and grinds that just being on their own for the first time, let alone serving a mission will bring.
    Still, I most EMPHATICALLY do not recommend any “tomfoolery” or “Ballyhoo” as a means of gaining experience. If one is taught the Gospel, the best thing to do is to live it. Any such experience prior to baptism is not necessarily looked upon with fondness, rather; regrettable ignorance. My boys were not raised in ignorance, however, and they’ve turned out all right.
    Hopefully when we baptize , and thankfulness for not suffering the effects thereof, almost literally dodging a few bullets.
    It’s understood that young male converts might have carried on in ignorance of the gravity of their misdeeds and that their baptism should be treated as wiping the slate clean. My concern is that too many tight-arsed brethren are throwing away the “Miracle of Forgiveness” and changing the title to “It’s a Miracle if You’re Forgiven”.

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