Members of the LDS Church's Relief Society will be introduced to a new declaration affirming their beliefs during the annual Relief Society meeting tonight at 6 p.m. in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.
Along with that declaration will come other announcements of importance to more than 4.2 million LDS women around the globe, according to LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills. The Relief Society is believed to be the largest women's organization in the world.
The new declaration appears to help formalize the church's stance on the role of women in their homes, their church and in society at a time when church leaders say shifting societal mores and values, including divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage, have weakened the traditional family structure. A letter announcing the declaration was sent to LDS ward and stake leaders earlier this week.
As women's issues have taken center stage on the political front during the past few decades, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spoken with increasing frequency about the role of women in the church and society.
Members of the Relief Society General Presidency told the Deseret News last spring that LDS women are in a unique position to serve as a beacon of "light and truth" as a new millennium dawns.
At that time, they indicated that plans were under way to help guide LDS women in working together and with women of other faiths to improve the church and society.
"Our prophet called each individual to take her place in the battlefield of the 21st century," General Relief Society President Mary Ellen Smoot said. "President (Gordon B.) Hinckley's plea was for us to realize that women of covenant are different from the women of the world. His hope that we are crucial to preserving the family was clearly given to us. He is confident that we can make a difference."
"I believe there are great women in the world who are looking for something that makes sense," second counselor Sister Sheri Dew said.
"We know who we are and why we're here, and there's a confidence that comes with that. We have so much more in common with the good women of the world than we have different. Why always focus on what's different?"
"As the definition of the family continues to be challenged, the world will see our strong families and say, 'What can you teach me?'" said first counselor Sister Virginia Jensen.
The new Relief Society declaration comes four years after the church's First Presidency issued "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" at the annual Women's Meeting in 1995.
That document reaffirmed the importance of the traditional family unit, saying it is "ordained of God," and "the fundamental unit of society." It also outlined the "divine design" of parental roles, saying fathers "are to preside over their families in love and righteousness" and to "provide the necessities of life and protection for their families," while mothers are "primarily responsible for the nurture of their children," with both to serve as "equal partners" in the home.
It also addresses gender as an "essential characteristic" of "eternal identity and purpose" and says God ordains marriage "between a man and a woman."
The distinctions spelled out in the proclamation have effectively canonized concepts that, in the early years of the church, went essentially unquestioned. Yet shifting social mores changed that, not only for the LDS Church but for other denominations as well.
Following the LDS Proclamation on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention made national headlines during its annual meetings in Salt Lake City a year ago last June when delegates adopted a formal resolution on the "biblical" definition of the family, including a statement saying a wife "should submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."
The "submission clause" became front-page news and spurred something of a national debate in religious and political circles about the proper relationship between husbands and wives. It drew fire from a wide range of critics and support from others. Southern Baptist leaders stood by the statement, which has now been added to the "Baptist Faith and Message," a set of core theological principles.
With the rise of feminism in the 1960s, another hot-button issue for religions dealing with the changing nature of society has been the ordination of women. While many Protestant denominations have adopted theological positions supporting ordination, the Roman Catholic Church still officially forbids the practice, as does the Southern Baptist Convention.
Since the LDS Church was organized by founder Joseph Smith in 1830, males have held the faith's priesthood and steered its course. As other denominations began ordaining women, questions about whether LDS women would ever be ordained arose, along with other discussion about the difference between men's and women's roles at home, at church and in the world.
Same-sex marriage is the most recent moral issue to divide denominations along liberal vs. conservative lines, with several Protestant denominations either supporting or allowing the practice. The LDS Church has drawn criticism in recent weeks for its backing, along with the Catholic Church, of a California initiative to ban same-sex marriage. Last year, LDS funding helped ensure the practice would be outlawed in Alaska and Hawaii.
LDS Church leaders routinely cite the Proclamation on the Family as direction from God on matters surrounding the family. The new declaration which will presumably be used in concert with the proclamation to help bolster the LDS position on such issues affirms, among other things, that members of the Relief Society "sustain the priesthood as the authority of God on Earth," "dedicate (themselves) to strengthening marriages, families and homes," and "find nobility in motherhood and joy in womanhood."