More than a historian—a theologian

09.07.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Jennifer Reeder reflects on history as theology. Reeder is a historian and writer, currently the nineteenth-century women’s history specialist at the Church History Department the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This post is part of a series of reflections about the 2019 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. See the rest here

I have never considered myself a theologian. I am a trained historian: I scrutinize sources, analyze context, and interpret change over time. My work on nineteenth-century women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is source-based. I dig through minute books, correspondence, diaries, and newspapers to find their voices and research their biographical information. I weigh words and measure time. I look for patterns and connections among people and places.

Our study of Doctrine and Covenants section 25 at the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar came at a propitious time. I’ve had on the side burner an Emma Smith project, and those two weeks in New York City pulled me back into the thick of things, but with a new theological lens. I found my brain stretching and expanding well beyond my typical historical worldview. Rather, I found myself—and Emma—in a crash course of theology, ecclesiology, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, and so many other foreign -ologies. Theology was a new language for me.

And yet it was the same Emma. Emma who was born in a well-to-do family on a bend of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Emma who married Joseph against her father’s wishes, and who stood with him through thick and thin. Emma who collected hymns and presided over the Relief Society. Emma who struggled deeply with polygamy. Emma who stayed with her dear husband’s body while the corpus of Saints followed Brigham Young to the mountains.

But this was also an Emma who read and understood scripture, and who became an invaluable partner to Joseph in developing restorationist theology in the latter days. This was an Emma who had an intensely specific and personal relationship with the Lord, who was both called to repentance and granted an office, ordained to expound scripture and exhort the church. This Emma was both an Elect Lady and the Lady Elect, who stood for and as the church in a sacred marriage to the Bride Groom. And this same Emma who was to lay aside the things of this world and receive a crown of righteousness. This significant historical figure was also a significant theologian.

I loved adding incredibly potent perspectives from our resident experts: musicologist, theologians, literary critics, documentary archivist, and historians. Together we extrapolated meaning from words and how they changed in various editions as well as contextual usage. Layers and layers of possibilities and shifts, revealing tensions and collusions. Alternate meanings shook me into metaphorical brain explosions and transported me to new dimensions.

We talked about the physicality of these sixteen verses: hearing a voice, feet who walk, ordained under hands, a delighting soul, a vocal song, a blessing upon the head, with the Lord and Emma as both subject and direct object. The actionality and the direction: hearkening, peaking, receiving, giving, preserving, murmuring, seeing, comforting, consoling, scribing, expounding, exhorting, fearing, supporting, revealing, laying aside, seeking, giving, pleasing, delighting, praying, lifting up, cleaving, continuing, keeping. Emma does the same thing the Lord does.

We discussed what was not present: things not seen, things withheld, the things of this world. There are promises and warnings, gifts and assignments, as well as relationships seen in infinite ways. Emma. The Church. Her husband. The prophet. God. And forms of worship: song, prayer, scripture, service, obedience, study, comfort.

I discovered that I am, after all, a historian. I can’t separate the Emma who comforts Joseph in his afflictions from the Emma who led the Relief Society, providing relief and saving souls. But I am also a theologian. I see how words and promises and relationships transcend time and space, how doctrinal metaphors provide meaning and mission, how identity is shaped and stretched well beyond words on a manuscript, changing my own perception of my place and role in the great cosmos. And I realize that theological Emma cannot be separated from historical Emma. She is a historical figure because of her theological role, and a theological figure because of her life experience pinning her down in a specific time.