Women at the Latter-day Saint pulpit, with Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook [MIPodcast #61]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
“Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted into them to speak. But they are commanded to be under obedience, as also say the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husband at home. For it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
That’s a famous passage from First Corinthians that many scholars believe made its way into the Bible sometime after the death of Apostle Paul. Few Christian churches today abide strictly by that admonition. A new book from the Church Historian’s Press highlights women speaking in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its founding in 1830 to the present day. The book is called At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. In this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, we’ll talk about the book with its editors Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook who join us from the Church History Department of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. Questions about this and other episodes can be send to firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to rate to review the show on iTunes.
HODGES: I’m in Salt Lake City today at the Church History Library with Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, and together they’ve edited a new book called At the Pulpit, 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. Thank you both for taking the time to meet with me today and for inviting me to the Church History Library.
KATE HOLBROOK: Thanks for joining us, Blair.
JENNIFER REEDER: Yes, thank you. We’re really excited about this project.
HODGES: It’s a great project. I was able to look through the manuscript and I wanted to talk first about how this came to be. What was the genesis of this collection?
HOLBROOK: So, I was having a conversation with Jill Mulvay Derr not long after I started working here myself at the Church History Department, and we were thinking how much we need a women’s Journal of Discourses. We liked the idea of the conversation and we let it simmer. And then, when we had space to bring on another full-time person to study women’s history—which is the job that Jenny received—when we were interviewing with Jenny, we said, “Is this something you’d be interested in working on?” And she said, “Yes.”
So we didn’t do any other planning aside from coming up with that initial idea until Jenny was fully on board. So, she was here from the beginning as far as thinking through the structure of the book, what we wanted to accomplish with the book, and how we would go about doing that.
HODGES: So, you mentioned the Journal of Discourses, and that is a collection of discourses that were given I think mostly in the nineteenth century where LDS Church leaders would speak at General Conference meetings and things like this and those sermons were transcribed and compiled and put into these volumes. I think there’s 27 or 28 volumes of the Journal of Discourses. I don’t remember exactly how many there are but yeah, I don’t think there are any women’s sermons in the Journal of Discourses, are there?
REEDER: No, no women. We’ve gone through it with a fine tooth comb.
HODGES: Maybe they mentioned some women [laughter] but…not good enough. So we have that whole collection of sermons and the voice of women is just completely absent there, so I think this is a good idea. How long ago was that, Jenny, when you came to the Church History Library?
REEDER: I started in June of 2013. But I remember speaking with Matt Grow before that in December of 2012 and him telling me a little bit about this project and being so excited. So it kind of sat on my backburner for six months until I started, and then we were able to jump right in. We had to establish what we wanted to have happen and how many talks we wanted to have and how we wanted it to represent the history of the church.
HODGES: Now, I haven’t seen the actual printed book yet but it looks like it’ll be a fairly thick book. Compared to the recently published book of Relief Society Minutes, how large do you think it’ll be Kate?
HOLBROOK: It’s not as large as The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, so you won’t get quite as good exercise reading it [laughter] as you do the other book, but it is a substantial book.
HODGES: So, let’s talk about women speaking publicly. Let’s put it in American context. This is how you begin the book in the introduction. You talk about how “the Relief Society was founded in an era when women’s speaking and preaching in churches was contentious issue.” Let’s unpack that a little bit more. Jenny, why don’t you give the taste of the context here?
REEDER: Sure, absolutely. It’s interesting that, although women made up a great majority of the congregations, they didn’t speak much in churches. The earliest account that we found in America is in the 1630s in Boston when Anne Hutchinson starts teaching select groups of women. And that just happens as she meets with them in their homes around child birth, labor beds, and then she starts holding larger meetings.
She takes the scriptures the same way that the men would take the scriptures. She reads Titus, that the elder women should instruct the young, whereas Paul is saying that women should remain silent. She encourages women to talk about scripture and to grapple with the difficult religious questions that we’re permeating Boston at that time. As a result, she was banished from Massachusetts.
HODGES: Now, it’s just for teaching women? But she was—
REEDER: I think it was her teaching, just speaking aloud, speaking and not stopping when she was asked to stop.
HODGES: Oh. You said she would primarily speak in women’s groups—
REEDER: That’s how she started and I think it’s—
HODGES: Okay, so then, she would speak a little bit more—
HODGES: And then, it was like, “uh oh…”
REEDER: I think her circles expanded and people started listening and wanting to speak too, and that worried some of the clergy.
HODGES: Then they asked her to stop and she didn’t and—
REEDER: She left, went Rhode Island, yes.
HOLBROOK: And was killed by Indians.
HODGES: It’s a very—Yeah, it’s a tragic way to open the book, I think, but representative of some of the obstacles that women faced at the time, because the book is going to start around the time that the LDS Church was established, so we’re talking about the 1830s, and this is a sort of prehistory of that, setting up the context.
HODGES: So after Hutchinson, what do we see leading up to the LDS era?
REEDER: I believe the Great Awakening really sparks this idea of religious evangelicalism, of sharing personal religious conviction. And that sort of leads into many different women speaking in their congregations and feeling the need to share their conversion experiences. We have the American Revolution which not religiously but politically charges people and the common person to stand up and to speak up. And then we start having people—we start having women in particular speaking at tea parties and at salons and in different venues as they discuss revolutionary strategies and techniques and democracy.
And then that kind of bleeds over into the Second Great Awakening, when you have this shift of leadership and the idea of democracy permeates America, where the common person has a voice and has something to say. The Second Great Awakening, I think, really sparked individual experience and individual expression as well, and you have different congregations favoring different types of women speaking. Evangelical women in particular. I found a lot of tracts and reminiscences of women as early as the 1820s and 30s who would travel and speak. A lot of times they were censored, but there were women. It just seems like we don’t know about those women. There’s a lot of Quaker women, a lot of Methodist women.
Then I think they go through this period where, once they’ve sort of establish this progressive new view of religion, that they kind of pull back and retrench and try to refine, if you will, their church and make it into a more respectable organization which at that time would prohibit women from speaking. So you kind of get this ebb and flow of women participating and then being pulled back.
HODGES: One of the things that I saw—also in introduction—was it also emphasized that ebb and flow, but it also talked about speaking in mixed gender audiences and that was still an issue where even when women begin to speak more and more, there still was this attitude that they were sort of unsightly or unseemly or undignified or something? What was the concern about women speaking at that time to a mixed gender audience?
REEDER: I think that really stems from the constrictions place on gender in general, about how there was a certain sphere for women and a different sphere for men. And when those two spheres were combined, men should take the lead.
HODGES: This kind of goes up even into the early twentieth century, this idea—I’m thinking for example of Mormon leader B. H. Roberts who wasn’t incredibly keen on women speaking in a political context. The idea was that, you know, this is a sort of rough and tumble manly place, and women—we don’t want your shoes to get dirty, so to speak kind of a thing. Was that part of it early on as well?
REEDER: You know, I think it was, and I think there’s a lot of different ways that you can look at it. If you look at it from the terms of the market revolution and the transition from home economy to market economy, and you see this transition of gender as well where women remain at home and men are in the marketplace. But then we also see this rise of the “benevolent empire,” where there’s the growth of urban centers and urban population and there’s a lot of social concerns. And it seems natural for women to be involved in those kinds of issues.
So women are gathering and speaking and moving forward in benevolent work and in missionary work, even supporting foreign missions and moral reform. We see women starting to get involved in such social causes as abolition and these are all different ways that women did speak publicly.
HODGES: And later on, Prohibition or—
HODGES: Yeah. Women’s suffrage obviously. So, through the course of the nineteenth century, it’s not necessarily a straight trajectory toward equalization with women getting better access. There seem to be cycles, ebbs and flows, when it becomes more or less acceptable for women to speak. And this is the context in which Latter-day Saint women were coming to understand their place, and how they fit into the LDS Church, and when they could speak, and where they could speak, and all of that stuff.
REEDER: Absolutely. In fact, I think it’s kind of interesting that it was in 1830 that Joseph Smith received a revelation for Emma Smith and gave her the charge to expound scripture and exhort the church. But it wasn’t until twelve years later when the women’s Relief Society was actually formed when there was some sort of medium or association wherein she could expand and exhort that it really takes off for Emma.
HODGES: Yeah, people should remember the LDS Church structure was different back then, including its meeting schedule. You know, they didn’t have a three-hour block where you had two sacrament meeting talks and, you know, a youth speaker and so on and so forth like most meetings today. So the opportunities for Emma to speak—there wasn’t anything carved out especially in those first years until the Relief Society was established. But you did—as we’ll talk about—include some sources from before that time.
In part of this interview we’ll talk about several of these pieces you’ve included, but let’s talk about what this book is like as a book first. So, Kate, why don’t you describe the book itself and how it is put together?
HOLBROOK: We think of the book as a “greatest hits of Mormon women’s talks.” There are 54 talks included in the volume. We tried to choose a few from each decade. In some of the earlier decades there are more than two or three because the speeches were quite short.
Then, one of our favorite parts in participating in the writing of the book was to write historical introductions for each of these talks. So we give some background for the speaker, if there is a life experience that she’s had that might inform what she’s saying and why she’s saying it the way she’s saying it, we give that, and if there’s a particular historical context that seems germane we also talk about that.
For example, one woman speaks about going and visiting teaching a woman whose son has just been called to war. Well, she says that during the early years of the Korean War, so we wanted to make sure people have that context.
HODGES: That speaks to how the book is put together. Let’s also talk a little about selection. There are different types of sources, largely reflective of the era in which they occurred. What kind of sources did you turn to, earlier on and later on?
HOLBROOK: Blair, we looked everywhere we could find a talk by a woman. Everywhere. So, we combed through old Relief Society books. We looked through magazines, the Relief Society Magazine. We looked through the Young Women’s Journal and the Woman’s Exponent. We looked through more recent—maybe a book that hadn’t had wide circulation but in which speeches were printed. And then, for more recent years, we looked at devotionals and other talks that were recorded online.
HODGES: I noticed some of the earlier-on sources are very short—there’s even some really short ones in there that are a paragraph or two long, or there are some from, I think from the Relief Society minutes book where someone is reporting on what Emma Smith talked about.
REEDER: That, I think, is part of the challenge and excitement about working with early records. With these minute books, it all depended on who the secretary was and how well the secretary took minutes, and we always have to recognize that there’s a certain slant or subjectivity that comes through a secretary’s recording of minutes.
HODGES: Anyone who’s live-tweeted something can know, yeah, you’re definitely being selective in what you do. [laughing]
REEDER: Right. Well, and I think that’s also where we see this change over time and the change of technology, the way that things were recorded. But also in a way that women spoke. We really had to take the word “discourse” and define it broadly in order to fit, and recognize the way that women spoke in the early part of the history of the church in the early parts of this book.
For example, our second talk is by Elizabeth Ann Whitney in 1835. She’s speaking in the nearly completed Kirtland Temple at a patriarchal blessing meeting where she has just been given the gift of tongues in her patriarchal blessing. She immediately stands up and sings a song in tongues that is translated by Parley P. Pratt. So this wasn’t necessarily a talk like we would consider a discourse or a speech today, but it was a way where she was able to standup and where everybody listened to her, and she was speaking to a mixed audience, and she was sharing thoughts and ideas and gospel principles that were recorded later. Actually, they were recorded at the moment and then she kept them. And the source that we use for this is the Women’s Exponent which she then copies them into in 1872.
HODGES: Do we know is she did any editing of that herself? Because this was a really—This was, to me, the most unique source in the book precisely because it was something that was spoken in tongues, so an unknown language, and then translated by a man. At the Pulpit, discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, we don’t have that exactly because it was apparently in some unknown tongue but we do have a translation that was given by a man, so it’s kind—I mean, how about that as a source?
REEDER: I really wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall and seen that happen because it’s just something we don’t do today, but it’s something that was a common practice at the time—using charismatic gifts or gifts of the spirit was something that these women felt comfortable with. Elizabeth Ann Whitney at that time in the 1830s felt much more comfortable using her musical talents. Years later in Utah, she spoke quite a bit. But also, we see how she uses this gift and how other women use this gift through time and how it becomes a part of their, in particular, their distinct Mormon women discourse.
HODGES: And women would interpret for women sometimes as well, right?
REEDER: Absolutely, yes.
HODGES: It’s not like—I mean, Parley P. Pratt happened to be the one who gave the interpretation of this one, but yeah.
HOLBROOK: And if we had cut this out because Parley P. Pratt—It’s unusual because we did have both, we did have the interpretation written out, and if we had cut it because that interpretation was by a man, then we would have cut out a really significant way in which women we’re participating in public discourse.
HODGES: And she owned it as well. She viewed it as revelation from her, you say. It’s funny because I mean, the rhyming of the song sounds very Prattian, to coin a term—
REEDER: It does.
HODGES: “In ancient days there lived a man amidst a pleasant garden/where lovely flowers immortal bloomed/and shed around a rich perfume/behold his name was Adam.”
REEDER: Well, and it sounds very much like the, is it the W. W. Phelps hymn “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” the same cadence.
HODGES: Yeah, yeah. You point that out in the piece’s introductory matter, too.
REEDER: Right, and it’s interesting because as closely as we could examine the historical record, it was that same day that they were having a meeting in Kirkland in the Temple to discuss the creation of the hymnbook that Emma had been charged to do, and just the timing of all of it is so interesting. It has to be connected in some way.
HODGES: And the other thing it’s connected to that you mention in the piece’s introduction is that in a blessing given to Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Joseph Smith, Sr. promised her the gift of singing inspirationally.
REEDER: Yes. She was known for her musical talents, for singing and for playing the piano and for dancing. I think, again, I think this was a natural way in which she could discourse.
HODGES: I guess we’d really need to hear it—
REEDER: I know…
HODGES: —because apparently it was in song, so, yeah. That’s just one of the many sources in the book. And one of the things in the introduction that you point out as well, I wanted to mention here, you write, “Notwithstanding the tradition of Mormon women’s discourses”—So there was this tradition of Mormon women’s discourses represented in the book—“Notwithstanding that tradition, many Latter-day Saint women have been reluctant to speak or preach publicly for a variety of reasons, both cultural and personal.”
I wanted to spend time on what some of those reasons might be that would make Latter-day Saint women reluctant to speak or preach publicly, perhaps even up to the present.
HOLBROOK: Franklin D. Richards gives a speech that we have in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society—the volume from Church Historian’s Press that came out last year—in which he chastises the men in the audience and he encourages women to speak. And he says, “I know that some of you women aren’t speaking because when you put yourselves in public, men will make fun of you and they will belittle you.” And so he criticizes men for doing that and he tries to encourage women to speak even though they risk being belittled by men because it was still seen as being something they did out of their place.
HODGES: What would they say? Would they say like, “You’re acting like a man?” What was the actual ridicule?
HOLBROOK: All I know is that they did it. We can imagine. [laughter]
HODGES: I’m trying to think, because today when a lot of people hear woman speak they just hear woman speak and—okay.
REEDER: It’s so hard to not cast our own presentism views on how difficult it was for a lot these women. Some of my favorite stories were—Zina Young in 1869 in Lehi expressed concern as she got up to speak to the Lehi Relief Society, she said, “I am not accustomed to public speaking but I’m pleased to look upon the faces of the sisters.” Even Eliza R. Snow, when Brigham Young invited her in 1867, 68 to go among the bishops of the different wards and the different settlements and organize released societies, the thought of public speaking to Eliza R. Snow—who we all now revere as this great Mormon mother—she said, “The thought of that made my heart go pit-a-pat.” It’s scared her to death.
I think it’s interesting , though, because as they spoke more, as they traveled, as they gained experience they gained confidence. Later, Eliza R. Snow invited Emily S. Richards to stand up and speak and Emily had nothing to say. She was a teenager and she had nothing to say. And Eliza said, “Well, that’s fine. Never mind. But just next time, have something to say.” Years later, Emily S. Richards was speaking before the National Women’s Suffrage Association in Washington D.C. and she had gained that experience and felt very confident and her efforts were praised.
HOLBROOK: You really see throughout the book, the ways the Relief Society and Young Women organizations in particular provide a space in which women can find their voice, exercise their voice, and gain confidence working in the public sphere.
HODGES: But I wonder how much of that too—some of the caveats that woman give in the beginning of their discourses about you know, “my heart won’t pit-a-pat” and these type of things—I wonder how much of that was carried on through—I’m thinking of folklore studies that talk about narrative contexts. When you go to a Fast and Testimony meeting today, there’s a certain formula that is pretty established that people follow almost without thinking about it. I wonder if those sort of caveats became a part of women’s discourses and sort of perpetuated the idea that you should maybe feel sort of reluctant to speak, or to, you know, that your heart should go pit-a-pat and if it doesn’t, maybe something wrong with you.
REEDER: I think that’s true. I think it’s a cultural thing, and yet, I think there are also other women who don’t stand for any of that. Sarah Kimball gets up and she never seems like she’s afraid to speak it all. Same with Elvira Barney. So, I think it also illustrates the fact that there’s such a wide range of women, and that there’s such a wide range of experience, and a wide range of comfort or confidence in speaking.
HODGES: That’s Jenny Reeder. She’s the nineteenth century woman’s history specialist at the Church History Department for the LDS Church. We’re talking with her and Kate Holbrook about their book At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women.
So, let’s talk a little bit more about selection. As you were combing through all of these different sources, how long was that process and what criteria did you us to decide on including something or not including something?
HOLBROOK: The process took two or three years of going through all of these materials. Early on in the process, we were working with Janelle Higbee and she quoted Emily Dickinson that we wanted a talk that would “make you feel like the top of your head had blown off.” We wanted to put talks in this book that people would read and they’d immediately want to go share. They’d want to read this quotation or go tell this story to their friends because they were meaningful.
One of our major criteria was that each talk should have theological analysis in it. These are heavy hitting analytical talk. And we wanted them to be good from an aesthetic standpoint. I was an English major as an undergraduate and we wanted them to just be well-written, well- composed talks from that standpoint as well.
HODGES: I enjoyed seeing the change over time—from the earliest records that you include to some of the later ones, and how they become more polished more formulaic, I think, over time as patterns of discourse get more establish.
So toward the end of the book, as you mentioned, there are more pieces from devotionals or firesides, or General Conference address type of things, and they follow that set type of formula whereas the earlier records don’t at all. In some cases, some of the really short ones or some of the ones taking from minute books, they have their own logic that’s different from what we find later on in the book.
REEDER: It’s true and I think, for the most part, the early talks were given extemporaneously. I think there’s a huge difference between an extemporaneous talk where a woman gets up and just sort of shares whatever is on her mind or whatever thought comes to her or she sees someone in the audience and that reminds her of something, versus a well-designed treatise on grace. So that’s one of the biggest changes over time.
HOLBROOK: Someone suggested to us we could use the book to convince people that it’s really worth taking the time to think through and prepare a careful talk in church because a carefully prepared talk can be so powerful. But when I heard that advice, I also remembered some of these extemporaneous talks in the early part of the book that blow the top of my head off. They’re so moving and articulate, so, there are richest throughout the history—
HODGES: It’s hard to say. Some people do better at extemporaneous. I don’t. When I speak on church, I write most of it out.
REEDER: After working on this book, I write all of my talks. [laughter]
HODGES: Yeah. I know exactly how that is. Let’s look at Lucy Mack Smith’s—one of Lucy Mack Smith’s contributions, the fifth piece in the book, is an address she delivered in General Conference in 1845 at Nauvoo. This was after her sons had been killed, Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith had been killed, and the LDS Church was looking at moving west. Lucy Mack Smith stands up in a General Conference meeting to give what she calls her “last testimony to a world from whence I must soon take my departure.”
In the introductory material you note that she presented “a confused chronology and incomplete information.” So, you want readers to be attentive to reading critically in these sources and not take everything that’s spoken here for granted. I don’t know that Mormons get a lot of exercise doing that in formal church settings. We tend to read edited sources that have been, you know, sort of pre-correlated, everything’s in a row before then. But in this, you’re including these historical sources that include, maybe, misremembering, misremembrances, if that’s the word. Talk a little bit about that reading these sources critically, Kate.
HOLBROOK: Well, my first thought while you were talking, Blair is just—this is what we do in Sacrament meeting. This is what we do in Stake Conference. We sit there and we know this guy and we know who he is related to, or we know this tragedy that happened and his life. That helps us to interpret and it helps us to approach him with mercy, too, and say, “Well, he got that wrong but you know, this happened and—.” So I don’t think it’s something foreign to us.
There’s a lot of annotation and endnotes in the book and we wanted to provide as much information as we could to really give people that context. So just like when your neighbor is up there bearing her testimony, you have some information that helps you make sense of what she’s saying, so that readers of this book could also know the background of the speakers and think about where they were coming from and what their priorities were and what their life experience had taught them.
REEDER: I think this talk was the one that required the most heavy annotation and careful research to try to figure out the pieces and accuracy of it all. But I think it also demonstrates what I like to call “a usable past,” where Lucy is using her past and her role as this Mormon mother, a ” mother in Israel,” to demonstrate who she is, to remind people who her sons were and their role in building up this church. And if you look at the context of when this talk was given in 1845, there’s been a lot of debate and controversy over the future direction of the church. This is also a time when she’s starting to write her history of her son and of the church and of her family. So, these are all things that have been on her mind and things that she feels are important, and I think it’s important to recognize—even if it’s inaccurate—why she is telling the story and what that means for her in 1845.
HODGES: I mean, one line example of needing extra context is her counsel, “Don’t let your children play out of doors.” [laughter] Footnote! And what was going on there?
REEDER: So, there was a lot of problems with kids getting into trouble. This was also a time when there was a lot persecution against Mormons and so it really just wasn’t a safe place. But there was also—because of the persecution, there were a lot of Mormons who were also taking that a step further and fighting back. So she wanted to make sure that people were safe and that Mormons were doing the right thing, that they were acting appropriately.
HODGES: As you note, this was the first account of a woman speaking in an LDS General Conference and then it didn’t happen again until 1879. So there’s this big window between 1845 and 1879 when all of the discourses and sources in the book aren’t coming from a General Conference context, but from these other contexts—Relief Society meetings and other situations where women are speaking.
REEDER: And we do actually have women speaking in different sessions of Conference before 1879, but they’re not really considered the “general” sessions of conference. They spoke in outdoor sessions of General Conference and they spoke in welfare sessions of General Conference.
HOLBROOK: And the book has an appendix of every instance of woman speaking in an official General Conference throughout the history of the church.
HODGES: How many of those sources are available on the Church History Library website? Are a lot of those discourse is available there?
REEDER: That’s a great idea. Not yet.
HODGES: Not yet. Something to do.
HOLBROOK: It was also important to us not to—I think we have maybe two General Conference talks in the whole book, because we were trying to find talks that weren’t easily accessible for people, those two talks we just happened to love so much that we put them in anyway because we wanted to highlight them, but.
HODGES: And again, they are representative of a place where women spoke more frequently in a particular era of the church and so, , yeah, it’s representative, too.
HODGES: Let’s talk about Alicia Grist. This is a piece that was published in a periodical. I think Jenny, you edited this one. Is that right?
REEDER: Yes, I did. This was published in the Millennial Star in 1861. Alicia Grist was a British Saint. She was actually an actress while in Britain. 1861 is before the Relief Society was reorganized in Utah on a permanent basis, and it was well before any Relief Societies were organized in Great Britain. She writes this, as I said, as an address to the sisters, and so this is her mode, her medium by which she can speak to the women in Great Britain.
HODGES: It has a few moments in here that definitely feel dated. I’m thinking, for example, when she talks about how “each of us have a mission to perform. If we were only to consider what responsibility there is devolving upon us in every act we perform, we are the weaker vessels and we cannot be called to bear off the higher responsibilities which rest upon the men.”
So, she’s talking about women as weaker vessels and this sort of thing, talk about that a little bit.
REEDER: I think it’s important that we cannot separate these women from their historical and cultural time periods. This is the middle of the Industrial Revolution and women’s rights are really sparking in England. And this constant Victorian distinction of separate spheres is also happening, and so you see this, I think, all of this tension in this talk where first of all, she says, “we each have a mission to perform,” but then, she says “we are the weaker vessel,” and we have to recognize the historic context that she is speaking from.
She goes on, though, to talk about how important it is for sisters to bear off the higher responsibilities, to carry a pure sentiment and create a lively spirit and to share the gospel, which is an early iteration of women getting involved to missionary work. She talks about the responsibility to teach children and bring them to or immigrate to Utah. And when she comes to Utah, she herself continues as an actress in the Salt Lake Theater.
HODGES: She was a public figure herself. I assume in addition she was a parent as well?
REEDER: Yes, she had—Before they came to Utah, they traveled all over England and Ireland. And she had several children and a few of them passed away. But two of them came with her across the plains.
HODGES: So this was a woman who had a profession, was also a mother, was speaking publicly here to the church. And you mention in the introduction to this piece that many mid-nineteenth century English women fought for women’s rights and suffrage also simultaneously defended the Victorian concepts of these distinct gendered spheres—the woman’s place was in the home and that sort of thing. And so I think it could be a valuable exercise for readers today to reckon with that historical context and sort of suss out the roots of that strict division.
REEDER: Absolutely. And I think it’s also illustrative of the different perspectives that are happening all at the same time. And it’s not just a “women’s rights” woman or a feminist, but it’s someone who’s engaged in all of these ideas at once.
HODGES: The next one I wanted to hear from you about was Mattie Horne Tingey. This is an example of someone who few Latter-day Saints have probably heard of today. And this example struck me because this is someone speaking in a non-LDS venue.
REEDER: It’s really exciting to see in the history of Mormon women in the late nineteenth century how they start to become involved and enmeshed in national and international women’s organizations. Particularly, starting with suffrage and with the National Council of Women, and the International Council of Women. This talk by Mattie Horne Tingey is given in Chicago during the Chicago World’s Fair. It’s a part of the World’s Congress of Representative Women. And she was invited to speak as a representative of the Young Women’s organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This talk is fascinating because even though she is speaking to a much larger audience than a lot of other talks in this book, she continues to celebrate the abilities and the, I don’t know, the rights of women. She encourages women who have been given the power and honor to open the door. She also talks though about Mormon theology. She mentions the idea of a Heavenly Mother and the responsibility of women as mothers. She quotes “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rocks the world.” And she encourages women to stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder, not only with their husbands, but with other women in making the world a better place. It’s a call to action.
HODGES: She’s talking about the principles of justice and equal rights. And she’s talking about how “woman herself is beginning to feel that she’s an intelligent and responsible being.” So she’s part of this wider cultural awakening and is speaking to that as a Latter-day Saint woman.
REEDER: Absolutely. And I think it’s interesting because this is at a time when the Latter-day Saints are sort of coming out of their isolation into a much larger national picture. And women really seemed to be at the forefront of that. They were really involved, like I said, nationally and internationally, where the men were more involved back in Utah with the priesthood and settlement issues. Women had the opportunity to be more involved in other organizations.
HODGES: That’s Jenny Reeder. She’s the nineteenth century women’s history specialist at the Church History Department for the LDS Church.
The next one that stuck out to me was from Lucrecia Suarez de Juarez. Kate, I think you edited this one. And this is interesting because it’s translation, it comes from someone who’s not a native English speaker, and I think it may be the first one in the book that was originally in a different language. Is that right?
HOLBROOK: Yes. The only one in the book that was originally in a different language. It was really important to us to represent Latter-day Saint women from around the world. And in the first part of the book, that is a little bit—The speakers do represent the membership of the church, which was primarily from Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the US. And so we do have speakers from England and Scotland and Ireland.
Later on, because of the records we had available to us, it became more difficult to find those voices. So we were really excited when we came across—This was a period in the church where President Spencer W. Kimball had started having Area Conferences and they kept records of those Area Conferences. And thank heaven they did because then we have some women’s voices in those Area Conferences.
Lucretia Suarez de Juarez was a very—she had a very colorful life story which I love. She was raised in wealth. Her family, however, after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Zapatista Army kept raiding their holdings. So finally they had to move to Mexico City. She met her husband who was a musician in Mexico City. He himself escaped Pancho Villa’s army to go to Mexico. And then they were married for about twenty-two years before he died. She was first director of one of the church’s schools there in Mexico. And then she spoke as a stake Relief Society president at this area conference.
HODGES: How did you find that record?
HOLBROOK: We looked through all of the Area Conference reports to try to find talks by women.
HODGES: Who did the translating?
HOLBROOK: Unfortunately, the translator was unnamed.
HODGES: So it was already translated?
HOLBROOK: It was already translated. It was a church bureaucrat who translated these talks into English for them to become official church records.
HODGES: So it was ready to go.
HODGES: So she comes from a different background than a lot of other speakers before her in the book. What stood out to you as you edited this one and added the annotations?
HOLBROOK: I like that it felt like it was coming from a non-American culture. There’s a dream-like sequence in the talk in which—it reminded me of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and his writing, except it wasn’t pretend. It was her using this story in order to make a point about parenting and about the divine feminine that we have the potential to cultivate during this life.
There’s a quotation that I particularly like here where she says, “The program and the spirit of Relief Society opens the door to an extensive field in which the most noble attributes of womanhood are cultivated, and this bring us happiness.” So that doesn’t sound different than what Relief Society women in the United States were saying and neither does her focus on happiness. But I think they’re both beautiful. And I think they reinforce this idea that Relief Society really was a place where women could flourish, where they could find their voices.
HODGES: I like a little bit later on in the discourse where she says, “Could one lone woman combat against the negative influences which harm our children? No, sisters. We’re gathered together as an army of righteousness and determined women who can do something.”
She seems to have had a very collective view of child rearing here and recognizing the role of Relief Society in assisting, particularly women here, in raising children and keeping them on the straight and narrow so to speak.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. We need each other to get this done. Yeah.
HODGES: So I thought that was a really good one. There’s another one later in the book that seems to be a little bit more of a controversial piece because it was delivered around the time that the Equal Rights Amendment was being discussed in the United States. I’m thinking here about Belle Spafford’s address. And I believe she was Relief Society president at the time and she gave this talk at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Let’s talk a little bit about that one and its inclusion in the book.
HOLBROOK: Yes. This was actually just after she was Relief Society general president. Belle Spafford was really involved in the national conversations that were taking place during the second wave of the feminist movement. And in fact, in 1968—that banner year where we had a lot going on with civil rights and a lot going on with the women’s movement—she was invited to be president of the National Council of Women. And she was concerned about that. She went to church President David O. McKay. She said, “How can you be general president of the Relief Society and president of the National Council of Women headquartered in New York City at the same time?” And he really encouraged her to do it. He said, “We will help you. Our doors are open to you whenever you need us.” So she took that on and she was president of the National Council of Women.
And she had been heavily involved in those committees beforehand, and even after she was president of the Relief Society she continued to be heavily involved in the National Council of Women. And what this meant was that she was reading from all the thinking women trying to figure out how to be a woman, how to help women. She was involved in their conversations. She was reading the material they were reading. And she was having conversations with the leaders in many of these movements.
HODGES: There’s an interesting moment here where the annotation points out a source that she’s using that subsequent research here at the Church History Library has shed more light on. She begins to quote from Joseph Smith when he established the Relief Society in Nauvoo. Talk about that moment there and the annotation that gives clarification where she wouldn’t have been aware of that need for clarification.
HOLBROOK: Right. Well, Spafford had written—When she was on the General Relief Society board she was tasked to write a centennial history of Relief Society. In 1942, Relief Society turned 100 years old. And writing that history really influenced the way she approached her work in the Relief Society and she often quoted from old Relief Society documents.
Now, her source for Relief Society history was often the six-volume History of the Church. And the History of the Church had edited the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes in some important ways. One of the more well-known ones that we talk about extensively in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society is where Joseph Smith said, “I now—” He was speaking in Relief Society and he said, “I now turn the key to you.” And then he describes all of these blessings that will flow to women from heaven.
Well, the History of the Church edited that. So instead of saying “I now turn the key to you,” it said, “I now turn the key on your behalf.” So here is another moment where that was edited. Instead of the original wording which said, “You will receive instruction which God has established through the medium of those appointed to lead, guide, and direct the affairs of the church,”—that’s how the wording appears in the original Nauvoo minute book. And the History of the Church which she quoted as authoritative, says “You will receive instruction through the order of the priesthood which God has established.”
Now, we don’t vilify the people who were editing the History of the Church. This was a very common practice then. You tried to edit document—like if you were editing Thomas Jefferson’s documents, you did it to try to make him look smarter and better. If you were editing other documents, you try to make them look like you thought they should look. That was what was going on here. They thought they were adding clarity.
HODGES: It’s this idea—and I’ve seen this as well in other types of documents where they’re trying to present it as true to the original. And they believe that wording changes like this will make it more true to the original. But now, you know, we look back and see differences. So providing that annotation so people can see the differences and bring today’s perspective to bear on it is a really useful thing about this book.
Because it seems to be a book that’s directed toward general readership. And so general readers, to get this kind of nuance, I think it’s really important [laughs] especially today to get the kind of nuance that you provide through the annotation and to be more critical about the sources that we read from.
HOLBROOK: Yes. I want to make clear that I didn’t approve of the edits of the History of the Church [laughs] because they did have fairly devastating consequences. “Turning the key to you” is different than “turning the key on your behalf.” So that is why we so carefully annotated. When we found mistakes in any of these talks, the sources we have access to now are much richer and more accurate than the sources that people in the past had access to.
HODGES: Did you guys discuss this one at all? Because I know she did this part of the book, but I’m just—
REEDER: So our process was, we would choose a couple of talks that we thought might be good for each decade and then we would read them together and give feedback. And then we would make final decisions together on which talks would be included for each decade. And then we would read each other’s introductions and annotations and give feedback on those as well.
HODGES: What would you say women in the church today who might read Belle Spafford’s piece about the ERA and feel uncomfortable about it because of its—I mean it’s openly in opposition to the ERA. And people in the church have a different view on that, what do you think this book can do for that type of a reader?
HOLBROOK: I think one of the things that I loved about reading this book is it forces you out of camps. It forces you out of saying “I am with her or I am against her.” Because if you read her talk carefully—she did eventually decide that she would be against the ERA. She wasn’t against it because she didn’t want women to be treated equally with men, but she thought that there were other legal approaches that might be more effective, and she was worried about women losing legal protections. She was worried about what might happen with alimony and with custody battles, and women being drafted into the army. So those were the arguments she made for why she was against the ERA.
But she also says in this talk, she says, “This is not a time for women to stay home and only speak to their families and only think about their families. This is a time where we need women to develop their full potential and be actively involved in civic life.” So you can’t put her in a box. You have to really look at all that she said and why she was saying it.
HODGES: And of course, it’s also important to include because it is—I mean it was a fundamental topic at that time. And so it’s really representative of the era.
HOLBROOK: Yes. It was on everybody’s mind.
HODGES: So as a book of historical sources, it’s got to be in there. That also raises the question of the absence of discussion of polygamy earlier on in the book. Let’s talk about that for a minute. There aren’t any discourses here that directly address polygamy. So some people might see this as a historical collection that is shading that part out or ignoring that part. How would you respond to that type of a criticism, Jenny?
REEDER: I think polygamy really involves all of these early talks and these early women. In fact, we know that polygamy, and the defense of religious freedom, and the defense of religious practice is one platform or one medium in which women gained confidence and felt like they needed to talk about it.
Because we wanted to focus more on the timeless gospel topics and because we don’t practice polygamy today, we decided not to choose any talks that directly spoke of polygamy. And yet, I really think you can find the underpinnings or the ideas of polygamy throughout the book. For example, Eliza R. Snow talks in 1869 to the Seventeenth Ward Relief Society, and she talks about how “we are brought into circumstances which are calculated to bring into exercise every power and faculty which we possess.” And we can think about what those specific circumstances were and I’m sure in 1869, part of that had to do with polygamy. But she said, “Let us cultivate ourselves that we may be capable of doing much good.”
So polygamy really could be underlying a lot of these talks. She also talks about how “every member should study to know her place and honor herself by filling it honorably, and all move forward like machinery that is perfect in all its parts. ”
Another thing that she says in 1880 when she’s in Kanab, Utah, in Southern Utah, she talks about how women are responsible for their own salvation and their husbands are not responsible to provide salvation for the women. And so you can see how polygamy underlies a lot of this without being specifically stated.
HOLBROOK: We also have so many speeches given by women about polygamy in The First FiftyYears of Relief Society. We didn’t want to reprint those. And also those speeches were given from a defensive position in which women were really insisting, trying to convince the world that they were happy and this was what God wanted, which maybe isn’t the most historically accurate portrait of plural marriage, either.
HODGES: Yes, you see that a little bit in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society where they’re putting a public face on the practice of polygamy in its defense and so it’s not going to be an in-depth examination of what it was really like to live in polygamy. It’s representative of what they publicly felt they needed to do to protect their religious beliefs and practice. But in terms of unpacking what polygamy was like and what they thought of it in their heart of hearts, , yeah, you don’t really see that in a public record.
REEDER: We do talk about in the biographical introductions how many of these women in the first half of the book are plural wives.
HODGES: Okay. Good. The next piece that I wanted to talk about was Francine R. Bennion’s. And to me, this was the most interesting piece in the whole book. I had never encountered this piece before. It’s fascinating. It’s very sophisticated. It’s exploring difficult questions. It’s talking about uncertainty in ways that were quite surprising to me. So let’s talk about that piece for a minute. Francine Bennion.
HOLBROOK: One of the joys of this book is people both dead and alive have become friends to me and Jenny. Francine is still alive and I didn’t know her before going to do an oral history interview with her so I could write the introduction to her talk. And she’s now a good friend and she’s such a careful thinker. She even wrote Ensign articles for children—the LDS Church’s flagship magazine—that are really sophisticated and worth exploring that take a real look. She doesn’t take an easy answer for anything. She takes a real look at things and she tries to figure out what our underlying assumptions are behind that and why we have those assumptions and what needs we’re trying to fulfill. And at the same time, she’s a deeply spiritual woman so she tries to get at the truth of the principle, whether it’s faith or not.
Theodicy is always a complicated topic. That’s the topic of her article here. And this is one of my favorite treatments of theodicy that I’ve read in my life. It’s also hands-down my favorite treatment of the story of Jephthah, the troubling story in the Hebrew Bible. And if you remember, Jephthah was so happy with his military victory that he made some sort of deal with the Lord that whoever came out to greet him first would be sacrificed in gratitude. And it was his daughter who came out dancing in celebration to meet him. And so according to this vow he’d made to the Lord he had to sacrifice her, and he did.
Now, it’s easy to read this in a shallow way where you say “Oh, the God of the Old Testament is such a cruel being that he would allow this sort of situation to go on or that he would encourage this sort of situation.” Well, Francine Bennion really complicates it and she says, “Is this God’s doing? Or is this human’s doing? Who was responsible for the suffering in this story? Is it Jephthah? Is it the religious leaders who taught Jephthah that that made sense, that it’s a way to celebrate your victory?” And so she really unpacks this story in new ways and made it more meaningful and useful to me than any I’d come across.
HODGES: She’s really blunt about particular things such as how she says Latter-day Saints are accustomed to talking of “fragments of theology. They’re also accustomed to fragments of scripture out of context.” And then she gives a list of scriptures and says let’s puzzle through this. Second Nephi says “men are that they might have joy,” and Job five says “men is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.” And she has a whole list of these scriptures that she juxtaposes in order to draw out some of the apparently contradictory things in scriptures, to talk about how sometimes we miss these contradictions, we don’t wrestle with them, and as a result our scripture reading and our theology risk being somewhat shallow. And this was one of the most straightforward descriptions of that phenomena that I’ve ever seen in an official church publication.
HOLBROOK: I agree with you. And this was a talk that she gave at BYU Women’s Conference originally. But she explains it so very clearly. And this is not the only talk in the book that calls us to think more, to examine more carefully what we’re looking at, and to really pull it apart, and with prayer and with other intellectual resources to get to the bottom of things.
There’s a 1930s talk by Elsie Brandley that’s one of my favorites about questions, and about helping youth with questions, and not leaving them alone to go explore then come back, but taking that journey with them. Find out what they’re reading, find out what’s meaningful to them, and then teach them to take questions to God and find the answers to them. Julie Willis in our e-book version of the book, which is longer, also has a fantastic talk on this topic.
REEDER: And I actually think this is a theme that we see throughout the whole book. In 1852 when Phoebe Angel is talking to the Female Institute of Health in Utah, she tells them, “You can’t rely just on book learning. But you also have to rely on God.” And she’s talking about that mix of those two things. And so this is something that we see—perhaps it’s more simply said in 1852, but it is an important thing for these women all throughout the history of the church.
HOLBROOK: This is appropriate for a Maxwell Institute Podcast in which we honor Neal Maxwell who asked us “what does it mean to honor God with all of your might, mind, and strength.
HODGES: Right. And I love that, for example, in the Francine Bennion piece, she’s talking about thinking through things. She’s talking about wrestling with things and not taking everything for granted.
I think it’s striking that she says “there’s no single theology of suffering in our church”—So the whole piece is about theodicy and puzzling through the problem of suffering in the world—She says “there’s no single theology of suffering in our church. There’s no one framework uniform in all respects. We have various frameworks.” And she puzzles through some of them and talks about some of the strengths and weaknesses of them. And I think that is really important to think about in the context of this entire collection, and any sort of collection of discourses or conference proceedings or whatever—is that there really are different perspectives that we can wrestle with, that we can learn from, that we can engage with, that we can change our minds about, that we can help other people change their minds about. And to me, Bennion’s piece is really openly encouraging that type of exchange between Latter-day Saints.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that’s true. And that’s one of the reasons we love that there are so many voices in this book, because we all have church leaders who speak to us and strike us in different ways. And then there are some who might challenge us. And so you need a smorgasbord. Because you need to been challenged. As well as made comfortable.
HODGES: Right. And the last discourse in the collection is from Gladys N. Sitati. And I believe she is married to Elder Sitati of Quorum the Seventy. Is that right?
HOLBROOK: That’s right.
HODGES: And she’s a powerful speaker. This is a powerful piece. Her background was in medicine or law? Do you remember?
HOLBROOK: Education, actually. She was a teacher. And then she also worked in Kenya for the Board of Education.
HODGES: That’s what it was.
HOLBROOK: At the time she was doing this work, they didn’t have many higher level institutions of higher learning there. And so she would help students find placements outside of the country. Many of them went to India, but also the United States and Great Britain, so that they could go to college and then come back. So that was her job.
HODGES: Her discourse, this was from 2016. So just last year, 2016. How did you decide on this piece to round out the collection?
HOLBROOK: Well, it was just an exciting talk and she was an exciting person to think about including. She represented a speaker from a part of the world that we hadn’t yet represented. She’s smart and she spoke from life experience.
One of the things we’ve thought a lot about while putting this book together is women’s authority to speak. And we see that sometimes, women are speaking with the authority of their official callings, you know, General Relief Society president. Sometimes they’re speaking with the authority of the Holy Spirit, in most, in all of these actually, we have felt that. Sometimes they are speaking from the authority of their professional expertise—as a midwife, as a college professor, and sometimes they’re speaking from the authority of life experience. And Sister Sitati here is looking, she’s analyzing the scriptures carefully in talking about conflict and avoiding conflict and navigating interpersonal relationships. And she’s also speaking from the authority of her own life experience as a member of a big family herself, and then she had a number of children.
HODGES: And then she’s also—Elder Sitati was a mission president and she was sort of counseling missionaries and overseeing, talking to missionaries about these issues as well. So there’s family stuff, there’s a church calling-related thing that all informs this discourse.
HOLBROOK: Right. All informs where she’s—the experience she’s had that has granted her this wisdom.
REEDER: And she does it in such a way that, like Kate said, she draws on scripture and she draws on gospel principles.
HOLBROOK: One quotation from it, she says, “In the course of our labors, as we exercise patience, meekness, and humility, with purity of heart, our spirituality will grow and flourish. Our actions can then transcend all human barriers including cultural, economic, and political associations.”
We need this right now all over the world and also in the United States. We need our actions and our feelings to be able to transcend all human barriers.
HODGES: That’s from Glady’s Sitati’s discourse that’s included in the book, At The Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. It spans 1831 to 2016. There are fifty-four speeches or discourses given in all. It’s a powerful collection and I want to congratulate you both on publishing it. Before we go, I just wanted to hear from both of you about what you hope this collection accomplishes.
REEDER: I love that At The Pulpit shows such a variety of women coming from different experiences, different levels of education, different occupations, different family makeup. And it shows that each of these women had something significant to say. It’s my hope that readers will see, like I have that I too have something to say, that they have something important to say. And that we all have been given this charge from Joseph Smith to expound to the church, and exhort scripture, and to “speak up and speak out,” as LDS apostle Russell M. Nelson stated in General Conference. We all have that responsibility
HOLBROOK: We wrote the book for two audiences. A scholarly audience, and a church member audience. For the scholarly audience, Mormon women get short thrift in American religious studies. And often even when they’re approached, they have women speaking for them or about them. This is a collection of women speaking about themselves, their own religious thinking in their own voices. So there’s no excuse now. We have this and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. There’s no excuse to do a more careful, thorough, accurate treatment of Mormon women and their role in the trajectory of American religious history.
HODGES: And you feel like this sort of primary source access is key to getting more focus on women more generally in academic explorations.
HOLBROOK: Yes. And then you look, you see what they said. You see what they thought. What was important to them. Not what was important to the people who were trying to spin their words in a particular way.
HODGES: So you have to take their voices and you have to take them into account.
HOLBROOK: Yes. I think that for church members, men and women reading this book will help you become—it will help you see how to become a more effective disciple of Jesus Christ.
HODGES: One more thing before we go, what are you both working on now that this book is complete?
REEDER: I’m actually beginning a really exciting project. I think it follows off of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, those Relief Society documents, and At The Pulpit, this collection of women’s discourses. We are working to digitize, transcribe, and index over nine hundred nineteenth-century Relief Society minute books. It’s really exciting to be able to take this to an even deeper local level where we’ll be able to partner with FamilySearch so you’ll be able to look up your great, great grandmother and see how she participated in Relief Society, what she said, what she donated, look at local Relief Societies, and also give scholars access to those records and those words.
HODGES: So some of the stuff that’s here and in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society can be placed in its wider direct context as well.
HODGES: How about you, Kate?
HOLBROOK: I’m working on a history of the Young Women’s organization in the church. And that will be a thematic history, not an encyclopedic history. So we’re looking—
HODGES: What can we expect for these? Are we little ways out on both these projects?
HOLBROOK: A little ways out on the Young Women history. The organization turns 150 years old in 2020, so we’re hoping to ramp it up by then. Yeah.
REEDER: And with the Relief Society minute book database, we hope to be putting out our first batch in the summer of 2017. Because it’s such a huge project, we’re going to be doing what we like to call “community sourcing” or crowd sourcing, and asking people to get involved much in the same way that they do with indexing. So they can find their grandmother’s minute books or their town’s minute books or where they served their mission’s minute books.
HODGES: And that’s not just Utah stuff? There are minute books from—
REEDER: No. The later that we get in the nineteenth century, we have minute books from Scandinavia, from the Pacific Islands, from Mexico and Western Europe. It’s really exciting.
HODGES: Great. That’s Jenny Reeder. She joined me today with Kate Holbrook to talk about their book At The Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourse by Latter-day Saint Women. Thank you both for joining us on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
REEDER: Thank you.
HOLBROOK: Thanks, Blair.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)