General story Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon women preach — and can they preach!

Yesterday I taught the presidency lesson in my ward’s Relief Society, devoting the whole lesson to our history. The Relief Society is going to turn 175 next week. So I devised a Jeopardy game to celebrate that birthday, have fun (I am on a serious quest to make RS less serious), and learn more about who we are.

Much of the quiz show was based around the outstanding scholarship of two LDS Church historians: Kate Holbrook, the Managing Historian of Women’s History, and Jenny Reeder, the department’s Nineteenth-century Women’s History Specialist. Their excavations into the church archives have yielded up another great book for your bookshelves, this one focused on Mormon women as preachers and theologians.

It’s a pretty terrific way to celebrate the Relief Society’s 175th. Happy women’s history month. — JKR

 

RNS: Why did you write this book?

Holbrook: What I think is important is that Jill Mulvay Derr and I were having a conversation about how we wished there was a woman’s Journal of Discourses. And I left that conversation knowing that after I finished working on The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, that my next project would be a woman’s Journal of Discourses.

Reeder: I had read speeches by Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Emmeline B. Wells, and others and was curious to read more. I was convinced there was much more than has been readily available, and I wanted to find it and make it accessible, not only for women, but for men.

RNS: Why is that important to do?

Holbrook: For some people, women’s words in the church have not been seen as authoritative. And their talks aren’t easily accessible; you have to do some digging, and most of us don’t have time to do that digging when we’re preparing for a lesson or a church talk. We wanted to provide easier access for members and also for our church leaders.

Reeder: I think we underestimate the role women have played in the development of Mormon theology and discourse. From the very beginning, women had powerful conversion experiences, witnessed sacred events, and taught others. They were—and are—full participants.

Samantha Kelly Photography

Kate Holbrook. Photo credit: Samantha Kelly Photography.

 

RNS: I like the theological focus here, of looking at Mormon women in history as theologians and preachers of the word.

Holbrook: After completing the book I really feel that women have helped to shape our religious understanding of the gospel and church doctrine. They have spoken a lot, for all of our history, in testimony and other meetings, although for a long time they spoke more often in meetings for women and youth. And before women were speaking regularly at General Conference, the General Relief Society President would speak at the welfare meetings they had at conference time. There’s an appendix in the book that is our best effort to find every time that a woman spoke at general conference-related meetings.

RNS: Early in the book you have a General Conference talk by Lucy Mack Smith. It may surprise people to learn that a Mormon woman spoke in Conference as early as the 1840s.

Reeder: I think this very personal, extemporaneous talk actually tells us more about Lucy Mack Smith and her role as “Mother Smith” than it tells us about women speaking in conference, because the next woman to speak was Zina Young in October 1879 about plural marriage and sericulture. That gap makes Lucy Mack Smith’s address an even bigger deal. She spoke after the deaths of her sons Joseph and Hyrum. She felt an inherent responsibility to maintain an institutional memory for the church.

Holbrook: Then there’s a long period where women don’t speak in General Conference. Women spoke in the general sessions in 1929 and 1930, and then they’re speaking more often at the welfare meetings, with Aaronic priesthood meetings sprinkled in there. That pattern of speaking mostly at welfare meetings and some Aaronic priesthood meetings continues until 1984, when four women spoke at General Conference.

RNS: I imagine there was a wealth of riches in finding these sermons and talks. How did you choose?

Holbrook: It was a huge job. Jenny was responsible for the book up until 1920, and I took over from 1920 on. For that portion, a woman named Rebecca Strein was such a powerhouse. She was my main research assistant. She scanned them all according to our criteria, and when she found them, she would bring them to me. I would look through those and pick two or three per decade. And then I would bring them to a meeting and we would talk about whether or not they should go in. In our search for international voices, we looked at all of the Area Conferences that took place during the 1970s. That’s where we found the talk by Mexican stake Relief Society president Lucrecia Suárez de Juárez.

Melissa Smith

Jennifer Reeder. Photo credit: Melissa Smith.

Reeder: A team of volunteers and interns read through every Relief Society minute book and issues of publications including the Woman’s Exponent and the Young Woman’s Journal. We also wanted to demonstrate the breadth and depth of where women were speaking: obviously Relief Society, but also Retrenchment meetings, Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association meetings and conferences, a Utah Suffrage Association meeting, a National Council of Women meeting, etc. These women spoke broadly, intelligently, and from experience.

RNS: What are your favorites?

Holbrook: I don’t have one! I love them. I’ve been thinking a lot about the quotations in the book about unity and forgiveness, given our current political climate. I’m finding them to be very inspiring and soothing. Jenny Knight Brimhall has a talk on forgiveness that is a real gem. “Let us each and all bury our grievances . . . and forgive as we hope to be forgiven.”

Reeder: For one, Jane Neyman’s plea for spreading the mantle of charity came from her own experience as a victim of slander and gossip. I also love Zina Huntington’s speech at the Lehi Relief Society. The previous speakers talked about the sacred responsibility of motherhood, which is always a common theme among Mormon women. But I can just see Zina looking into that specific Relief Society congregation and seeing Rebecca Standring, a friend who had been unable to bear children. And Zina sort of switched things up and said, “and to mothers I would say, fulfill your duties to your children, for they are blessings from God entrusted to your care; and to you my sisters who may not have children, be comforted. We serve a just God, and if you are faithful to his cause it will be no loss to you.”

RNS: Have you encountered any resistance to the idea of women having the authority to preach?

Holbrook: No. While we were working on it, two important talks came out. Elder Oaks gave a General Conference talk on authority (“What other authority can it be” when women serve, other than priesthood authority?). And President Nelson gave a talk on needing women’s voices (“We, your brethren, need your strength. . . . The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who . . . can speak with the power and authority of God”). I felt like we were all preparing for the publication of this book, and for women’s voices to be treated as authoritative in church talks, manuals, and lessons.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

14 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Looking into the history of Mormonism. You are missing much if you do not investigate that Joseph Smith had no fulfilled prophecues, the Book of Mormon has no archaeological evidence to support its claims and modern DNA testing has proven that the Indians of the Americas did not descend from the Jews.

    Mormonism is built on a very shaky foundation.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  • I think Christianity might be improved with more women preaching and in positions of leadership.

  • Though we’re not members, it’s been amazing worshipping with the Community of Christ. Seeing women as apostles, in the first presidency, working as equals with the men. It’s like being in an Ordain Women utopia! The D&C teaches us that if we feel the call to serve, then we are called. Joseph Smith ordained women, so clearly the LDS branch of Mormonism cannot be directly related to the church Smith organized, they are just another branch of Mormonism. I would encourage women and men to find the branch of Mormonism that works for you, rather than trying to force the LDS branch to change for you.

  • Frankly, I did not understand the article as many terms are not defined. While Mormon women are not allowed to be priests or apostles or have any input into church governance, women are allowed to speak before women’s groups, and they are allowed to speak at a Conference if they stick to the topic of the blessings of motherhood or some such, and call God “He”?? God is “He”? How strange. And pity those poor women without children. I am impressed that there are women who have so little self-respect that they will put up with this.

  • Coming from an evangelical Christian perspective, sir, is not to argue from a position of strength. To me, it’s like one witch doctor chiding another one for using incorrect witch doctor incantations.

    There. I’ve offended everybody I think. My work is done.

  • I was speaking with a young man who told me that he never bothers listening to women speakers, whether it be at ward or stake meetings, or general conference. When I asked him why, he told me that women do not have the priesthood, therefore they have no authority and have nothing worthwhile to offer. I think this frame of mind is prevalent throughout the church.

    I believe that what this young man sees in the Church on a regular basis has instilled this belief in him. For instance, throughout a great deal of his life the Sacrament speakers have been lined up thusly: A child may speak briefly, and then a woman may speak, followed by the male speaker. It may seem to him that this lineup reflects the importance of the speaker. Similar to musical concert line-ups, the warm-up groups play first, followed by the main event – in the case of the Church, the man with the priesthood. The same situation is sometimes reflected in the ratio of male to female speakers in our Stake and General Conference meetings.

    This is what comes of a patriarchal religion.

  • With all due respect, you don’t understand women’s roll in the priesthood. And we have Heavenly Parents, not only a Heavenly Father. I do not want to contend sacred matters in a comment section however it would benefit you to learn more about what you comment upon. As you will do so, you will find that your pity for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may dissipate from your paradigm.

  • No one “preaches” at the LDS church, that is your fundamental disconnect in this story. Congregants are asked to give talks 3 times a month, 2 adults and 1 youth. People desiring the Priesthood in the LDS church, don’t understand it. You don’t get a position in the church because you desire it. You get “callings” and they aren’t paid ones. They have responsibilities and blessings associated with them.

  • I’m not offended…

    Or I wouldn’t be, except that as a witch Doctor, I object to the comparisons.

  • David, My family knew a man who was an officer in the Air Force who had been introduced to the LDS Church. He decided to examine the evidence for himself. He stocked up on food and supplies and gathered all the pro and anti Mormon literature he could, and then locked himself in his apartment with a plan to play the neutral judge and stay there for two weeks to examine the question for himself. After reviewing both cases for several days he increasingly became convinced that the case strongly favored the LDS and several days later determined to join the LDS Church. He went on to serve as an LDS leader in the South. My own experience is similar, but much longer in study, and I deal with “evidence” every day in my profession. If the question is the weight of evidence, we may differ. However, to say “no” evidence and “proven” is not the situation. There are at least hundreds of evidences on each side if one does an objective and full study. The thing is that many of these women are strong witnesses in the case who have not been heard from enough. I, for one, am glad to learn what they have had to say and to consider it.

  • I had already heard of Heavenly Mother. She is right there on the LDS website, so you may feel free to comment on her. My impression was that she is almost never mentioned by the all-male LDS priests. She is silent and unobtrusive, so much like St. Mary who is known among the all-male clergy of the Catholic Church as one who is ‘docile’ and ‘obedient.’ If I were going to invent a religion, the Deity would be One, not limited by gender. I would not have a separate god for gender, for ethnicity, for species, but only One God. It is a mistake to make a god defined as married. That is a put-down of all people who for one reason or another are not married. A married god would only make sense in a religion that denigrates unmarried people as does LDS. And which segregates its women into gender apartheid.

  • “If we perceive it to be true, even if it is NOT so, we still believe it to be true”. That’s YOU to a fine point., That’s what you just did. I assure you that your perception is false, in fact, laughably so. I know a lot of Priesthood holders that listen intently to the sisters’ addresses because many of the hidden gems of learning how to spiritually build the kingdom are found there.

  • I laugh out loud at the outsiders and dim insiders who claim that ALL of the control and motion in the LDS Church is dictated by the males and Patriarchal orthodoxy. These are people who have never sat in a Ward Council. These are people who haven’t been there when the Relief Society president gives the Bishop her next year’s budget. These are people who have never seen Priesthood leaders propose something, only to go home and explain it to their spouse, get nearly flogged within inches of their lives, and then pull/walk some of it back !! I could go on. Believe me, the sisters wield UNBELIEVABLE power. If we start talking about family and children relations, well, game over.

ADVERTISEMENTs