Note: An address that Maurine Proctor gave at a BYU Women’s Conference, May 5, 2006 was selected as one of the discourses to be published as part of the Bonus Material on the new website for this book. You can find it here or listen to it at a link on that page.
At the Pulpit, published by the Church Historian’s Press, is more than just a book. It is a much-needed and conscious effort by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to bring women’s voices into the conversation in church history and doctrine.
It follows directly on the heels of last year’s publication of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society which came from a similar impulse–to not let the voices and contributions of women in the kingdom be forgotten or lost.
Elder Steven E. Snow, executive director of the Church History Department, said, “For many years in the Church history department, we’ve seen the glaring absence of women’s voices in church publications. A number of years ago we made a very deliberate choice to better write the story of women’s history history in the Church.”
To find the 54 discourses in this book, which represent women’s voices from the beginnings of the restoration to the present, editors Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook have had a team of researchers combing published speeches, Relief Society minutes, conference addresses and every possible source they could land on. They had teams translating minutes from many other nations so the talks in the book would represent the global church.
Of the hundreds, perhaps even one thousand talks they read, Holbook said, “We were buried in abundance, yet on the other hand, we wish there had been more variety. We were limited to those talks that were recorded.”
They wrote, “While women’s discourses can be found throughout the Latter-day Saint historical record, these sources are often difficult to access. Some of the earliest talks by Latter-day Saints women were preserved in personal reminiscences, like those of Lucy Mack Smith.
“Minute books of women’s organizations are a particularly valuable source for women’s discourses. Female secretaries typically kept minutes of meetings, but the accuracy of these minutes depended on the individual secretaries. Some took meticulous notes, while others provided only summaries, and many female secretaries recorded the discourses of men in more detail than they did the speeches of women…
“Newspapers and magazines often distributed speeches to a wider readership, thou women’s words were typically summarized rather than reproduced in full, especially in the nineteenth century.”
Probing for women’s talks was an excavation process.
Where were the Women’s Voices?
From the earliest days of the restoration, thousands of women have participated in gospel discussions, shared testimonies and given talks, but “many of these records are difficult to access today, forgotten in old minute books and obscure newspapers. By contrast, the public teaching and preaching done by men, particularly church leaders, was much more likely to be preserved in historical records and published for a wide audience.
“For this and other reasons, the voices and experiences of men are much more commonly the subject of scholarly investigation and contemporary teaching and preaching in the church than are those of women,” the editors write.
The editorial team looked for talks that had some theological analysis or, according to Holbook, “made you feel like you just wanted to call your Mom or put a quotation up—that you wanted to share it. “ The team narrowed the choices to perhaps five a decade and then voted on them to make their final decision.
Why were the women’s voices so hard to find? Where were they?
The Relief Society, which gave women a pulpit and a voice, was formed in an era where the entire idea of women speaking in church was a contentious idea in most Christian denominations. Though women composed the majority of the congregations in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America, many groups held that they should be “silent” in church. Women did sometimes speak, but the idea was the subject of lively and sometimes rancorous debates.
Though the Great Awakening and the American Revolution opened more doors for women to speak, they were still largely confined to speaking primarily in women’s meetings. Women speaking to mixed-gender audiences in the early and mid-1800’s provoked suspicion and even hostility.
When the Relief Society was disbanded in 1844, small, informal groups of women gathered while crossing the plains and in Salt Lake’s early days. The exercise of spiritual gifts was often a part of speaking as many early Mormon women “spoke in tongues, gave blessings of health or comfort, and related dreams, visions and revelations.”
When the Relief Society was reformed, it again gave women a voice among themselves. They also bore testimony in testimony meetings, but seldom spoke in sacrament meeting during the 19th century. Finally, in the twentieth century, opportunities for influence and visibility opened up for women to speak in mixed-gender meetings. In July, 1853, Rose Marie Reid became the first woman to speak at a BYU Devotional and women began speaking in General Conference in the 1980’s.
All of this, of course, is not because women did not have something to say. Sarah Sturtevant Leavitt, said at her baptism in the 1830’s, “I had something of more importance that was shut up like fire in my bones.” You might say false tradition had kept them quiet.
What Women Said
So as Holbrook and Reeder pored through the speeches and minutes that survived—what did they find? Strength. Power. The exercise of spiritual gifts. Boldness in being a disciple. This they included in the collection.
There is, for example, Lucy Mack Smith, leading the saints from Colesville, New York to Kirtland, when they become stuck by ice in Buffalo Harbor. As the people begin to murmur, she exhorts with power, “Where is your confidence in God? Do you know that all things are in his hands? He made all things and still rules over them, and how easy a thing it would be with God if every Saint here would just lift their desires to him in prayer that the way might be opened before us. How easy would it be for God to cause the ice to break away, and in a moment’s time, we could be off on our journey.
“If I could make my voice to sound as loud as the trumpet of Michael the Archangel, I would declare the truth from land to land and from sea to sea, and it would echo from isle to isle until not one should remain of the whole family of man but that was left without excuse.”
In September, 1835, Elizabeth Ann Whitney stood in still unfinished Kirtland Temple and sang a song in tongues about Adam-ondi-Ahman, which Parley P. Pratt interpreted. The meter and topic sound very much like our hymn “Adam-ondi-Ahman.”
To get a sense of how wide the range is in this book, consider this. Phoebe Morton Angell had been a mid-wife to Mary Fielding Smith when she delivered her son Joseph F. Smith. She practiced what they called “social” medicine, treating common ailments and sicknesses. In August, 1852, she stood in the old adobe tabernacle and repeated a recipe for healing that she said the Lord had revealed to her. This is included in the book.
A Testimony that Outlasts the Troubles
Bathsheba W. Smith, who was the fourth General Relief Society president, looked back on the Church’s founding with eloquence. She said, “The closing of 1905, which is the hundredth birthday of the Prophet, stirs my mind with a multitude of thoughts. In fancy I go back…Once again I gather with the Saints in Missouri, and hear the horrid yells of the mobbers as Joseph and Hyrum are captured by them. I see the wounded and dying; I am driven from Missouri but meet with joy at Quincy in a conference of the church. Joseph and Hyrum, and the apostles, who are there called to labor in Europe.
“The Prophet I recall and his wondrous spiritual power, intelligence, loving kindness, and great goodness of heart! His sermons, sayings, the organization of our own Relief Society in 1842. His revelations, persecutions, martyrdom, and the grief of the Saints thereat. There is little left safe our homes and families in this world, but the gospel becomes even more to me. Now follows the burning if our homes and the forced exodus from Nauvoo in the dead of winter. The elements rage upon and about us, but we are able to endure, to rest at last, though in the shadow of death, as it were, for here we part with a multitude of our loved ones. But rising from our weakness, in obedience to the servants of the Most High, we proceed, crossing trackless plains, fording swollen streams, scaling rugged mountain heights, and descending into “The Valley,” to find rest from persecution and comfort in the desert.”
Voices from the Past Giving Insight for Today
When Elise Talmage Brandley spoke in the Assembly Hall in June of 1934 on “The Religious Crisis of Today,” she sounded as if she were giving insight for the 21st century. Daughter of James E. Talmage and May Booth Talmage, she was an associate editor of the Improvement Era.
Her talk was given when the world was in turmoil, suffering from the disillusion and trauma of World War I and the desperation of the Great Depression. The youth lived in a different world than their parents had known and ideas were being challenged.
She said, “According to my belief, to know the fundamental truths of the gospel is to leave one free to go far and wide, anchored by that knowledge, in search of all else that earth and sea and skies have to teach. Instead of making religious truths a bone of contention and source of differences, should we not, as leaders and individuals, try to make them a means of bringing order and harmony out of apparent confusion?”
Another stellar—and intellectually sophisticated talk—was a 1986 BYU Women’s Conference address called “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering” from Francine R. Bennion where she discusses how we look at the hard things of life.
She wrote, “Nobody is manipulating every human decision that would affect every human experience. If God did, we would have the kind of existence now that Lucifer offered permanently. For God, the agency and real existence of other souls is of prime value, value that exceeds any reason for his arbitrarily controlling all they experience and become. God does not make himself the only reality, or the only source of reality.
“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it. To act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” We cannot exist without agency and its results. Neither can we become like God if we think others must be deprived of their agency so that we can be ourselves. We are not coddled toddlers in playschool or Disneyland; we are not preparing to meet reality some day. We are in it here and now.”
Writers in this book include Irina Kratzer ,who grew up in Sibera and got her medical degree; Gladys Sitati who was one of the pioneering Latter-day Saints in Kenya. It includes names we know from history: Emma Hale Smith, Patty Sessions, Eliza R. Snow and Zina D.H. Young. It includes people many not have heard of like Mary Ann Freeze or Rachel H. Leatham. It includes some general officers of the Church like Julie B. Beck, and Bonnie B. Parkin, but it also reminds us that women do not have to be broadly known of the world to be well known by the Lord and given powerful voices of testimony.
A Telling Question
One venue where this book was introduced was a Mormon women blogger event that ended with a series of questions and answers from the audience. One woman asked, “Will this book only be read by women?” The answer, of course, is let’s hope not. Just as men and women need to hear from men, so do they need to hear from women, as the gospel is explored and expounded in power. If women have too often been unheard in our history, we can hear their voices now as they echo from the past and now resound on today’s pulpits.
Reeder said, “The book At the Pulpit demonstrates a variety of women have spoken, sharing their different experiences in a variety of ways. I think this book encourages us to each see the responsibility we have to speak up and speak out.”
In the days to come, Meridian will be publishing a few of these talks as well as an interview with Kate Holbrook.