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From the earliest days, women have been critically important to the founding of the Church. They shouldered heart-crushing responsibilities, buried their children on the plains, excelled in good works and practiced spiritual gifts. Pulitzer Prize winner, Wallace Stegner, said of them, “That I do not accept the faith that possessed them does not mean I doubt their frequent devotion and heroism in its service. Especially their women. Their women were incredible.”
Incredible, but for too many of us, they have been quiet because their words have been forgotten. That’s why At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Saint Women, the new book from the Church Historian’s Press has achieved something important. Here’s our interview with Kate Holbrook, one of the editors of the new book as we ask her some tough questions.
Meridian: 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.” What do you think is meant by a “glaring absence” and how do you think that’s affected women?
Kate: I think Elder Snow was pointing to the fact that we could do better in our church talks and in our manuals and in our religious conversations in quoting women and talking about the experiences of women. This book is an effort to make it easier for all of us to do better in that way.
We do already have terrific books with women’s histories and we have these great books that are collections from BYU Women’s Conference talks. But what I think is unique about At the Pulpit is that it covers the entire history of the church in one volume. There is an introduction to each discourse that really gives you a sense of the life experience and the historical context in which the discourse was given. It’s important that this is published by the Church Historian’s Press which means people who are really conscientious about what they use in their lessons and what they quote in church can feel confident that they can quote from this book and tell these stories when they are teaching and preaching in church.
We have plans to extend its influence by translating the book into Spanish and Portuguese.
Meridian: Some unfairly say that men are theologians and women are Christians, which isn’t fair to either sex. Without the opportunity to speak much in earlier times—or at least not have their words recorded and remembered, did women somehow learn that their gospel understanding or thoughts did not carry the same gravitas as men’s, that their spiritual insights were less important?
Kate: I don’t know whether they thought their insights were less important than mens. You do see in the book, especially in the first part of the book because the talks there are more spontaneous, women grappling with their own insecurities about public speaking. Eliza R. Snow asked Emily Richards to speak and she answered that she could not. Eliza answered, “Never mind, but when you are asked to speak again, try and have something to say.’ She did.
As we wrote in the book, “49 years later, Richards spoke at the National Woman Suffrage Association in Washington DC, and a journalist described her on that occasion as ‘trembling slightly under the scrutinizing gaze of the multitude, yet reserved, self-possessed, dignified.”[i]
Meridian: I always feel like people don’t develop skills or even thinking skills and abilities that they aren’t called upon to use. As you look at the spirituality of the women in the early days of the Church, what have you learned about their spiritual development?
Kate: The evidence I can see that some people weren’t being serious enough about their personal spiritual development is that their women leaders sometimes told them to take it more seriously.
Ardeth Kapp, who was General Young Women’s President, said, “I am concerned for some of our sisters who have a magnificent dream, but who will never fully realize its fulfillment because they feel that their righteous husband will take care of it, and they fail to prepare for their part in this eternal partnership.”[ii]
Another important perspective on that is a talk that Belle Spafford gave on women’s roles during the 1970’s. The 1970’s was our biggest challenge in finding discourses we could use because people were so polarized about the ERA that the talks felt really political instead of spiritually-uplifting, or there would be this undergirding of tension in them.
Yet, Belle Spafford gave a terrific talk that was relevant to this topic. She taught that women had crucial responsibilities within their homes, but they also had important contributions to make outside of their homes, at church and in the community. “The advancement of the work of the church is a joint responsibility of the men and women of the church, each working in his assigned sphere. The deeper understanding each has of the role of the other, the greater the total success of the work of the church is bound to be…
“The church places no restrictions on a woman’s going into the marketplace and into community service on a paid or a volunteer basis, if she so desires, when her home and family circumstances allow her to do so without impairment to them. Women are encouraged to develop their full potential as women and the church affords abundant opportunity for them to do so…
“Latter-day Saint women have at their command the firm and infallible guidelines that lead toward the full development and total usefulness of womankind.”[iii] She was clear that women had responsibilities to both their church community and the broader community.
Meridian: As you’ve searched through LDS women’s history and scrutinized every source of women’s discourses you could find, do you have the sense that women believed there were lowered expectations for them? In other words, did they believe they could be sweet, useful and helpful, but not powerful, serious and authoritative?
Kate: Something that might be useful in that direction are Elaine Cannon’s words about responsibility. She said, “One of the basic teachings of the gospel is that everyone is responsible for his or her own salvation. That is the prime purpose of life on earth. You can be taught; you can be prayed over; you can be preached to; you can be endowed; but you cannot be forced into the presence of your Heavenly Father. You earn that privilege by learning and doing.”[iv] Her daughter said that Cannon believed a crucial part of her mission was, as her daughter put it, “to give an identity and a place to the young women of the church that reflected the equal value the Lord places on both His young men and young women.”[v] Cannon certainly presented herself as powerful, serious, and authoritative. But the fact that she said this to young women suggests that there was an audience who did not yet understand it. There was an audience that needed to be told to take themselves seriously and that the Lord places equal value on his young women and his young men.
Meridian: Did you find yourself grieving in any way that women’s voices had been so silent and unrecorded? When you say in the introduction that if someone were taking notes, the entire speech of a man would be recorded, but only the summary of a woman’s talk—did you just wish for more?
Kate: Elder Snow has mentioned that when he finished the book, he thought, “Where have I been that these stories and these words are not already familiar to me?” This is certainly not about him that they are not familiar. It is for all of us that they just haven’t been a part of our combined understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what it means to live the gospel. We are impoverished without them.
As members of the body of Christ, we need the insights from different members of the body to really help us understand and live as disciples of Christ. It is sad that we haven’t had them and going forward we’ll be in a much better position. We can act from places of greater strength when we are attending to these words.
When we started work on this book, I knew there were some who would resist seeing women’s discourses as relevant to their own spiritual lives. I wondered how to encourage them along. Jenny Reeder, our co-editor, noted the revelation to Emma in D&C 25, where God tells Emma to expound and exhort, “And thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.” Notice it doesn’t say “exhort the children” or “exhort the females,” it says “exhort the church.”
I held close to my heart a speech that apostle Franklin D. Richards gave at the Ogden Tabernacle in the summer of 1888. He said, “Every now and again we hear men speak tauntingly of the sisters and lightly of their public duties instead of supporting and encouraging them.” He said some men seemed to feel jealous, not wanting to share the wealth of spiritual gifts with women. He then taught that men who do so withhold blessings from themselves.[vi] “The brethren should understand and see that in so doing they are opposing themselves. . . if they would work with the sisters they would be more abundantly blessed. The Presidents and Bishops would realize multiplied blessings upon their own heads.” While we continued to work on the book, members of our current Quorum of Twelve apostles made new contributions to our understanding of women’s authority to speak.
I kept thinking about Richards’ words while working on the book, that maybe this is a way we can experience greater blessings as a church body.
In his April 2014 general conference address, Elder Oaks reminded us of words that Joseph Fielding Smith had pronounced at a 1958 meeting for Relief Society officers when he was president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. President Smith spoke of women’s authority to bear witness and to perform work necessary for salvation. “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you,” he proclaimed.[vii]
You’ll remember that in the context of the talk Elder Oaks was not saying that women were ordained to priesthood office. At the same time, he outlined a broader vision of priesthood in which women do participate as they speak and lead. “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”[viii]
Finally, at the November 2015 General Conference, President Nelson made an explicit plea for the inclusion of women’s voices. “We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God!”[ix]
Meridian: As you were working on this book, what were some of the wonderful surprises for you?
Kate: One is that I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Relief Society mission president. Now we talk about mission president’s wives, but from 1916 to the mid-1970’s that was a calling with a name, and it was Relief Society mission president and the responsibilities changed a little bit over time, but in general they coordinated missionary work with the local Relief Society and they oversaw the Primary, Young Women and Relief Society organizations in the mission.
They also made reports to Salt Lake and coordinated with Relief Society leaders in Salt Lake. Part of this was that in a lot of cases they were establishing new missions, so that often the auxiliary work was really new to the people they were serving. They at least shaped the kinds of activities they did and often they oversaw the health of the missionaries.
I really tried to highlight when the speaker was somebody who had been a Relief Society mission president or after the 70’s a mission president’s wife to see the kinds of work they do and the ways they contributed when they had that calling.
Meridian: Did you particularly look for women’s voices that had been lost or that we know little about?
Kate: We care deeply about representing lives that are not extensively recorded. We really wanted to include a variety of voices in these pages, and we looked for them. Jenny even had volunteers reading Swedish and Hawaiian Relief Society minute books, looking for women’s discourses. But she didn’t find one because they hadn’t been recorded.
Rebecca Strein found a talk given by a Mexican Relief Society stake president at an area conference, and that is in the book. And BYU Women’s Conference had some terrific talks by international speakers, some of which are in the book. But we wish that there were more records of international women’s talks that we could have drawn on.
We know how important it is to include the insights and experiences of church members around the world, because they can touch all of our hearts in new ways and provide us with profound insights about how to live the gospel. Just imagine what we could learn about forgiveness from a Rwandan Latter-day Saint whose Hutu relatives killed her Tutsi father during the genocide, for example. Although we know such women exist, we don’t yet have records of their stories.
Meridian: I know sometimes you went great lengths to highlight the work of women. Did you ever feel like a detective?
Kate: One fun research moment for me was reading the background of this woman who had been on the Relief Society General Board. Her name was Leone Jacobs and I learned that she and her president had been mission presidents in Palestine at the outbreak of World War II. I found her obituary and saw the names of her children. I looked up her daughter on the computer and found a phone number, and I called and it really was her daughter. She said, “I have some journals that my Mom kept while she was in Palestine.” She let us borrow them and scan them, so now we have these scans at the Church History Library. I used these to write the introduction to her talk. That was a real thrill.
Research can be very exciting. Chieko Okasaki wanted to preach to people around the world in their native languages. She had written a talk that had been translated into Korean by Gary Mackelprang. She was really having trouble pronouncing the Korean, so Gary’s wife Sunae read the talk into a tape recorder so that Chieko could listen to it over and over again.
I couldn’t find the name of Gary’s wife. I finally found her daughter on Facebook. She messaged her mother who called and confirmed that she was the one who had read this talk so Chieko could get the pronunciation right.
I was able to name her in the introduction. It may seem like a small thing, but to me it is a huge thing. It was the way this woman was contributing. It is the kinds of service that women do that matters and that often gets erased. So that’s why I put so much effort into it. When Chieko did get the pronunciation down and she did deliver that talk in Korea, people just wept through the whole talk, because she had bothered to go to all this work.
Meridian: Do you think there are other significant voices to be found in the past or are they just lost to us in time?
Kate: I hope there are. I know they are there. It is just that we haven’t figured out how to uncover them yet, or maybe we don’t yet have the records because we really did look through what we had recorded. We have more stories to tell about international church voices and we have a lot more work to do—although certainly grateful for the work that has been done—on the history of African American Mormon women. Maybe the records are out there and we just don’t have them all yet.
Meridian: Do you think women were impacted spiritually by not having as much opportunity to teach and preach in the past?
Kate: I think in every era there have been ways that women have found to influence their communities and the people around them for good. It looks different in different eras, but it is always there.
Meridian: What do you feel most gratified about with the publication of this book?
Kate: I feel that knowing those stories and even little details about the people who came before us can really root us and give us a sense of belonging and resilience and direction, and we can look and say these are our spiritual ancestors. We can connect to their strengths.
Jenny and I put this book together to make it easier for people to have access to terrific stories and talks about women. The first printing is almost sold out. They are rushing right now to do a second printing. To see that the hunger we thought was there is there is just really satisfying. When people come to work and they say, “I quoted from this woman in the book in my sacrament meeting talk yesterday,” or they say “these ideas were part of my Relief Society lesson yesterday,” that’s the dream. That’s why we wrote the book.
Eliza R. Snow said, “I would say to my young sisters, never shrink from a duty. God has put the means in your hands to become queens and priestesses in his kingdom if you will only live for it.”[x]
Learning about the efforts of the women in these pages brought home to me the legacy that is mine as a member of the Church. Reading these women’s stories and their words makes me feel part of a righteous vanguard of women who know who they are and know what to do.
[i] Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, eds.,At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), Introduction XXII to XXIII
[ii] Ibid., p. 194
[iii] Ibid., pp. 183, 189.
[iv] Ibid., p. 210
[v] Ibid., p. 204
[vi] Derr, Jill Mulvay et al., eds., The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 546-547.
[vii] Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society-An Aid to the Priesthood,” Relief Society Magazine, January 1959.
[viii] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 2014.
[ix] Russell M. Nelson, “A Plea to My Sisters,” Ensign, November 2015.
[x] Reeder, p. 72.