Review: Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume One, 1775–1820

Elizabeth Pinborough is a Latter-day Saint scholar and historian, with a special focus in religion and literature as well as women’s history. She is also editor of the forthcoming Habits of Being: Mormon Women’s Material Culture. Elizabeth currently blogs at Scholaristas. We’re excited that Elizabeth has agreed to contribute this review.

Title: Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume One, 1775–1820
Editors: Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: History
Year: 2011
Pages: 501
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-1-60641-033-2
Price: $34.99

The first volume in the Women of Faith series features biographical essays by a number of Mormon history professionals, including Jill Mulvay Derr, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Mark L. Staker, in addition to fledgling historians, amateur historians, and other experienced authors. It treats a wonderful collection of early Latter-day Saint women born between 1775 and 1820, some well known and some less so. This is not a strictly academic book. Yes, it has footnotes, which are in some cases quite extensive. But this compilation of faith stories is necessarily something more. It serves as a devotional textbook the influence of which will reach beyond scholarly utility. Its stories of faith are not only an important piece of the Mormon historical record and a window into the historical construction of faith among Mormon women. These stories are also essential to the contemporary vitality of Mormons’ life of faith.

As a book that is meant to appeal to scholarly and lay readers, it does an admirable job. This volume, along with subsequent volumes, will help introduce a new generation of Mormon scholars and interested readers to a wide variety of figures in Mormon history and to a number of sources in Mormon studies. It will also be useful in a devotional context. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich endorsed the book in her December 2011 Sunstone talk on the new Daughters in My Kingdom manual, speaking of it as a good supplementary text to the manual. As Ulrich noted, Daughters in My Kingdom “puts women into the curriculum as no other recent manual has done.” We are no longer in an age of “womenless history,” as Ulrich says, institutionally speaking. She also said that this manual puts women “into the theology in an interesting way.” Daughters in My Kingdom and Women of Faith place Mormon women’s spirituality in the limelight and prompt us to think in community about the historical and theological implications of the women’s records.

Women of Faith has significant implications for how we view womanhood in the church. Having thirty-five biographies next to one another imparts a sense of multiplicity and unity among the narratives. These women did not conform to one set of female roles. Many of these women supported themselves and their families temporally while their husbands built the church in other parts of the United States and the world. These women built the church by offering their time and their substance. These women were leaders, poets, activists, farmers, businesswomen, defenders of the faith, and sometimes near-sole supporters of their families. Mothering and nurturing roles were at times all consuming, but these women did not do things all in one way. Each woman tells a different tale of the way God interacted with her and blessed her. There are many ways to go about living the gospel. Mormon women today often feel anxiety about conforming to one institutional narrative, but, as can be seen in these biographies, each woman followed her own path and lived her life in individualistic ways.* These women did, however, all pursue a path of faith in God, which Women of Faith so beautifully illustrates again and again.

Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman’s sentiment is emblematic of faithful sentiments expressed by other women: “I often feel as if I had come as far as I could but there is sure to come a ray of light from some source and many times where I least expect it and I cannot but acknowledge the hand of the Lord in my preservation. He leads me through deep waters but it is all right and I feel to put my trust in him” (170). Laura Farnesworth Owens wrote, “While I look back through the many scenes of sorrow that I have passed, I marvel and have to acknowledge my Father in heaven” (202). Even though their lives were at times (and sometimes entirely) terribly difficult, these women expressed faith in God and endured to the end. Faith forged in the fire of experience truly is “more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her” (Proverbs 3:15).

Reading this book felt like what I imagine attending a Relief Society testimony meeting with thirty-five nineteenth-century women would be like. I imagine this meeting taking place near the end of their lives, with each woman in her turn taking inventory of her experiences and imparting wisdom to future generations. Knowing more about these women’s lives and faith journeys increased my compassion for their hardships, increased my admiration for their strengths, and increased my resolve to live my religion. The self-anointings, temple blessings offered by women, and endowments delighted me and connected me to the roots of my Mormon female spirituality. It provoked a desire within me to search my own heart and experience to see if I am sufficiently grateful for the hard-won beliefs I hold dear.

Again in her Sunstone talk Laurel said, “Any revolutionary movement begins with an engagement with history.” As people engage with these multifaceted narratives, this series will truly be of inestimable value in shaping the current (albeit slow) revolutions in the LDS church surrounding the inclusion of women in the historical and theological record. Women of Faith is a piece of devotional scholarship well worth the read.

*The multiplicity of faith narratives and diversity of experiences is what I love, love, love about the Mormon Women Project. I want to share a few of my favorite vibrant moments from the book as an illustration of this multiplicity and because I hope people will find them equally delightful.

  • One of my favorite new pioneer acquaintances is Mary Bathgate Shelly (1797–1884), a semiliterate coal miner poetess who was married six times and who survived a rattlesnake bite crossing the plains (see chapter 25)—my kind of gal!
  • I loved Eliza Dana Gibbs’s vision of a heavenly woman prior to her conversion to Mormonism: “I was enshrouded in a clear white light and was enrapt in a heavenly vision and a glimpse of the beauties of eternity were presented to my view and a personage so lovely that description fails to convey an idea of the celestial beauty. . . . Clothed in a pure white robe such as I have seen in latter days, she appeared quite a little distance from me at first and seemed to glide rather than walk as she approached me” (31). I had never read an early Mormon vision involving a heavenly woman, which naturally brought joy to my little feminist heart.
  • Some of these women’s records contain so much pathos I can hardly stand it. Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman’s recorded, “My hair has nearly all come out, what little is left I have had cut off. My head is so bare that I am compelled to wear a cap” (174). A little less than two months later, on December 6 and 12, 1846, she writes, “My Baby sick and getting worse. Has cried all day but I cannot see what ails him. . . . The Baby is dead and I mourn his loss” (174).
  • Mary Fielding Smith’s account of her sister Mercy Fielding’s sororal and maternal friendship after the birth of Joseph F. is utterly touching: “Shortly after his birth I took a severe cold, which brought on chills and fever; this, together with the anxiety of mind I had to endure, threatened to bring me to the gates of death. I was at least four months entirely unable to take any care either of myself or child; but the Lord was merciful in so ordering things that my dear sister could be with me. Her child was five months old when mine was born; so she had strength given her to nurse them both” (387).

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Liz. That Gibbs vision in the notes if fascinating–is there any literature on female visions outside of Mormonism that could be used to contextualize this?

  2. Thank you for the head’s up on this book. And I love, love that quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich; “Any revolutionary movement begins with an engagement with history.” That gives me hope for progress. Her sunstone presentation sounds wonderful- thanks for sharing snippets from it.

  3. Just bought a couple copies from Benchmark. Proud of Brittany and Rick and their contributors for working to get the story out.

  4. Beautiful! Thanks for the review. I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time and am so excited for the attention and focus on women in Mormon history.

  5. Thanks for this review, Liz. I have four daughters, and I hope they all will read it.

    I also love the vision of the heavenly woman. I wonder how many other similar visions have been lost to us throughout history simply because the writers of our religious records were men.

  6. Such a good question, David. I am only familiar with Shakers at this point–Hannah Cohoon received her gift drawing of the tree of life from Mother Ann in 1854 (a blurb on gift drawings here: http://www.thequietintheland.org/shakers/category.php?id=drawings), and Rebecca Jackson had dreams and visions, some involving women (see p. 224 of Gifts of Power, which is on Google books). Otherwise, I’ll have to do some research and get back to you.

  7. I am, of course, thrilled to see these biographies preserved and published. It’s great that the Historical Department is devoting serious resources to the publication of work about the lived Mormonism of women. I like the fact that the biographical form allows non-academic and non-professional historians to contribute in substantial and meaningful ways. It is heartening to read about a wide range of women’s experiences and thoughts–I hope Laurel is right that adding women’s stories to our history is itself potentially revolutionary.

    However, I fear that the biographical form also has significant drawbacks–it misses the opportunity to address structural issues in the Church and in the surrounding society that affect the lives of women. It doesn’t readily lend itself to rigorous analysis of issues of race and class that are crucially important and desperately in need of study in the Mormon context. It tends to reinforce the “ghettoization” of women’s history, rather than incorporating work on women into the larger history of Mormonism. Despite being about women, it feels about as revolutionary as Tullidge’s _Women of Mormondom_.

  8. Kristine, your comment reminds me of too many reviews of books of any topic: “This author didn’t write the book I wanted to read, so I’ll review the book I wanted instead of the book that’s in front of me.” I want the book you want, too. Maybe you should write it. I’m sure there would be a sizable audience for it, too, but it would be a very different audience from the one targeted by Women of Faith, which aims to reach a popular as well as a scholarly audience.

    I don’t know any genre better than biography to reach masses of “ordinary” people and help them connect with their history in a direct and intimate way. I don’t know any genre better calculated to generate eye glazing and disconnect with the bulk of that same audience than “rigorous analysis of issues of race and class.”

    Prove me wrong. Write the book you want, and make it accessible and attractive to the same readers who will read Women of Faith — which is, by the way, not only a book *about* women, but a book *by* women, narrating their own experiences in their own words.

  9. I think microhistory might be a better way of reaching “ordinary people” while also moving beyond the very real limitations of the biographical genre and the tendencies towards “women worthies” which essentially has comprised Mormon women’s history so far with few exceptions. (For example, witness the broad success of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s brilliant book “A Midwife’s Tale”.)

    And I agree with Kristine, Women of Faith, might be many things, but revolutionary is not one of them – unless the knowledge that women existed and led individual lives of faith is still considered to be a revolutionary idea.

  10. Ardis, the problem here is that the institutional church is backing this book, not that I don’t like it. It functions prescriptively to tell people (including scholars) how they’re allowed to talk about Mormon history with institutional approval.

  11. Also, btw, the book I want is the one YOU write.

  12. Do you really see it is *limiting* people to that single form? (I’m not the one to write your book — that book’s readers would need the jargon that I’m not capable of writing.)

  13. No, not explicitly limiting–but it is the only kind that is being given significant institutional support. That matters, I think.

    Nobody needs jargon.

  14. “It functions prescriptively to tell people (including scholars) how they’re allowed to talk about Mormon history with institutional approval.”

    I love you and your writings, Kristine, but this is more than just a little over the top, imo.

    Ardis is right about many other intelligent, faithful women want to read. My wife and oldest daughter are good examples.

    My wife is very intelligent, but she has absolutely no desire to read a “rigorous analysis of issues of race and class that are crucially important and desperately in need of study in the Mormon context”. She wants to know more about Mormon women of that time period, but she wants to know them in their own words much more than to know how a modern academic describes their social positioning relative to race and class – or any other “crucially important” issue.

    My oldest daughter, otoh, who also is very intelligent (who studies math, engineering, physics, business, etc. in college), would love the type of book you are describing.

    Let “The Church” do what it does. Let academics do what they do. Don’t begrudge one because it doesn’t do what the other does better.

    YMMV

  15. Okay, jargon may be the wrong word — but I’m equally incompetent in the theoretical framework that your desired book would require. If such a book were written and were accessible I would definitely read it — I join you wholeheartedly, Kristine, in calling for those studies or any other history that incorporates women’s contributions as routine components, rather than setting us apart as something separate to be studied outside of “real” history.

    I’ll always love biography and narrative history, though, and welcome works like Women of Faith. “Revolutionary” isn’t a word I’d apply to this. Neither is “routine.” This series is novel (in my experience) in that it is both popular and to a very large degree scholarly. It allows these 35 women to speak for themselves rather than having someone else speak for them, and the women speak frankly about such things as personal revelation and polygamy and non-20th-century-Ensign-friendly life roles, which — in a volume published by Deseret Book — may be only a half-step from revolutionary.

  16. I desperately wanted that book, too, Kristine. I agree with you completely, and this review does not reflect my full range of feelings or thoughts on the book. I find it very good for what it is, and I decided to make my review positive because it really did affect me and I think it fulfilled its purpose. The index is most revealing in the way that you indicate: Joseph Smith was by far the longest category in the index; he looms large in this book. Brigham Young and Plural Marriage were close seconds. I think Eliza R. Snow was one of the few women who had a column to rival theirs. Temple work had two pages listed when almost every woman mentioned the temple somehow.

    What I was trying to say in my review was that (I hope) what people do with these books will be revolutionary. And I think it will equal the institutional church shooting itself in the foot. Women who might not otherwise have done may begin to recognize the inequities and problems with women in the church and decide to do something about it. I think the books have the potential to be subtlely empowering to women in claiming their history and in asking for more institutional power now. Maybe I am requiring that women come to these books as feminists already, but I think these books could create feminists, too. Maybe I’m naively optimistic.

    Kris, “And I agree with Kristine, Women of Faith, might be many things, but revolutionary is not one of them – unless the knowledge that women existed and led individual lives of faith is still considered to be a revolutionary idea.” Like Ulrich, what I think is revolutionary is that they are being increasingly recognized as part of the narrative at all and might not retreat as easily as stories of women sometimes do. It will make teaching a year-long Priesthood and Relief Society course on women of the church more possible one day in the future. That would be revolutionary, although I am afraid of what that course would be like. Maybe it would be more than women worthies at that point? Again, maybe I am just ridiculously hopeful.

  17. Liz, I don’t understand this criticism: “The index is most revealing in the way that you indicate: Joseph Smith was by far the longest category in the index; he looms large in this book. Brigham Young and Plural Marriage were close seconds. I think Eliza R. Snow was one of the few women who had a column to rival theirs. Temple work had two pages listed when almost every woman mentioned the temple somehow.”
    I don’t understand how a book about the early days of the Church, drawn mostly from the journals and other primary materials of the subjects’ lives, wouldn’t have Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as two of the most-quoted (or -mentioned) individuals in the book. Most of the early Saints’ (women and men) lives were literally bound up in their opinion or testimony of those two. And while I agree that the mention of temple work might have been greater, index writing is a mixture of art and science–though temple work may have been mentioned “somehow,” it doesn’t always follow that an indexer, working on a deadline, is going to always mark a brief mention of “the Lord’s house” as a reference to temple work.
    If we’re judging the book by its index, though, wouldn’t a greater metric be how many individual women are named in the index compared to other books about the same period? In that case, wouldn’t Women of Faith rate fairly high on the “women named in the index” list? I’d certainly expect, as the series progresses, that the mention of male leaders’ names will reach more of an equilibrium than it has in the first volume, which was (appropriately, IMO) perhaps overly concerned with the founder of the LDS Church and the leader of its diaspora.

  18. H. Bob, The mentions of the temple are pretty explicit. And if someone is indexing a Mormon book, she should probably know that the Lord’s house means temple. Mercy Fielding Thompson: “I remained with my Sister until the Temple was finished so far that the Ordinances of the holy Priesthood could be administered there when I was called by Pres. Young to take up my abode there to assist in the Female department which I did laboring Night and Day keeping my Child with me” (428). Sarah De Armon Pea Rich: “We helped in the House of the Lord to give Endowments for four months…. For if it had not been for the faith and knowledge that was bestowed upon us in that Temple” (279). Are just two examples.

    I wouldn’t expect JS and BY to not be an important part of these women’s experience in the church. I am frustrated by the exclusion of the temple, and the exclusion of a category for endowments and for patriarchal blessings, because many of these women noted what important things they are to them. It’s in their own words. JS and BY are important, sure, but so are these other things. If this is a book about women, shouldn’t what is important to them be fully featured in the index? I understand indexing is a tricky art, but the index doesn’t really fairly represent the spiritual experiences of the women or highlight those bits of spiritual power and authority in which women participated. BY and JS are powerful in the institution of the church. Just mentioning lots of individual women isn’t the same as giving two powerful leaders of the church more space. It still elevates the institutional narrative rather than widening the narrative to include moments of female power in the temple.

  19. Thanks Liz.

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