I am a believing Latter-day Saint, but I generally review books that approach Mormonism from an academic perspective. In turn, I approach them as a scholar. I don’t have the volition to critique works of a devotional nature. However, a forthcoming title from Deseret Book has combined devotion and aspects of Mormon history that are deeply meaningful to me as both a believer and a scholar. In this review I have collapsed those identities.
Sheri Dew and Virginia H. Pearce, The Beginning of Better Days: Divine Instruction to Women from the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), vii, 134 pp., index, Hardback, $18.99, ISBN:978-1-60641-851-2
Better Days is comprised of two sections: Introductory essays and Relief Society minute texts. These texts are taken from the minutes of six separate days, namely the bulk of the first and organizational meeting of March 17, 1842 and then the excerpted records of Joseph Smith’s teachings to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Introducing these minutes are essays from Sherri Dew and Virginia H. Pearce, both veteran publishers and experienced church leaders. However, their essays are dramatically different.
Pearce’s essay is honest, fresh, and sincere. It recounts her recent introduction to the minutes after their inclusion in the Joseph Smith Papers Online, and her experience studying them in a way that is ultimately performative. She offers a suggested methodology for immersion into the sermon texts, and provides a pattern for others who are not familiar with them or early church history to approach what Joseph Smith was communicating. He was presenting a vision to the Relief Society. He was revealing something new and he did it with language that is different than we now use. Pearce recapitulates the experience of those women who sat in the small room above the Red Brick store. She works for and receives a vision. And on several occasions, her account stole my breath away.
It is the revelation that Joseph Smith delivers to the Relief Society that is so compelling to me. Like President Beck, I do not believe that we have lived up to our potential in our Relief Societies and quorums. Joseph Smith’s sermons rend the veil of our lived experience and demand something more expansive than we have seen or known. Pearce’s self-confessed messy pattern of prayer, reading, noting, questioning, researching, contrasting, and applying is that expansion in a modern life. Her concluding words relate this in the form of exhortation: “Read Joseph’s words. Pray about them. Study them. And expect angels and epiphanies” (30).
But the epiphany is not easy. The material in Joseph’s sermons falls outside of modern lived religion, and whether it is the struggle over polygamy, the use of the term “priesthood,” or Joseph Smith’s revelation that women have the authority and right to administer healing rituals, Pearce frequently turned to the best scholarship in order to approach the material contextually. In following this process, Pearce doesn’t claim to have found all of the relevant context, and she makes some conclusions especially about priesthood that are potentially revolutionary (23-25). I don’t think that I agree with her on every point, but I can nevertheless greatly appreciate them. I found myself regularly moved and surprised.
Were I the editor, I would have presented the minutes immediately after Pearce’s essay, as I found Dew’s lengthy essay somewhat problematic. While I would have liked to see both authors engage more material from Mormon women, Pearce describes a process of finding the revelation of Joseph’s vision through questioning and context. Dew offers a systematization of Joseph Smith’s teachings as found in and refracted through the modern church [n1]. There is no question that Dew is a skilled teacher and inspired leader. She correctly identifies aspects of Joseph Smith’s teachings to the Relief Society, but the tools she uses to analyze them can’t bridge the almost two centuries that divide us. As much as the current general handbook of instruction and recent church leaders describe the current positions, policies and doctrines of the Church, they use terms like “priesthood” very differently than Joseph Smith did, especially in the spring of 1842.
So while Pearce was able to find meaningful context and history regarding female administration of healing rituals into the twentieth century and then draw personal lessons from Joseph Smith’s teachings, Dew offers a battery of unsupported possibilities, and then repeatedly claims that simply “we don’t know” (49-50). I agree that Dew’s approach leaves only that conclusion, but it is an approach that is self-constrained.
Despite these shortcomings, Dew does a laudable job at encouraging readers to take the minutes, as well as other sources of learning, seriously. She challenges them to seek out answers to questions they have through study. For example, her list of suggested questions about the priesthood (56, see also 62) is quite expansive, and they will lead all searchers to increased insight.
After Dew’s essay, the minutes are then presented with wide margins and a space with lines on the bottom of each page for notes. It begs the reader to engage the text. These are some of my favorite documents in the whole of church history. Presenting a transcript of the minutes to interested readers is a gift. The transcript generally follows the JSPP, with editing to make it more readable. For example, superscript abbreviations are lowered to regular text. I was somewhat surprised that the ordinations of the presidency were removed from the organization meeting text, when the introductory essays specifically reference them [n2].
Better Days is written and marketed towards the women of the church. It should however, be read by all church members. The teachings of Joseph Smith in 1842 are as important to men as to women. It should be read by Relief Society members, and Young Men leaders, by Miamaids, and High Priests. We all need a glimpse of this vision. And with the Church Historian’s Press publishing the entire Nauvoo minutes along with important Relief Society documents from the first fifty years of the Society next year, perhaps such a reading will kindle a broader interest in the history and teachings of our people that are becoming more accessible. These minutes were deeply familiar to the first several generations in the Utah church, being printed and reprinted, copied into personal journals [n3], and included in institutional handbooks. Perhaps they will be again.
- An interesting comparison is Pearce’s characterization of the Relief Society as part of the ancient structure of the church, a la President Beck’s recent emphasis, and Dew’s consistent reference to it as an auxiliary of the church.
- Better Days replaces the following text with ellipses:
Elder Taylor was then appointed to ordain the Counsellors— he laid his hands on the head of Mrs Cleveland and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to the Elect Lady, even Mrs. Emma Smith, to counsel, and assist her in all things pertaining to her office &c.
Elder T. then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Whitney and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to Mrs. Smith, the Prest. of the Institution— with all the privileges pertaining to the office &c.
He then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Smith and blessed her, and confirm’d upon her all the blessings which have been confer’d on her, that she might be a mother in Israel and look to the wants of the needy, and be a pattern of virtue; and possess all the qualifications necessary for her to stand and preside and dignify her Office, to teach the females those principles requisite for their future usefulness. (Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Minutes, March 17, 1842, 9, JSPP Online, ID:7238)
- See Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 1842–1892,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Summer 2009).