Review: The Beginning of Better Days

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.

________________

  1. 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.
  2. 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)

  3. 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).

Comments

  1. Thank you for this review, and let’s hope it’s widely read. It’s great to see this conversation moving forward using the original sources. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this book! The originals are on the JSPP but it sounds like it will help church members understand them better with some framing essays and this is all to the good.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Tona. I agree. I think that it wasn’t that long ago, when this book would have been inconcievable.

  3. J, being a complete neophyte, how hard is it to find these minutes elsewhere?
    I know TPJS has minutes to the Relief Society, but I am guessing not the entirety.

  4. Rechabite says:

    @ajax, the JSPP does include the entirety of the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. All accessible online. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book

  5. Rechabite says:

    Excellent review. Now I’m probably going to have to go buy this book on my lunch hour, you got me so excited to read Pearce’s essay.

  6. ajax, The JSPP website, as noted, has the best available transcript. As noted in my post, an annotated version will be published next year. The HC (and consequently the TPJS) has some of the minute entries, but it is highly edited with some important changes.

    Rechabite, I probably should have held off a bit to publish the review, as it won’t be available for a couple more weeks.

  7. Rechabite says:

    Shoot. Guess I’ll just eat lunch instead.

  8. 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.

    As does the Deseret Book imprint that begs the reader to accept it as authoritative.

  9. Stephanie says:

    I think it is interesting how similar the cover is to the Daughters in my Kingdom book. I wonder if this is intentional. I agree with this statement: “Like President Beck, I do not believe that we have lived up to our potential in our Relief Societies and quorums.”, and I think that the DIMK book is a shadow of Sister Beck’s vision. I wonder if Sister Dew and Sister Pearce felt the same way and published this to supplement. Or they felt DIMK was a good start and published this book to supplement. Either way, I am interested in reading it.

  10. That sounds like a very curious pair of essays. Perhaps the striking differences in the two explorations of the Minutes emphasize some of the tension in the current Relief Society program.

    President Beck outlined an amazing vision of what the Relief Society has been and can be, and I found it all very touching and inspiring, but in reality, although I would happily participate in the organization, my relationship to Relief Society is much more limited than it was ten or fifteen years ago — not by my own choice — and the link to the organization is much more tenuous than my mother’s relationship with Relief Society, and even more so than that of my ancestors who belonged to the Relief Society. It puzzles me.

  11. Just thinkin' says:

    I also think the book’s subtitle bears notice. Since the 1842 revelations from Smith to the Nauvoo Relief Society were pointedly omitted from the Doctrine & Covenants, it would be lovely, in the ideal world, to restore them to the body of canonized latter-day revelation for the Church.

  12. Lynda R. says:

    Sheri Dew’s “No Doubt About It” was the mind blower for me! She tells it like it is, challenging all of us R.S.
    sisters to wake up and start doing what Joseph Smith and others have said we “should” be doing. It was in
    her book that I first realized the potential we have as R.S. sisters being united as one in purpose. In fact, it
    was so good, I bought a copy of it to give each of my visiting teaching sisters and my husband’s home
    teaching families as well as other members! Looking forward to this one! Amy T.–there’s “office politics” all
    through the Church, unfortunately, that’s why HF said He’d have to clean His own house first before He
    cleanses the nation–LOL! Yes, it stinks, and yes, it hurts, “No Doubt About It,” (Sheri covers this topic in her
    book, too) so just keep your own covenants, striving for 100%, dig in your heels, duck your head to avoid
    “incoming” attacks, but keep going forward, attend Temple, put names on Temple prayer roll, keep building
    His Kingdom, and He will fight your battles for you. Together we pass the test while the attackers either
    have to repent or be separated from the rest of us in the end. Just don’t give up!

  13. Lynda R. says:

    And this is coming from a 44 year convert who got told during her 5-yr. senior mission (with her husband) by
    a general authority’s assistant, “After all you’ve been through, anybody else would’ve quit the Church by
    now. Keep doing what you’re doing!”

  14. Thanks, Lynda; how kind of you, and good for you, keeping the faith!

  15. David T says:
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