Julianne is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford where she studies childbirth and maternity in Africa. She has worked for a variety of non-profits, including UNICEF, and spent her 2012/13 academic year in Ethiopia. This is a sermon delivered in the Oxford 1st ward in England on the 27th October 2013. We are delighted to have Julianne as our guest.
When a member of the Bishopric asked if I’d be willing to speak on one of the general Relief Society Presidents of the church as part of this month’s Sacrament theme of Prophets, I nearly became a little emotional. While this should not be exceptional, I was still so happy to see such a welcome inclusion of women in the history of the church. I chose Eliza R. Snow as the subject of my talk, a woman who is incredibly interesting and inspiring to me, and was also an intrinsic part of the early church’s development. I hope that in my talk I am able to do justice to this woman, and the powerful work of the early Relief Society. For me and my own testimony of the Gospel, it’s very important to reclaim some of the more radical and diverse elements of our history. In my professional life as a consultant on women’s rights and global health, I have seen how across the world, impoverished communities and women in particular have been crushed under customs which demand their silence. It is hard to not see how both poverty and gender continue to determine acts of oppression across the globe. I love the Gospel because we follow Jesus Christ in all things, and it was He who said ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’ I cannot wait for the day when the humbled of the earth are given their true seat of dignity, and what I love about Eliza Snow and the work of the Relief Society is the way in which this organization, shaped so much by the leadership of President Snow, does nothing so well as lift up the lowly and preach a Gospel of inclusivity. For me, that is the core of what we are meant to do as disciples of Jesus Christ, and in studying powerful examples of such inclusive leadership, I’m inspired to do better – to not just wait for that eventual day when the last shall be first, but try to work on that here and now.
Eliza Snow was a unique woman from the very outset of her life. She broke restrictive customs and was not afraid to assert her place and share her talents. Born to progressive parents, she received all the educational opportunities given to her brothers. Her father, a Justice of the Peace in the American state of Iowa, hired Eliza in his office to act as a clerk. This position was incredibly influential on Eliza’s later work in organising and administering the Relief Society Organisation – she was able to develop skills at that time reserved for men, and was also not shy about working within a “man’s world.”
Eliza’s conversion to Mormonism itself is also striking in demonstrating her prioritisation of personal growth and intellect. She first met Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio in 1831, but didn’t join the church until four years after. She was deliberate and thoughtful about converting to the church, following a sincere method of enquiry and introspection that I find again, very inspiring. Eliza didn’t do anything lightly – she was not a follower, she pursued knowledge and truth in a slow, questioning manner that only proved to create a firmer testimony in herself later on. Describing her final decision to join the church, Eliza explained that in a period of meditative reflection, “I saw a beautiful candle with an unusually long, bright blaze directly over my feet. I sought to know the interpretation and received the following: The lamp of intelligence shall be lighted over your path, and I was satisfied.”
That phrase “the lamp of intelligence” is so beautiful, and shows how Eliza privileged the education she could receive in the church, of both temporal and spiritual things. As her life and work moved forward, Eliza continued to not only improve her own knowledge and learning, but inspired other women around her to do the same. Eliza Snow is probably best known in the church for the beautiful hymns she wrote – especially “O, My Father.” While “O, My Father” is particularly beautiful in its message about our Heavenly Mother, I want to read some lines of another one of her less famed hymns, number 273, “Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses.” I want to read the last two verses because again, they typify to me the way in which Eliza preached this Gospel of inclusivity:
If I love my neighbor dearer, and his mote I would erase,
the light should shine the clearer, for the eye’s a tender place.
Others I have oft reproved, for an object like a mote,
now I wish this beam removed, oh, that tears would wash it out.
Charity and love are healing; these will give the clearest sight,
when I saw my brother’s failing, I was not exactly right.
Now I’ll take no further trouble; Jesus’ love is all my theme;
little motes are but a bubble when I think upon the beam.
While these words completely and beautifully summarize our need to not judge others, I want to point out that Eliza Snow herself would in many ways be considered an “outsider” in the ways she defied customary expectations of Mormon women. While she was married to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Eliza never had children. Brigham Young called her a “Priestess, Prophetess, and Presidentess” of the church, and she held numerous leadership positions – not only as General Relief Society President for over twenty years, but also as president of Deseret Hospital in Salt Lake City, prolific author and editor of the newspaper the Women’s Exponent, and president of the Women’s Department of the Endowment House. Eliza traveled heavily – both within the US and also to Egypt and Palestine. While never a mother or housewife, Eliza did not see this as some personal failure, despite the church’s heavy emphasis on home and family, especially for women. Eliza believed fully in working to build up the Gospel of Christ, and encouraged all residents of the expanding Salt Lake valley to do the same thing – no matter their age, station or gender. Eliza did not judge, and she did not expect everyone to be the same – she encouraged members of the church to use their talents where they were best served, both in secular and spiritual callings.
One niece of Brigham Young wrote to Eliza feeling dejected that a potential marriage suit had fallen through. She asked the President, “Will I ever get married?” In reply, Eliza wrote “while unmarried, one cannot be fulfiling the requisition of maternity, but let me ask, is it not important that those already born should be cultivated and reared as that others should be born?” In other words, there’s plenty of work to be done to uplift and instruct each other – motherhood aside. There’s much work we can all do at all stages of our life, and there is not one way to work in the Gospel of Christ – we all have a mission and a responsibility unique to our own talents. There’s no room for judgment on what stage anyone is at in their own lives – we’re all striving to be like Christ and follow His example, and in the end that’s all that matters.
Eliza continued to champion women especially in their capacity to work and improve their lives and those of others around them – to the Relief Society sisters, President Snow said, “If any of the daughters and mothers in Israel are feeling in the least limited in their present spheres, they will now find ample scope for every power and capability for doing good with which they are most liberally endowed.” The vehicle of this remarkable organization of women, the Relief Society, would support and allow women to expand their spheres and do good within their community. In the early church, one of the principle ways this was manifest was the incredible number of women who were sent to medical schools for training to become doctors and nurses. President Snow said to the Relief Society sisters, “are there here, now, any sisters who have ambition enough, and realize the necessity of it, to take up this study? There are some who are naturally inclined to be nurses, and such ones would do well to study Medicine… if they cannot meet their own expenses, we have means of doing so.” With the number of educated sisters at hand, the Relief Society established the Deseret Hospital in 1882, residents of Salt Lake had access to quality medical care, and a whole generation of women were educated that otherwise would not have been.
For me, this is the pinnacle of that lamp of intelligence Eliza had seen while studying the Gospel. She had said that the Relief Society was just as much a part of the restoration of Christ’s church as the Priesthood or Temple. Indeed, she felt profoundly the need to follow Christ’s example fully, especially in His ministry to the needy and outcast members of society. When you study Christ’s ministry in detail, it is obvious how often He was chastised for speaking with and healing those members of society supposedly too far below Him – not worthy of His attention. When the woman taken into adultery was brought to Christ by an angry mob intent on stoning her, the clerics of the day were attempting to trick Christ into defending such a sinful creature. Instead, He responded with the beautiful line, “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” When the woman came to wash Christ’s feet with expensive ointment and her tears, the Pharisees again, chastised Him for allowing such a renown sinner to touch his feet and enter His company – saying that if Christ was truly a Prophet, He would know who that woman was and would not have allowed her near. In response, Christ says, in Luke 7:44-48:
And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman hath since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
Wherefore, I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
Or another of my favourite stories, of the woman at the well. When Christ approached the woman for a drink, His Apostles had left Him, and the woman was astonished, asking (in John 4:9):
How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
To me, Christ reversed the social order, lifting up those that others had cast aside because of their poverty or sins. It’s not a coincidence to me that so many of those He ministered to in this way were women, given the gross historic oppression of women in virtually every society. With the theme, Charity Never Faileth, the Relief Society is to me the most natural restoration of Christ’s mission. Built up by remarkable foremothers like Eliza R Snow, I’m so happy to be a member of that organisation which does nothing but lift and support our ward and community members without judgment. I think about all the Relief Society congregations I’ve been privileged to be a part of since I turned 18, and think President Snow would be proud to see what the organisation she worked so hard to build had become in these days.
I want to end in telling you about the Relief Society in the branch I lived in in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the last year. With less than ten regular members, it was a small group of women, but was led by President Yewinshet, an amazing woman whose dedication and faith were truly inspiring to me. Like most Mormons in Ethiopia, Yewinshet was the only member in her family. Inactivity in the branch was exceptionally common – every week there were at least two baptisms, but the number of people who continued to come to meetings remained small. But Yewinshet never missed a Sunday. Born blind, Yewinshet runs a small training school she had built for disabled people to learn essential jobs skills so they wouldn’t have to rely on begging to survive. She worked with hardly any budget, and gave all of herself – her time, her resources, her talents – both to that important work, and to the sisters of the Relief Society. Every week she bore a strong testimony of her faith in God, a faith that to be honest, in her circumstances, and given the opposition I know she faced at home, I doubt I would be strong enough to profess. Yewinshet was dedicating her life to serving the downtrodden of society – she did so without praise or acclaim, and to me, is the ultimate example of the love we as disciples of Christ are meant to project.
I hope that we can learn from the example of Eliza Snow, and so many around us, who use their unique talents to follow Christ and build up His people. We’re all outsiders in one way or another, but those external social markers mean little in comparison to our heart’s desire to serve Christ’s people – like King Benjamin said, “we are all beggars,” giving what little we have.