Being Political? Women, Healing and the Uses of Mormon History

Kris Wright is a former BCC blogger. 

Every important new discovery about the past changes how we think about the present, and what we expect from the future; on the other hand every change in the conditions of the present and in the expectations for the future revises our perceptions of the past.  In this complex context, history is born ostensibly as a reflection on the past: a reflection which is never isolated from the present or the future.  History deals with human life as it “flows” through time. [1]

Recently I listened to a podcast interview here at BCC in which Scott B. interviewed Jonathan Stapley about women and Mormon healing rituals.  During the discussion, Jonathan was able to share his broad knowledge of Mormon history and spoke about the history of women and healing in his trademark erudite manner.  Because I was already familiar with the historical sources used in the forthcoming paper and the conclusions drawn from them, the most interesting part of the podcast for me occurred in the final eleven minutes, where the theme of the uses of history and the question of objectivity emerged.  Scott asked Jonathan what his hopes were for the paper and what it meant for the modern LDS Church.  Jonathan repsonded:

Personally, I approach this paper as an historian and I would love for the body of of students of Mormonism to be greater informed to these historical trends and perhaps some of the analyses that we bring to the front through this… I think that is what any academic would like — for people to read their stuff, understand it and uses it … there has been a history of people advocating for change and turning this topic into a political weapon, I’m not really interested in that.  In fact, I’m emphatically against turning history into a weapon, a political weapon.

To which Scott replied, “… I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that people are going to use this paper as a weapon.”  The question of history being used as a “weapon” is an intriuging one and while I initially conjured up comical images of people rolling up the article and beating their rivals with it, or using it to set fires, I don’t think that is what is implied.  The weapon is a new or expanded view of Mormon women’s history and I suppose the political nature of such a weapon lies in the challenges to the status quo that could emerge from such knowledge.

Women’s history is unavoidably political as it has transformed some of the conceptual foundations of historical study.  Those who have studied women’s history have broadened the definition of historical evidence, historical periodization and constructed new ideas about historical objectivity and knowledge.  Catholic theologian Anne E. Carr noted that, “There is politics involved in taking the growing body of knowledge about women seriously, in overcoming or continuing the devaluation, trivialization and indifference that attaches to the question.”  Some critics might use the word political as an insult invoking accusations of bias and distortion, or promoting a “feminist agenda” at the cost of intellectual integrity.  Despite the red-herring that these slurs offer, I would argue that rectifying the absence of women from traditional historical accounts remains a political act – and like all historical scholarship in a variety of fields, it also has political implications.[2]

Historian and feminist theorist Joan Kelly said, “Women’s history has a dual goal:  to restore women to history and to restore our history to women.”* [3]  Restoring the history of LDS women has been fraught with difficulty as Mormon faith, theology and history are so profoundly intertwined.  In the past, Jan Shipps has theorized that Mormon women’s history was actually dangerous because of the feminist theology that flows from it and explored the idea that Mormon women do not have the authority to interpret their own history.[4]  Historical precedent shows that scholars who choose to interpret Mormon theology in ways that do not correspond with authorized current teachings will encounter problems with the institutional church.  Yet if historians of Mormon women are unwilling to explore the political implications of their work and claim that their research is neutral or somehow scientifically sterile, the impact of their research remains stunted. 

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich offers thoughts on the potential impact of well-written histories:

Good history is almost always “dangerous”.  In the 1990s, “history wars” broke out all over the United States – and in some places that continues.  Think of the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings debate, for example, or the argument of the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian … or the arguments of slave reparations.  Women’s History was assaulted on many sides during this period.  At one point, a Congressman from the Midwest even attacked funding for the PBS documentary on my book A Midwife’s Tale.  Women’s history is dangerous.  That is why it is important.  But if it is serious history – not slapdash research in the service of a cause, Mormon or otherwise – it can make a difference.

Historical scholarship might be the source of great argument; it can cause individuals to question their assumptions and could be at the root of political discord.  It might even create paradigmatic shifts that extend beyond the archive or academic journal.  Negotiating this complex and dangerous interplay of past, present and future is the formidable but worthy task of Mormon historians.


* Kelly wrote in the 1970s, one might argue that women’s history needs to be restored to women and men.

[1] Ernest Breisach,   Historiography: ancient, medieval and modern.

[2] Catherine A. Brekus,  The Religious History of American Women: Re-Imagining the Past.

[3] Joan Kelly, Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly.

[4] Jan Shipps, Soujourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons.


  1. Kris,

    I think this is right on the mark. All knowledge is dangerous and requires renegotiation with our previous knowledge, assumptions, and perspectives. Each time we expand horizons, we find ourselves in a new situation that requires reorientation. This is why knowledge is dangerous, because it will invariably cause us to be moved from our previous place—sometimes significantly. That can be uncomfortable, especially if we are entrenched in ways that make us reluctant to adjust to the implications of new light and knowledge. Some respond by denying the new light (Darwinism comes to mind), others react by concluding that our shift in perspective must be total and far removed from prior situations, which is sometimes necessary and important. But, I think it is rare that new knowledge, be it historical or scientific, does not require some new negotiations with previous understandings. I look forward to seeing those that your and Jonathan’s paper bring forward.

  2. Outstanding. Man, I missed you Kris!

  3. When we think about the potential political ramifications of Jonathan’s and your (anyone’s) work in Mormon women’s history, I wonder how many of us have Lester Bush’s “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine” — and the impact it is believed to have had on the timing of the rescinding of the Priesthood Ban — on our minds, and are wondering whether these histories might possibly serve a similar function in the future. When J says he doesn’t want his paper used as a “weapon”, I think I know what he means, but should I conclude that its use as a “tool” would not be unwelcome?

  4. Aaron, one man’s weapon is another’s tool. It’s simply a matter of personal agenda and perspective. Though I do think that it’s a bit coy to pretend that historians don’t have agendas or that history is simply some sort of inherently neutral exercise…

  5. Kris,
    I edited some content out of the section that you quote from before posting the podcast–partly because of audio issues, partly because of length, and partly because I did a horrible job of explaining what I meant, and just muddied up the waters of a part of the conversation that was important. As such, let me try and clarify now what I was getting at a little bit more.

    I said that I believed the paper will be used as a weapon. It is easy to think about that statement in terms of women & the priesthood, feminist politics, and so on. As such, I realize after the fact that it appears that I’m suggesting that–primarily, at least–women and feminists would use the paper to advance their goals or ideas “against” the current teaching of the Church.

    Although I suppose that my statement may well be true as applied to those people also, in actuality, this is kind of the opposite of what I meant. The people I was referring to–those who would use it as a weapon–are those who would use it as a weapon against scholarly inquiry, against Dialogue-esqe conversations, against increased transparency and openness in the Church, and so on.

    (I should also say I’m not disputing or really even engaging anything you wrote above–I just wanted to clarify my own intent in making the statement that you quoted.)

  6. Very cool. Feminist methodology in the social sciences and humanities is some amazing stuff.

  7. Excellent post, Kris. Doing Mormon history can be tricky, because we are generally discouraged (gently discouraged?) from looking beyond the version of history that is presented to us in the approved manuals. I would love to attend a Sunday School or Relief Society about the history of womens’ blessings, but female ordination is such a super-charged controversial issue among most faithful Mormons that people are hesitant to discuss anything that might challenge the status quo.

    Even if womens’ blessings are a beautiful part of our Mormon history, some things that are true aren’t very useful. Or so I’ve been told.

  8. I have to think that part of what Stapley meant about not using the information as a weapon is further illuminated by his later comment that he hopes people will honor the memories of those past healers and their spiritual experiences. And not just for shock value.

  9. “And not just for shock value.”

    Exactly. But how do we broach the subject of womens’ blessings and share this information without shocking anyone?

    I guess I should qualify that question by saying how do we talk about this in Church without shocking anyone.

  10. I have no problem with shock value — people that have been engaging in poisonous, demeaning behaviors for decades could stand to be a little shocked. But I suppose we’re looking to avoid shock because the institutional Church would not change itself in response to shock but instead would retreat within itself like a frightened turtle. I don’t know if that’s true, but if we want institutional change it’s good to be wise.

  11. “But I suppose we’re looking to avoid shock because the institutional Church would not change itself in response to shock but instead would retreat within itself like a frightened turtle. I don’t know if that’s true, but if we want institutional change it’s good to be wise.”

    Amen! Shock as a means to social change seems to ignore the social and institutional factors at play.

  12. This is an excellent post (and I appreciate your kind use of ellipses to hide my inability to speak in coherent sentences). It is a very important conversation and I think it points out the sort of straw man I was setting up. I’ve been thinking about the “Tea Party” people and their use of history a lot lately (there have been a number of interesting pieces around on this). And I think what I personally hope for is that history informs our discussions, but that it shouldn’t be prescriptive of our conclusions.

    My idea of history as a weapon, as Hunter mentions, incorporates all sides of the debate. And while I agree with the idea of knowledge as being dangerous, I also think that violence is often calculated.

  13. Mommie Dearest says:

    Time for a woman’s comment.
    The question brewing in my mind for the past few days has been the almost complete lack of forum for any airing of this history, or any other sensitive issue, to the general population. If you don’t read blogs or academic papers, you can live your life in relatively peaceful oblivion, and be ignorant of issues that closely affect your life. I can barely imagine a full discussion of this topic taking place in a Sunday Relief Society meeting, and it’s almost comical to imagine even a cursory discussion of it taking place in any priesthood meeting. It could certainly liven up fifth Sundays!
    The image of a turtle retreating into it’s shell is well applied.

  14. Its interesting hearing women’s history described as a weapon when the General Relief ociety president recently announced excitedly a new focus on LDS women history in Relief Society. Its not clear how/when it will be discussed or if/how the book being published will discuss matters of women being allowed to give blessings and the prophet intent to grant women priesthood authority (in what form he meant). It seems like either this portion of history will be whitewashed or it might be the catalyst for greater numbers of women to question church policy.

    On the topic of weapon vs. tool, that generally implies to a difference in how an implement is issue. If anyone is going to use this history to promote change, they will have to be careful that its not flung back in anger. The trick is learning the respectful way to do that.

    Also, when looking at the way in which permission to give blessings was slowly taken away over time, couldn’t it be said that was done in a weapon-like manner, or perhaps as a tool of unrighteous dominion?

  15. “the idea that Mormon women do not have the authority to interpret their own history.”

    It will be very interesting to see how this problem of owning our own history plays out in the newly announced history of RS series in RS. It will be women discussing women’s history. But how will the content be generated and by whom?

  16. Also, when looking at the way in which permission to give blessings was slowly taken away over time, couldn’t it be said that was done in a weapon-like manner, or perhaps as a tool of unrighteous dominion?

    Jenne, certainly someone could say that, but whether or not it would be a fair or reasonably accurate description is a different question. Did you listen to the podcast? If not, then I suggest doing so–Jonathan talks a fair amount about how this happened, and gives me (at least) the impression that your alluded-to description uses an overly broad and/or inaccurate brush.

  17. I think the characterization of use of history as a “weapon” or as “violence” inappropriately plays on the stereotype of women as less violent or aggressive. It makes it seem all the more unfeminine to bring up historical issues and assert new interpretations.

    Is there any way to honestly grapple with this history without triggering negative repercussions or the turtle effect? If not, that’s really troubling, isnt’ it?

  18. Sometimes I think advice to go slowly, non-shockingly, and with wisdom, etc. etc., really just means go so slowly that no real progress is ever made. Rather, it provides the illusion of progress, dialogue, input, and accomplishment, without actually producing change and accountability.

  19. Kris, thank you. We’ve missed you so!! There’s so much good stuff in this post, but I want to go to this: “Restoring the history of LDS women has been fraught with difficulty as Mormon faith, theology and history are so profoundly intertwined. In the past, Jan Shipps has theorized that Mormon women’s history was actually dangerous because of the feminist theology that flows from it and explored the idea that Mormon women do not have the authority to interpret their own history.”

    I think this is really the crux of it (as well as the nub of an old argument between me & J :)), and in some ways, it’s the reason that J. can believe that he’s just neutrally doing history–he is in the class (conservative, male, priesthood-holding) that has been allowed the authority to interpret history; that authority serves to render their interpretation invisible. The authoritative text, though it is in no way neutral or objective, takes on the patina of essentiality. We act (or did for a long time) as though B.H. Roberts’ “History of the Church” is the “real” or “actual” history of the church, and citing it would not be seen as “political.” But of course it is a political act to choose that interpretation, every bit as much as it is a political act to choose Linda Wilcox’s interpretation over Jonathan’s.

    All of which is to say, in the nicest possible way, that the claim to be able to step outside of the politics of this work is itself evidence of a privileged position within that politics.

  20. Mommie Dearest says:

    I am glad that we have at least this forum to explore this, if only so I can read Kristine’s crystal clear comment.

    (Note to self: investigate Kris Wright)

  21. Kristine, of course everything has political valences, or perhaps more accurately, tribal valences. When I review a book and bemoan the author’s uncritical use of History of the Church, I’m essentially demarcating what my approach to history is. Similarly someone who pulls out Doctrinal New Testament Commentary when performing scriptural exegesis is clearly signaling her tribal affinity.

    That being said, I find your assertion that my distancing any work I may be involved with from certain political movements to be capacitated by any position of privilege to be absurd. Sure 30 or 40 years from now scholars will be able to look back and see our biases and which trends we so obviously were a part of. I also find the potential assertion that any interpretation is equally politicized regardless of actual relevance to the data to be fairly silly.

  22. Also, to reiterate my earlier comment. I hope that history, including the material Kris and I have worked on, is incorporated into our conversations and debates. As I said, however, that I’m opposed to any history being prescriptive of the conclusions of those conversations.

  23. “I’m opposed to any history being prescriptive of the conclusions of those conversations.”

    Of course–even I am not silly or absurd enough to argue that there are clear prescriptions to be drawn from this history.

  24. You’ll notice, Kristine, that I didn’t call you silly or absurd. I’m not even sure that you even ascribe to the assertion I described as silly.

  25. Well, it’s true–the assertion you ascribe to me is not quite one I subscribe to. I am silly, though :)

  26. Thanks for all the responses. As I said to Steve yesterday, I am just not constitutionally suited for blogging as my thinking and resulting response time is slow.

    Scott thanks for providing more context for your comments. Of course, I didn’t have access to all of the other conversation, so I couldn’t know that. Either way, if there are individuals using this research as a “weapon” against the church or against those who would research such topics – the central political issue is still women’s participation in healing rituals.

    Aaron, I like your distinction between weapon and tool, but the problem of course lies in the subjective definition of them. That being said, I personally, have no problem with historical scholarship being used as a tool, even a weapon, say to counter arguments against those who would argue that that the holocaust didn’t happen. Similarly, I would use historical evidence to ensure social justice in the form of formal apologies and reparations for Japanese-Canadians who were interred in “relocation centres” during World War II or Native Canadians who were sent to residential schools.

    So now that I’ve said, that I am not uniformly against the use of historical scholarship to affect change, I need to turn to some of the issues that Kristine raises. Historians of women and other marginalized groups who have been excluded from traditional narratives know only too well, that history is written from a particular standpoint. I’m not sure that I would stick with the language of dividing these people into tribes as it seems particularly conflict-ridden. Randi R. Warne who is a professor of Religious Studies here in Canada has said, “Knowledge production is not a neutral process. Who is asking the question determines in large measure what questions are asked, particularly when intellectual inquiry is proceeding in new directions.” So how we are bound up with the power structures of the church does have an impact on our historical biases and what we choose to do with our research. For example, the fact that I am an active, believing member of the LDS Church has a huge impact on how I would respond to Scott’s question.

    The reality seems to be that Jonathan and I have written a paper that traces the history of women’s participation in healing rituals set firmly within the context of healing within Mormon history. This is a narrative of loss and while I like to think that this new paper adds a lot to the history of women and healing in terms of sources as well as an exploration of external and internal pressures that facilitated its demise, it is still a fairly traditional history.

    In my view, the impact of this research on the modern LDS Church lies in the article’s assertion that for a lot of the 19th Century healing rituals did not invoke priesthood. Women fully participated in them. Some scenarios could involve those who would say that women could never participate in those rituals – they will need to re-evaluate their position. Those who would use this participation as evidence of female ordination to the priesthood, might have to take this into account in formulating their stance. That being said, this could also be freeing for Mormon feminists who would advocate for the reinstitution of female participation in healing rites, as it would seem that priesthood was not invoked in healing for a significant amount of time. I can’t predict what “happens” after that. (Although, I suspect what will happen is that a couple of hundred Mormon history geeks will read the paper – the end). Practicing Mormon historians might choose to speak out on gender inequalities in Mormon history, theology and culture. That is a political act. Or they could choose not to get involved in those issues, and acknowledge that is a political act too. I don’t think we can claim detached impartiality, particularly as “insiders”. Women’s religious history investigates how religion has shaped their lives, how they understood their suffering, their faith, their rituals and their God(s). If history is a reflection on the past that is never isolated from the present and the future, I’m not sure how we can fully disentangle ourselves.

  27. To me it seem obvious that what actually happened in the past should be widely known in the church and understood as fully as possible

    And this can only be troubling if one presumptively believes that the historical fact validates some foundation or has binding precedent on what should happen now.

    But the ninth article of faith, and our line by line learning model seems to counter such precedent.

    It strikes me that members I know that believe that Mormonism is a conservative religion might struggle with the tendency to think that past practice is highly relevant, and get troubled when our understanding of that history changes.

    (Certainly many of our fellow members talk as though we’re conservatively trying to preserve the morality of a past era. I always try to point out that Joseph Smith was a complete radical not a conservative, and that the way things used to be were pretty horrible no matter how you look at them so why would we want to preserve them. But
    I digress.)

    To belabor the point, if one’s personal foundation is built on the notion that Joseph Smith was a chaste and sexually moral person by today’s Victorian-American standards, then finding out that he consummated sealing to many different women might be troubling.

    But if one’s foundation is that Joseph Smith was a prophet called to overthrow the embedded false conventions of his time (what else is a prophet for?) then it won’t be troubling to find out that he did things one, as a partial product of the legacy of those conventions, might not immediately understand or be comfortable with.

    Historical fact is fact and we need to dig and think to know it. But in light of the ninth article of faith, the question of what should therefore happen now is not necessarily closely related.

  28. “To me it seem obvious that what actually happened in the past should be widely known in the church and understood as fully as possible

    And this can only be troubling if one presumptively believes that the historical fact validates some foundation or has binding precedent on what should happen now.”

    It can also be troubling if one believes, as most historians do, that “what actually happened” is unrecoverable, and that one’s present commitments (including ones we’re rather loosely calling “political” here–probably we should unpack that a bit) inevitably prejudice both one’s research and one’s conclusions.

  29. Thanks for your post, Kris. I look forward to reading this paper.

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