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
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).