Women, Preaching, Praying

Karen’s recent post made me try to think through this a little. Cynthia has posted about Mormon women and prayer and rereading her post on the subject along with the recently announced policy on missionary service age also motivated me to finish this. And look Ma! No footnotes! Daniel Howe and Catherine Brekus are the best and easiest places to look if you are inclined though.

Preaching is a favorite topic for me and quite a few of my posts at BCC have directly or tangentially touched on it. I’ve mostly focused on the long nineteenth-century in my thinking and most of what I have to say will be concentrated there.

Antebellum America was a fascinating time and place, not least because of the birth of Mormonism. It was a time when the market revolution led to increasing ability to exercise choice for the individual. The number of schools and colleges increased dramatically along with houses of worship–not only in number but in beauty. The amount of religious printed matter exploded. People encountered the arts more frequently and child-raising became more humane though violence still ruled the frontier (think: Andrew Jackson).

Perhaps the one truly distinguishing fact about America was its spirit of voluntarism. The separation of church and state, though slow in finding its full expression, made religion partake of that spirit. This unique thing more than any other, spared America from the secularism that engulfed the West. Antebellum Americans volunteered for Christianity just like they did for so many other things from book clubs to unions. The comparative variety of religion of the time was astounding, never before equaled anywhere and individualistic religion still prospers in America, surviving the forces of modernization.

On the other hand, religious commitment was more than club membership. Lifestyle was at stake. Life change. Discipline. In antebellum times this came to focus on temperance, a place where the market and religion joined. And temperance fed into and was fed by the expanding middle class concept of polite society. Just as following the demands of a religion made one a member, good manners — resolving differences without violence — imbibing in moderation — all played into the rise of self discipline in America. Polite Society was closely linked to another stream of American change: the ideal of self improvement, whose high priest was none other than Ben Franklin. Much of religion began to see societal improvements in education, economics, etiquette and politeness as the ramp-up to a kind of man-made millennial glory.

All this arguably elevated the position of women. Eighteenth century concepts of sex saw just one gender: Man. Woman was imperfect-incomplete man — weaker, emotional, deceitful. But with the explosion of markets and religions of the nineteenth-century, Americans began to see women as dissimilar to men in fundamental ways. The new two-sex model played into politeness in several ways that expanded women’s roles in religion. Previously, for women to preach they had to transcend their natures and lose feminine identity in becoming one with Christ.

Now, women could preach as women, with titles like Mothers in Israel and Sisters in Christ, divinely inspired to preach the word. Women now had “natural virtue.”

But there was a downside: woman’s newly acquired “natural modesty” meant that they were too delicate to occupy the pulpit. To climb a three-story pulpit and be placed on display for males in the congregation meant that they not only went against nature (the pulpit was masculine territory) they were comparable in behavior to the dregs of society. Many female preachers were shouted down either literally or in the press as the equivalents of prostitutes (now the worst possible fate of women). No polite female would so violate the principles of modesty as to put herself on display. Remember too, that preaching was not just speaking behind a screen. It involved animation, countenance, resonance, sometimes near violence.

The result was that in polite society, women just did not preach or pray in public. To justify their participation in society they used language that made clear their difference from males. While many marginal movements and congregations at the beginning of the nineteenth-century allowed women to preach and pray, as they began to grow and partake of the polite middle class, they rewrote their own histories. The fact that women were in the pulpits suffered by erasure. By 1830, no one wanted reminders of uneducated visionary itinerate women thundering out repentance.

By the time the Mormons arrived on the scene, the notion of women preaching brimstone was as foreign as a Pacific Islander. Not that they couldn’t do it: Lucy Mack Smith loved a bit of getting up on the men. But even she faded from view (a few female prophets were seen in Kirtland – but they didn’t take). With the coming of Relief Society, Mormon women, at least some Nauvoo Mormon women, began to follow their Protestant sisters in the cross denominational temperance and charity organizations of the east. The name itself was well used by that time. But this was women preaching to women, praying before women. The Latter-day Saints, men and women, saw the modesty, the propriety of the thing. It was incomprehensible that Mormon women would go out a preachin’.

[I wanted to add in footnote, but resisted: this thinking is part and parcel of Mormon Heavenly Mother discourse, or lack of same. I’m not saying any more about that. Pretend you never saw this. PS. Joseph Smith and HM can be reconciled by using the Proclamation to assign gender identity to eternal spirits. You need HM to talk women spirits into this whole thing, right? End of non-footnote.]

It was not that capable women, well-versed women were not available. Eliza Snow, Elizabeth Whitney, Vilate Kimball, Emma Smith were all there, strong-minded and clear-voiced. But the coming primitive pioneer period did not erase the strictures of politeness. Women remained as preachers, to women, and eventually girls, but invading the male pulpit had to wait. I think in some ways Utah rolled back to the one-sex model. With retrenchment in the mid-twentieth-century, it would take some decades before women appeared in the general conference pulpit (1988). The twentieth-century also saw women entering LDS preaching service as missionaries. They also appeared in local congregation pulpits well before the general conference venue. They were heard to pray in those pulpits eventually. But in their preaching, they were always followed by males (that practice is still in place in many congregations but it is now a folk-practice). Their praying in local congregations had its ups and downs, but the promise of a huge female missionary force begs us to consider women conducting meetings wherever the pecking order is not applicable. The trend suggests that the general conference pulpit will be a shared one for praying as well as preaching. Conservative and careful as LDS leaders are, it seems inevitable. When it does take place it will be ordinary as text. Rather extraordinary as event. Get ready.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    Yep. Though there are some complicating factors, I think.

  2. Don’t leave us hanging J.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I want to understand the mechanics of nineteenth-century testimony meetings better. I also wonder how things like women blessing men, glossolalia and interpretation played into conceptions of preaching in the male/public sphere. I’ve got a few examples of female interpreters, e.g.

  4. I think non-footnotes are my new favorite blog feature.

  5. Really interesting, WVS. Thanks for posting.

    “The trend suggests that the general conference pulpit will be a shared one for praying as well as preaching. Conservative and careful as LDS leaders are, it seems inevitable. When it does take place it will be ordinary as text. Rather extraordinary as event. Get ready.”

    It seems like all the ingredients are there, but it needs a catalyst. Any clues about what constitutes a catalyst for this kind of thing? Pretty sure it’s NOT petitions. But I don’t know that I have any actual suggestions.

  6. No, not petitions. There has to be enough upside to get past the social friction.

  7. I’ve had a few Church of Christ people ask me if we follow the Paul thing about no women preaching-or how they read it..women not speaking in any audience with a man present…except if the man is the pastor making sure she doesn’t preach too womanly or something. It’s amazing how cultural thinking can take one small scripture and go all hog wild on it. As if a woman saying something would be THE pivotal test of a Christ-like organization.

    Poor Mary at the tomb had she not been able to tell the apostles…though maybe announcing the resurrection of Christ isn’t considered preaching?

  8. (Broken record alert)
    The female missionaries, with experience preaching, is only half of the equation. The new curriculum for YW and YM means that all 18 year olds will have had 6 years learning the gospel with a focus on teaching each other, and teaching the gospel to the world. When wards and stakes have men and women who learned and taught the gospel together in mutual, then served side by side on missions, it won’t seem strange at all to have women continue to teach and preach as the years go on.

    I am convinced that my children, who we spend teenagers in the “Come Follow Me Cohort,” will be looking at where the gospel (now and historically) has opportunities to expand gospel knowledge and practice. I am just going to have to make sure the program really is implemented and that I can keep up with my kids!

  9. I’m ready. I think the missionary age change is a big step forward in the church membership generally viewing women as equally capable and anxious in declaring the good news of Christ. One miracle at a time to quote Elder Holland, I don’t think it will be long before a woman is asked to pray in general conference. I look forward to the joy of that and many other related blessings unfolding before our eyes.

  10. Amen Dovie!

  11. @lessonNumberOne: If announcing the resurrection of Christ isn’t preaching, I don’t know what is!