the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day — that it is the privilege of each member to live long
I think that the bit about the priesthood is best understood as a reference to the “cosmological priesthood” of the imminent temple liturgy [n1]. I think that the bit about living long is also a reference to the healing Joseph Smith taught was part of the Temple. But for this post, I want to highlight one particular adjective, viz., “ancient.” Sam Brown has done a great job of fleshing out JS’s quest to gather the shards of ancient Christianity. How these women envisioned themselves as part of that process is, I think, overlooked.
The idea of an ancient society of sisters was promoted by the leading women of the nineteenth century and most recently by Julie Beck and Daughters in My Kingdom:
The women in the ancient Church were dignified and noble, needed and valued. They served others, increased in personal holiness, and participated in the great work of saving souls.
These patterns have been restored in the latter days through the organization of the Relief Society. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” 15 Sister Eliza R. Snow, the second Relief Society general president, reiterated this teaching. She said: “Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet that the same organization existed in the church anciently.” 16
Both of the statements quoted in this excerpt are fairly late reminiscences and highlight the institutional importance of the ancient society of women. Now, I don’t intend to detract from this institutional reading. In some recent research, however, I have come across some fairly early examples of how the women of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo invoked the ancient saints, that may help us understand how they viewed themselves at the time.
On July 7, 1843, the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes include a summary of Elizabeth Durfee’s statements to the women. She “presented the case of [Orrin] Porter Rockwell [p. 93] — express’d much feeling of sympathy awakened in her heart by recent recitals of his sufferings— recommended the sisters to unite like the ancient saints in faith & pray’r for his deliverance.” Now the sisters had yet to be included in the Temple quorum, so she is not referencing aspects of the temple liturgy. Instead, I believe she is invoking the biblical era of miracles—unbounded faith and its fruits.
Two later examples similarly riff on what is essentially a radical anti-cessationism.[n2] The spiritual meetings of women at Winter Quarters are fairly well known. They would bless, administer to the sick, speak in tongues, testify, exhort, and prophesy. Jill Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson quote from one of Eliza R. Snow’s diary entries as context for a poem she wrote. On January 1, 1847 Eliza wrote of a meeting where “the spirit of the Lord was pour’d out and we receiv’d a blessing thro’ our beloved Mother Chase & sis Clarissa, by the gift of tongues.” A few weeks later Eliza penned a poem that encouraged the sisters to engage in such activities:
Its worth the holy fathers knew
In nature’s lovely prime—
The ancient mothers lov’d it too,
And practic’d in their time. [n3]
A little over a year later, several of these women visited Abagail Thorne, then in the Salt Lake Valley. Abagail wrote, “We had a visit from Mother Sessions[,] Mother Chasse and Sister Eliza Snow this winter such as the Saints used to have Anciently and all parties was much pleased with it[.]” [n4]
Old timey religion, indeed.
- So too Bishop Whitney’s remarks to the Society two months later: “[May 27, 1842] In the beginning God created man male and female and bestow’d upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth it takes all to restore the Priesthood.”
- This was an argument that men made as well. See Sam’s stuff, but also for example, in the same discourse as recorded in the previous footnote, Whitney was also recorded as saying: “I rejoice that God has given us means whereby we may get intelligence and instruction. It is our privilege to stand in an attitude to get testimony for ourselves— it is as much our privilege as that of the ancient saints. We must prove all things and hold fast that which is good.”
- Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, eds., Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Prove and Salt Lake City: BYU Press and UU Press, 2009), 334-35.
- Abigail Thorne, letter to Zina D. Young, March 5 1848, Salt Lake Valley, Zina Card Brown Family Collection, CHL.