Moroni 9:9 and Lucretia

Moroni 9:9, with its claim that women can be deprived “of that which is most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue,” is something of an infamous scripture, and justly so, because it suggests that chastity and virtue can be passively taken from someone instead of actively given away. As EmJen explains:

What’s objectionable is not that they lost their hymen, but that they were forced against their will, they were raped. Their virtue cannot be taken, it can only be given away, and when given at the point of a gun or through other coercive means, it’s rape, it’s not being unchaste. This should be evident to anyone who reads it; it’s kind of an obvious point. Most women will immediately realize that if there is no consent, there is no loss of virtue by the woman, and that a man who forces or coerces a woman, robbing her of consent, is committing a heinous crime against her.  But that doesn’t mean she is at fault.

This critique ably clarifies what the scripture misses about consent and female agency (see also Kristine’s post), but it doesn’t explain the worldview in which it makes sense to say that virtue can be taken away. This post is going to attempt that, because I don’t think that we can do better until we name such assumptions and get them out in the open. After all, the Personal Progress section on virtue still includes Moroni 9:9.

I propose that the story of the Rape of Lucretia affords a good platform for understanding the idea that virtue can be taken away. The Book of Mormon itself provides a pretty slender basis for understanding the sexual mores of its culture: all that come to mind are Jacob 2, Alma’s talk with Corianton, and the verse in Moroni.

In any case, the nearest we have to the original language is English, and the word “virtue” sends us back to the Latin, where it comes from the word vir, meaning “man” (in the male sense, not the generically human sense). So, even though the Book of Mormon’s historical narrative precludes Roman influence, that influence comes through the language of our encounter with the text. Furthermore, the story of Lucretia plays a central part in classical republican thought, which exercised a profound influence on the American founders a generation before Joseph Smith, because it provided the pretext for the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and its replacement with a republic, so it’s at minimum relevant to the text’s reception.

Associating virtue with masculinity raises complex questions of gender, given that the people deprived of it in Moroni 9:9 were women. What does it mean for women to have this masculine trait in the first place? That requires looking at Roman sexual mores, which center on the concepts of pudicitia, or the proper inviolability of any freeborn Roman (male or female), and stuprum, or the violation of pudicitia. [1]

Even though both men and women can have pudicitia, a gendered difference remains. As Craig Williams explains, “According to the prime directive of masculine sexual behavior, a Roman man who wished to retain his claim to full masculinity must always be thought to play the insertive role in penetrative acts, whether with males or females; if he was thought to have sought the receptive role in such acts he was liable to being mocked as effeminate.” [2] Roman virtue—acting like a man—depends on “control and dominion, both of others and of oneself.” [3]

Enter Lucretia. [4] Rome in its early days was governed by kings, the Tarquins. One king, Tarquinius Superbus [Tarquin the Proud] had a son, Sextus Tarquinius. Sextus, after seeing Lucretia, the wife of his kinsman Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, decided to rape her. She resisted until Sextus threatened to kill both Lucretia and a slave and leave them naked together in the bed, suggesting in Livy’s words “adultery of the lowest kind [sordido adulterio],” at which point “his lust prevailed as the victor over her resolute chastity [vicisset obstinatam pudicitiam velut victrix libido].”

Livy’s language presents the pre-rape as a debate in which Sextus prevails by making an argument that Lucretia can’t counter. Chastity, in these terms, is a form of eloquence, and Lucretia’s proved insufficient. (Never mind that Tarquin relied on a threat of violence and not reason alone.) The contest is one of virtue, understood in masculine terms of dominance.  It ends when one party is forced to assume the feminine position, which in this case fell to Lucretia. The debate is a test designed to evaluate whether or not Lucretia truly possesses chastity, understood as the impenetrability of pudicitia. Tarquin, in other words, took away her claim to masculine virtue, which Ovid explicitly assigns her when he describes her as a “matron of manly courage [animi matrona virilis].” She failed to control what happened to her body, which means she can’t possibly have virtue.

The chilling consequence of understanding the contest as a debate is that it ends in Lucretia’s consent. “Consent” comes from the Latin verb consentire, which means “thinking or feeling with.” In other words, when Lucretia can’t come up with an argument to counter Tarquin’s threat, she is understood as having agreed with his reasoning. Faced with the prospect of murder and implied adultery, she agrees to be raped, and the very fact of her having been penetrated suggests that her chastity was never all she made it out to be. (To be clear: I’m explaining this, not approving it.)

The next day, Lucretia called her husband and father, accompanied by another kinsman, Lucius Junius Brutus, to her chamber and explained what happened. In Roman understandings of the family, the paterfamilias acted as a judge over his household, so Lucretia is submitting herself to a kind of family court, in part because the rape was an affront against Collatinus’s pudicitia, too, because his household had been penetrated. Collatinus and Brutus conclude that she was not at fault in what happened. She, however, refuses the pardon and kills herself. In Livy’s version, she sets herself up as a moral martyr, refusing to allow that her example might excuse future adultery. In Ovid’s version, she seems driven by post-traumatic despair.

Augustine, writing about this story in The City of God [5], identifies Lucretia’s double-bind: “If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death? [si adulterata, cur laudata; si pudica, cur occisa?]” The tension emerges because, on the one hand, it was clear that Tarquin forced Lucretia against her will, but, on the other, the powerful cultural assumption that chastity means invulnerability to unwanted penetration casts an inevitable shadow on Lucretia’s character. She killed herself either as a way of trying to throw the shadow off (Livy) or out of despairing resignation to it (Ovid). Lucretia is the paradigmatic example of the mindset that thinks death preferable to unchastity (and expressions of that idea in late-20th-century Mormon discourse aren’t hard to find).

I’m not suggesting that these assumptions are normative in Mormonism. The Family Proclamation, with its talk of equal partners in marriage, is probably irreconcilable with Roman family values, and the only people who go around thinking in terms of pudicitia and stuprum are probably classics professors, and they of all people are in a position to recognize the distance between those ideas and modern life.

Even so, I think that we import those assumptions whenever we suggest that virtue can be passively taken away. When we do, we frame masculinity in terms of domination (contrary to D&C 121) and deny women full access to the agency that we put near the heart of our theology. More troublingly, we imply that rape victims, by the mere fact of having been raped, cannot be chaste, because they must have consented in some way, whether by dressing a certain way, staying out past curfew, or whatever. The very notion of penetration without consent becomes unthinkable. This mindset precludes taking victims’ accounts of their trauma at face value, which amounts to denying that women are capable of understanding their own experience and need a man to understand it for them.

If I hadn’t read certain comment threads here at BCC, I wouldn’t believe that any Mormon would willingly sign on for these assumptions. [6] I remain committed to believing that we’re a fundamentally decent people, more often than not inclined to do the right thing. Still, there’s room for us to do better. I don’t think that we should excise Moroni 9:9 either from the scriptures or the curriculum, because I think it can be a useful tool for challenging the assumptions embedded in its depiction of chastity and virtue. But if we’re going to read it in our classes or homes, we need to read it critically. Otherwise it’s better not to read it at all. Only when we look its assumptions about virtue and chastity in the face will we be able to work together toward understandings of those concepts that allow women full personhood. I’ll begin to explore what such understandings might look like in a future post.


Notes

[1] Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 104-09.

[2] Ibid., 137.

[3] Ibid., 139.

[4] Two important Roman versions of the story appear in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, I.58, and in the section of Ovid’s Fasti for 24 February.

[5] I.18-19, if you’re playing at home.

[6] I’m not linking to them. No trigger warning could suffice.

Comments

  1. pconnornc says:

    It is unfortunate that Mormon isn’t here to explain exactly what he was getting at in his epistle to Moroni.

    Hopefully we can find agreement that rape does not take virtuousness away from anyone – and I hope that this verse enables us to have great discussions around this.

    Without reading Mormon’s mind though, I read it that indeed when a person is raped, something is taken from them that is most precious – whether they are virgins or not. That is why we as a society are so abhorred by the crime. For his time and vernacular (and for the time and vernacular of when it was translated), the use of “virtue” kind of gets at the preciousness that is taken in these crimes.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Jason, what are your thoughts on the possibility that the specific phrasing of Moroni 9:9, and the consequential cultural implications it engendered, are among the “mistakes of men” referenced in the BOM title page?

  3. pconnornc: if something’s taken away, it’s humanity. That is, rapists do not treat their victims as people, which is why the crime is abhorrent.

    iasot: I’m quite willing to put this verse in the “mistakes of men” category. The mistakes in the BoM (and I admire Mormon and Moroni for admitting they exist) are there for us to learn from, not to repeat. I don’t think that criticizing this verse necessitates uncharity toward either Mormon or the BoM as a whole. In fact, I think that reading critically honors the text.

  4. We continually ignore that Jesus had “virtue” taken from him by the woman who was healed of her issue of blood. If this use has nothing to do with sex, why does every other use mean rape?

  5. Regarding Jesus: in the three passages from the Gospels where virtue goes out of him (Mark 5:30, Luke 6:19, and Luke 8:46), the Greek word is dunamis, which roughly means “power.” The Vulgate consistently renders it with forms of virtus, which often means “strength.” I’d argue here that virtue can go out of Jesus without depriving him of anything self-constitutive because of his status as Lord (Greek kurios and Latin dominus), gendered masculine in both cases. He’s the cosmic paterfamilias, and his virtue extends like an umbrella over his family. In that way, virtue goes out without ever leaving him, because we are all his, and stuprum against us would be stuprum against him.

    That said, the cross feminizes him, and Paul embraces that feminization (mostly). I personally want to understand the body of Christ as encompassing and including all gender.

  6. Also, as I’m sure you noticed while reading the first sentence of the post, the verse in Moroni says that they were deprived of “chastity and virtue,” which pretty clearly suggests rape.

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    I don’t think that criticizing this verse necessitates uncharity toward either Mormon or the BoM as a whole. In fact, I think that reading critically honors the text.

    Agreed, completely.

  8. Just aguy says:

    I understand the sentiment, however disagree with the premise equating chastity with virtue… Especially in light of scripture that seems to equate virtue with the godly, metaphysical power or energy associated with authority to create or renew life (D&C 132:7, Luke 8:46, alma 31:5 are a few examples). I also think there is a distinct separation between virtue (godly power) and chastity, simply because one can lose their virginity but remain virtuous, and the account in Luke describes how virtue can be taken without concent.

    My belief (and experience working with victims of trauma) has always been that our spiritual energies can be diminished by our environment and actions of others, hence the drive that religions have to prevent outsiders from influencing these energies of the community or individuals- perhaps this is where the idea of “penetration” and “dominance” that you decide come into play? Maybe this concept of virtue equating spiritual energy is a postmodern, new age viewpoint but it makes sense to me, especially after the depression I’ve seen in victims.

  9. Jason, I appreciate the Roman history and Latin conjugation. Thanks for that. It puts me in mind of writing up a highly provocative lesson titled “Virtue means being like a man” (that would probably get me stoned out of every every camp, from the far right to the far left!)

    However, when I read the OP as an attempt to rehabilitate Moroni 9:9 (trying to do so with affection for and charity towards Mormon and the Book of Mormon), I end up at your alternative–“better not to read it at all.” The flaw, for me, is that your argument has too much of a question begging nature: “We all know it doesn’t mean THAT, so let’s talk about what it really does say.” The problem is that too many are not starting at the “doesn’t mean THAT” position. We should. We must. But there’s too much evidence that “we” don’t. Not yet.

  10. It only suggests rape because that’s the most immediate thing that comes to mind when we try to think of what’s the worst that can happen to a woman. Considering the magnitude of what is described earlier (forced cannibalism and severe dehydration), I don’t see rape as being worse.

    Rape would not have been uncommon in the many wars that had happened over the previous thousand years, most especially in Moroni’s time. It would not have been treated as something that made anyone even in need of redemption. It would be unthinkable to say that in their history no one had ever been raped, but now at the end it is put up as worse than being forced to eat the flesh of your loved ones. Lacking the experience in the horrors of war (which was the entirety of Mormon and Moroni’s lives), we’ve connected “the worst thing that can happen” to “rape”.

    It’s what we do when we lack experience in something. That and the patriarchal ooze we’ve floated through gives us weak links that never should have been applied. e.g. showing shoulders means lack of chastity, necking is a loss of virtue, “allowing oneself” to be raped being worse than death. It’s all crap that we need to dismantle rather than build up.

    The rape isn’t the worst thing that happened to Lucretia. Worse was being forced to choose then being made to feel by her culture that death was a preferable escape for her “shame”.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    One thing to keep in mind is Moroni was speaking a different language. Even our language has changed a fair bit over the last 200 years in terms of connotations and meaning. (Consider the change of meaning of enthusiasm from a largely negative meaning akin to zealotry to its contemporary positive sense) So we should be careful assuming too much about that verse from how it reads with the contemporary meaning of those terms.

    That said of course the way women were treated in 18th and early 19th century was horrible. That is reflected in the language and assumptions of the time. So 18th century law largely saw women through the lens of coverture in which husband and wife were one person, That meant crimes against women were primary seen in terms of how it affected men. That’s most emphatically seen in the earlier text of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.”

    Shakespeare introduces Lucerne as “the cheste” (1.7) and then after the rape Shakespeare presents it in ways that should make us squirm horribly today. It’s just a terrible way to think about women.

    But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
    And he hath won what he would lose again. This forced league doth force a further strife, This momentary joy breathes months of pain; This hot desire converts to cold disdain.
    Pure chastity is rifled in the store,
    And lust, the thief, far poorer than before. (ll. 687-694)

    I’ve no idea if Shakespeare somehow indirectly provides a context out of which the translation is made, much as the KJV does even for texts unrelated to the quotes from the KJV text. However I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out it does. If so, then we may be seeing artifacts of translation that owe as much to Shakespeare as Moroni.

  12. Justaguy: I also disagree with the premise equating chastity with virtue. Unfortunately, that’s what the Personal Progress manual does. The scriptures you cite could be helpful for disambiguating them. Part of what I’m after in the concluding paragraphs is showing how much Mormon practice is at odds with the common reading of the verse.

    Christian: To be clear, I’m not trying to rehabilitate Moroni 9:9. I’m trying to tease out its logic in order to reject it more firmly. You’re right, though, I think to suggest that I might be begging the question, when people in fact need to be persuaded that this way of thinking is wrong.

    Frank: no, it suggests rape because the text can plausibly be read as equating chastity and virtue (the trope of hendiadys), and indeed gets read that way, e.g., in the Personal Progress manual. Your claim that I’m assuming “the worst thing that can happen to a woman is rape” has no basis in the OP. I’m writing about rape because the plain sense of the text suggests it. And I’m not particularly interested in trying to adjudicate its relative place on the scale of human atrocity or suffering.

    Clark: The point about coverture (which formally ended in the US only in 1980, with Kirchberg v. Feenstra) is legit, and it’s a cousin to the Roman idea of paterfamilias. Thanks for bringing up the Shakespearean intertext.

  13. You know what has deprived me of chastity and virtue? It wasn’t when I was raped by my spouse. It wasn’t even the abuse. It was the attitudes of the men in the singles world that because I have kids, or fear, bitterness, opinions shaped from my past, I’m not desirable. It was being told that the deepest desire of my heart (exaltation) is available to me only if I had not made the mistake in my past, or if I could somehow work past it, only to fail miserably.

    Virtue primarily refers to having strong moral standards. Perhaps Moroni isn’t referring to the rape itself, but to Stockholm syndrome and/or the adoption of lower standards. Maybe they didn’t just rape them. Maybe they forced them to offer sex for food, or to turn on each other and compete for favors. Maybe they became hardened, bitter, and convinced of their own worthlessness because of what they had to do to survive.

    I get that, because I’m not far from it myself.

    The physical damage fades, but I doubt I will ever be able to feel worthy and valuable again. Not because of what happened to me, but because of the choices I have made since, and because of who I have become.

  14. That’s heartbreaking, SilverRain.

  15. Thank you, Jason. I’m okay, though. Really. Trying to illustrate, not incite pity….

  16. I know: just trying to show that you were heard.

  17. I appreciate that. It’s not easy to admit to. Even sort-of anonymously.

  18. it's a series of tubes says:

    SilverRain, your comments at BCC seem, to me, to offer a consistently high level of insight and demonstrate unusual faithfulness. Thank you for the things you choose to share; I’ve learned much from you.

  19. Honestly, I don’t look to the BOM people as an example of how to treat women in general. They were a fallen people. Even thought Moroni’s got prophetic standing, he was surrounded by this terrible culture. What are the odds that his views weren’t tainted by such? Women are generally treated pretty badly throughout the book, particularly in sexual matters. Putting forth their “fair daughters” to protect themselves (“Here, rape my child rather than attacking me!” Who thinks like that??), cheating on them with multiple wives and concubines, mostly ignoring the existence of women (even Nephi doesn’t name any women but his mother), raping and murdering them. The Book of Mormon is no place for women.

    I’ve always assumed that “virtue” in this verse meant “innocence” rather than “hymen.” Although that was when I was a YW (this horrible verse wasn’t held up as a standard for us in my day). Unfortunately, after I read Miracle of Forgiveness and was instructed that it would be better for me to be dead than raped, it dawned on me that my reading might be too generous.

  20. A few things to keep in mind with Moroni 9:9:
    – Linguistic drift is real (see, e.g., the definition of the word “conversation” in 1 Timothy 4:12 – it’s not what it means today)
    – Words can have different meanings in different contexts, and certain idioms may mean something different than the sum of their individual words (e.g., “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”)
    – With these things in mind, how would someone on the New York frontier in 1830 understand this phrase?

  21. Judging by Webster’s 1828, “virtue” most likely means “moral goodness” or “a particular moral excellence,” to include “the virtue of chastity.” The dictionary precludes a direct equation of virtue and chastity. Dictionaries are blunt instruments, but that’s probably a reasonable approximation of what the word meant in 1830.

    If anything, this definition makes the verse worse than a simple equation of virtue and chastity does, because it implies that rape deprives victims of moral goodness or a particular moral excellence.

    To the larger point, yes, linguistic drift is a thing, but the issue it raises is precisely the tension between contextual historical interpretation of scripture and the ongoing need for homiletic application. It’s a pity (in some respects) that Mormons don’t use the old Puritan sermon model, which began by “opening” the text at hand, with detailed attention to the original languages, etc.

    I’m not sure that any of your “things to keep in mind” makes the verse less problematic, or if that’s what you were hoping they’d do.

  22. The dictionary precludes a direct equation of virtue and chastity.

    Jason – See definition #4 under “virtue” in Webster’s 1828 dictionary. One of its uses was (and still is) a synonym for chastity.

    4. A particular moral excellence; as the virtue of temperance, of chastity, of charity.(“Virtue,” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary)

    7: chastity especially in a woman (“Virtue,” Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, accessed Aug. 11, 2016)

    Whether the points I raised above make the verse more or less problematic is up for the individual to decide, but I think they are important for understanding its context and meaning. It looks like you mostly just focused on the first one (and kind of missed on it ;)).

    From its historical context, the phrase is clearly an idiom describing rape and refers to the victim’s loss of sexual integrity and innocence (not moral innocence, but experiential innocence, as in one who sees the horrors of battle losing their innocence).

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Jason, without disagreeing I think the bigger issue is the way it’s used rhetorically in places. Shakespeare is relevant there by showing how for women their virtue was seen as chastity. Further this is seen not in an active sense but in an unfortunately more passive sense. So chastity isn’t purely in terms of what they do. Now of course this is horrible, as is having different virtues for men and women. But that was typical not just of Shakespeare’s day but also Joseph’s. I’m just not sure the dictionary gets at those connotations and uses.

    We should note that these ways of thinking about honor and virtue are pretty common among more primitive people. I’d say that Joseph is born into the early transition out of that more primitive society just as the dawn of the industrial age is happening. He lived in a time when honor killings were still quite common. (Consider how Alexander Hamilton died!) Many of the things we now disparage in Pakistan were then part and parcel of the American experience.

  24. JT: Read my comment again. I did notice that definition, but, to pick nits, it offers chastity as an instance of virtue, which is not the same as equating them, as some modern Mormons do when they say “virtue” and mean “chastity,” e.g. (again), in the Personal Progress manual. The dictionary does not directly offer “chastity” as an available meaning of “virtue.”

    Clark: I’m pretty sure I addressed your point in the OP, when I discussed the pre-rape contest as a test designed to assess the strength (virtus) of the woman’s chastity. Also, the entire post was premised on the idea that there are significant historical differences at play here, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at. There’s a long history of not treating women as people; this verse seems in keeping with that history; in the present, some people want to break with that pattern. I’m one of them.

  25. Jason – You’re right – we’re picking nits here. But . . . you’re wrong on this one. :) I’ve read your comment multiple times and understand what you’re saying, but I think you may want to read _my_ comment again, especially the quotation from the current Merriam Webster’s dictionary clearly showing chastity as an acceptable definition of virtue in modern usage. This is not a Mormon thing.

    Furthermore, I think you are misunderstanding what the 1828 dictionary is saying. I read it as saying that virtue can also refer to any of its individual instances, such as chastity, temperance, or charity. Which is to say, some usages of virtue can refer directly to chastity. In any case, it’s modern application is clear. /end picking of nits

  26. “From its historical context, the phrase is clearly an idiom describing rape and refers to the victim’s loss of sexual integrity and innocence (not moral innocence, but experiential innocence, as in one who sees the horrors of battle losing their innocence).”

    JT, I t agree with your reading of this. In this chapter, I always got a sense of Mormon’s utter sadness at seeing these events unfold around him, despair over the depravity of his people, and empathy for the victimized women, not judgment about their loss of moral virtue or value.

  27. Whether YW should use it in their theme is another question.

  28. JT: Conveniently, if I’m wrong (which I’m willing to grant for the sake of argument), then linguistic drift isn’t particularly an issue here, since the modern usage appears to have been available in 1830 as well–which raises the question of what exactly you were after by bringing it up in the first place. If your only motivation was the canons of historical responsibility, then we’re probably done here.

    Bro. B., I agree that Mormon is empathetic and sorrowful about what happened, not judgmental about the victims. I just think that his understanding of how rape works doesn’t comport very well with the newfangled notion that women are people. So, you’re right to question whether this scripture belongs in the YW curriculum.

  29. Also, since we’re bandying about the idea of virtue as innocence, I think that now would be a good time to refer back to Angela’s comment.

  30. This article and discussion is complete intellectual masturbatuon. The meaning of the scripture is 100% unambiguous (girls were raped, a deplorable act), and no rational reader should try to read anything into it in terms of whether or not consent and virtue are mutually exclusive or not. No offense to those commenters who have been victims of abuse (of course it’s sad, deplorable, etc.)… But this entire conversation is actually pretty pathetic.

  31. I bow to your superior masculinity.

  32. “The Book of Mormon is no place for women.”

    Harrowing. Probably true. But neither is the Bible or any other scripture, really.

  33. Thanks for your reassurance, Ricardo. I was becoming concerned that the intellectual masturbatuon here might be incomplete. Also good to know that you think abuse is sad, deplorable, etc.

    Irrational readers: please continue your pathetic conversation.

  34. Like Angela, I have always wanted to read “virtue” in this verse to mean something like “innocence”; i.e., rapists robbed women of their innocence. But that won’t really do. “Virtue” refers to a positive character trait—a strength that is earned and developed by correct moral choices. Innocence is not a virtue; it is the condition of a person who has not yet acquired either virtue or vice. Similarly, if chastity is a virtue, then chastity must mean something more than the passive state of virginity; to be a virtue, chastity must involve the exercise of moral choice and the building of moral character. Chastity, understood as a virtue, cannot be violated without a woman’s consent. That is to say, a woman who has been raped remains chaste.

    I’m not yet persuaded by any of the attempts in this thread to interpret the verse in a way that is consistent with our current understanding of women’s moral autonomy.

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Jason, sorry I should have been clearer. I was agreeing with you but warning against dictionary. What matters isn’t that range of words but the structural differences they have in application. I really liked the example you gave. And as you note, the story in various ways has a lot of cultural influence at the time of Joseph in the Anglo-saxon world.

  36. No worries, Clark.

  37. Steve, the BOM is particularly inhospitable to women. The New Testament fares quite well, actually. It is downright progressive toward women, particularly in context of its day. The Old Testament is a mixed bag with several bright spots for women: compared to wisdom, several women in positive leadership roles, women feature as real human beings in many OT stories.

    Loursat, well said. I’m forced to conclude that “virtue” is a 19th century thoughtless use of the word, not linked to noble or ignoble Roman ideals (sorry, Jason). It’s an imprecise and thoughtless shortcut for virginity which is in fact NOT better to retain than to be killed and eaten, but in this case, it doesn’t even result in them avoiding being murdered. If the verse were saying that it’s adding insult to injury, that makes a little more more sense, but in fact, he goes off on some diatribe about them losing “virtue.” They didn’t become prostitutes for crying out loud. They were murdered. What more do you have to lose when you are going to be killed and eaten? So they are violated, killed, then eaten. The killing is also a violation. So is the eating. Shall we blame them for being too difficult or easy to kill? For tasting too salty?

  38. The Anon One says:

    Very good Jason. Enjoyed the read.

    Moroni 9:9 never bothered me (until recently) because I never read it as condemning the victims or making any such implication. When I realized that others did read it that way, I was horrified not only at the thought but also how “logically” it appears to flow from an uncritical reading of the text.

    My personal opinion remains the same, i.e. the reformed Egyptian wording likely conveyed the idea that the women were raped through not fault of their own (and no “loss of virtue” occurred on their part but the rapists lost whatever virtue they had left at that point) and our current English translation is more of a descriptive euphemism than a moral judgment.

    Would the OP or others with language skills like to weigh in on the use of “virtuous woman” from Proverbs 31? What does the phrase mean in that context? I’ve heard that it’s not related directly to chastity, but would like to know more.

    Considering the level of emphasis that our modern law of chastity receives, there seems to be remarkably little scripture that actually directly supports those ideas. I think that is part of why the writers of YW curriculum are so quick to proof text verses like Moroni 9:9.

  39. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I think Silver Rain is getting the real meaning here. It isn’t about the act of rape, it is about the personal violation and traumatization of it. The precious thing they lost is their innocence, the peace that is lost by the trauma.

    Look at the case of Elizabeth Smart. She was repeatedly violated to the extent that it affected her psychologically. She didn’t feel worthy or whole or something.

    I cannot imagine how she came to terms with marriage and the intimacy implied there after the trauma she experienced.

    In the end, the point is that the women in the BoM were traumatized(sexually and in other ways) and were thus negatively affected in so many ways.

  40. Angela, you are the best. Thank you.

  41. Angela and Loursat: thank you for your comments!

    The Anon One: the word rendered “virtuous” in the KJV of Proverbs 31:10 more usually gets translated as “strong” or “valorous.” The Latin Vulgate uses “fortem,” not a form of “virtus,” and that word means strong or courageous, to include morally courageous. Personally, I like those resonances a lot more than the ones that are emerging in our discussion of “virtue” in Moroni 9:9.

    Perhaps some clarification would be in order. The purpose of the OP is only secondarily to determine what “virtue” means in the verse; its primary purpose is to drive home the erasure of female agency in the framing of virtue, which makes the verse’s use as a positive teaching tool in the YW curriculum problematic. Everyone, including Mormon, agrees that the actions described in the verse are terrible and that their effects on the women should be lamented. That’s not really a debatable point, because, frankly, I’ll send anyone who takes the other side to the mod queue.

    Not many of the commenters thus far seem particularly interested in thinking about this verse’s implications for female agency and personhood. It’s more fun to argue semantics, apparently. But if we’re using this verse–and we are–to teach LDS young women how to act in the world, it’s not only unhelpful but counterproductive, because it frames virtue as something that can be passively taken away instead of as an intrinsic strength and capacity to act. The only actions that can emerge from the former reading are defensive attempts to avoid victimhood: make sure those shoulders are covered and so on. That’s simply not good enough, because it means that only men really exercise sexual agency. The real question here is what female moral autonomy looks like, and what resources are available in our scriptures and tradition to help us think about that. As Angela suggests, our best scriptural bets are probably in the New Testament. That’s a good start; let’s build on it.

  42. Personally, I’m hoping the sealed portion is all records and sermons from Prophetesses, with a note from Mormon saying “These don’t seem important to me, but God says they’re vital. Who would listen to a woman anyway?”

    No, from his editorial work, Mormon seems to think rarely about women. We get believing because of a fathers vision, teaching stripling sons, complaining they’re married to a visionary man, and making bad choices in who you marry. :P

  43. Jane Smith says:

    This verse has been the subject of many blogs. Most seem to see it as very problematic in its use in the Personal Progress program. It is also still referred to in the Young Women’s Come Follow Me curriculum when talking about chastity. Why hasn’t this been fixed? It can be deleted as a reference for the Come Follow Me curriculum with the click of a few buttons. It is disheartening that this scripture is allowed to be used is the young women’s program. It really is the “low lying fruit” of things that can be easily changed in regards to gender issues. It should not be this hard. (facepalm)

  44. Exactly, Jane Smith.

  45. In the past I have tried most of the language-drift, literary, translation, and cultural excuses discussed above for Moroni 9:9. None of them actually manages in my view to make any sense out of “that which is most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue” in the context of a rape victim being deprived thereof. Even if both “chastity” and “virtue” are taken as stand-ins for “virginity,” which they seem to have been on occasion in 19th century writings, that cannot explain the extraordinary valuation placed on virginity — “most dear and precious above all things.” I would probably rank, in no particular order, moral agency, a variety of virtues, a testimony of Christ, and a change of heart into a “new creature”, life, and perhaps more as more precious than virginity. At least after marriage, our culture and doctrine place no value on virginity at all. I choose to understand the verse as one of those “mistakes of men” warned of on the Book of Mormon title page. Whether it is a mistake of Moroni or of Joseph Smith or of whoever made English words appear on the stone in Joseph’s hat, perhaps disposing of it as a mistaken valuation, if not a mistaken translation, may be the best approach.

    That is not to say I lack appreciation of the efforts of commenters who, together, have done a better job than I ever did with the linguistic and cultural excuses for the verse, or for the bawdy humor Ricardo provided (perhaps unintentionally). I do appreciate the former more than the latter, but a good laugh is also healthy. Still, the fact remains that when the verse is used to try to teach virtue or modesty or standards or that nonsense Angela noted in the Miracle of Forgiveness, it is more confusing and dangerous than it is helpful. It is better not to read it at all, or if one must read it, to dismiss it entirely as one of the mistakes of men (not women).

  46. I’m staying on semantics, but I think there’s something useful in this. The way the young women personal progress materials define “virtue” has always bothered me. The two relevant sentences are: “Virtue is a pattern of thought and behavior based on high moral standards. It includes chastity and purity.” Restricting the concept of virtue to the context of sexuality is a problem. “Virtue” is a powerful, ennobling idea. It is precisely the word we should be using to talk about empowering people to act as agents unto themselves, but we lose that meaning when we make it a synonym for sexual abstinence.

    I’d like to rearrange the wording of the young women materials. Rather than have a list of “values,” I’d make it a list of “virtues.” On the list of “virtues,” I’d replace “virtue” with “chastity.” I think our impoverished use of the word “virtue” stems largely from our reluctance to speak directly about sex. “Virtue” has been a convenient euphemism. If we made this little change in the young women materials, we might not only recover the concept of “virtue,” we might also learn to teach more clearly and with less anxiety about the law of chastity. (Doing away with euphemisms usually has a wonderful cleansing effect.)

    I had this very discussion about the meaning of “virtue” with my daughters when they were in the young women program, and those conversations were some of the most productive I’ve ever had with them. By the way, we also hinder our boys when we teach them that the concept of virtue is limited to sexual behavior.

  47. I agree with that, Loursat. I suppose that my objection to semantics has to do with using semantic debates about what exactly the rapists took away as a means of avoiding the larger issue. You’re talking semantics to move the issue forward. Thank you!

  48. The women in the verse were deprived of their choice, power, and agency. If virtue meant one of those things, the verse might work, but that’s twisting the word pretty far to get there, and chastity’s in the verse, too. Rape victims aren’t unchaste as a consequence of being violated any more than people who are robbed are complicit as thieves.

    I suspect most women understand this while most men haven’t given it much thought beyond an empathetic nod toward those women who were victimized; they see the verse as meaning that having your virtue or chastity taken from you is a terrible thing, what a horrible fate, very sad. They aren’t deliberately victim blaming, but they simply don’t get it. Women recognize that things like your virtue and character cannot be taken from you by force.

  49. Clark Goble says:

    JR (11:42), I think autonomy over our sexual nature is culturally still deemed extremely important. I simply react quite a bit differently from someone putting their hand on my shoulder while talking if I don’t know them from a stranger grabbing my genitals. While we rightly condemn the pattern of the past of seeing women’s experiences and values through how it affects men, I think this notion of privacy remains even in our more egalitarian age. Further I think it obvious that people who are victims of assault feel violated. Not just sexual assault but other forms as well, even though we rightly judge sexual assault as worse. That privacy and autonomy has been violated. Saying that it’s something taken away seems right in terms of how we experience it. The peace and confidence of autonomy can be hard to recover.

    Now where we rightly react to the way this verse was translated (not ultimately knowing the words and culture Moroni used) is due to the overlap they have with other ideas and words. I think we can separate out the ideas. To the degree that we still conflate separate notions, especially when teaching our youth, is quite discouraging. We should do better. My own view is that this is an artifact of translation. I don’t think we should treat the translation as somehow perfect and unchangeable. Joseph himself adjusted it somewhat. Brigham Young said that if he translated it would have sounded quite differently. All we have to do is contextualize this verse so we don’t get the erroneous interpretations that have been harmful to some.

  50. I’m missing a “like” button . . . “Like” Loursat at 11:49am. Moving value to virtue (for men and women) would be great. (Dissertation to follow . . . next lifetime.)

    With respect to Moroni 9:9 specifically, I take the “better not to read it at all” view because I think the weight of a culture and history of damaging interpretations is too much to overcome.

    But if I felt compelled to take on Moroni 9:9 in a lesson or discussion, I would take the following two-step:
    First, paraphrase Angela C: “I’m forced to conclude that “chastity and virtue” is a 19th century thoughtless use of a phrase.” So let’s just call it the [insert derogatory adjective] CandV phrase without trying to parse or interpret.
    Second, understanding that the CandV phrase is an attempt to give meaning to “most dear and precious,” let’s talk more directly about what is dear and precious.

    Without more, in a 21st century LDS classroom, I expect the discussion would go toward agency or autonomy. But if I drew from the scriptures searching on “precious,” I think the discussion would turn to life and blood, and then someone would probably make connections to the seed of life and from there to pregnancy and childbirth (and in a Catholic classroom we’d probably move to the Virgin Mary and the fruit of Her womb). As an interpretation of “most dear and precious” and something taken away, I could work with that. Consider these prompts:

    2 Kings 1:13
    O man of God, I pray thee, let my life, and the life of these fifty thy servants, be precious in thy sight.

    Psalms 72:12-14
    He shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy. He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.

    Psalms 126:5-6
    They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

    1 Nephi 15:36
    Wherefore, the wicked are rejected from the righteous and also from that tree of life, whose fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits; yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God.

  51. I agree with Angela. The verse doesn’t work, because “virtue” as used there can’t mean anything compatible with female agency. The only reason I’m not in the “better not to read it at all” camp is that our history of reading it (which unfortunately isn’t yet in the past) needs to be countered actively.

  52. A fantastically important post. The idea that one’s virtue or chastity is something that can be forcibly taken – thereby implicating sexual assault victims with some degree of culpability – has some modern acceptance as well. To some extent, the notion is suggested in Spencer W. Kimball’s (then a member of the Twelve) Miracle of Forgiveness:

    “Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is absolutely no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”

    To Elder Kimball’s credit, this seems to be the only instance where this idea was presented by him. But, it goes to show that all writings from prophets whether ancient or modern are inextricable from their cultural and temporal contexts, and that it is important indeed to discuss these issues and their applicability within current day theological and cultural frameworks.

  53. ChristianKimball: your comment reminded me that most ancient people (even just a mere few hundred years ago) simply did not understand how procreation worked. Some cultures assumed that the man was the only genetic contributor (he literally deposited “seed” or a baby into the woman, not that she also provided genetic material to the process). I’ve read that among some Native American people they believed that women were impregnated by a spirit that entered them and that it had nothing to do with the sex act which is why sex was not limited or governed by their societal rules.

    While we can safely assume God understands how procreation works, it’s not a given that Moroni did or even that Joseph Smith did, at least not as well as your average sixth grader today.

  54. RockiesGma says:

    I just always wonder why Moroni says the young women lost their virtue when in truth, it was the rapists who lost theirs….

  55. Kind of throwing this idea against a wall (i.e. I thought of it a few minutes ago), but what if we’re perhaps reading this verse in reverse? The text itself says they we’re “depriv[ed] of chastity and virtue.” Perhaps the intended meaning here was that their captors /withheld/ any sense of chastity, virtue, or decency with regards their treatment of the women (which is really a self-evident statement, come to think of it).

    I’m not sure how well this interpretation stands up to scrutiny, but it strikes me as much more cogent than other attempts at a trying to squeeze a non-problematic reading of the verse.

  56. Sorry, but the grammar of the verse makes it pretty clear that the prisoners, not their captors, were deprived of chastity and virtue. Nice try, though.