A proposition: As women have composed the majority of church members, we cannot comprehend the church without accounting for the voices and experiences of women.
Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, eds., At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017), xxxi, 452 pp. Hardcover: $29.99; ISBN: 978-1629722825.
The idea of At the Pulpit is a lot more simple than its actual execution. As I read through, my questions and criticisms were almost immediately tempered by a few moments of reflection about how it could have been different. As the editors demonstrate (xx, note 33 and 103) women did not regularly speak in ward, stake, or general meetings until twentieth century, when the rise of female missionaries dramatically altered gendered preaching dynamics. How do we consequently find the voices of this majority of believers?
First, let me say that this volume is extraordinary, rich, and well worth the time of researchers and believers. In fact it seems to me that this volume envisions an audience of church members more so than any previous publication by the Church Historian’s Press. For example, when discussing “the authority to speak,” the editors point to Dallin Oaks recent framework incorporating all authority into priesthood authority, and cited the Gospel Topic Essay on women and authority (xxiii) as normative. Still, there is a lot of excellent material in the intro, with references to the relevant scholarly literature. My preference would have been for the inclusion of a broader critical apparatus, and a deeper analysis of contextual discursive modes (e.g., exhortation vs. preaching in the nineteenth century), and records keeping.
“Discourses” are presented as chapters with brief biographical introductions for the speaker. These intros are uniformly helpful and include relevant material to the discourse text. Discourses range from short exhortations or testimonies from church minutes to a glossolaliac hymn, from a prayer to printed sermons. In every case the editors include extremely cogent annotations that consistently enrich the texts. The texts are frequently moving, but also very useful. I have already updated my book manuscript to include several references to the volume.
There are quotable bits of wisdom, such as Lillie Freeze’s 1880 call for “more modesty and less prudery” (72), Emma N. Goddard’s charge to “enter the trenches of their [the youth’s] temptations” to help them (118), and Alice C. Smith’s 1979 declaration that “Jesus was not a salesman but a teacher” (172). There are voices of women who we know well, but also those who I did not, and who surprised me, like Elenor Jones, a woman of African American ancestry who participated in the temple liturgy for herself and her dead in the nineteenth century (76).
The expansive chronology allows for interesting resonances and contrasts with time. In 1879 Mary Ann Freeze remarked on the common teaching of her day that “the noblest spirits were reserved to come forth in this our day” (62), just as Sheri Dew did 122 years later (269-270). Elsie Talmage Brandley’s discourse to a 1934 Mutual Improvement Association on faith, science, and doubt is just as germane in today’s church as it was when delivered and it complicates common narratives of the rise of fundamentalist approaches to scripture. By contrast, the frequency with which women quoted especially living church leaders increased dramatically through the twentieth century.
Francine R. Bennion’s Women’s Conference address on theodicy (213-232) is extraordinary among any set of Mormon discourses. Smart and poignant, it stands out among more familiar types of church leader discourse—it is very different than what one might find in a General Conference Report. Perhaps because the sermons in Conference Reports are easily accessible in digital form, in the period when women began to regularly speak in General Conference, the editors generally chose to include texts from venues such as BYU’s Women’s Conference, or other devotional settings that are more difficult to access. A full 150 pages (44%) of the volume is composed of discourses delivered after 1980. I imagine that a portion of this was to include voices that were not white and American, a stated goal of the editors. Still, I would have preferred more earlier texts. Finding a representative sample is always tricky, and moreso here.
At the Pulpit succeeds in illuminating the voices and experiences of Mormon women. Were I to write on adoption theology, Elicia A. Grist’s 1861 British sermon (34) would be a key piece of evidence. I would discuss Virginia Pearce’s text (283-294) when analyzing Mormon approaches to petitionary prayer. And I would point to portions of Ardeth Kapp’s 1980 discourse as examples of temple dog whistling (198-199). My comprehension of Mormonism is expanded. But this is a just a start. I have learned of more resources to explore. Perhaps it will compel other researchers and the Saints to similarly dive deeper.
Also note that the CHP has released a cool website, with selections from the book, and bonus material.