Friday, October 21, 2016

Emmeline Wells

A few years back, my ward celebrated the Relief Society’s birthday by having several women perform a brief biography in character and lead a breakout group discussion following. I was asked to do Emmeline Wells because, well, I have an unhealthy obsession. Remember my 6-part series on her? Yes, obsessed.

In my table’s discussion, I was honest about both her successes and her heartbreaks. She had a lot of both. After hearing the heartbreaks, a friend of mine asked, “Wait, so she was essentially the red-headed stepchild wife and died heartbroken over her release as general RS president? Why am I supposed to leave this meeting feeling empowered about the Relief Society?”

I gave a short and inadequate answer at the time, so this is my more articulate answer. Because I have covered her life in great detail earlier, this post will be an exploration of why having Emmeline Wells’ story in my life matters, rather than providing new details about her.

Emmeline Wells speaks to me because her life was an example in taking the world in its messiness and seemingly impossible choices and creating a space where she can have what matters most. When Emmeline Wells was baptized, she assumed she’d be giving up a lot. She did. But she also maintained the things that were most important to her – her intellect, her desire to cause positive change, and a deep spiritual life. 

I encountered Emmeline Wells’ story during a period when I was exploring what it meant to be an LDS woman of faith, what I wanted out of my life, and how those two explorations fit together. I felt like the narratives presented to me were too rigid and narrow, too either/or, and that I would have to shrink or deform myself to fit within any of them. Emmeline Wells just wrote a new narrative and took the women around her along for the ride.
Wells possessed a deep and life-changing faith in the gospel, and felt God powerfully in her life. She used that faith to enrich all the things she valued before joining the church. Her faith enriched her suffrage work, her mind, her service, and her leadership. She worked tirelessly to use her leadership and intelligence to better the women around her and improve her church.

Something that I only began to comprehend when I encountered Wells, but I have thought deeply about in later years, is the way that being a part of something larger than yourself both expands and restricts you. When you become a part of something larger than yourself, you are given opportunities to become and create something larger, more powerful, and more beautiful than you could on your own. At the same time, you are pouring your soul into something you can influence, but ultimately not control. It is rarely a perfect fit. So, what do you do?

Wells claimed what was good and beautiful and could not be had any other place. From there, she took the opportunities she had to build the rest. She taught me to live within seeming contradictions, and shattered my notion that faith meant shoving myself into what I saw, rather than working with God to see what we could create together. Not that I’ve done anything revolutionary, but still, the world is a beautiful place when you can see it as both/and, and when you are given freedom to create a narrative of your mutual choosing.

Emmeline Wells taught me that faith is complicated. Polygamy, and her church membership as a whole, both expanded and limited her life. It would be a mistake to disregard either side of that equation. But I love that she opted for the path that expanded her life and built from there.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eliza R Snow

Most elements of my girls camp experiences were fairly similar from year to year – skits, first aid certification, hikes, pranks, devotionals, testimony meetings, etc. However, we did something a little different one year. During one of our devotionals, we listened to an audio recording about the life of Eliza R Snow.

This was my first memorable encounter with Mormon women’s history. The details are a little fuzzy. I remember thinking it was odd that we were using technology during a week when we were supposed to be communing with nature. I remember thinking the script was a bit cheesy. I remember thinking it was interesting to learn about someone that had written a lot of hymns.

What made this devotional stand out is that it briefly discussed the fact that she became a polygamous wife of Joseph Smith.

This was the only time I was told Joseph Smith was a polygamist before college. During my undergrad, my Doctrine and Covenants teacher mentioned one time that Joseph Smith was a polygamist (in his defense, he said he planned to talk about polygamy in more detail during our discussion of OD1, and we didn’t make it that far in the syllabus). Until I started searching things out on my own during grad school, that’s it. No one else talked about it.

I remember being surprised no one had talked about it before. However, I was young enough to simply say, “well, if I can joke about Brigham Young’s polygamy, I guess it isn’t that different if Joseph Smith was a polygamist too.” This knowledge didn’t become a problem for me because I gained straightforward information of some complicated church history from someone that was 100% sympathetic to the church, and it came before I had any illusions of possessing a solid understanding the core elements of our history.

This was a huge blessing to me. Church history is full of some wild things, and they look mighty crazy out of context. Frankly, they can be uncomfortable in context as well. But learning about Eliza R Snow taught me that if this church is true, it can hold up to an honest gaze. Truthfully, as I’ve unpacked things in our history that have made me uncomfortable, more discomfort came from feeling deceived or betrayed than the actual facts – feeling like historic figures weren’t who I had been taught they were, and that I had to form a new opinion of them based on this knowledge (spoiler alert: I still believe they were called of God).

I am intensely grateful to the leader that selected this activity. She may have thought it was weird. She may have been a little nervous that there would be push back from the parents. She may have thought people would consider her lazy for just sticking in a tape (yes, I’m old enough we were listening to audio tapes at girls camp).  But she gave me a solid framework for being honest and considering context when I learn about our history, and I’m grateful she trusted her inspiration and gave me that gift. I have used it repeatedly in my studies of Mormon women. And can I just say I’m grateful’s gospel topics essays offer this gift to everyone with the internet? Check them out if you haven’t already.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sarah Granger Kimball

I’d planned to go sequential and show my spiritual development over time through my involvement with women’s history this month, but after watching Tyler Glenn’s video, my heart is breaking, and this is what I have today.

In 1842, Joseph Smith taught Sarah Granger Kimball the doctrine of plural marriage, a doctrine only taught at that time to those that were being asked to live it. At the time, she was married to a non-member (who had made a substantial donation to the Nauvoo Temple’s construction the year prior). Her reply to the prophet: “I asked him to teach it to someone else.” He furthered his case, saying that God had commanded him to teach it to her. Still nothing. He ended by saying he would not cease to pray for her. She never changed her mind.

What happened from here? Was her life filled with ruin? Was she shunned as an apostate by other church members? Did she leave the church and become a vocal opponent of polygamy?

None of the above.

The year following, she initiated the formation of the Relief Society, an organization that would go on to promote spiritual growth, advocate for female suffrage and education, feed the hungry, and strengthen families. Millions have benefitted from her contributions.

She served for over 40 years as a Relief Society President in a Salt Lake City ward, and served for 12 years as general secretary of the Relief Society during Eliza R. Snow’s administration. She held positions of prominence in Utah, including serving as the president of the Utah Woman Suffrage Association.

Her husband joined the church and died while actively serving in it.

In short, she followed her own light, and created a life full of spiritual power and social force.

Did she hide her disagreement with the prophet? No, she did the opposite. She included the encounter in her autobiography, PUBLISHED IN THE RELIEF SOCIETY’S MAJOR PUBLICATION. I should also note that when she published it, polygamy was still in force. Despite her disagreement with the prophet, she stayed true to both her faith and her conscience, while giving her fellow saints the freedom to follow their faith and consciences.

I’ve been trying to channel my inner Sarah Granger Kimball these past few months. It has been a rough time for our LGBT+ members, and my heart has been breaking at the lack of empathy our leaders have been showing this group. It is not my job to declare what the doctrines should be, but there are ways to implement doctrine with compassion and understanding, and we’ve stopped doing it.

I cannot be a person of integrity and deny that I have felt God’s power through priesthood channels, and that He communicates with me as often as I’m listening through living my faith. I cannot be a person of integrity and say that the way our leaders are behaving towards our LGBT+ members and their families is OK. It is not. It has broken my heart repeatedly to hold these two truths. But I’m doing my best to hold them both.

So, I’m striving to emulate Sarah Granger Kimball - committed to my faith, a dedicated servant in building the church, but true to myself (which implies listening, trying to promote understanding, and creating safe spaces in my realm of influence). I cannot support our leaders’ callousness of late, and I will not pretend that I do. But I will not deny that God’s power is in this church, and I will not deny myself the blessings that come through living it to my utmost.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

2016 Theme: They matter to me

Confession: as a teenager, I hated Mormon history.

Growing up in the shadow of Winter Quarters, we heard a lot about pioneers. We had pioneer youth conference, pioneer firesides, and even had activities where we glued “Faith in Every Footstep” into our hymnals.

Inevitably, someone would get up and talk about their great-great grandfather who crossed the plains, and I’d feel a bit resentful. As a child of converts, it always felt rather elitist to me. My parents are pretty darn awesome, and I resented someone implying that our family was somehow less-than.

I realize I was being a brat and no one was implying this at all. I’m old enough now to understand that no one was “having pioneer ancestors” at me – they were celebrating something good in their lives, and beautiful things happen in this world when we can rejoice with each other, no matter how different our circumstances. But the simple fact is that I mentally checked out when the words “pioneer legacy” escaped someone’s lips because I didn’t have a traditional one.

So how have I wound up on my 9th year of a Mormon history blog, where I spend an awful lot of time talking about pioneers?

I stumbled into women’s history during a period when I was feeling angst about polygamy. It eventually dawned on me that my angst was not based in any actual knowledge. I knew pretty much nothing about polygamy in the early church except for the fact that it existed, and a few folk interpretations of why it existed. I didn’t know what the lived experience was like, how the men and women that lived it felt about it, or anything a polygamous woman said about her experience. And I decided if I was going to feel angsty, I might as well know exactly what I was feeling angsty about.

I headed to the library, because that what I do. I lucked upon Kenneth W. Godfrey’s Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900.  Here I found brief excerpts of the writings of early Mormon women, along with enough biographical and historical context to situate the passages.

I was hooked. I started reading whatever I could get my hands on (of varying degrees of quality, but that’s another story for another day).

These stories did not offer me tidy answers to my questions. Mormon women’s history is anything but tidy. But I was met with a diverse group of women who provided me countless models of what it can mean to be a woman of God, how to face complexity in religious experience, and how to create places for yourself to reach your own spiritual and intellectual potential.

I’m going to do something a little different this year. Rather than profile new women, I’m simply going to talk about how learning about the women profiled in previous years has mattered in my life. When I have gone through periods of uncertainty, I have found myself again and again coming to the stories of these women and finding models for my own experiences. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve also benefitted from the kings and soldiers of the scriptures. But having female models of religious experience have made all the difference to me these past 9 years. I’m excited to tell you about how.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Emma Smith's Contributions

The full biographical treatment on Emma Smith is clearly out of the reach of this blog post, but I'm going to briefly talk about three major ways that Emma Smith impacted contemporary worship in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: the Word of Wisdom, the hymnal, and the Relief Society.

The Word of Wisdom is one of Mormonism's most easily identified characteristics, and Emma Smith set it in motion. I know people like to quibble about the temperance movement's impact on the revelation, but however you slice it, Emma got the ball rolling on the revelation. Many of us know the story. At the School of the Prophets, the room was crowded with individuals wanting to hear the instruction from Joseph Smith and Orson Hyde, and they would thoroughly enjoy their pipes and chew their tobacco while they talked. It bothered Emma; the room was always filthy from their spit. Her reasoning varies on the account. Some accounts simply state that she thought it was a poor environment for Joseph's translation to occur. Most say that she didn't want to clean the mess – Brigham Young recounted that, “She could not make the floor look decent.” I assume there is truth in both. Whatever her reasoning, she dryly quipped to Joseph, “It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding its suppression.” Doctrine and Covenants section 89 came as a result.

The next is her contribution to the first LDS hymnal. In 1830, in what would later become D&C 25, she was counseled to make a selection of sacred hymns. In that revelations, God declared, “my Soul delighteth in the song of the heart, yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” It was interesting to me as I flipped through her selections to see how in line they are with these promises. The songs she picked are songs of boundless praise, and songs of absolute confidence in God's goodness and blessings. They also happen to be the bold, powerful kind of hymn that I'm a total sucker for (just ask anyone that has ever sung in one of my ward choirs): songs like “How Firm a Foundation,” “Redeemer of Israel,” “Now Let us Rejoice,” “I Know that my Redeemer Lives,” and “The Spirit of God.”

She and William W Phelps both contributed to the end product. For that first edition, it was only words – members just picked whatever commonly known melody had an appropriate meter and had at it. There were ninety hymns, divided into the following sections: Sacred Hymns, Morning Hymns, Evening Hymns, Farewell Hymns, On Baptism, On Sacrament, On Marriage, and Miscellaneous.

Finally, Emma Smith served as the first general president of the Relief Society. She insisted on the name “Nauvoo Relief Society” when the men tried to change it to “Nauvoo Benevolent Society.” She taught with power and encouraged countless good works. In 1843, Emma organized a Necessity Committee that was to “ascertain the condition of the families visited, and to accept contributions for charitable purposes.” These “visiting teachers” were the forerunners of our contemporary visiting teaching program.

Emma's story is ugly and complicated, and I don't like that this post turned out to be a very sanitized version of it. However, since my focus this month is on showing ways that Mormon women have shaped our contemporary worship experience, and I've already surpassed my self-imposed word limit, I'm sticking to this scope, and I'll take on her full story another time. That said, I am grateful for the profound blessings that have come into my life as a result of the doctrines, songs, and programs Emma Smith brought into the church.

General Board of the Relief Society. A Centenary of Relief Society. Salt Lake City, 1942

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sarah Granger Kimball

In honor of the anniversary of the Relief Society's organization, I'm reposting this from 2013. It was originally given as a talk at a ward Relief Society activity.

171 years ago, a woman named Sarah Granger Kimball wanted to do all she could to help build the Nauvoo Temple. She started by persuading her affluent and not-yet-Mormon husband to make a much-needed financial donation towards building the Nauvoo temple. As they gazed starry-eyed at their newborn son, she asked her husband if the baby was worth a thousand dollars. He agreed. She replied that it was great news, because the boy was half hers, and she wanted to pay tithing on him. Resourceful girl, right? He went for it, and after bantering with Joseph Smith about if that meant the boy would be church property, he made a hefty donation.   

Sarah could have put up her feet and said she'd done her part to build the temple, but she didn't stop there. Sarah and a friend decided that they should sew shirts for the temple workers. She realized other women would want to help, so she had a meeting about organizing a Ladies' Society in Nauvoo. She asked the eloquent Eliza R Snow to write a constitution, and they presented it to Joseph Smith. Joseph told them that they were the best he had ever seen, their offering was accepted of the Lord, but “he [had] something better for them than a written Constitution.” He invited them to a meeting the next week. At that meeting, he organized the Relief Society, an organization about which he proclaimed “the Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”

I want to draw attention to a few elements of this story.

First, Sarah Granger Kimball was proactive. She didn't sit around waiting for people higher in the hierarchy to give her something to do. She felt inspired to do good, and she brought her ideas to the priesthood so they could work together. Think about that: a crucial step to the church being “perfectly organized” and progressing came because a woman acted on personal revelation that came from a desire to do good, and then worked in connection with the priesthood.

Second, she invited others to join her, recognized their talents, and allowed them to serve in meaningful ways. She could have tried to hoard the glory for her service brainchild, but she didn't. She recognized Eliza R Snow's literary gifts and considerable clout in Nauvoo culture, and brought her on board. When Joseph called Emma Smith as president, and she was not called as a counselor, Sarah didn't huff off. She remained thoroughly involved in the Relief Society throughout her life, serving as a Relief Society President in Salt Lake City for over forty years, where she would continue to create innovative ways to serve that would spread throughout the church. She kept giving.

Third, she started by recognizing needs in her community. She didn't set out to feed starving populations in Asia (although the Relief Society has certainly done that in notable ways throughout its history). She saw a need, saw something tangible she could do to fill that need, and she did it.

More than a sewing society came from her efforts. Little by little, woman by woman, new forms of service came about: providing food for the temple workers; boarding temple workers; caring for the sick. As time progressed, something monumental and far-reaching came out of this pattern of seeing a need and filling a need.

Throughout the history of the Relief Society, countless forms of service have been given. The Relief Society has cared for the hungry and sick. It instituted a grain storage program so successful that it not only met local needs, but fed thousands of victims of earthquakes, famines, and wars. It built hospitals, and educated women to be doctors, nurses, and midwives. It partnered with prominent organizations like the Red Cross, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the International Council of Women in bringing about positive change in the world. It has educated women in everything from self-reliance to Shakespeare. It has done remarkable good
And it all started with a woman who felt a desire to do good, took the initiative to propose a solution, and surrounded herself with the best people possible.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Emmeline Wells - Welfare Edition

OK, OK, I know I was a bit obsessive in talking about Emmeline Wells when I started this blog in 2008. I love that woman. That said, this year I am talking about women that developed our contemporary church programs, and how could I not talk about the woman who organized the longest-running arm of the Church Welfare Program?

Of course, back then it wasn't called the Church Welfare Program. When it began in 1876, it was the Relief Society wheat project, and it stayed as the Relief Society wheat project until it was incorporated into the church welfare program in 1978.
Technically, the Church Welfare Program was implemented church wide in 1935 by Harold B Lee and inaugurated in 1936 by David O McKay. However, I am still counting Emmeline Wells a founder of the Church Welfare Program because the programs she implemented had already been doing much of the Church Welfare Program's work for decades.
Brigham Young had been agitating for a wheat storage program for years. The problem? He couldn't get a fire under the men to do it. Consequently, in 1876, he asked Emmeline Wells to organize the grain storage programs. And let me tell you, Emmeline Wells was a woman who got things done.

At the beginning, the women had complete autonomy over the wheat program. Relief Society sisters began by gleaning from existing wheat fields, then used that money to buy their own fields. They controlled their own fields. They built their own granaries. They decided when to sell their wheat. They decided how to use the money. As time went on, the program's autonomy dwindled, but in its early history, it was fully the Relief Society's project.
The Relief Society used their wheat and their money from its sales to bless the world. Their wheat fed survivors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and their donation to the US Government to assist in the war-time efforts was so gratefully received by President Woodrow Wilson that he arranged a personal visit to Wells to thank her for the society's donation. After Wells' death, the Relief Society used wheat money to finance maternity hospitals.
Emmeline Wells also beat the Church Welfare program to the punch in its employment training and efforts to encourage members to live welfare principles. In 1919, under her leadership, the Relief Society Social Services Department worked with wards and stakes to help women find employment and provided six week training programs in family welfare.
Although she died before its organization, what do you think about when you think about the Church Welfare Program? The iconic grain silo on Welfare Square? Emmeline Wells started the church's grain storage program. Sending aid to countries impacted by natural disasters, or other forms of distress? Emmeline Wells was already doing that. Educating members about welfare principles and helping members find employment opportunities? Emmeline Wells did it earlier. Church Family Services program? Emmeline Wells was doing part of that, too – the Relief Society Social Services Department also did adoption placement. Wells had already demonstrated the power of a centralized force of faithful members that want to do good.
Wells was a woman of remarkable talent and drive, and I'm grateful for the programs she implemented.
LDS Women of God: Relief Society Wheat Project
Emmeline B. Wells: A Fine Soul Who Served, by Carol Cornwall Madsen.