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 lds.org’s gospel topics essays offer this gift to everyone with the internet? Check them out if you haven’t already.