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.