Sunday, May 8, 2011

Women in the Early Church

Emmeline B. Wells
This is the written version of a talk a gave in church on Mother's Day.

I have been asked to speak about the positive influence of righteous women of the early, restored church.  I was quite excited to speak about this topic because it so happens I have been interested in this subject for some time.  Heather and I have taken an institute class covering the history of the church in Utah in the nineteenth century.  It is fascinating history and perhaps not so well known among members of the church.  This is especially true when it comes to the history of women.  This isn’t true only with Mormon history but history in general.  Whether it’s Roman history or American history the story of men tends to dominate but we forget about half the population.  There’s a lot more going on if you take the time to look for it.

The nice thing about Mormons is that they have tended to write things down.  And this has been very helpful for going back to learn about the early church and the settlement of Utah.  And even just regular people would often keep journals.  That’s where we get a lot of the really interesting stories.

Some of these stories are actually pretty funny.  I just love learning about life on the frontier.  This is a story from the diary of John D. Lee. 

“One day when Lee was away from home, John Lawson, one of his neighbors, and George Dodds, Lawson's son-in-law, commenced to chop down the trees and willows that grew along a creek that ran through Lee's property. This was just behind the house occupied by Emma and Ann, Lee's two youngest wives. They both went out and asked Lawson to stop, stating that they needed the shade for their ducks and chickens. But Lawson paid no attention to their protests, so they sent for their husband. Lee and his son Willard came on the run, took Lawson's axe away, and ordered him off the place.

“Early the next morning Lawson returned with additional help and began once more cutting away the brush from the creek bed. This time Ann had no time to send for help. She filled a pan with boiling water and when Lawson disregarded her protests, she threw it at him. She was so far away that it fell harmlessly in front of him, and he said, "Pour it on," and continued his chopping. Desperately, Ann ran back to the house and returned with Emma and a pan of hot water each. Seeing that they were determined, Lawson held up his ax, and told them to stand back. Emma threw her water at him, and when his attention was diverted, Ann sprang at him and grabbed the arm that held the ax. They both fell, with Ann on top. ‘When I with several others reached the scene of action," wrote John D. Lee in his diary,  I found them both on the ground & Ann with one hand in his hair & with the other pounding him in the face. In the mean time Emma returned with a New Supply of hot water & then pitched into him with Ann & they bothe handled him rather Ruff. His face was a gore of blood. My son Willard finally took them off him.” [1]

These women out of the frontier really had to be pretty self-reliant and they had certain tenaciousness so that when they wanted things done a certain way they got done.  I use this humorous story as an example of a theme I have found reading about all these pioneer women. When I read about the women in the early church the thing that sticks out to me is a common drive to action.  Mormon women saw opportunities, both big and small, to make a difference in the church and in their communities.  I find this over and over.  Issues like poverty, education, women’s suffrage, they were all over that stuff.  And they came up with plans do something about them and they were unstoppable.

The sad thing is that I don’t think we really know much about the women in our church history.  I think we know the names of Lucy Mack Smith and Emma Smith, maybe Eliza R. Snow.  But probably fewer people would be familiar with Emmeline B. Wells, Susa Young Gates, Aurelia Spencer Rogers, Louisa Lula Greene, and Sarah M. Kimball.  These are really names we should all know because they shaped the church from its early days.  And I have to emphasize that this is not history that just women should know.  For us men in the church it’s important to realize how the early women of the church have shaped our heritage. 

I think to start off I’d like to talk a little about the Relief Society.  This is an interesting story.  And what’s interesting about it is that this was maybe the first big move in the restoration of the church that was led by women.  They asked Joseph Smith to organize them officially but the idea started with the women of Nauvoo.  The first person to really move in this direction was Sarah M. Kimball.  I’m going to read her version of the story as she wrote it in an autobiographical essay in the Woman’s Exponent in 1883.  First as background to this story, Sarah M. Kimball had been working with a seamstress named Margaret A. Cook and they wanted to make shirts for the men working on the temple.  This is how it all started.  Sister Cook said she would love to do it but she didn’t have the material to make the shirts so Sarah M. Kimball told she would provide that.  From this they decided that it might be good to get a lot of the women in the city together to work together on this and they eventually decided to form a Ladies’ Society.  Now I’ll read from her account.

“The neighboring sisters met in my parlor and decided to organize.  I was delegated to call on Sister Eliza R. Snow and ask her to write for us a Constitution and By-laws, and submit them to President Joseph Smith prior to our next Thursday’s meeting.  She cheerfully responded and when she read them to him he replied that the Constitution and By-laws were the best he had ever seen.  ‘But,’ he said, ‘this is not what you want.  Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written Constitution.  I invite them all to meet with me and a few of the brethren in the Masonic Hall over my store next Thursday afternoon, and I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.’  He further said, ‘The church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.’  He wished to have Sister Emma Smith elected to preside in fulfillment of the revelation which called her an Elect Lady.” [2]

The object of the Relief Society was nothing less than “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of benevolent purposes.”  That’s a big mission and a very noble one.  These wonderful Nauvoo sisters saw a problem and they banded together to do something about it.  Joseph Smith wrote afterward, “Our women have always been signalized for their acts of benevolence and kindness.” [3] What I have found in reading back into all of this is that these women, along with Joseph Smith is seems, truly viewed the organization of women in the Relief Society to be an essential part of the Restoration of the Lord’s church.  I found an interesting line in the first issue of the Woman’s Exponent, published in Utah in 1872.  Eliza R. Snow wrote a brief sketch of the organization of the Relief Society.  She said: “According to authentic testimony, an organization, of which the present Female Relief Society is a fac-simile, has always existed when the Church of Jesus Church [Christ] has been fully organized.  ‘Elect lady,’ as it occurs in the New Testament, has direct reference to the same—alluding to one who presided over this Institution.  See 2d Epistle of John, 1st verse.” [4]

So to further consider the impact of righteous women in the early restored church I invite you all to think about your church experience, especially as youth.  In addition to the Sacrament meeting and Priesthood meeting we have Relief Society, Young Men, Young Women, and Primary.  The remarkable thing is that these organizations that have probably been so crucial in our spiritual growth also have their roots in the initiative of faithful women.

The Young Women organization used to be the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association and was started by Brigham Young.  This organization has an interesting history and a really fun church video made sometime back in the seventies I think.  The basic idea was to encourage simplicity and frugal living.  Eliza R. Snow played a huge role in running this organization as she traveled from ward to ward.  While she did this she found many bishops distressed by the behavior of the young men.  She started suggesting that a similar organization be set up for young men.  During one of her visits she asked all the girls to bring their boyfriends to the meeting and warned all the young men that if they did not “have off their drinking and tobacco, where were the young girls to get husbands?”  It seemed she struck a nerve with these young men and it was said that they were after their bishop before the next morning to get them organized like the young women. [5] And so it went on.  The historian Maureen Ursenbach Beecher was of the opinion that the Young Men Mutual Improvement Organization was organized in part resulting from indirect but persistent pressure from Eliza R. Snow.  So it seems that to a certain extent, even the Young Men organization that many of the brethren here grew up with arose out of the initiative of the faithful Latter-day Saint women.

The beginning of the Primary is interesting.  It started off very simply as a local organization in Farmington, Utah.  It was organized by Aurelia Spencer Rogers.  Once again Eliza R. Snow was involved in this too and encouraged sister Rogers to do this.  Eliza R. Snow wrote that Mrs. Rogers “expressed a desire that something more could be effected for the cultivation and improvement of the children morally and spiritually than was being done through the influence of day and Sunday Schools.  After consulting together a few moments, I asked Mrs. R. if she was willing to take the responsibility and labor on herself of presiding over the children of that settlement, provided the Bishop of the Ward sanctioned the movement.  She replied in the affirmative.” [6] Well, the Bishop was very enthusiastic about the idea and so the Primary began, just from the desire of one woman to do some good in her ward.  I keep seeing this again and again that these women just saw a need and did their best to fill it.

This drive to do some good extended to very broad areas as well.  The Mormon women in Utah recognized that the way their sisters around the world were treated was not right.  The 1870s were tough times for members of the church.  The rest of the nation was pressing down on the church and its members and women bore a huge share of this treatment.  Women had had the right to vote in Utah since 1870 when the territorial legislator granted them suffrage by unanimous vote.  However, in 1887 the United States Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which, among other things, specifically took the vote away from women.  However, Utah was a hotbed of Latter-day Saint women no longer content to live below their privileges.  In a religion that taught them that they would be queens and priestesses to the most high God, they could not allow the world to treat them as anything less.  I think there is an important lesson in this example.

The best information I have found on the thoughts of feelings of Mormon women during this time period is a biweekly newspaper called the Woman’s Exponent, which I have quoted previously.  In its later issues the newspaper carried the subtitle: “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations.”  This newspaper basically functioned as the newspaper for the Relief Society, though it was officially independent.  The founder of the paper was Louisa Lula Greene, afterword, Emmeline B. Wells was editor for most of the paper’s history.

Even as a modern reader, the positions taken by the authors in the Woman’s Exponent seem to me remarkably bold.  I would like to read from an article from the first installment titled “Women’s Rights and Wrongs.”

“The agitation of the woman’s rights question aims at obtaining a broader recognition for the rights of women, as a moiety of the social structure, now deprived of many privileges it is contended they should enjoy, and refused rights which it is claimed they should possess equally with men… There are many rights which woman should possess yet of which she is denied by custom and by statute law, but more especially by the former.  She should have the right to live, and to live purely, and not be compelled by the force of custom and fortuitous circumstances to seek a living death that the physical body may be sustained.  And to secure her this right, she should have access to every avenue of employment for which she has physical and mental capacity… Custom also says that if a woman does as much work as a man, and does it as well, she must not receive equal pay for it, and herein a wrong is inflicted upon her by the deprivation of a right to which she is justly entitled… In the application of manhood suffrage a wrong is inflicted upon the women of these United States, as States—one which the women of Utah do not have to bear… women are deprived of it, simply because nature qualified them to become mothers and not fathers of men.” [7]

The women of Utah stood shoulder to shoulder with the great names of the Women’s movement in the United States such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  Emmeline B. Wells, later President of the Relief Society, could be considered on of the great women’s rights advocates in United States history.  Sisters Wells herself represented the state of Utah when she spoke at conventions of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National and International Councils of Women.  Emmeline B. Wells had the opportunity to speak on behalf of women around the world in front of Congress and the President of the United States.  When Utah was granted statehood in 1896 women’s suffrage was restored along with full access to political office.  Thus women in Utah enjoyed the right of the vote twenty years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment made that right universal throughout the country.  Mormon women like Emmeline B. Wells and Susa Young Gates continued to advocate the rights of woman along with many other faithful sisters working behind the scenes.

I think in this way and many more ways the women in the early church fulfilled the commission the Relief Society for “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of benevolent purposes.”  These were go-getters who got things done and I think they are a great example to every one of us. 

The historian Claudia L. Bushman has said that it’s important to remember that history is more than just studying the lives of the most prominent members of society or of the church.  History is really lived by the regular people.  Today I have talked a lot about some of the more prominent women of the church, mostly because I don’t think we know enough even about them.  But there are also the stories of our ancestors and the women who lived more quiet lives that can give us just as much inspiration.  I’d like to share two examples from an article by historian Leonard Arrington. 

“The first is found in the diary of Christina Oleson Warnick.  It is evident from this diary that Mrs. Warnick helped build her house, being primarily responsible for the fireplace and chimney. She dug irrigation ditches; she plowed, planted and fertilized the land while the men put in the dam; she cut the 'wild hay along the river bottoms and stacked it for the cows for winter; she grubbed the brush and sheared the sheep; she took in washings and spun and wove cloth; and she always walked from one village to the next with her knitting in her hands.

A second example comes from the diary of Mary Julia Johnson Wilson.  She tells the story of a young man who was leaving in one week on a mission, but had no suit to wear. When the neighbor women heard of this, they went to work with the result that ‘one Sunday the wool was on the sheep's back, but by the next Sunday it had been clipped, cleansed, corded, spun, woven, and made into a splendid suit and was on the back of the missionary as he delivered his farewell address in the little church house.’” [8]

I really like this last story.  Here was a missionary standing before the congregation in his new suit.  But the story behind it is these many women in his ward that made that suit for him and got him on his mission.  On this Mother’s Day I invite you all to think about the women like this Mary Julia Johnson Wilson who have made it possible to do the things that you do every day.  Every part of the restored church we enjoy today has been touched by faithful women.


1.  Arrington, Leonard. “Blessed Damozels: Women in Mormon History.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Vol 6, Num 2 (Summer 1971): 24

2. Sarah Granger Kimball. "Auto-Biography." Woman's Exponent. Vol. 12, Num 7 (September 1, 1883): 51 (Available here)

3.  History of the Church, 4:567

4.  Eliza R. Snow. “The Female Relief Society.” Woman’s Exponent. Vol 1, Num 1 (June 1 1872): 2 (Available here)

5. Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach. “Eliza R. Snow” from Mormon Sisters. Edited by Claudia L. Bushman. (1997) p. 29

6.  Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach. “Eliza R. Snow” from Mormon Sisters. Edited by Claudia L. Bushman. (1997) p. 30

7.  “Women’s Rights and Wrongs.” Woman’s Exponent. Vol 1, Num 1 (June 1 1872): 5

8.  Arrington, 23