At the Pulpit: A Women’s Outreach Event

Recently I was invited by the Women’s Outreach Committee of the LDS Public Affairs Department to attend a meet and greet with the editors and some of the authors featured in At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women. This just-released book features 54 sermons from various Mormon women, many renowned, like Lucy Mack Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Julie Beck, but others less well known, such as Ellenor Jones, a woman of mixed race whose sermon on prayer was published in the Women’s Exponent in 1882.

I applaud this latest project from the Church History Department, headed up by Kate Holbrook and Jenny Reeder. Highlighting women as theologians and making their words and thoughts widely accessible is a worthy endeavor. For women like myself, who hunger for insights and experiences of Mormon women, a project like this means something. It means that the LDS Church is making a real attempt to hold women up as spiritual authorities and considers this an important enough endeavor to devote researchers, time, and money to it.  This book will be a useful resource for people committed to promoting Mormon women’s voices, since these women’s thoughts on faith, prayer, forgiveness can easily be incorporated into talks and lessons.

I just received the book yesterday, so I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance through it and read a few sermons, but I get the sense that these talks fall well within the the realm of what one might expect Mormon speakers to offer. Unsurprisingly, few grapple with issues of gender or race. But some, such as Elaine Jack’s and Chieko Okazaki’s sermons, strike me as fresh and grounded in the reality of women’s lives, and I appreciate that greatly. I’m excited to delve into it more in the next few days, and I expect I’ll find other sermons that resonate with me.

The event itself, which included a Q&A with Kate and a handful of sermon authors (Elaine Jack, Gladys Sitati, Virginia Pearce and Jutta Busche) was fascinating in and of itself. It was held in the Relief Society building, and there was something powerful about being surrounded by portrait after portrait of Mormon women leaders, as we simultaneously listened to Mormon women leaders discuss their contributions. The audience (which was comprised of “women influencers,” mainly bloggers or people with online presences) asked some good questions and the panelists gave thoughtful answers. One of my favorite responses came from Virginia Pearce after a woman in the audience asked the panel about how to contribute to society while also staying grounded in LDS teachings about motherhood being women’s primary role. Pearce responded that there is an ambiguity to women’s paths in life, and that it is up to us to get comfortable with that ambiguity, continually seek, and figure out our own paths.

A couple of times during the event, questions about Mormon women’s authority and importance arose. Exponent’s own April Young Bennett asked if there were any plans for this book to be used as church curriculum, as a counter balance to our nearly 20 years of using male-voiced Presidents of the Church manuals. Apparently not, though Kate mentioned they were working with the curriculum committee and magazine people so that more of these women’s stories and voices could be incorporated here and there.

The most powerful moment for me came when a woman asked how the panelists maintained such happiness and faith, given that this woman herself struggled so hard with our male-authored scriptures and male-focused God discourse and theology. Where was her Mother? Her question was sincere and raw and filled with pain and ambivalence. The panel could not offer her much of a response other than emphasizing faith (which is exactly what I would expect them to say in this context), but my heart sang that the question was even asked. That was more important to me than any answer the panel could have given. Her question was voiced, and consequently powerful institutionally embedded LDS women and men heard it and heard her pain and confusion. They sat with their discomfort as they struggled (albeit briefly) to respond. God bless this woman for her courage and vulnerability.

Another favorite moment of the event was when an older black woman thanked Sister Sitaki for her reflections, which included a tribute to her grandmother. This sister affirmed that in various cultures around the world, including her own, the words of grandmothers are treasured and valued. She also mentioned that when she was doing missionary work for the church, she discovered that women’s baptisms weren’t counted as progress for the church. Only the baptisms of potential priesthood holders were counted. She said that this was a very sad realization for her and that we as a church need to do some thinking about where to go and how to affirm the fact that women as well as men are made in the image of God. I was happy that this woman had this chance to share these thoughts and experiences, which emphasized the importance of women — and that there are some LDS practices and priorities in place which do not always seem to be in line with that conviction.

I thought this was a great event and I applaud the organizers for opening the panel up for questions from the audience. I’m sure they knew that such a decision was a risk and that they might get a hard question or two. So it was a brave decision to let go of the control and allow some authentic sharing and interaction between panelists and audience.

Kuddos to Kate Holbrook and Jenny Reeder for their work on this important project. I love the vision behind it, I love the introductory remarks written by the editors before each of the sermons in the book, I love that they tried to find a diverse array of voices, and I loved that this event they planned allowed for some authentic sharing between the audience and panelists.  May there be many more such projects and events in the future.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

You may also like...

18 Responses

  1. Patty says:

    This sounds amazing! I just got my copy and am a big fan of Jutta Busche’s talk. I look forward to dipping into more of the talks.

  2. Emily U says:

    Thanks so much for the report, Caroline. I also am more heartened by the fact that these questions were asked then by any answer the panelists could have given. As a member of the Church with no connections to Salt Lake City leadership it feels impossible to make my questions heard, so it’s nice to know that occasionally there are forums like this.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, I was heartened too. I wish there were a lot more events like this. I know these women don’t have any hard power, but I think some of them do have some influence. So if they hear the questions women are asking, maybe they’ll pass those questions and concerns along.

  3. Melody says:

    Great report. Thank you, Caroline! My sister in-law-called me last night to talk about an upcoming general authority visit to her stake in Wisconsin. She’s the stake RS President and they’ve made great strides in encorporating more women’s voices and presence in their stake and ward(s) leadership. When we talked about “From The Pulpit” she wondered aloud: Why isn’t it free and part of LDS religious study supplements provided by the church? I thought that was a great question. Any insights about that?

    • Caroline says:

      It would be so great if it was free. I think the reason it’s not part of LDS religious study supplements is because the project was conceived of and carried out by the Church History Department, which is (I imagine) totally separate from the Church Curriculum Committee. So even if these editors wanted this book to be provided free to the members (at least online), they would have no ability to make that happen. They would need an incredibly powerful backer in the form of a high up GA or something to push for that. I’m really just guessing here, but this is what I imagine. My personal dream would be to have this book be the basis for our next RS/PH manual for the next couple years. I think I’m bound to be disappointed on this one.

      • Melody says:

        Thanks, Caroline. This makes perfect sense and I join you in hope for women’s RS lessons based on/written by women of faith.

  4. Caroline says:

    It would be so great if it was free. I think the reason it’s not part of LDS religious study supplements is because the project was conceived of and carried out by the Church History Department, which is (I imagine) totally separate from the Church Curriculum Department Committee. So even if these editors wanted this book to be provided free to the members (at least online), they would have no ability to make that happen. They would need an incredibly powerful backer in the form of a high up GA or something to push for that. I’m really just guessing here, but this is what I imagine. My personal dream would be to have this book be the basis for our next RS/PH manual for the next couple years. I think I’m bound to be disappointed on this one.

  5. Matt says:

    Portions of At the Pulpit are available on this free website: https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/. All of it will be available there about a year after publication (which is what the Church Historian’s Press has done with all of its publications such as the Joseph Smith Papers). That means that The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History is all available on-line now: https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society.

    • Caroline says:

      Great to know! Thanks, Matt. Now we just need to really get the word out to members about these resources so they know they are available to use in lessons and talks.

      Matt, is there any way the Church Curriculum Committee might promote these resources to teachers? Perhaps in new teachers’ manuals they could incorporate extended quotes from these talks or give links to the book? I’d just love to see members of the church explicitly directed towards using these female-authored talks. I think that would go a long way in promoting women as spiritual authorities in Mormonism.

  6. Rachel says:

    Both this book and event sound really heartening. I also love that a question about Heavenly Mother was asked and (albeit briefly) considered. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. Matt says:

    Good question about whether these resources (First Fifty Years of Relief Society and At the Pulpit) will be used in Church curriculum. I expect that we will see the talks in At the Pulpit used or linked to in various Church publications (manuals, magazines, etc.) in the future. Staff members in Church departments–such as Church History and the curriculum writers for both Sunday lessons and curriculum writers for Seminary and Institute–speak and collaborate often so that that the best resources are being used. For example, the Gospel Doctrine manual on the Doctrine and Covenants has lots of new links this year to new resources such as the Revelations in Context series. In addition, there’s a Church History Study Guide on lds.org to support Gospel Doctrine lessons that contains even more links (including a link to the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes for lesson 10: https://history.lds.org/article/church-history-study-guide?lang=eng).

    The ability to use resources and quotes in Church publications depends in part on the extent that a particular resource has been translated. To that end, At the Pulpit is being translated this year into Spanish and Portuguese. This should allow for more opportunities for it to be used.

    And, yes, we need to get the word out about these resources!

  8. This was an exciting event. I remember a couple years back, Caroline and I attended a similar outreach event, but the audience was not given an opportunity to speak. Sister Pearce spoke with us afterwards and asked if we would recommend any changes, and we said that we would like interaction with the group, and I am so glad they decided to go that way, even though the questions may have made them uncomfortable at times.

    I think the biggest strength of this project is that they sought to find examples of how women have molded Mormon theology. This is so different from the model I often hear described at church, in which Jesus holds a men-only board meeting, and the men transcribe his words, then tell them to women, who are the last to know.

    The biggest weakness is the distribution plan, or rather, the lack of one. Church materials that quote men almost exclusively are mandatory reading in our priesthood and Relief Society lessons, but this book, and others like Daughters in Our Kingdom before it, have no place. The message this sends contradicts the message of the book itself. Theology by men is mandatory reading, while women’s words are optional.

    The panelists encouraged us to self-assert and add quotes by women from the book into our lessons, much as we already do here at the Exponent, adding female voices to the androcentric curriculum. But men do not have to self-assert to hear the words of other men. And how can women self-assert at Elders Quorum and High Priests classes? Another comment at the event that I thought was particularly important raised the question of how we would get men to study “At the Pulpit.”

  9. EFH says:

    The event sounds fantastic. I am so glad that Exponent had a presence there. What I find heart-warming from this report is that the women organizers provided a Q&A to hear directly from other women. It shows to me that they prefer not to assume what the female audience thinks but that they prefer to find out directly. If events like this become a more regular phenomena, the diversity of the female voice and perspective with gain more ground in the hierarchy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this event.

  1. March 17, 2017

    […] It matters because no matter how many women or girls are baptized into the LDS Church, their baptisms cannot serve as the foundation for the growth of additional wards in the LDS Church. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *