BOOK REVIEW: THE WITNESS OF WOMEN
When I first heard of the book The Witness of Women by Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder, I thought it sounded interesting. I then heard that it was intended to be a resource for Relief Society and Gospel Doctrine classes, and I thought that would be great- especially since we are studying the Doctrine and Covenants this year. Indeed, it’s introduction states that “Gospel Doctrine teachers, Young Men and Young Women teachers, religion professors, family history researchers, and church members in general” are welcome to use the materials liberally in lesson plans. I then heard that this book was wonderful, excellent, inspiration for all! So then I thought it was probably too good to be true, so prepared for disappointment.
Oh, but I was wrong. There is not one iota of disappointment to be found! It is wonderful. It is excellent, and it is inspirational for all (yes, blokes– you, too! TAKE NOTE.).
Written by Mormon women, about Mormon women, this book focuses on the era of the Restoration and development of the church. Each page is a treasure. It reflects the love of Christ and the dedication and testimony of early Mormon women. This testimony is shared in the ways the women witnessed and navigated life because of the testimonies they had of Joseph Smith, the restored priesthood and the Book of Mormon. Witness of Women is academically annotated, making it into a significant resource for the most fastidious of church teachers. But the real beauty lies in its layout and prose: It is formatted into eighteen topics, each containing some context for the topic at the start of each chapter. Then each topic has an introduction about the women quoted, just prior to the beautiful words of the woman.
Each quote is powerful and topical; indeed, it does make itself into a great resource as well as a stand-alone book. It teaches truth, and allows us to lay to rest some of the folklore that we have taught within the church. For example, that the women of the church did not use their finest china to be crushed for the temple building (pg 216), but rather used broken pieces of china and glass (recycling!). But they also worked and sacrificed in different, creative and dedicated ways to build the temple. Learning of these sacrifices not previously known to me was enlightening and caused me to appreciate the work of early Mormon women in yet a new light.
Plus, the women quoted are not just those we are most familiar with, but a variety of early church members. The women represented are migrants from England and Europe, generational Americans, Canadians and even African Americans. This was refreshing and inspiring to know that “everyday women” (not just those married to or who bore male church leaders) were included as witnesses of this fundamental part of church history. Equally, the Woman’s Exponent is generously quoted, including those who wrote using pseudonyms, thus concealing their identity even today.
I read the book cover to cover, and found it to be delightful. I enjoyed soaking in quotes about the things that we rarely speak about today, such as witnesses of angels (pg 174), and speaking in tongues(pg 176). I found myself relieved to read about the troubles in Kirtland from the women’s point of view. This section is derived from the time period when many early converts were angrily leaving the church after the collapse of the bank, and is told from the perspective of the women who stayed. I confess one of my favourites of the book was reading about Laura Farnsworth Owen (pg 266) who—sharing only a tiny spoiler, yet using her term, gave a visiting male apostate a “whipping.”
I also loved how Emma Smith was celebrated. The books about Emma from my mother’s day generally labelled her in terms of a perceived lack of testimony because she did not accept polygamy, nor did she travel to Utah with the Saints, leaving me to question if Emma was a worthy party of the restoration. Thankfully, modern scholarship on Emma has truthfully revealed that she was also a dedicated saint. This book celebrates Emma’s sainthood, and quotes her liberally and equally as a worthy witness to the restoration. I found this to be a powerful inclusion and absolutely loved every word included in this book about Emma.
Equally powerful was how polygamy / plural marriage was addressed through the eyes of the women. The discussion of polygamy, in addition to other desperately difficult situations, was presented as a sacrifice given by the women. Sometimes the sacrifice of heart or conscience was given with complete faith, but usually, it was given with some inner turmoil. This honesty was refreshing, as was the beautifully included discussion of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, including a powerful quote by the fourteen-year-old he married (pg 347).
Overall, this book is a great additional to all gospel libraries. My only disappointment in this era of Mormon women’s writing is the heavy focus on Mormon Pioneer women in, or who migrated to North America. This is not a criticism of the book, but rather a reflection of the lens in which the church and most often addresses the foremothers of Mormondom. I see no issue with including women who did not migrate to America (most often because they could not afford to do so) as vibrant, powerful women who may have only been able to obtain temple ordinances long after they were dead because they could never hope to travel to a temple. Yet they remained faithful, like Abish in the book of Mormon (who is always envisioned as young but may have been very old), laying a foundation and preparing the way for modern branches, wards, stakes and temples. It is my hope that this book will pave the way for subsequent church materials that quote women in all stages of church development: from those who joined the church in Asia in the 1900’s to those who served from the nineteenth century for generations in places like England, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand– so we can be further enlightened and inspired by the foremothers of the global restoration.
Witness of Women can be purchased through Amazon for $18.99US.