February 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Guardians of the Hearth
This is a painfully typical “Women should be mothers/mothering” message. A fair attempt has been made to include childless women by quoting Barbara Thompson’s personal interpretation of the family proclamation… but even though she briefly addresses that “even if I were the only living member of my family, I am still a member of God’s family”, there is no elaboration or sense of security about our place as children of Heavenly Parents. Rather, it is focused on mortal family relationships. As a result, the message is void of reprieve for those of us with estranged or volatile, “earthly” family relationships, and for those of us who are childless, we are encouraged to stick our noses into other people’s lives to “strengthen other families”…. a thing that, in my experience with most church members, is extremely unwelcome.
So… where does that leave those of us who are motherless, childless or just plain tired of being lectured about motherhood and wifedom? Well, let’s flip to the history section:
“When Sister Bathsheba W. Smith served as the fourth Relief Society general president [from 1901 to 1910], she saw a need to strengthen families, and so she established mother education lessons for Relief Society sisters. The lessons included counsel on marriage, prenatal care, and child rearing.”
What is important to note in this period, yet absent in this month’s Visiting Teaching message is that the educational programs created by Ms. Smith were not limited to marital and maternal classes: “There is nothing good,” said Smith, “which is suitable for woman’s work that cannot be properly brought into Relief Society. The study of the best literature, sciences, nature, cooking, in fact the whole field of domestic science, child study, home making, house furnishing, [as well as] Ethics, Civics, Patriotism, Morals, Manners, the Gospel, the Virtues,– all, all and kindred subjects are within the scope of Relief Society.”
So yes, this message is titled “Guardians of the Hearth”, but in understanding the extended scope of Ms. Smith’s plan, the aim is in giving women education so that they have a voice. Indeed, “ye cannot be saved in ignorance” became a common Relief Society catchphrase during this time.
This Visiting Teaching message can be interpreted as an invitation to follow Ms. Smith’s desired legacy by investing and expanding in knowledge and experience. The “hearth” is literally a fireplace—so what lights a fire in the hearts of the women you visit teach? Is it the study of child development (even if they don’t have children)? Or scrapbooking? Or politics? Or power-lifting? Don’t judge. Encourage. Same goes for women interested in veganism, scripture study, literature, quilting, film, government, motorcycles and… even women who are anxious and seeking to improve their family relationships. Consider this quote by Camilla Eyring Kimball:
“Though at the time I did not often think of my learning as a religious activity, it clearly was, in the sense that I came to value the inherent goodness in people, to appreciate the world around me, to see the fruits of unselfish cooperation, to increase my sense of self-worth, and to feel I had a capacity to be of service to others.”
In encouraging the women you visit teach to seek opportunities for improvement, Kimball reminds us that self-worth is increased. This individual self worth is important so we do not mistake ourselves as slaves who are indentured to children, men, relationships, callings, or otherwise. In recognising our eternal value by engaging and encouraging each other to seek edification and increased knowledge, we are better able to “see the fruits of unselfish cooperation.” This is something each of us can apply in our lives—friends, daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, —all of us can improve our relationships, our hearts and our minds in seeking edification through study of the things we love.
So yes, the stock visiting teaching message is problematic and limited because its scope does not take into consideration the growing number women with painful family situations. But when we think about the historical context of Ms. Smith’s scope for the Relief Society education program, and encourage the women we visit teach to develop their minds in a manner that increases their self-worth, we can better position women as guardians of infinitely valuable hearts and hearths.
As Emmeline B. Wells once said, “I believe in women, especially thinking women.”
How can you encourage the women you visit teach to find joy and improved self-worth in obtaining further light and knowledge?
*The included image is called Woman Teaching Geometry. It is French and its estimated date is 1309-1316. The very rare rendition of a woman teaching men is especially unusual because the men appear to be monks. She is most likely the personification of Geometry, based on Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, [5th c.].