"This spirit stirring within woman"

I recently finished Carol Cornwall Madsen’s biography of Emmeline B. Wells. [You know, the Emmeline who edited (and wrote much of) the original Exponent, served as General Relief Society President in the early twentieth century, and fought tirelessly for woman’s suffrage].

Simple review: I loved the book.

One passage in particular has me thinking about the term Restoration in new ways. I’d love to hear the thoughts of others.

Madsen notes that though Eve is not branded as a “sinner or seducer” in LDS theology, Emmeline and others viewed the “curse” of Eve as an ingrained cultural concept that helped to justify the inequality women for centuries. However, Emmeline believed that such injustices “were in the province of women to ameliorate . . . by performing ‘redemptive acts’ of their own.”

“She believed that all efforts to advance women were part of that process of redemption. As a fallen world would yet be redeemed from the effects of Edenic transgression, so also would women finally enjoy that equality that had been theirs before the Fall, Emmeline asserted. ‘Perfect equality then,’ she declared, ‘and so it must be when all things are restored as they were in the beginning. It is this spirit stirring within woman that is to bring her back again to that primeval state that existed in the Garden of Eden.’ . . . The ultimate purpose of the restoration of Christ’s gospel . . . was to prepare a fallen world and its inhabitants to return to that paradisiacal glory. The promise of future spiritual equality spurred Emmeline toward efforts to reform a social structure that denied women temporal equality. In fact, Emmeline believed that full expression of the gift of agency in this life was a necessity for full equality in the next. To achieve this desired state required a united effort. ‘Woman’s work in this day and age,’ she wrote, ‘is not only an individual work, but a universal work; a work for all her suffering sisterhood.’”

The organization of the Relief Society, she believed, was a key development in this work of restoration and redemption:

“Emmeline assured her readers that the bonds of female servitude began to loosen in 1842 and from that time on ‘men no longer held the same absolute sway.’ . . . Latter-day Saint women attached a direct relationship between the organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo in 1842, with its empowerment of women, and the first woman’s rights convention of 1848. That the Relief Society was organized first was not a mere happenstance. As a result of that event, not only Mormon women, but women of the world, Emmeline insisted, were ‘acted upon by an influence many comprehend not which is working for their redemption from under the curse.’” (An Advocate for Women: The Publich Life of Emmeline B. Wells: pgs. 81-83)

What is your take on this view of the restoration?


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. AmyB says:

    I can’t help but wonder what Emmeline would think of the state of the church institution today. I wonder if she would be disappointed that the Relief Society is no longer autonomous. I wonder if she would even recognize what we have today as the organization she led for so many years.

    I’m still thinking about her view of restoration. It is puzzling to me that our theology tells us that women will be priestesses and goddesses, and most women I know are convinced we will be equal in the eternities, but many accept that we are not treated equally now. I like Emmeline’s idea that we can use our agency to bring about temporal equality, but I’m also at a loss as to what I could do further the cause.

  2. Caroline says:

    Thanks for these great quotes. Emmeline has always been my very favorite Mormon woman (with the possible exception of Emma Smith). I love her statements about working towards women’s equality as a part of the restoration of Christ’s gospel.

    I do wonder, though, how she could make such statements about working towards women’s equality and not keenly feel how unequal women were in the LDS church. I imagine she must have been mainly focusing on political equality, not religious. Or, since these were the days before correllation, perhaps she had more of a reason to feel empowered and autonomous as a woman in the church.

    At any rate, I wonder how her public statements may have differed from her private feelings and perceptions. I’ve read in articles that she was a staunch supporter of plural marriage publically, but privately she shed many a tear about her husband’s indifference and coldness towards her, a plural wife.

  3. Mark Butler says:

    I certainly think the Relief Society is a key part of the Restoration, with a significance that is often not fairly recognized.

  4. Deborah says:

    Caroline/Amy: Yes, there was some disconnect between her public, fierce support of plural marriage and her private discontent with her own plural marriage . . .

    That said, she was not a women’s rights activist in _spite_ of the church. She was an activist *because* of her understanding of the restoration and church government. Remember, Utah women had the right to vote long long before the 19th amendment. It was the ANTI-polygamy forces (in large measure) who tried to strip Utah women of this right. Brigham Young and subsequent church presidents supported her work on the Exponent, urging women to subscribe — and she made her political views known on those pages! They sent her to lobby in D.C. The Relief Society funded her trips to National Suffrage conventions. Her cohort of LDS women included some of the best educated and most dynamic women in the territory — and their education came out of the encouragement and often financial support of the church. Based on my readings, she very much viewed the restoration as a vehicle for restoring ancient truths about justice and equality to the *world* and saw in the set-up of the church (e.g. the turning of the Key to Relief Society, temple ordinances, becoming queens and priestesses) as turning the tide.

    More than that, she and others believed that the Restoration would be a catalyst for social reforms world-wide, that its “spirit” would touch others to work in their own spheres to make the world a more heavenly place. It’s a beautiful, expansive view of the term “Restoration” — and not one divorced for her day-to-day experiences as a Mormon (despite her private heartache, personal losses, and occasional difference of opinion with other male and female leaders).

    And yes, Mark, I think the Relief Society is an essential piece of “Restoration,” however it’s defined. I’ll sit through many a lack-luster lesson, but I will not speak ill of my membership in this organization. It’s promise and potential (spiritually and practically) is too important.

  5. Deborah says:

    Now that I’m home from work, Amy, I wanted to get back final sentence, because I had a quick thought. On Sunday, I arranged to visit with my new visiting teachee next Sunday afternoon — she’s a woman I don’t know well and who would seem to have little in common with me. After I got home, I realized that the large Darfur rally is scheduled for next Sunday. I nearly told her “something came up” (because is it kosher to attend a rally on a Sunday in Mormondom?). But instead I told her *what* came up. Her response? “I am so thrilled to meet another woman who is concerned about the world outside her personal sphere.” Huh? Didn’t expect that. It gave me one more reason to quit being so shy at church and start believing (as Wells did) in the changing power of word, passion, and spirit . . . and Relief Society women.

  6. AmyB says:

    Deborah, the reaction from your visiting teachee is so cool! I do believe that one of the great strengths of the church, and Relief Society in particular is that is places us in the paths of people we might never meet otherwise and provides all kinds of opportunities for service and growth. I’m so glad you shared your experience, it warms my heart and gives me hope.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Deborah, thanks for this post. I didn’t know about this book, and I’m excited to read it.

    Emmeline is one of my favorites, too. Seeing your quotes makes me wonder why we don’t have some RS lessons about former RS presidents (although for that matter, I think they’d be refreshing for the men, too). When I read about her marriage, I think, “how many women would be helped to know that a RS president wasn’t in an ideal marriage?”

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