Juvenile Instructor » “& exhort the Church”: Some Thoughts on the July 1830 Revelation to Emma Smith
 


“& exhort the Church”: Some Thoughts on the July 1830 Revelation to Emma Smith

By: Christopher - March 07, 2013

“We Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further.” -Joseph Smith to Peter Cartwright[1]

I’ve argued elsewhere that the above quote encapsulates how many Methodist converts to early Mormonism understood their new religion. The more I study the trajectory of Methodism in antebellum America and the beginnings of Mormonism, the more I’m convinced that the statement also highlights an actual historical truth. In matters of ecclesiology, theology, and liturgy, early Mormons—whether consciously or not (and I think there’s some of both going on)—took a concept originated and/or popularized by Methodists and went one step further, thus simultaneously building on and challenging the foundation from which the new religion sprang.[2] For this reason, among others, I think a close reading of Mormon texts—including scriptural texts—that pays particular attention to Methodism’s discursive community can yield important insights into the Mormon past.[3]

As my contribution to JI’s celebration of women’s history month, I thought I’d try my hand at such a reading of the July 1830 revelation received by Joseph Smith and directed to his wife Emma, canonized in LDS scripture today as Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants. There’s a lot to digest in this relatively short revelation, and much that could be said about various passages contained therein. Traditional interpretations of the revelation have been colored by subsequent shifts in Latter-day Saint theology and ecclesiology. Beginning with Joseph Smith’s own re-interpretation of the revelation at the organization of the Relief Society in 1842, Mormons have tended to understand the revelation in relatively narrow terms limited to the sphere of women’s work. According to the minutes from that meeting, “President Smith read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants.” He “stated that she was ordain’d at the time, the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all, and to teach the female part of the community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.”[4]

In an effort to move beyond the ways in which such subsequent events have colored our understanding of the revelation and try to understand how Emma and Joseph Smith might have understood it when first received in 1830, it might be fruitful to explore how a Methodist might read certain words contained within the revelation. This is both because Joseph and Emma (and her even more so) were Methodists before they were Mormons, and because in other instances, both borrowed from their Methodist past in producing crucial texts from Mormonism’s founding era.[5]

I want to focus particularly on Emma’s calling to “exhort the Church”—a command that is noticeably absent from Joseph’s 1842 rehearsal of the original revelation. While modern Mormons might read it as simply a synonym for “encourage” or “urge,” the word exhort, and its derivative exhorter, had particular meanings among evangelicals in early America, including in some cases specifically gendered implications. This is because while most religious denominations forbade female preaching, some allowed and even embraced female exhorting.

Methodist founder John Wesley was among the more progressive religious reformers on this front in the 18th century. As Catherine Brekus has noted, “Wesley never suggested that women should be officially licensed or ordained, [but] he warmly supported their ‘labors’ in spreading the Methodist gospel across the British countryside.”[6] In both Britain and America, such women were often embraced as exhorters. The difference between exhorting and preaching was subtle but significant. As John Wigger summarized:

Methodists drew a technical distinction between exhorting and preaching. … In theory, exhorting consisted of simply telling one’s testimony of conversion or relating life experiences in the faith, with the goal of imploring one’s listeners toward greater holiness and fuller service. Preaching and exhorting were often used together, so that a preacher’s sermon might be followed by an exhortation from someone else. While exhorters could be licensed, any Methodist or recognized adherent, man or woman, black or white, young or old, could, under the right circumstances, be invited to give a public exhortation. Preaching, on the other hand, consisted of ‘taking,’ or reading, a text of scripture and then explaining the meaning of that passage. Only licensed preachers were supposed to exercise the privilege of taking a text.[7]

Such context might not only help make sense of what might be expected of Emma Smith when she was called to “exhort the Church” in 1830, it might also help explain her apparent reluctance to do so.[8] As Wigger notes, “by the 1810s and 1820s [i.e. precisely the time in which Emma Smith grew up and matured as a Methodist] female exhorters would be less welcome in most Methodist churches than they had been before the turn of the century.”[9] While many of the Methodist schismatic groups that arose during this period embraced female exhorters, Emma Hale’s Methodist Episcopal Church did not. Perhaps Emma Smith balked at the command to “exhort the church” at least in part because her religious upbringing had conditioned her to see such things as inappropriate for women.

Such a reading, of course, is merely conjectural, and it raises as many questions and it attempts to answer. This is especially true when we consider not only the command to “exhort the Church,” but also the accompanying mandate to “expound Scriptures” (and “be ordained” to do so!). Being ordained to expound scriptural texts, as Brekus and Wigger both point out, was essentially a command to preach. And that was something almost no Methodist in nineteenth century America would have been comfortable with.

While I don’t have the time or space here to more fully tease out these textual meanings and more importantly, incorporate a fuller analysis of the ways in which these texts intersected with the lived experience of Emma Smith and early Mormon women more generally, I hope that my somewhat scattered thoughts here spur further consideration of such issues. Please chime in in the comments to add your own thoughts and insights.


[1] Peter Cartwright, The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (Carlton & Porter, 1857), 342.

[2] This is true, I would argue, of (among other things) Mormonism’s brand of Arminian theology, its early modes of worship, its organizational structure of conferences and councils, and its embrace of visions, charisma, and spiritual gifts.

[3] My first foray into such a reading involved two revelations concerning Methodist preacher (and almost Mormon convert) James Covel. See Christopher C. Jones, “Mormonism in the Methodist Marketplace: James Covel and the Historical Background of Doctrine and Covenants 39-40,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51:1 (2012): 67-98.

[4] Such an interpretation strikes me as a potentially empowering one for Mormon women, given its rather straightforward command to Emma Smith and her sisters in the Relief Society “to expound the scriptures to all,” but analysis of that is another subject for another time.

[5] Emma Hale, of course, grew up Methodist; the daughter of devout parents and the niece of a Methodist preacher. When she was called in that same July 1830 revelation to “make a Selection of Sacred Hymns” for the new church, she relied heavily upon her copy of a Methodist hymnal from her youth that was intended to be used by “the pious of all denominations.” In the case of Joseph Smith, I am thinking especially of his several narrations of his first vision. For more particulars, see my article, “The Form and Power of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37:2 (Spring 2011): 88-114.

[6] Catherine Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 133.

[7] John W. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 29. For a fuller discussion of Methodist exhorters, see pp. 29-31. On female exhorting in particular, see pp. 152-157.

[8] There is little evidence that she every exhorted alongside her husband in his public preaching and sermonizing. This is certainly due to ongoing rapid changes within the church and Emma’s own busy life and duties. But, as I suggest here, it might also suggest a more conscious reluctance based on her Methodist background.

[9] Ibid., 156.



9 Comments

  1. Christopher, I remember hearing or reading long ago (but I know not where) that an “elect lady” was actually a term used to describe female Methodist teachers/sermonizers. Do you know anything about this?

    Comment by the narrator — March 7, 2013 @ 1:18 am

  2. Good work, Chris.

    I think the hesitance of Emma to expound or preach to all is fascinating. This context really helps there. I think it introduces an interesting contrast, a progressive call for more female participation that is perhaps too progressive for the specific woman receiving the call.

    I wonder what the use of Section 25 with the RS of Nauvoo tells us about this. The fact that Joseph is the one initiating the reading of the revelation, the first time I read this I didn’t notice that Eliza’s minutes skip that portion. Did he skip it or did she miss it? They consistently read from the revelation at the RS meetings that follow, what are they reading? And are they all taking the inclusionary note at the end? “This is my voice unto all”?

    Comment by jjohnson — March 7, 2013 @ 6:11 am

  3. Could the injunction to “exhort the Church” even be read as implying a kind of public partnership between Emma and Joseph–he is to preach, she is to expound? That would be a radical re-reading indeed!

    Comment by LisaT — March 7, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  4. Thanks, Chris. Great stuff.

    Comment by David G. — March 7, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

  5. Very nice. This clarifies some things for me, things I was sorting through in my posts at FMH on D&C 25 (see here and here). Most helpful!

    Comment by Joe Spencer — March 7, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

  6. Loyd, yes, that’s correct, more or less. “Elect lady” was a common descriptor (though not necessarily a formal title) of early Methodist women, and was applied to both women known for their exhorting and for their personal piety. The only example I know of in which it was used as a title was in the case of Selena Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who later split with the Wesleys (over theological issues–she was a Calvinist) and formed her own connection of preachers and missionaries.

    Good questions, Janiece. Hopefully someone takes up all of this further and provides additional answers/insight.

    I think that’s a plausible reading, Lisa, and there are some examples of Methodist preachers whose wives would follow up their husband’s sermons with exhortations at camp meetings and revivals.

    Gracias, David.

    Excellent, Joe. I’ll need to go back and read your posts more closely. Glad this post was of some help.

    I should also point out Carol Madsen’s excellent article on this subject. She doesn’t take on the Methodist roots of the command to “exhort,” but provides a lot of other important historical context.

    Comment by Christopher — March 7, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

  7. This is very fascinating. Your reading of Emma Smith’s hesitancy to exhort the Church ranging from her Methodist background (and the historical moment of that church) to her own busy life point out that her refraining from exhorting the church were not merely black and white. A point I think that is lost and too under explored when considering expressions of women’s religiosity. Thought-provoking piece!

    Comment by NatalieR — March 7, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

  8. Thanks, Natalie!

    Comment by Christopher — March 8, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

  9. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks again, Chris, for your insights.

    Comment by WalkerW — March 10, 2013 @ 7:50 am