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“I believe in women, especially thinking women.”

By: Rachael - March 15, 2013

- Emmeline B. Wells, Exponent,  Vol. 3 (Sept. 1874), No. 9

 

In his book Enlightenment Contested, Jonathan Israel argues that the first “revolutions”  were not, in fact, political rebellions; “revolution” referred to new epistemic frameworks caused by the likes of Galilean, Copernican, Newtonian, and Cartesian paradigm shifts. These new conceptual models laid the groundwork for later political reforms; in Condorcet’s concise maxim: “only philosophy can cause a true revolution.”  One of the reasons I have focused my research on 18th century European intersections of gender and religion is because of this very notion: that beliefs matter. And when people challenge or reinterpret the status quo, interesting things happen.

In 18th century Catholic Spain, for example,  Enlightenment ideas clashed with Catholic traditions to spark some fascinating pamphlet debates over the true nature and place of women. It was interesting to study the creative theologizing of two women in particular–Josefa Amar y Borbon and Ines Joyes y Blake– as they reappropriated the patriarchal narratives of Eve in their efforts to include women in the political and intellectual scene.

Female theologizing isn’t unique to the 18th century or Spain by any means– but I was still delighted to find similar techniques employed by early Mormon women as well. Take this gem from Emmeline B. Wells almost a century later, which echoed sentiments expressed by her European predecessors– but with a unique Mormon addition:  “If [man] sprang from the Deity, did not woman also? If he is made of mettle like that the Gods are made of, is not woman made of the same? If he came from his Father’s loins, and was nurtured upon his Mother’s lap, what other place did his sister come from that she should be accounted so inferior to him?” The shared pedigree of a dualistic God (both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother) helped reaffirm men and women’s spiritual equality.

And then her spin on the Adam and Eve story: “I know we are taught that Eve was the first to sin. Well, she was simply more progressive than Adam. She did not want to live in the beautiful garden for ever, and be nobody—not able even to make her own aprons. ” [1] This wonderful mix of independence, domesticity, and self-ownership offers a glimpse into interesting forms of female Mormon theology.

Eliza Snow, the “priestess, prophetess, and poetess,” of course, is the most famous female Mormon theologian. While most people are familiar with her revelation on Heavenly Mother (a label Joseph F. Smith would reject years later), I wasn’t as familiar with the theological battle over her essay, “Mortal and Immortal Elements of the Human Body: A Philosophical Objection Removed.” Published in the Exponent in 1870, Snow’s essay sets out to answer the question of how we can be restored to our own bodies if they decompose into the earth. She triumphantly concludes: “But thanks to God for the key which solves the mystery. Every organized human body, independent of the spirit… is composed of two distinct classes or grades of matter….” While the “gross, volatile” matter is subject to change and decay, the other type is “pure, invisible, intangible,” remaining intact and untouched; this latter material will be resurrected in “perfect form, and compose the immortal tabernacle of the immortal spirit.”

The essay was reprinted in the Millennial Star and then again in the Exponent a few years later. Brigham Young wasn’t keen on her explanation and printed a brief letter to the Exponent editor in the Deseret News, which concludes: “as the Prophet Joseph Smith once told an Elder who asked his opinion of a so-called revelation he had written–’It has just one fault, and that one fault is, it is not true.’”

He insisted on a different interpretation (that “the very body that lies there in [the] coffin is the body that will be raised at the first resurrection”)  in several other forums, and called on John Taylor to back him up as well. All personal opinions of Brigham Young’s misogynistic views aside, I think it potentially significant that John Taylor and Brigham Young’s refutations mentioned nothing about the impropriety of women theologizing–on the contrary, John Taylor referred to Eliza Snow in his own printed response as a fellow “lover of truth” who must be countered because “it is principle that we are all after.”

Mormon women also became the most vocal and public theologians in the defense of polygamy, emphasizing the “benefits to society and posterity” as well as the painful purging effects it had on their own fallen human nature [2].

Susanna Morrill has done great work on Mormon women’s “popular theology” from 1880 to 1920– where women non-confrontationally, poetically, creatively, and quietly placed women in the center of the “home, community, institutional church, and LDS salvational structure.” She argues that thanks to Mormonism’s unique understanding of [eternal] gender, “beneath the surface of this overtly male-centered institution, LDS theology and scripture held traditions that encouraged women to explore why women and femaleness were essential within the church.”

There are quibbles to be had, of course, about how we define Mormon theology. For the sake of space, I’ll cast a very broad generalization on two types of Mormon theology– the experimental reinterpretations and inspired speculations characteristic of Joseph Smith, and the more systematic efforts to create authoritative, coherent articles of belief found in the Pratt brothers up through Talmage, Roberts, and Widstoe.

Of course that’s not a clean dichotomy and there is plenty of cross-over, but it’s useful enough for my two points– which are that Mormonism, with its beliefs in an open canon and personal revelation,  is well suited to creative theology,  and that women are in a uniquely advantageous position to do so for at least a couple reasons. As Susanna pointed out, Mormonism’s belief in intrinsically unique, complementary gender spheres opens up a space for a theology of women– and I’ll add, by women. Those differing ontological or epistemic spheres make a woman’s perspective nonredundant.

Furthermore, the lack of priesthood office gives women the flexibility and freedom someone as mantle-laden as Joseph Smith yearned for: as he complained to a friend, “he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen–that of free speech,” for “when he ventured to give his private opinion on any subject of importance, his words were often garbled and their meaning twisted, and then given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”[3]

In Adam Miller’s recent and interesting formulation of theologians as “imaginative tinkerers,” women  could embrace this creative, less formal way of theologizing that suits Mormonism so well. Indeed, I think a few contemporary Mormon women have. Valerie Hudson has pioneered an original approach to the symmetry and equality of men and women in the plan of salvation, and to the sacred physicality–priestesshood, even–of women’s bodies. Fiona Givens has pushed forward the vulnerable, weeping God of Enoch, the anti-apostasy narrative of Revelation’s woman in the wilderness, and universal salvation. Another book I came across called “The Gift of Giving Life” is a collection of women’s essays that sacralize pregnancy, birth, and mothering within an LDS theological paradigm. Maxine Hanks has done–and is continuing to do– interesting work on women and the priesthood. I know-and hope– I am leaving out many other examples.

Here’s to hoping that in a time of relative historical transparency, intellectual freedom, and female consciousness for Mormonism, we’ll see more women (and men, of course) engage in substantive, creative theological worship.

 

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[1]  E. N. B., Vol. 3 (15 July 1875), No. 16 – as quoted in Women and Authority
[2] “Foundations of Mormon Theology Vol 1, NY: Oxford, forthcoming

[3] Jessee W. Crosby, in Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts from over 100 People Who Knew Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,1974), 140.

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11 Comments

  1. Thanks Rachel. I agree that Susanna has done some interesting stuff here. I’d be interested in your expanded thoughts about this relationship between a lack of priesthood office and theological flexibility and freedom?

    Are we sure that the cool aprons quote is from Emmeline? It Women and Authority had the wrong issue date (January 15, 1875, 122, for those interested) but the author listed is accurate, “E. N. B.” I’m not sure who that would be, but I don’t think Emmeline had an N. in her name.

    Also, do you have a source for that “priestess, prophetess, and poetess” quote?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 15, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  2. I’m not sure that awesome aprons quote is from Emmeline; I assumed Women and Authority had traced the ENB initials to Emmeline, since that signature occurs quite frequently, from what I recall.

    As for the other quote– I have frequently seen these terms used individually , but they occur together at least in an article on Eliza R. Snow, “Zion’s Poetess,” in the Utah Magazine on May 15, 1869 (page 24): “But she is in fact something more than a mere poetess. She is also of the prophetess and priestess type… we have an interblending of the poetess, prophetess, and priestess.”

    Re: lack of priesthood office and theological flexibility/freedom: I would probably need more room to expand on this, but simply put, I think women could take advantage of their relatively non-authoritative positions in the Church (thanks to narrow understandings of priesthood offices and ‘authority’) to delve more freely into the experimental, exploratory kind of non-authoritative theology. I imagine that many priesthood-office holding men, like Joseph, would feel somewhat constrained from such exploratory, creative work because of the implied (at least) sense of authority we imbue their offices with. For those who do not think authoritative statements are necessary in changing cultural attitudes or creating paradigm shifts and new interpretative frameworks, creative and reflective theology is a wonderfully open terrain that can yield great fruits. In my opinion, anyway.

    Comment by Rachael — March 15, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  3. Interesting. I’m going to have to think about that a bit. My initial sense is that a lot of the most creative and popular folk theology have come from non-GA men (e.g., Nels Nelson; Cleon Skousen). I imagine that some would argue that their priesthood in some way legitimized their creativity. As I said, I want to think about this some more. Susanna’s work suggests that perhaps in the 19th century female creative theology was filtered through particular media. Thanks for the additional thoughts.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 15, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

  4. Good examples. I’m certainly not arguing that non-GA, priesthood-office holding men can’t do creative theology; I’m mostly saying that women should not feel deterred, and if anything, should feel less inhibited or constrained in that field. You may be right, but I don’t think people would argue Skousen or Nelson’s priesthood legitimized their creativity as much as their scriptural and doctrinal knowledge did; and this is something women can and should achieve (and with the help of the mission age, may be more encouraged). I’m glad you raised the point about the media of popular theology; I’m eager to look into that further.

    Comment by Rachael — March 15, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

  5. Great post, Rachael. A really beautiful ode to creative theological thought. Though I think that evening out administrative and official leadership roles and responsibilities among men and women would leave plenty of opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, to place extra focus on theological “tinkering” when not carrying as much leadership responsibility (more power to those who can manage both at once!).

    I do think you’re right that it’s knowledge rather than priesthood authority per se that legitimizes specific works of specific intellectuals (“theologians”?), but–and I welcome suggestions for how to best think about this–I imagine that keeping women out of official leadership roles affects the way church members perceive women, so that in general men speak with a bit more authority (and reach), regardless of their place in the hierarchy. Still: “Here’s to hoping that in a time of relative historical transparency, intellectual freedom, and female consciousness for Mormonism, we’ll see more women (and men, of course) engage in substantive, creative theological worship.” Amen!

    Comment by Jennifer — March 15, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

  6. Thanks Jennifer. While you may be right about the effects of “evening” roles, I think it’s useful to consider things that can be implemented in the present. Furthermore, I don’t think the issue has so much to do with time/opportunity/focus as with the way in which we place [too much?] authority on priesthood offices, inhibiting the theological ‘tinkering’ with all those wonderful loose ends in Mormonism.

    And I agree that placing women in non-authoritative, “auxiliary” positions may affect many members’ perception of women; but that’s my point. While it has its obvious disadvantages, it’s not without a potential upside; that, freed from the constraints of “authority,” women can explore more openly, without the pressure to provide authoritative, committee-and-quorum-stamp-approved conclusions. And for those members who share a love for reflective, experimental ‘tinkering’ and value scriptural knowledge and doctrinal thoughtfulness more than rank or office, the absence of “authority” will not be a deterrent to reading and joining in on the conversation. Reach, of course, could be an issue, but with the burgeoning online communities, podcasts, journals, etc., I’m not sure it is, so much.

    Comment by Rachael — March 16, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

  7. Your concluding optimistic note about women having potentially untapped opportunities for engaging in creative theology reminded me of a Eugene England article titled (I think only slightly tongue-in-cheek) We Need to Liberate Mormon Men! which argues that women have actually outperformed men when it comes to the creative side of life within Mormonism. I’m not as optimistic as he is there, but I think he explored at least some related topics to what you’re suggesting.

    I also think that in addition to what you’ve already said about women not having the institutional backing of priesthood offices to legitimize their ideas but having power regardless, to the extent that women do more of the child-rearing they may be able to be very influential in how the rising generation thinks about gospel issues. And the lack of priesthood leadership in most women’s settings could lead to less “correlated” lessons and discussions in Relief Society lessons or visiting teaching conversations. (In practice that could cut the other way if women don’t feel like they’re “allowed” to venture outside of traditional ideas, but I think your point is that a lot of those types of restrictions might be more self-imposed by women on themselves than enforced by male authority figures–assuming, of course, that the early 90s retrenchment era when those boundaries were pretty firmly policed by church leaders is safely behind us, which I think it is.)

    Sorry for the ramble, but (as always) very interesting stuff, Rachael!

    Comment by austin — March 17, 2013 @ 3:14 am

  8. Great comments, Austin- thanks! And thank you for referencing such a brilliant EE essay- I had completely forgotten about that one, and he makes fantastic points (sprinkled with on-point literary examples, as always) about the potential limitations of priesthood authority and/or its culture (and how women have succeeded in its absence). And thanks for bringing up the point about rearing children and women’s influence there; I think it’s a good point and presents opportunities that we feminists sometimes dismiss…

    I certainly hope for more “uncorrelated” RS lessons! Comparing my husband’s experiences in EQ, I definitely am inclined to think your assessment is right :)

    Comment by Rachael — March 17, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

  9. [...] belonging to the men of the Church (he probably had it backwards, if anything, as my sister Rachael Givens Johnson has argued), but the point is that it isn’t the exclusive domain of professional philosophers. We must [...]

    Pingback by Theology, Worship, and Children’s Games | Times & Seasons — March 18, 2013 @ 9:29 am

  10. Isaiah Berlin arrives at JI!

    Sorry to be so late, Rachael, but this is great stuff. There really needs to be a larger project on female theologizing in 19th century Mormonism. Post haste.

    Comment by Ben P — March 18, 2013 @ 10:53 am

  11. I’m late to the party, but… very interesting, Rachael. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 18, 2013 @ 9:04 pm