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