We’ve been thinking…
Each spring, more than 14,000 women converge on the BYU campus for Women’s Conference. The annual 2-day event is cosponsored by BYU and the Relief Society, and it has a remarkable influence among its physical attendees, amplified by the larger sessions being broadcast on BYU-TV and because Deseret Book issues a “greatest hits” compilation volume of talks from the conference each year. Given its quasi-official status, alongside Deseret Book’s touring production of regional women’s retreats, “Time Out for Women,” BYU Women’s Conference provides an important venue for devotional talks by and about women’s experiences in the Church. Many LDS women see both as “approved” forums and use them as a spiritual retreat.
However, BYU Women’s Conference is more like a business conference/trade show than an academic conference. Which got us wondering… wouldn’t it be great if there was cutting-edge scholarship on Mormon women being shared there? And if the gap between academic research on women, and the contemporary subjects of that research, was being more frequently and effectively bridged? And if there were a sort of TED-talk opportunity to take the best of recent scholarship on Mormon women’s history and put it before a wider audience?
Case in point: Jonathan Stapley & Kristine Wright’s recent article, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History Winter 2011, 37(1): 1-85 (full text on SSRN http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1754069). Many Mormons, regardless of their level of engagement with scholarship, are aware that Mormon women participated in healing rituals in the past. Stapley and Wright present a new and expanded framework to understand the practice and beliefs regarding this participation. They detail the prevalence of female ritual healing as well as the particularities of practice from the earliest moments of the Restoration to the late twentieth century. They also introduce “liturgical authority” as a concept to understand the evolving authority held by church members to perform various aspects of church liturgy. Additionally, they highlight the transition from folk liturgy to formal liturgy in history of the Church and the environment that contributed to these transitions. Throughout this narrative, Stapley and Wright show that Church leaders have consistently supported female ritual healing until relatively recently and include examples from revelations to Joseph Smith, writings of Relief Society leaders, First Presidency pronouncements, and a rich body of artifacts from recommends to silk banners detailing the practice as anything but a hidden aspect of our collective past.
It’s a really important piece of new scholarship (still ongoing, see here). Even though there may be some awareness of this past, the extent and richness of it and its persistence well into the twentieth century are surely not widely known. What might some of the consequences be of sharing this information to a large audience of Mormon women? In what ways would this be useful, surprising, or potentially transformative for women who encounter it during a spiritual retreat setting? In other words, since the thrust of women’s conference is “spiritual adrenaline” rather than (as at most academic history conferences) “the joy of uncovering the past’s specifics,” what might Women’s Conference participants take from such a talk, or what ripple effects would we be hoping for?
Let us suggest a few that have emerged as we imagined a hypothetical program lineup that would include Stapley and Wright’s findings and/or articles in a similar vein.
First, there is the obvious benefit of recovering collective historical memory of an important, now-lost, tradition in Mormon women’s past experiences. Speaking of it openly–and without apology or speculative folk-theology about why it is no longer extant–is an important first step away from whitewashing or obscuring the scope and meaning of female religious authority in our own past.
Unlike some historical truths of the Church with which some Mormons are not familiar, the vast majority of the details regarding women healing are inspiring, poignant, and spirit-conducive in the traditional Mormon devotional mode. Consequently, the various experiences of Latter-day Saint men and women, and the various pronouncements made by male and female church leaders can easily be highlighted to promote faith, encourage obedience, and venerate the heritage of the Restoration… all of which are undoubtedly aligned with the core goals of Church-affiliated women’s conferences.
Then, sharing such findings more widely points Mormon women towards their own past, introduces newer convert women to stories and sources of strength they are unlikely to find mentioned in regular Sunday meetings, and models how to use “raw” historical sources which are increasingly becoming available to anyone in digital archives. With a little context and modeling, Mormon women may find ways to draw upon such sources themselves for lessons, talks, or for their own personal study. The use of primary sources in, and for, the Church’s new women’s history publications (Daughters in My Kingdom and the Women of Faith in the Latter Days series) suggests that even the Church itself sees value in giving members greater access to documents and objects of the gendered history of Mormonism.
We would surmise that sharing this information in a venue specifically designed by and for LDS women would have some real benefits. We share the hunch that women, when among other women and listening in a female-centric context, might be more receptive to this history. And let’s be honest, there are precious few sanctioned places where these concepts and stories can be confronted and celebrated. We think this should be one.