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Relief Society Handbook: Spotlight on American Gender Norms

By: Guest - May 29, 2014

Susanna Morrill is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland where she teaches courses in United States religious history. She received her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago. Her work in the recent past has focused on how early Mormon women used popular literature in order to argue for the theological importance of their roles in the home, community, and church.

I finally got around to reading carefully the latest handbook of the Relief Society, Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society. It got me thinking about the symbolic connection between women and the home in Mormon and American culture. A little further afield, it got me thinking about feminine divinity in Mormonism and U.S. religious traditions and public discourses.

The authors of the handbook, Lucile C. Tate, Elaine R. Harris, and Susan W. Tanner, focus a substantial amount of time on the home. While not dictating the nuts and bolts of homemaking, they create a consistent vision of how the home is central to the Mormon plan of salvation and how women as mothers and nurturers are central to creating these domestic sanctuaries. The handbook asserts that gender is pre-existent, eternal, and associated with fixed characteristics; women are nurturers and caretakers at the cores of their beings. (1) The authors quote former church president Spencer W.. Kimball in order to communicate the eschatological importance of women in their roles as caretakers of the home and family.

“The righteous woman’s strength and influence today can be tenfold what it might be in more tranquil times. She has been placed here to enrich, to protect, and to guard the home—which is society’s basic and most noble institution. Other institutions in society may falter and even fail, but the righteous woman can help to save the home which may be the last and only sanctuary some mortals know in the midst of storm and strife.” (2)

In this vision, women are on the front lines of earthly struggle for the right and good. They build the foundations of society, creating its most “basic and most noble institution.” The authors invoke Kimball to establish the idea of home as sanctuary, a concept based on the ancient practice of desperate people seeking refuge in temples and churches.

The authors invoke Kimball again to explore the idea of home as a glimpse of heaven on earth:

“Heaven is a place,” President Kimball taught, “but also a condition; it is home and family. It is understanding and kindness. It is interdependence and selfless activity. It is quiet, sane living; personal sacrifice, genuine hospitality, wholesome concern for others. It is living the commandments of God without ostentation or hypocrisy. It is selflessness. It is all about us. We need only to be able to recognize it as we find it and enjoy it.” (3)

Immediately before the above quote the authors also cite Kimball as he talks about glimpsing heaven during the sealing of a couple in the temple and in the modest home of a stake president. (4) The authors are using Kimball, then, to equate the sanctuary of the home with another temple, the modern Mormon temple, a physical representation of the journey to an eternal, heavenly life.

None of this is new; these ideas have been in Mormon theology for quite a while. The authors of the handbook highlight another idea that persists through time in Mormon theology: women’s caretaking should be done quietly and without fanfare, that women’s spiritual authority is generated by unacknowledged selflessness that often God only knows about. It is Kimball’s “interdependence and selfless activity,” “quiet, sane living,” following God “without ostentation and hypocrisy.”

With all of these connected ideas—women as the self-sacrificing creators of stable homes—the authors are also tapping into long-standing gender assumptions in U.S. popular culture and public discourses. These assumptions were developed during the nineteenth century Victorian era, the era when the theological foundations of Mormonism were established. Home, motherhood, and heaven were inextricably connected. Women were admonished by religious leaders and culture creators to be the spiritual centers of their homes, but not to be pushy about this crucial role. Women were to create the foundational institution of society: moral homes and moral children. But, as seen in the wildly popular Gates Ajar, these moral homes also foreshadowed a very literal popular vision of heaven where families would live together in eternity. In the popular and religious discourses of the day, women were given idealized and overwhelming social and eschatological power.

As I scholar, I love this Mormon case study of the Relief Society handbook because it throws light on how these cultural gender arguments still retain ultimate, theological resonance at their base—a popular, generic Christian resonance. These Victorian-derived generic Christian ideas about women are not by any means the only influence on gender assumptions in the contemporary U.S., but they remain an important force. By putting the Mormon material in conversation with the public and popular discourses of American culture from the nineteenth century to the present, we see how these connections—so clear in Mormonism—remain in wider cultural assumptions about men and women and their proper roles in society. Even as the authors of the Relief Society handbook admonish Mormon women to stand apart from the profane world, this very admonition is, in part, an extension of the gender assumptions of that profane world about the sanctity of the home.

I am especially interested in how the Mormon case study highlights the long-standing but rarely articulated tradition of female divinity in U.S. religions and cultural discourses. In Mormonism, the spiritual importance of women’s roles in the plan of salvation is crystallized in the figure of the Mother in Heaven. The nature of women’s quiet spiritual authority is captured in this Goddess’s shadowy and vague characteristics. She exists, she is central to the Mormon plan of salvation, but, like the unheralded nurturers the Relief Society handbook adulates, we know almost nothing about her, precisely because of the quiet nature of her power. The Mother in Heaven highlights expressions in American culture of belief that divinity has a female aspect. This female aspect is not usually formally acknowledged by institutional theologies and, when acknowledged, is seen in groups that are, or formerly were, self-consciously counter-cultural, groups such as the Shakers, Christian Science, and Mormonism. Not surprising that in the wave of countercultural religious groups that arose in the 1960s, a critical mass of them—Pagans and Wiccans, for instance—articulated female divinities as a way to challenge cultural gender assumptions about women’s spiritual authority being silent. They gave names and faces to female spiritual powers. As Rosemary Radford Ruether and other feminist theologians have demonstrated, Mary is not acknowledged as part of the divine trinity in official theologies of the Catholic Church, but she is a de facto goddess figure in what Robert Orsi calls the lived religion of Catholicism. Just as powerful, we see this belief in feminine divinity articulated in popular culture in multiple ways. I have tracked this in the continuing equation between femaleness, nature, and heaven, but we see it in lots of other places, including, for example, the sainted, suffering mother figure so popular in television and film.

The handbook of the LDS Relief Society tells us a lot about how church leaders and members conceive of the importance of women in the Mormon plan of salvation. But it also illuminates long-standing theological connections made in U.S. more generally, connections that structure how as individuals and communities we understand the world, talk about it, act in and on it. While these assumptions may be as hidden and unacknowledged as the idealized image of the quiet, powerful woman, they are not peripheral. These assumptions and, in particular, the often hidden belief in feminine divinity are central in American religions and American cultural discourse. We must take them seriously. The Relief Society handbook gives us a tool to begin to do this.

(1) Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2011), 41, 160.
(2) Ibid., 165.
(3) Ibid., 162.
(4) Ibid.



3 Comments

  1. This is great. Strong work, Susanna.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 29, 2014 @ 2:54 pm

  2. Nice, Susanna. Love the way you bring this to bear on broader questions of gender in America/American religion.

    Comment by Ryan T. — May 30, 2014 @ 9:50 am

  3. So interesting. I love the way you’re showing us these connections and the shifting cultural work of the sacred feminine. I like the way you call them “assumptions” — assumptions that have diff’t implications and uses in diff’t moments. And actually can be rather double-edged in the way they play out in public discourses.

    Comment by Sara Lampert — May 30, 2014 @ 9:44 pm