Inside the Lives of Mormon Women
By Dorothy Allred Solomon
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Dorothy Allred Solomon
All rights reserved.
Introduction: As Sisters in Zion
As sisters in Zion we'll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we'll seek.
We'll build up his kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We'll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.
The errand of angels is given to women;
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human,
To cheer and to bless in humanity's name.
How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Oh, naught but the Spirit's divinest tuition
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been called a cult, a sham, a miracle, and the hope of a new millennium. It is also the fastest-growing American-born church in the world, with a membership of 12 million and climbing. Founded on new Scripture, it claims to be the restored Church of Jesus Christ, reestablishing lost elements of Christianity as well as truths of the Gospel that have been missing or pending since the foundation of the world. These include living prophets, the priesthood as held by Peter, James, and John, new Scriptures and religious knowledge, a bevy of spiritual gifts, and certainty about the divine nature of man and woman. The elements claimed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose members are officially called LDS or Latter-day Saints, and unofficially, called Mormons) create effulgence in a dark world: the light of personal revelation, the promise of eternal togetherness for family, and the full redemption of mankind, including Eve restored to her glory and wholeness, the curse of the Garden of Eden lifted.
Many outsiders regard LDS women as atavistic and pitiable, progeny of a throwback consciousness that would invalidate a century of women's rights. But long before the term "sisterhood" was yoked to women's liberation, LDS women were calling each other "sister." In fact, the poem "As Sisters in Zion" which was written in the late 1800s and has become an anthem for the sisterhood of the Latter-day Saints. Although most people believe that the women's movement passed over Utah, sisters in the nascent Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke for women's rights alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They were the second group of women in America to win the right to vote and the first group ever to cast their ballots. The concept of sisterhood defined the LDS women's auxiliary known as Relief Society, which championed suffrage and sent emissaries to Washington, D.C. Just as men in the LDS Church were "Brothers in Christ," women were "Sisters in Christ" dedicated to one another's growth and well-being and to serving the community and the world.
The early practice of polygamy underscored sisterhood among women, who referred to their husbands' plural wives as "sister-wives." The political climate surrounding the early church jeopardized the holdings of Mormon patriarchs, especially polygamists, an environment requiring pioneer women to become proprietors of homes and farms and businesses and to use their talents to make a living. Sometimes the women lived in the same house or compound, and they often worked together, delivering each other's babies and raising each other's children. They started enterprises together and shared service projects and taught each other what they knew. One of the first women in Utah Territory to become a doctor, Ellis Shipp, having been advised by LDS Church President Brigham Young to leave her frontier home and family to procure a medical education in the east, was able to entrust her children to her sister-wives who raised them as if they were their own. Dr. Shipp returned to Utah to teach classes in midwifery and nursing, supporting other women in gaining an education.
The support available in plural marriages may have some appeal but the problems with that way of life outweighed the advantages. The Church of Jesus Christ abolished the practice of the Principle of Plural Marriage in 1890, and began excommunicating polygamists. Over the years all guise of legitimacy has vanished and surviving polygamous cultures are susceptible to the abuses of any outlaw community. Women and children suffer from the secrecy of the lifestyle and from the proprietary relationship polygamous patriarchs tend to have with their families. But whenever they make the most of their sisterhood, women can find unity, support, and cheer that some present-day nuclear families do not enjoy.
In the modern LDS Church where monogamy is the way of life, sisterhood remains strong. In most instances, women work together to insure each other's well-being, meeting the challenge of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the LDS Prophet Joseph Smith, when she spoke at one of the first Relief Society meetings, urging the sisterhood to "cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together." Church leaders emphasize family harmony over personal desire while at the same time encouraging women to progress. Women can regard their situation as liberation or suppression or both. LDS women who stay at home with their children often have college diplomas and prodigious talent, but they usually postpone the exercise of their worldly contributions until the children are grown. Within their culture, these stay-at-home LDS wives don't get dismissed as "just homemakers" but stand as honored mothers and goddesses of the hearth, freed of many cares in this materialistic world. The biggest risks of the arrangement are that the homemaker's life can be confining, and that modern LDS women tend to define themselves through their husbands. But it wasn't always so: In the early church, women organized a Theosophists Society, exercised spiritual gifts, and asserted their rights before the United States Congress. This shift in women's empowerment raises questions for some: Why don't modern LDS women consistently determine their own lives? Why do we sometimes feel that our decisions are overlooked in our homes and our voices hushed in our ward houses? Answering and remedying these questions while being true to the ways of the sisterhood promises to strike a healthier balance for all of us, including our husbands and children.
The conflict between individuality and plurality makes the LDS culture peculiar in itself, for Christian religions promote the development of the individual soul, while the group consciousness implicit in "sisterhood" and church doctrines such as the United Order and the Law of Consecration introduce a pluralistic mentality into a Christian religion. This poses a contradiction for some Christians and others steeped in western traditions of thought. LDS sisters postpone personal dreams and often sacrifice their well-being to serve others: family first, then the church and the surrounding community. Yet we sisters are generally well-grounded and happy with our lives. Personal dedication to the greater good brings the restoration full circle, combining Western and Eastern spirituality into one and introducing greater possibilities for wholeness. As we integrate the disparate parts of ourselves (right- and left-brain ways of thinking, individualism and pluralism) we find that something similar can happen between man and woman and in the larger world as well. In LDS Scripture, the Lord commands the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve: "I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine." (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27)
Despite its unifying influence, loyalty that is extracted under pressure can override individual worth, create imbalance, and generate hypocrisy. When we prize obedience above all else, individual capacities for decision-making, self-reliance, and personal development can suffer. However, most LDS women realize the importance of their unique contribution to the greater good, learning in their teen years that some of their most important values include divine nature, accountability, choice and individual worth. Using these values, they can complete the integration necessary to personal and universal restoration if they honor their heritage as creative beings and daughters of God.
Salt Lake City, the Zion of the Latter-day Saints, gleams with clear western sunlight in a beautiful bowl of purple-tinged mountains, the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. In the summer the mountains cool the dry heat of the desert. In the winter, their snowy caps offer mystery, adventure, and a chill reminder of eternity. At the center of the Salt Lake valley the LDS temple reaches six spires to the heavens, a golden angel trumpeting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. As Wallace Stegner, who spent his teen years in Salt Lake City observes:
"From its founding, Salt Lake City has been sanctuary: that has been its justification and its function. And it is as sanctuary that it persists even in my Gentile mind and insinuates itself as my veritable hometown."
The valley continually reminds us that we are here at the Lord's discretion, that as Latter-day Saints, we must be as humble in our opinions of ourselves as the valley floor, a slate as blank as the Salt Flats on which God may inscribe His purpose. And yet the mountains speak of stature, reminding us that we can cultivate "men to match my mountains," that we can provide, as Stegner said, "a society to match the scenery."
Indeed, lofty standards can complicate the lives of women, who take major responsibility for teaching life skills to their families. The sky literally is the limit, for we take to heart Jesus' admonition in Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Men and women are promised that through faithfulness to the Gospel, they can become creators in their own right. LDS doctrine promotes the belief that "as man is, God once was, and as God is, man [and woman] may become." In believing that we are fashioned from the genetic blueprint of divine parents, we also believe that perfection can be attained. This guarantees frustration, given that we are all at one stage or another of learning. Church authorities apply the standard of perfection in various ways. A bishop or stake president, while interviewing a member to determine if they are worthy to enter the LDS temple can deny an individual a temple "recommend" (recommendation) for such misdemeanors as drinking champagne at a celebration or skipping church meetings. A bishop can also see a couple struggling, a family striving to stay together, and support the individuals with forgiveness, faith, and tenderness.
LDS women in every situation—married or not, with or without children—are more likely to remain faithful to their religious beliefs than are LDS men. The values upheld by the church often coincide with what matters to us: We want a forum for men to empower each other in upstanding behavior; we want family to be of central importance; we want respect for physical health (as represented by the Law of Chastity and the Word of Wisdom); and we love the idea of eternal marriage.
Ironically, given that the church once practiced and then outlawed polygamy, monogamy enjoys greatest health among LDS people. Compared to other couples in the United States, LDS couples who marry in the temple have a very low divorce rate. Although even highly committed, eternal marriages sag beneath the weight of contradictions and attendant miseries, eternal commitment seems to serve women well. Whether our men stand beside us or have divorced or died on us, most LDS women continue to participate obediently in the patriarchal design. We remain good homemakers, avid community members, and faithful daughters of God doing our best to "raise up a righteous seed unto the Lord."
Whence this pure devotion, this rare dedication in our modern, cynical world? Whence this American-born religion inspiring personal revelation and harmonious congregation, reflecting the values of democratic union and personal freedom? The revered and powerful Book of Mormon, translated from golden plates found in the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York established Christ in ancient America and stands as foundational Scripture for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Each of the new Scriptures offers additional testament to the divinity of Jesus Christ as Son of God, Messiah, and Savior of the World, supporting rather than replacing the Holy Bible. Because of this new Scripture, we are popularly known as Mormons and our church is inaccurately called "the Mormon Church." But in fact, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bears the Savior's name and we consider ourselves earnest Christians. In fact, we believe that Jesus Christ stands at the head of His church and governs it through the Living Prophet.
The golden plates were delivered into the hands of Joseph Smith, Jr. by an angel named Moroni, who had abridged the record of his father, Mormon, a leader among the ancient Americans. Shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon, the translator, 24-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr., and five others established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830, in New York State. After the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. was assassinated in 1844, chaos tore through the young church, the biggest split coming from Smith's first wife, Emma, who resisted plural marriage, and their son, Joseph Smith III, who claimed patrilineal authority.
During the regimes of Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young, the second LDS Church president, the early church adamantly defended the practice of plural marriage as a religious right protected by the U.S. Constitution. But the primarily Christian and monogamous population of America saw polygamy as immoral and plural wives as harems in a satrapy. After the U.S. legislature passed several laws to criminalize the practice of plural marriage, the government began to seize church properties and assets as well as personal property of members, and incarcerated leading church authorities. After decades of trials, imprisonment, and loss, the church relinquished the Principle of Plural Marriage, passing the Manifesto of 1890 to outlaw the practice for its members. Some people emigrated to Canada or Mexico where they could live the principle without breaking the laws of the land. In 1903 my grandfather traveled with his first wife and family to Colonia Juarez in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and arranged for my grandmother to meet him there, where he took her as his second wife. My father was born in nearby Colonia Dublan, the oldest living son of my grandfather's second wife. Because clandestine plural marriages were still being performed, the church passed another manifesto in 1904 to reinforce the first.
Although the Principle of Plural Marriage continues to affect LDS culture, abolishing polygamy made way for international growth of the church. The missionary program had always been strong, with LDS elders leaving homes and families (including plural families) for England and Europe or traveling throughout the United States to proselytize as directed in Doctrine and Covenants 24:18, carrying "no purse nor scrip," relying on the Holy Spirit to guide them and the goodwill of others to sustain them. As the shadow of polygamy retreated, the missionary program created exponential growth, baptizing new members in every state and from all the nations of the earth. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has since influenced the moral orientation of the United States and the world.
Being a positive force in the community and the world aligns with the church's purpose to reunite the children of God. Concern for the well-being of people at home and in the far reaches of the world has motivated the LDS Church to cultivate initiatives for public welfare. Hospitals, businesses, and academies count as a few of the amazing results created by LDS people, particularly the sisterhood, in their great desire to serve their fellow beings.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, these community inclinations grow as we grow. The concern about community and world fits the doctrinal scope of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the prophet or president of the LDS Church stands as mouthpiece and intermediary for God, speaking to all His children and watchfully caring for them. The aim of the church—to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all members of the human family—involves giving people the "good news" that they have been granted salvation through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Having taken on Christ's name through baptism, all members, male and female, child and adult, feel responsible to act as agents of Christ in serving God's purpose "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39) and to remind their brothers and sisters that we have been given the gift of life so that, as LDS Scripture tells us, "[we] might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25).
Everyone in the church, women included, listens to the prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who speaks on behalf of the Lord. His counselors assist him, along with twelve apostles, as in the original church founded by Jesus Christ. One of the most powerful experiences a person can have involves being in the presence of these loving and enlightened men. Even from a distance, they emanate palpable radiance.
The church is divided into regions supervised by directors, none of them women, who belong to the Council of the Seventy, counted among the general authorities of the church. The church also has a presiding bishopric to see to the members' needs, and a general Relief Society presidency, Young Men's and Young Women's general presidencies, and the general presidency for Primary, the organization for children. All these organizations, including those guided by the sisterhood, are accountable to the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency of the LDS Church. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Sisterhood by Dorothy Allred Solomon. Copyright © 2007 Dorothy Allred Solomon. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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