New trailblazing volume gives voice to women’s words throughout Mormon history

Religion • Book contains prayers, preachings 
and pronouncements of 54 Mormon women.

Emma Hale Smith, wife of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. Photo courtesy of the LDS Church

Latter-day Saints read, study and recognize notable speeches and sermons by Mormon men from the faith's beginnings to today — many of the earliest gathered into volumes called the "Journal of Discourses."

But historian Kate Holbrook wondered where is a complementary collection of talks by LDS women? And what would it look like?

Holbrook, managing historian of women's history for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jennifer Reeder, a specialist in women's history, teamed up in 2013 to work on just such a project.

The result is "At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women," which contains the public prayers, preachings and pronouncements of 54 women, each accompanied by biographical information about the speaker and the context in which the material was given.

The 484-page book, available starting Monday at a retail price of $29.99, is timed to coincide with the 175th anniversary of the faith's all-women Relief Society, organized March 17, 1842. It is divided into two sections — Reeder produced the first from 1830 to 1920; Holbrook handled 1920 to the present.

The first task was to examine and enlarge the term "discourse," Reeder said, to include short extemporaneous conversations from Relief Society minutes to public prayers at a suffragette meeting.

The editors cast a "broad net," Holbrook said, from the famous to the little-known, general church officers to local LDS leaders, white women to women of color and from the United States to beyond.

They picked timeless topics — faith, hope, repentance, prayer — by women who spoke with an authority that comes from "the Holy Ghost, lived experience and [church] office."

They didn't necessarily choose works "because they were historically significant," Holbrook said, "but because they were terrific talks, with thoughtful analysis and theological reasoning."

Consider this 1889 prayer by chaplain Elvira S. Barney at the Utah Suffrage Association:

"Wilt thou be with woman as thou hast with man," the Mormon woman implored, "to strengthen her where she is weak that she may aid in the defense of truth and right, and where her voice is heard throughout the broad face of the Earth, may it have echo in the hearts of the honest, and may she smooth the wrinkles of unjust laws."

For every piece in the collection, there were "10, 15, 20 more that could have made the cut," Reeder said. "It was a huge narrowing."

It also required a ton of sleuthing.

For instance, a woman listed as E. G. Jones gave an eloquent address to Salt Lake City's 11th LDS Ward, beginning with, "prayer is the key that will unlock the statehouse of knowledge."

But the speech, as recorded in the Woman's Exponent periodical, listed no personal information. It took the researcher through several states and census records to gather enough clues for a biographical sketch.

Reeder discovered that E.G. stood for Ellenor Georgina Jones, born to a white woman and her black husband, both of whom were listed as black in the 1850 Census.

Jones was able to pass as white in Utah, so she performed religious rituals for herself and other family members in a Mormon temple at a time when blacks and biracial members were denied access to the all-male priesthood and LDS temples.

That prohibition ended in 1978.

A modern woman of color, Gladys N. Sitati of Kenya is married to Joseph Sitati, the first Mormon general authority from Africa. In April 2016, she spoke on dealing with conflict and tensions in relationships at a women's conference at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

"Most things we fret about — what someone has said about us or done to us — do not contribute to their salvation or to ours," the former school teacher advised the assembled crowd. "They are things of no consequence compared to what God has for all of us in his glorious realm. Our human exteriors may be different, but inside of us, we are the same."

None of the articles in the new volume addresses plural marriage, practiced by Mormons for much of the 19th century, but polygamous ties are described in the bios.

"You can't separate what they talked about to what they lived," Holbrook said. "It was a huge part of their lives. We don't hide from that."

During their research, the two discovered that LDS "mission presidents' wives" were called "Relief Society Mission Presidents" from 1900 to the 1970s. That might be something to bring back, they said with a smile.

Their groundbreaking tome is already winning praise from scholars.

"These sermons communicate wisdom, sensitivity and influence," Camille Fronk Olson, head of BYU's Department of Ancient Scripture, wrote in an Amazon review, "and this long-overdue volume will change the manner and frequency with which we ponder and cite women's witnesses of the gospel." Holbrook puts her hopes for the book in blunter terms. Paraphrasing poet Emily Dickinson, she said "we wanted readers to feel the top of their heads blown off."


Twitter: @religiongal

Book cover for "At The Pulpit." Courtesy image

Jennifer Reeder. Courtesy photo

Kate Holbrook. Courtesy photo