Top LDS women’s leader touts ‘joyful juggle,’ says to put motherhood first

Lamenting the declining birthrate, Relief Society President Camille Johnson warns that “if women cease to bear and nurture children, this mortal experience ends.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Camille Johnson, the global leader of the Latter-day Saint women's Relief Society, expresses concern about declining birthrates and marriage rates in a May 3, 2024, broadcast delivered at Brigham Young University.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are “concerned” about declining rates of marriage and fertility around the world, President Camille Johnson, head of the faith’s women’s Relief Society, said Friday in a keynote address at a Brigham Young University Women’s Conference.

“Children are vital to maintaining civilization” and in God’s “glorious plan of happiness,” the mother of three and former corporate lawyer said. “... The commandment for us to come down and for us to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”

Johnson, the highest-ranking female officeholder in the global church of 17.2 million, acknowledged that not all women feel as though they have a choice in the matter, either because they have yet to find a spouse or struggle with infertility.

To those individuals, she emphasized that marriage and children will be theirs in the next life, if not this one, if they make and keep “sacred covenants.”

(BYU) Relief Society General President Camille Johnson's speech represented the keynote address at this year's BYU Women's Conference, a three-day gathering attended by thousands.

She also noted the difficulties that can arise from starting a family when one is in school or launching a career. Here, she pointed to her own example of giving birth the year after she passed the bar exam.

“From a financial and professional perspective, it would’ve made sense to put off having children until I was more established in my career,” she said. “But, sisters, in letting [God] author our stories, we sometimes do things that the world cannot make sense of.”

The following years were a “joyful juggle,” the 60-year-old Johnson said, as she balanced competing demands, which she navigated then, as now, by making motherhood her “primary orientation.”

“Now sisters, please don’t misunderstand,” she said. “I am not suggesting you should follow my course. Your story and my story are not the same. I share mine because it’s what I know.”

All the same, she lamented that in many parts of the world, including the United States, birthrates have dropped below replacement level (2.1 live births per woman).

“If women cease to bear and nurture children,” she warned, “this mortal experience ends.”

Reinforcing Dallin Oaks’ message

Johnson’s speech echoed the sentiments of President Dallin Oaks, first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency, in an address last year, when he urged young Latter-day Saint adults to date more, marry earlier and not delay having children.

“Marriage is central to the purpose of mortal life and what follows,” said the 91-year-old Oaks, next in line to lead the global faith. “We are children of a loving Heavenly Father who created us with the capacity to follow his commandment to multiply and replenish the earth.”

Delaying childbearing, he added, “means fewer children born to grow up with the blessings of the gospel.”

Oaks said young couples should not postpone their families due to finances, while acknowledging the “concern” of housing costs and student debt.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Kristen, speak to young adults at a worldwide devotional broadcast from the Conference Center Theater on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023.

Go “forward with faith,” Oaks counseled, “and do the best you can in housing market circumstances less favorable than I and your grandparents encountered in our early years. And, especially, work to minimize student debt.”

In her speech Friday, Johnson stressed throughout her talk the need to listen to the words of church President Russell M. Nelson, whom she described “as uniquely sensitive to us, the sisters of the church.”

“He is the father of nine daughters,” she said. “He understands us.”

Johnson explained that Nelson has “answered my questions or given me confidence in a place of not knowing an answer just yet.”

She continued: “He has answered many of your questions, too. But I fear that sometimes we all look for answers from unreliable sources or fail to draw from the best sources: the prophet, the scriptures and the spirit.”

In today’s digital world, “we’re accustomed to Google-search answers, quick and concise,” Johnson said. “... And if we don’t like the answer, we can scroll for an answer that suits us.”

Women react

Reactions to Johnson’s speech mounted quickly on the church’s Instagram account, including from Oaks, who thanked her for being a “wonderful role model.”

Cynthia Winward of the “At Last She Said It” podcast also commented on Instagram, writing: “As a woman about your age, I would love to hear you speak more about how to listen to your own personal revelation instead of [former church] President [Ezra Taft] Benson, who explicitly told women our age to stay home. I stayed home. I sure wish now I had developed that career.”

Other women cited similar regrets, including one user, @wendykremin, who said Benson’s advice also led her to stay home full time to raise her children. “Now, at 61,” she wrote, “I feel irrelevant.”

Still others said they found the message validating.

“I loved her talk,” wrote @ckluwho. “I quit school and work to devote myself to my babies. I admire people who can do both, but for me I just didn’t have the emotional or mental capabilities to divide my time.”

Johnson’s address comes in the wake of a debate over women’s influence and decision-making authority — and the lack thereof — in the patriarchal faith. The conversation, which has unfolded primarily on social media, was sparked by a March 20 speech given by one of Johnson’s Relief Society counselors, Anette Dennis.

“There is no other religious organization in the world,” Dennis declared in her address, “that I know of, that has so broadly given power and authority to women.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) J. Anette Dennis, first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, speaks during the filming of a worldwide Relief Society devotional in the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. The devotional was broadcast Sunday, March 17, 2024 and sparked a social media firestorm over the role of women in the patriarchal faith.

Overnight, thousands of Latter-day Saint women pushed back against the assertion, many offering examples of their own ideas and priorities being overruled by male authorities.

A Salt Lake Tribune investigation, meanwhile, recently revealed just how little access Johnson and her female colleagues have to the all-male First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the top two tiers of leadership in the faith.

Unlike in the past, today the general presidencies of the Relief Society for adult women, Young Women for teenage girls, and Primary for children, do not meet regularly on their own with either of these influential bodies in the highly hierarchical church.

Instead, they sit on three executive councils, presided over by two apostles and which include up to 10 other men.

The female presidents work, Johnson told The Tribune, “in harmony with other leaders to further the mission of the church.”