Katie Farnsworth Bitner and Jill Mulvay Derr, Joseph Fielding Smith Institute
During fall semester 2000 I had the opportunity to study some of the ideas taught about Eve and the role of women among Protestant Americans in the 19th century. While doing this work I became curious about what the brethren of the LDS Church were saying to and about the women during that time. I also wanted to know how the statements they made changed over time, that is whether they followed cultural trends or not. I did my search in the Journal of Discourses, which is a compilation of many conference talks and other speeches by the brethren from 1852-1886. I put the entries I found about women, wives, sisters, and Eve into chronological order. Once I had created the list I began searching it for common themes or obvious changes over time. The results were amazing and intriguing. The common themes that were addressed were Eve, man’s right to preside, polygamy, Relief Society, and intelligence. There were also many entries about women’s fashions, which I included in my chronological list, but have not analyzed extensively.
In most of the early-American statements made about Eve it was common for Protestant ministers to accuse Eve for the troubles of the world and to use her curse as the reason for her submission to man. To my surprise I found that the Latter-day Saint brethren spoke about Mother Eve positively more often than they used her to justify woman’s inferior position. While Eve’s curse was included in the reasoning for man’s right to preside over her, Brigham Young often defended Eve’s decision to partake of the fruit, saying “We should never blame Mother Eve, not in the least. I am thankful to God that I know good from evil, the bitter from the sweet, the things of God from the things not of God.”(13:145) The condemning statements about Eve are found most commonly in the 1850’s and the early 1860’s. The later 60’s and into the 70’s found Brigham Young more often defending Eve and the decision she made as an essential part of the plan.
The brethren held more traditional views about the women when it came to man’s right to preside over her. Statements like, “Women are made to be led, and counselled [sic] and directed. If they are not led, and do not make their cables fast to the power and authority they are connected with, they will be damned,” show up in this category (5:29). In searching the statements about the man presiding over the woman, I found that the Priesthood was used either directly or indirectly to explain man’s right to preside over the woman a little more than 50 percent of the time, suggesting that while the idea was doctrinal, it was also a result of the times. Brigham especially was careful not to equate presiding with abusing, saying as early as 1853, “I never counselled [sic] a woman to follow her husband to the devil” (1:77). Righteousness was a requirement for a man to be worthy of a wife. Heber C. Kimball taught, “And when a man violates his calling and priesthood, he forfeits his wife” (5:30). An interesting note is that the harshest statements about the women were made during the Mormon Reformation by leaders such as Heber C. Kimball and Jedediah Grant, both intensely involved in the reformation, and that the men also received rebukes and chastisements.
Another important subject that was often addressed in regards to the women was that of polygamy. An interesting phenomenon showed up when I put the talks about polygamy into chronological order. All throughout the fifties the talks about polygamy were directed to the women and men involved in the practice, giving instruction as to how the principle was to be lived and about its importance. Brigham addressed issues about wives who complained about husbands and husbands whose wives wouldn’t mind them. Heber C. Kimball once responded to the women’s murmurings saying, “The principle of plurality of wives never will be done away although some sisters have had revelations that, when this time passes away and they go through the veil, every woman will have a husband to herself” (3:125). By the late sixties the women seem to be complaining less about their new lifestyle and Brigham turned his attentions to defending polygamy as a protection against the prostitution and desecration of women. The women would eventually join Brigham in this cause as when they held the Great Indignation Meeting, protesting anti-polygamy legislation.
Prior to 1867 Brigham had been slow to allow women to become too involved in societies outside of their homes. The Nauvoo Relief Society had been disbanded in 1844, after Joseph’s death, due in part to Emma’s separation with the church. More than 20 years later Brigham finally believed that it was time to allow the women to serve once again as an organization in the Church, and after reorganizing the Relief Society in 1867 he seemed to be very impressed with the good they accomplished in raising funds for traveling emigrants and caring for the poor and suffering. For the next several years he addressed the Relief Societies in every conference, congratulating them on their progress, offering encouragement, and occasionally even telling the sisters to use their good influence on the men. At April conference 1869 Brigham stated, “The sisters in our Female Relief Societies have done great good. Can you tell the amount of good that the mothers and daughters in Israel are capable of doing? No, it is impossible. And the good they do will follow them to all eternity” (13:35).
Brigham Young and the other brethren were rather progressive in their views of the intelligence and abilities of women. Brigham said in 1858, “We have the smartest women in the world, the best cooks, and the best mothers” (6:176). Throughout the 1860’s and 70’s Brigham invited his women to become more and more involved in positions in society that would require them to use their abilities and intelligence. In 1869 Brigham remarked, “We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic, or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness of the benefit of society at large” (13:61). I believe Brigham himself was continually impressed with the deeds of the women and that is why he continued to give them more opportunities and privileges to the end of his life.
My research has only spanned the time period from 1852 through 1870, but from my experience I believe that it would be of some worth for someone to continue with the research through the end of the Journal of Discourses to see what other trends may emerge. I have left the completed chronological list as well as an index with Jill Mulvay Derr at the Smith Institute, 121A KMB. I would encourage anyone interesting in pursuing this project further or in seeing the completed work to contact her at 378-7492.