The much-heralded Relief Society history Daughters in my Kingdom commissioned by General President Julie B. Beck is now available online and will soon be distributed to Relief Society sisters all over the world. My preliminary reading of the book got me thinking about religious texts for Mormon women: what they are, their effectiveness and usefulness to LDS females, and how this latest work compares with what has gone before. I’d like this to be an interactive post, as commenters may be able to reference texts I haven’t thought of, as well as provide uniquely personal ideas about the effects these texts have had upon their lives.
I define Mormon women’s texts as those works regarding and directed primarily to Mormon women. Those highlighted in this post have been widely distributed in written form to a majority of the general membership of the Relief Society and have had a great impact upon their religious instruction and understanding. Please use the few that I have mentioned as a springboard for discussing others in this genre of which you are aware.
Recently, the Joseph Smith Papers project has made available the minutes of the first meetings of the Relief Society held in Nauvoo. Until this online representation, the Minutes were not generally available. However, I include this text because at the time of their creation, the minutes were read to each member of the Relief Society at their meetings. The Minute Book comprises the first text we have which was created for and by LDS women.
In 1842, several women in Nauvoo began to organize themselves into a charitable society to aid in the erection of the temple. After writing a constitution and bylaws, the Prophet Joseph was invited to review them. He said that they were “the best he had ever seen. ‘But,’ he said, ‘this is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written constitution. I invite them all to meet with me and a few of the brethren . . . next Thursday afternoon, and I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.’” The first pages of the minute book show the great influence that Joseph Smith and the priesthood brethren had over the Relief Society meetings. They suggested procedures, set apart officers, even proposed the name of the fledgling society.
Daughters in My Kingdom acknowledges the great influence that Joseph Smith had over the organization of the Relief Society, and recounts the above story. The new book is very similar to the Nauvoo minutes in that priesthood direction is recognized and welcomed. The frontspiece of the book is a “Message From the First Presidency,” unsigned, which states:
In grateful recognition of the blessing of Relief Society in the lives of Church members, we have directed the preparation of Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society.
An abundance of the quotations included in the book are from priesthood leaders. Of the 296 quotations, 145 are by women, and 151 are by men. The person quoted most prolifically is Joseph Smith, with 32 quotes, followed by Eliza R. Snow, with 23 quotes, then Brigham Young with 14, Spencer W. Kimball with 13, and Gordon B. Hinckley with 12. All quotations are applicable to the history of Relief Society, however it does show the great involvement that male leaders have had and continue to have in the women’s organization of the Church.
I consider the Women’s Exponent a wonderful source of Mormon Women’s spiritual texts. This magazine was produced by Louisa Greene, the first editor; and then Emmeline B. Wells, General President of the Relief Society, who served as the publication’s editor for 37 years. It contained political news relating to LDS women, reports of ward activities, original poetry, essays, and exhortation. An example of a spiritual text found in the Exponent might be something like The Watchman’s Cry by W. East. This article is an exposition on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, giving direction on the use of spiritual gifts.
The Exponent was not an official publication of the Church, but like Daughters in My Kingdom, its purposes were to uplift and strengthen women of the LDS Church as well as educate non-members about the women of Mormonism. A description of the book on the Church’s official website explains:
The teachings, stories, and examples in this history book will guide you in establishing priorities and practices in your life that will help increase faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and seek out and help those in need…You are encouraged to share the book with others. Church members of all ages may use the book as a reference in lessons, talks, council meetings, and at home.
Did the book go far enough in sharing the teachings of priesthood and women leaders about the purposes and meaning of women in the kingdom? Consider the following passage found in chapter 8:
In the Church today, faithful women and men all over the world continue to serve in the temple and find strength in the blessings that can be received only through temple ordinances. As President Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the Church, stated, “It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses.”
Why was the quote left unfinished? In the original, President Smith went on to say,
“It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses, and I am sure if they have that power they have some power to rule and reign. Else why would they be priestesses?”
Would additions such as this make the book more, or less effective for today’s Latter-day Saint woman?
Relief Society Curriculum, 1913-1997
From its inception, the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published lessons for its female members on spiritual and educational topics. From 1913-1970, these lessons were written by women and included within the Relief Society Magazine. In the 1980s, RS lessons were given in five areas of study: Spiritual Living, Cultural Refinement, Mother Education, Compassionate Service, and Social Relations. (see a summary of one year’s lessons here.) Under the direction of Barbara W. Winder, a new format for Relief Society was announced for the 1987 lesson year. The manual was smaller in size and given a new name — Personal Study Guide. A second spiritual living lesson each month took the place of the cultural refinement lesson; mother education lessons were replaced by home and family education lessons; and the social relations and compassionate service lessons were combined. By 1988, all of the Sunday lessons for Relief Society became scripturally based and correlated with the gospel doctrine course of study. This was the beginning of correlation, and Relief Society began to relinquish control over their own teaching material.
In January of 1998, all of Relief Society curriculum was placed under correlation. No longer did women write their own material. Texts for Relief Society meetings were Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, and Teachings for our Time. These were used in both Priesthood and Relief Society classes, and can no longer be considered solely women’s texts.
I was a member of the Relief Society in the early 1980s when Relief Society curriculum was geared more to women and women’s issues that it is today. I found the lessons much more effective and apt to draw discussion than is my experience in the past 20 years of correlated materials. I also find the writings in the Women’s Exponent and even the Nauvoo Minute Book to be immediate and cogent to women’s issues of the time. In the Exponent are found discussions of difficult issues such as participation in suffrage and the defense of polygamy. These articles are written by Mormon women who were passionately and directly involved.
Like these earlier texts, Daughters in My Kingdom hearkens back to the days when materials for women were prepared by the women themselves. Though under the direction of the priesthood, this book had its origin in an unpublished history of the Relief Society prepared in 1996 by Lucile Tate and Elaine Harris. Susan W. Tanner wrote the final manuscript based on their research.
Although the new book, Daughters in My Kingdom is not the type of Relief Society history I would have written myself, I do applaud the General Relief Society presidency for spearheading the project and their efforts to make it meaningful to LDS women all over the world. It is an “inspirational history” which informs without being unsettling, and by the mere fact of its worldwide distribution, will surely take a place among Mormon women’s texts.
I eagerly solicit your reactions!