The first account we have of a woman speaking in General Conference is Lucy Mack Smith, speaking in Nauvoo, Illinois, in October 1845. But women were teaching in the Church long before that, and the continued long after that — not just in General Conference. In their collection At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook have created a wonderful thing. They have brought us the strong, inspired voices of 54 Mormon women (plus 7 more in the e-book), from Lucy Mack Smith speaking a “gathering of emigrating saints at Lake Erie” in 1831 to Gladys Sitati speaking at the BYU Women’s Conference in 2016. The book works elegantly as both a historical document and a devotional reading. From a historical perspective, Reeder and Holbrook provide a biographical sketch of each woman before her talk, and they follow each talk with extensive footnotes providing context. They make it so easy for us: When a speaker alludes to a passage of poetry or a popular quote from the day, Reeder and Holbrook tell us where it came from. Some of the talks highlight a key historical episode in the growth of the Church, such as Judy Brummer’s 2012 fireside talk characterizing her experience translating the Book of Mormon into the Xhosa language.
At the same time, these are the teachings of the Lord’s servants, and they overflow with inspiration. Over the last several months, I’ve integrated these talks into my daily scripture study, and each has taught me. Some of the speakers — Lucy Mack Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Julie B. Beck, Linda K. Burton — will be familiar to many members. But others will not, such as Elicia Grist, a British actress and member of the Church in Liverpool, UK (“In our fellowship meetings much depends upon the part we take”). I hope that this book comes to be a fixture in the homes of Latter-day Saints. We have much to learn from these voices, many of which have previously seemed lost to history. In Irina Kratzer’s address at the BYU Women’s Conference in 2000, she talks of receiving daily miracles, and of how “we recognize them not only to thank God, but to bring to our own awareness the ways in which God has blessed us.” I recognize that I have been blessed through Reeder and Holbrook with this inspired collection.
Bits and pieces
- Should I get the print book or the e-book? The print book is lovely, but the e-book has two reasons to recommend it.
- The e-book has 7 bonus discourses, ranging from Elizabeth Ann Whitney of the Nauvoo Relief Society in the 1840s to Julie Willis, a BYU-Idaho geology professor speaking at a university devotional in 2014.
- The e-book has links to online audio or video for many of the talks, starting, from Leone O. Jacobs, speaking in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1949. You can even listen to Lucrecia Suárez de Juárez’s talk in the original Spanish at the first ever Church area conference in Mexico in 1972. Or, of course, you can read it the English translation in the book.
- In this story from Judy Brummer, about translating the Book of Mormon into Xhosa, I saw echoes from an experience reported about Joseph Smith:
One day I got out of bed on the wrong side, and I snapped at everybody in my family. I was in a bad mood and I went to translate and I could not do it. I was stuck on one word. I had the Xhosa Bible and I was trying. I was cross-referencing dictionaries, and I remember saying to myself, “I am not enjoying this at all. This is suddenly not easy,” and it was because I was in a bad mood and the Spirit left me. The gift of translation was removed hastily when I behaved badly.
Of course, this echoes an experience that David Whitmer reported about Joseph Smith when translating from the gold plates.
3. In case you still need convincing, here is a sample of quotes that struck me from over the decades.
- Lucy Mack Smith (1831): “Be good and kind and do in secret as you would do in the presence of millions.”
- Elicia Grist (1861): “In our fellowship meetings much depends upon the part we take.”
- Eliza R. Snow (1869): “I have often thought that unless we had more to do than what it seemed possible for us to accomplish, that we should not perform all that we might.”
- Mattie Horne Tingey (1893): “Let mothers impress upon their children the principles of justice and equal rights, and the women of the next generation will not have to beg and plead for what rightfully belongs to them.”
- Bathsheba W. Smith (1906): “After reading a good book, pass it to a sister, saying, ‘I commend this book to you. It has instructed me and may edify you, and when you have read, return, that I may lend again.”
- Emma N. Goddard (1918): “Let us show our young people the glory of righteousness, rather than the hideousness of sin. … In order to reach their hearts we must live very near to the Lord ourselves.”
- Lalene H. Hart (1933): “Nothing can excel in loftiness of purpose the desire to make the most effective use of our talents in the service of others.”
- Leone O. Jacobs (1949), quoting a bishop she had heard: “If you are too busy to serve the Lord, you are too busy.”
- Francine R. Bennion (1986): “We may live comfortably with a framework which has inherent holes and contradictions as long as the suffering is someone else’s or as long as our own suffering isn’t very great. But holes and contradictions have a way of becoming very important when the anguish is our own.”
- Irina Kratzer (2000): “To receive daily miracles, we need to ask for them and then recognize them when they come.”
- Virginia H. Pearce (2011): “I know some very smart people. And I know some gifted and highly skilled people. I know some very, very rich people. But I have never met any person who has sufficient resources to meet all the demands of this life on his or her own. We need God. And if our troubles can take us to God, we can be thankful for them.