We are thrilled that Susanna Morrill, assistant professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College, has been kind enough to share her insights on the visionary culture of early LDS women here at the JI. Susanna’s article “Relief Society Birth and Death Rituals: Women at the Gates of Mortality,” Journal of Mormon History, 36 (Spring 2010), 128–59 as well as her book, White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Nature and Flower Imagery in Latter-day Saints Women’s Literature, 1880-1920 have garnered wide praise. Let’s give Susanna a warm welcome.
In 2003, faithful LDS member Stephenie Meyer dreamed of a girl and a beautiful, sparkly vampire boy, in love and having an intense conversation in a meadow. Meyer could not get the dream out of her head. Whenever she could get a chance, she wrote a story inspired by the dream. It became the first book in the Twilight series. Meyer described this experience: “To be honest, I felt like I was guided through the process.”[i]
Meyer stands in a long lineage of Mormon women writers who saw visions, dreamed dreams, and felt that they wrote their poems and stories under God’s inspiration. We could push this lineage back to the founding of the church and Joseph Smith’s visions and translations, but a more accurate origin might be the experiences of Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Meyer’s dream scenario reminded me of a paper that Rachel Cope gave a couple of years ago at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. In it, she talked about how Lucy Mack Smith and other early women converts interacted with dreams and visionary experiences during their spiritual journeys. Rachel’s paper and Meyer’s dream got me thinking about the some one hundred and fifty intervening years between Smith and Meyer. I have researched Mormon women who wrote between the 1840s and 1960s, but who lived mostly in the 1870s to 1920s. Many of these women reported having intense dream experiences. This prompted me to go back and review the private writings of these women in their diaries, journals, autobiographies, as well as in their published work from in the Woman’s Exponent, the Relief Society Magazine, and the Young Woman’s Journal. I wanted to know: How were these women writers interacting with their dreams? How does Meyer fit into this visionary-literary lineage? By piecing together this information of LDS women’s experiences, can we learn something about the place of dreams within LDS culture as a whole?
As a first step, I categorized women and men’s dreams into six broad categories. Prophetic dreams make up one of the largest categories of dreams, so large I divided prophetic dreams into subcategories. For instance, there’s the subcategory of personal prophetic dreams that deal with overtly religious material. In 1900, Lydia Savage Peterson dreamed that she was speaking prophetically to Nora and Addie Savage, assuring them that “Brother Savage” would return and that they would find great glory in heaven. She wrote a letter to these women telling them of this dream, convinced that it was important because it seemed real to her and because she felt that morning dreams came true.[ii]
Sometimes these personal prophetic dreams would answer a specific religious question that the dreamer had asked or prayed about. In 1894, during a women’s meeting, an unnamed participant reported the dream of her mother. The mother had requested her dying son to return and tell her if Mormonism was true. Apparently in reply to this request Joseph Smith appeared to her in a dream: “Brother Joseph said, is there some thing you wish to ask me, she answer nothing, the question was repeated the third time.”[iii]
Another category of dreams consists of dreams that are other/unclassifiable: The dreamer sees these dreams as being religiously important but also confesses to confusion about their meaning. In one of these dreams, Elizabeth Ramsay Fraser dreamed in 1887 that her dead sister wife was disinterred, warm and uncorrupted, though missing a temple veil and apron. Fraser ends the description with: “I awoke much troubled and worried about the dream I told it to Mother and Sarah they both thought it strange but said no more.”[iv]
I could go on and on with categories and examples (and will as the project develops). They show that dreams were authoritative ways that Mormon women and men of this era accessed the spirit world to consciously and unconsciously receive life guidance for something mundane as a difficult algebra problem to something as profound and life-changing as plural marriage. Dreams were personal, internal, liminal spaces between the spirit and mortal worlds. The above unnamed mother received the answer from the spirit world she sought when she entered the state that was closest to that of her dead son in the spirit world.
Dreams had clear connections to other forms of communication with the spirit world. Up until about the late nineteenth century, LDS women’s premier revelatory expression was speaking in tongues. In his 1877 book, Edward Tullidge explains that while men have reason and the priesthood, women have faith and prophecy.[v] Tullidge gives us a good sense of the separate spheres gender assumptions within which Mormon women of this era were living. Speaking in tongues, women were overtaken by a prophetic power and articulated prophecies in languages they did not know. Their words needed to be interpreted by other women who were gifted with the prophetic ability to understand their meaning. This was an indirect, deflected, and “safe” prophetic behavior. Neither speaker nor interpreter claimed full prophetic power—each needed the other to create a dual, prophetic synergy that usually produced limited, personal prophecies.
As the nineteenth century progressed into the twentieth and the church was routinized, the gift of tongues waned among women. But prophetic dreaming continued and, if anything—from preliminary, anecdotal evidence—grew more common in public discourse. I would suggest that dreams were the routinized analogue of speaking in tongues. Dreams were forms of communication by which women and men could continue to receive prophetic messages, but in a way that shielded them from the public, as well as the rationalizing eyes of the leadership.
Dreams were “safe” because they went through a process of communal vetting. Many dreams never saw the light of day beyond the pages of a woman’s journal. Like the dream of Elizabeth Ramsey Fraser, these dreams became part of that particular woman’s journey to alternately inspire and puzzle her. These unshared dreams are often complex and contradictory with multiple layers of personal and religious meaning. Like the dream of the unnamed mother, public dreams usually have a clear narrative and message. Perhaps they became public precisely because they spoke clearly to their dreamer and her personal interlocutors. But they also likely had undergone a process of unconscious editing and redacting. Fraser wrote down her dream and told her close female relatives, whose only reactions were puzzlement and disinterest. Maybe if they had found and articulated a common interpretation of the dream, her relatives might have shared the dream in more public setting, as did the unnamed participant who revealed her mother’s dream during a women’s meeting. The reaction to the dream by those at the meeting was presumably positive enough that the secretary recording the meeting noted it down in some detail. And when the meeting minutes were sent to the Exponent, the editor, probably Emmeline B. Wells, thought it was of enough general interest to include it in the published minutes. The dream—or, more accurately, the redacted and interpreted dream—became part of the public discourse of the Mormon community. Just as the prophetic speaker in tongues had an interpreter to shore up her prophetic authority with an understandable and meaningful interpretation, the prophetic dreamer needed multiple interpreters to make her interface with the spirit world meaningful and authoritative to her wider community, to protect her from suspicions of prophetic arrogance—even make her anonymous.
Meyer’s experience fits with that of her literary foremothers. Like Peterson, she had a vivid dream that stuck with her in the morning. It had a kind of vividness and life that signaled it was important. Like Peterson, she was moved to share her vision by recording it on paper. She felt as though she was guided by, well, she does not say directly but she surely implies, God. She shared her story with her relatives, especially her mother and sister who, unlike Fraser’s loved ones, encouraged her to write and share it.[vi] A story about vampires and werewolves seems distant from Peterson’s prophetic, inspiring predictions, or the unnamed mother’s encounter with Joseph Smith, or even Fraser’s confusing dream of her buried sister wife. And yet, the match is closer than one might think. Meyer claims that she did not consciously put her religion in her story, but she also makes clear that a central purpose of her saga is to show the importance of free will and making good choices, both central elements of the LDS plan of salvation: “There’s something about overcoming the natural man. …Having free agency to decide what you’re going to do with yourself is a gift. I think kids pick up on that—it doesn’t matter if you’re a vampire. You can choose what to do with your life.”[vii] I am tempted to call Meyer’s dream and writing experience a secularized, assimilated, popularized version of the her foremothers’ prophetic and literary endeavors: a dream-fueled story, void of overt religious symbols, but rife with ethical, theological significance and directed toward an international, non-Mormon audience.
[i] Wm Morris, “Interview: Twilight Author Stephenie Meyer,” A Motley Vision: Mormon Arts and Culture (blog), October 26, 2005, http://www.motleyvision.org/2005/interview-twilight-author-stephanie-meyer/ .
[ii] Lydia Jane Savage Peterson, collection, 1882-1916, July 25, 1900, The Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.
[iii] “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 23, no. 5 (September 1, 1894): 181.
[iv] Elizabeth Ramsay Fraser, diary, 1887-1895, August 23, 1887, The Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.
[v] Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondon (New York: Tullidge & Crandall), 6 & 20.
[vi] Stephenie Meyer, interview for Oprah.com, November 13, 2009, http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Twilight-Author-Stephenie-Meyer-on-Writing-Video .
[vii] Megan Irwin, “Charmed,” Phoenix New Times, July 12, 2007, http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2007-07-12/news/charmed/ .