Our Modest Proposal for BYU Women’s Conference: A Mo-TED Talk on Female Ritual Healing

By June 8, 2012

This post co-authored by JI contributors Tona H and J. Stapley

We’ve been thinking…

Each spring, more than 14,000 women converge on the BYU campus for Women?s Conference. The annual 2-day event is cosponsored by BYU and the Relief Society, and it has a remarkable influence among its physical attendees, amplified by the larger sessions being broadcast on BYU-TV and because Deseret Book issues a ?greatest hits? compilation volume of talks from the conference each year. Given its quasi-official status, alongside Deseret Book’s touring production of regional women?s retreats, ?Time Out for Women,? BYU Women?s Conference provides an important venue for devotional talks by and about women?s experiences in the Church. Many LDS women see both as ?approved? forums and use them as a spiritual retreat.

However, BYU Women?s Conference is more like a business conference/trade show than an academic conference. Which got us wondering… wouldn?t it be great if there was cutting-edge scholarship on Mormon women being shared there? And if the gap between academic research on women, and the contemporary subjects of that research, was being more frequently and effectively bridged? And if there were a sort of TED-talk opportunity to take the best of recent scholarship on Mormon women?s history and put it before a wider audience?

Case in point: Jonathan Stapley & Kristine Wright?s recent article, ?Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,? Journal of Mormon History Winter 2011, 37(1): 1-85 (full text on SSRN http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1754069). Many Mormons, regardless of their level of engagement with scholarship, are aware that Mormon women participated in healing rituals in the past. Stapley and Wright present a new and expanded framework to understand the practice and beliefs regarding this participation. They detail the prevalence of female ritual healing as well as the particularities of practice from the earliest moments of the Restoration to the late twentieth century. They also introduce ?liturgical authority? as a concept to understand the evolving authority held by church members to perform various aspects of church liturgy. Additionally, they highlight the transition from folk liturgy to formal liturgy in history of the Church and the environment that contributed to these transitions. Throughout this narrative, Stapley and Wright show that Church leaders have consistently supported female ritual healing until relatively recently and include examples from revelations to Joseph Smith, writings of Relief Society leaders, First Presidency pronouncements, and a rich body of artifacts from recommends to silk banners detailing the practice as anything but a hidden aspect of our collective past.

It’s a really important piece of new scholarship (still ongoing, see here). Even though there may be some awareness of this past, the extent and richness of it and its persistence well into the twentieth century are surely not widely known. What might some of the consequences be of sharing this information to a large audience of Mormon women? In what ways would this be useful, surprising, or potentially transformative for women who encounter it during a spiritual retreat setting? In other words, since the thrust of women?s conference is ?spiritual adrenaline? rather than (as at most academic history conferences) ?the joy of uncovering the past?s specifics,? what might Women?s Conference participants take from such a talk, or what ripple effects would we be hoping for?

Let us suggest a few that have emerged as we imagined a hypothetical program lineup that would include Stapley and Wright?s findings and/or articles in a similar vein.

First, there is the obvious benefit of recovering collective historical memory of an important, now-lost, tradition in Mormon women?s past experiences. Speaking of it openly–and without apology or speculative folk-theology about why it is no longer extant–is an important first step away from whitewashing or obscuring the scope and meaning of female religious authority in our own past.

Unlike some historical truths of the Church with which some Mormons are not familiar, the vast majority of the details regarding women healing are inspiring, poignant, and spirit-conducive in the traditional Mormon devotional mode. Consequently, the various experiences of Latter-day Saint men and women, and the various pronouncements made by male and female church leaders can easily be highlighted to promote faith, encourage obedience, and venerate the heritage of the Restoration… all of which are undoubtedly aligned with the core goals of Church-affiliated women?s conferences.

Then, sharing such findings more widely points Mormon women towards their own past, introduces newer convert women to stories and sources of strength they are unlikely to find mentioned in regular Sunday meetings, and models how to use ?raw? historical sources which are increasingly becoming available to anyone in digital archives. With a little context and modeling, Mormon women may find ways to draw upon such sources themselves for lessons, talks, or for their own personal study. The use of primary sources in, and for, the Church?s new women?s history publications (Daughters in My Kingdom and the Women of Faith in the Latter Days series) suggests that even the Church itself sees value in giving members greater access to documents and objects of the gendered history of Mormonism.

We would surmise that sharing this information in a venue specifically designed by and for LDS women would have some real benefits. We share the hunch that women, when among other women and listening in a female-centric context, might be more receptive to this history. And let?s be honest, there are precious few sanctioned places where these concepts and stories can be confronted and celebrated. We think this should be one.

Article filed under Gender Public History


  1. I am persuaded.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 8, 2012 @ 9:01 am

  2. This is a proposal I can get behind, though I admit to not having a very strong familiarity with BYU Women’s Conference generally. Do you plan on sending this to the organizers, Tona and J? What would it take to make this proposal a reality?

    Comment by Christopher — June 8, 2012 @ 10:41 am

  3. BYU Women’s Conference? Like Education Week, but with more estrogen per capita.

    Here’s the program from this year (click on program image at the bottom of the page to download):


    The Conference usually includes messages from the general Relief Society presidency, a number of general authorities, current and former members of the women’s auxiliary general boards, professional women presenting on or near their area of expertise, and some popular speakers on the Mormon conference circuit. The presentations tend toward the inspirational and didactic. A random session (Friday 2:00-3:00 pm) includes the following topics:

    Lay Aside the Things of This World, and Seek for the Things of a Better (Sharon Eubank, Brad Wilcox)

    “The Heart of Her Husband Doth Safely Trust in Her”: Being a Safe Haven for Your Spouse (Sara Smith, Hank Smith)

    How to Pass Parenting 505 (Lori Coenen, Laura Padilla Walker)

    “A Multiplicity of Blessings” Awaits Within the Temple (Dixie Oveson, Stephen Oveson)

    When the Prophet Speaks…the Debate is Over (Jennifer Brinkerhoff, Marilyn Green Faulkner)

    Living in a Multigenerational Home (lists presenters)

    I can’t find a past program from Education Week for comparison, and the program for this year should be available in a couple of weeks, but it looks like you might have more success trying to get an invitation to speak at Education Week and building up your Mormon conference “street cred” before trying to break into the more tightly controlled Women’s Conference speaking circuit.

    Comment by Amy T — June 8, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

  4. And here’s a little discussion of Education Week that I saw when looking for an old program:


    Comment by Amy T — June 8, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  5. Christopher, I honestly don’t know what it would take to make it a reality. It was a lot of fun to think through this with Tona, though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 8, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

  6. If this was offered at Women’s Conference, I might actually decide to go.

    I have always wondered if we could create a “Mormon History Geeks Conference” that would have classes I would want to go to. 🙂

    Comment by Julia — June 8, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

  7. I honestly don?t know what it would take to make it a reality.

    About 100 years.

    Comment by Kristine — June 8, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

  8. 100 years forward, or back, Kristine?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 8, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

  9. With a little context and modeling, Mormon women may find ways to draw upon such sources themselves for lessons, talks, or for their own personal study.

    I think this may be the crucial hinge on which the proposal hangs. Too often the context is lost, misremembered, or reduced to “I seem to recall a general authority once saying…” and the spirit of the story is garbled, often to the detriment of the hearers. The organizers of the BYU Women’s Conference likely want to avoid problems attributable to the vague sourcing that many attendees later use in SS and RS comments and lessons; even as important as the suggested topics are.
    What about a multi-faceted, populist approach? Perhaps if church members saw conversational articles about more women’s topics appearing in the Ensign, in Visiting Teaching messages, the Church News, and on lds.org in addition to the BYU Women’s Conference; then there would be more opportunities for “context and modeling” reaching a wider audience.

    Comment by Nate R — June 8, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  10. Julia, like MHA or Sunstone but only for women? “Time Out for Clios” or something? Let’s take it on the road. Now coming to NYC, Urbana, Madison, Berkeley and a college town near you!

    Comment by Tona H — June 9, 2012 @ 7:03 am

  11. Nate R – amen.

    Comment by Tona H — June 9, 2012 @ 7:08 am

  12. That would be awesome! I’ve actually been passing along that article on women’s participation in health blessings since bcc gave me the heads up yesterday and I’ve got positive feed back from people who are theologically quite conservative. I really think if it was approved it would go over well.

    Comment by jasonb — June 9, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

  13. Tona and I have both spoken at BYU Women’s Conference. (She should publish the outstanding talk she gave on the Sabbath . . . .) My talk was “correlated” — I had to submit it in advance for approval, and I was asked to make a couple of changes before I gave the talk. Overall, though, it was a great experience and I was heartened by the emails I received from many Mormon women. I think that many women long for thought-provoking content and would love to have a more scholarly track available at BYU Women’s Conference.

    Comment by Jana — June 12, 2012 @ 8:35 am

  14. Yes please!

    Comment by Saskia — July 6, 2012 @ 9:52 am


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