On Sacred Space, Carpets and Embodied Belief

By April 9, 2013

[The following is a guest post from our good friend and former co-blogger Kris Wright.]

In the first sentence of the introduction to Women and Things 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies, editors Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin write

This volume takes as its object of investigation the overlooked and often despised categories of women?s decorative arts and homecraft activities as sites of important cultural and social work.[1]

I will admit that when I read that, I thought it might be a bit of hyperbole ? neglected, yes, but despised?  That seemed like an exaggeration. However after listening to President Elaine S. Dalton?s Conference address, ?We Are Daughters of Our Heavenly Father? and observing some of the online reaction to it, I am starting to wonder if despised is actually a good descriptor. Such reaction can shed light on why modern historians ignore Mormon women or have a difficult time integrating them into their work.

As Catherine Brekus has pointed out, those who do women?s history have frequently associated historical agency with freedom, empowerment, intentionality and contesting male authority. Women who reproduce and uphold conservative religious structures present a serious challenge to this model of interpreting the past and are difficult to cast as historical agents. Brekus encourages historians to recognize that ?habitual and routinized activities are not devoid of agency?[2] while also acknowledging the idea that historical agency exists on a continuum. Mormon historians cannot ignore the very real limitations on women’s agency and need to be wary of using an emancipatory model of history to describe the constraints of religious structures and cultural beliefs as liberating.

Women?s crafts and domestic work certainly fit into this difficult category.  The mundane materials and processes that often define women?s work make them unworthy of study to many scholars.  However, objects, even (especially!) everyday, domestic ones, can be a primary form of evidence for understanding religion as lived experience and sheds light on what believers do with material things.   President Dalton?s story is actually an excellent example of how everyday people engage in religious meaning-making. She states:

Several years ago, as this conference center was being built and nearing completion, I entered this sacred building on the balcony level in a hard hat and safety glasses, ready to vacuum the carpet that my husband was helping to install.  Where the rostrum now stands, there was front-end loader moving dirt and the dust in this building was thick.  It settled – and when it did so, it settled on the new carpet. My part was to vacuum.  And so I vacuumed, and vacuumed and vacuumed.  After 3 days, my little vacuum burned up. The afternoon before the first General Conference in this beautiful building, my husband called me.  He was about to install the last piece of carpet under this historic pulpit.  He asked, “What scripture should write on the back of this carpet?”  And I said ?”Mosiah 18: 9: Stand as a witness of God, at all times and in all things and in all places.?[3]

This story bears many of the hallmarks of how people transform things into more than physical objects and is reminiscent of how men and women throughout Mormon history have viewed their labour in constructing sacred spaces as part of their religious consecration [4]. Sacred texts or symbols are transferred onto woven fabric (or a text/ile[5]) changing their meaning and relationship to the believer. Cleaning and caring for sacred space deeply influences the felt-life of belief. The act of vacuuming the carpet in a religious building or writing a scripture on the back of a piece of carpet becomes central to the construction of a religious identity and these physical interactions ?tirelessly educate the ear, the fingers, the palette, the posture and the gesture and contribute to the slow sedimentary development of belief.?[6] The carpet in the Conference Center becomes a sacred object.

The fact that the primary material object in this story is a carpet is another way that President Dalton connects with the Mormon past. The creation and installation of carpets in sacred buildings actually has a long history, particularly within the realm of building tabernacles and temples. Day after day in March 1878, Samuel Roskelley wrote details about the carpet for the Logan Temple in his journal. Roskelley worked with women from the Cache Stake, who feverishly toiled to finish sewing textiles, install carpets and clean the temple. On March 14 1878, he noted, ?I hurried the workmen out of the washing rooms on the north side of Temple basement and about 10 o?clock the following named sisters came to work ?. And proceeded ? to cut and sew homemade carpet for the washing rooms.?[7] Such work can hardly be described as challenging religious structures, but it is still the work that Mormon women performed. It?s meaning and limitations need to be reckoned with and acknowledged as a form of embodied religion.

If scholars are only going to study or place value upon interactions with objects that happen within institutional or liturgical settings, they are going to miss many of the other ways that belief is embodied and practiced.  Most Mormon women did not have the same experience of historical agency as their male counterparts, yet they still engaged in activities where they were able to create religious meaning. One just needs a different lens to perceive them. They experienced the transcendent in the form of the yeasty aroma of the kneading process as they baked Sacrament bread for their communities.  They felt warm, soapy water, and heard the sound of clinking glass cups as they cared for sacrament vessels. They threaded needles, cut out religious clothing and felt the texture of rags that they wove into carpets. The work of baking, washing dishes, sewing and cleaning can present difficulties for modern historians as they attempt to integrate Mormon women into the narrative history of the church or into the larger field of American religious history. However, when historians recognize these activities as significant religious and artistic work that produced objects of material culture and reveal embodied belief, it becomes easier to recognize these women and their material practices as central to Mormon history.

Disclaimer:   I outsource vacuuming to my children as often as possible.


[1] Goggin, Maureen Daly, and Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds. Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies. Farnham, (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009), p. 6.

[2] Brekus, Catherine, ?Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency? Journal of Mormon History, Volume 37, Number 2, Spring 2011,

[3] Quote transcribed by me from this video.

[4] While some might simply see the Conference Center as a meeting place for large groups, there can be little doubt that it was envisioned to be a sacred building.  President Gordon B. Hinckley tied the building of the Conference Center to the historic structures that were important to the communal history of Mormon meetings [the Bowery and the Salt Lake City Tabernacle], to the entry into the Salt Lake Valley [ground broken on the 150th anniversary] as well as statements from Church President Brigham Young and Apostle James A. Talmadge which were seen as prophetic. See Gordon B. Hinckley, “To All the World in Testimony” Saturday Morning Session, General Conference, April 2000 (link).  President Hinckley remarked, | ?We did not know it at the time, but in 1853 Brigham Young, in speaking of temples, said, ?The time will come when ? we shall build ? on the top, groves and fish ponds? (Deseret News Weekly, 30 Apr. 1853, 46).  Also, ?In 1924 Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve wrote, ?I have long seen the possible erection of a great pavilion on the north side of the Tabernacle, seating perhaps twenty thousand people or even double that number, with amplifiers capable of making all hear the addresses given from the Tabernacle stands, and in addition to this a connection with the broadcasting system, with receivers in the several chapels or other meeting houses throughout the intermountain region? (journal of James E. Talmage, 29 Aug. 1924, Special Collections and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah).

[5] Goggin, Maureen Daly, ?An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sample-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Practice,? Rhetoric Review 21 (2002):p., 312.

[6] Morgan, David, Ed.  Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief.  (New York:  Rutledge, 2010), p. 8

[7] The women were Clara Bench Jeppsen, Amanda Eliason Benson, Anne Anderson Frank, Martha Eylan Reese, Mary Ann French Farnes, Anna Maria Johnson, all from the Logan 1st Ward.  Samuel Roskelley : papers and temple records, 1862-1962. (COLL MSS 65). Utah State University. Special Collections and Archives Department.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Exactly. I could not agree more. The gender-bound nature of the story struck many Bloggernacle commenters as trite or patronizing, but I think we have to take seriously Dalton’s claim that this how & where the Spirit spoke to her. No less so than in any other century. Well put! (I hope she finds this post).

    Comment by Tona H — April 9, 2013 @ 6:18 am

  2. So much yes here. I remember feeling the most part of my own church community twice: the first was during our monthly communion service, when we all get up and form a circle before we pass the bread and wine. There’s something surprisingly intimate in taking communion in full sight of everyone else. The second was during the times I volunteered to do the dishes after coffee hour. My hands in that soapy water, staying late to clean up, that’s when I felt I belonged.
    Let’s start paying more attention to embodied religion and stop conflating “domestic” with “unimportant”.

    Comment by Saskia — April 9, 2013 @ 6:27 am

  3. Fabulous work Kris. This is really great. Thank you for it. I think we must work to not discount the agency of women wherever and however it happens. And usually recognizing that itself is work.

    Comment by jjohnson — April 9, 2013 @ 6:38 am

  4. This is great, Kris. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — April 9, 2013 @ 7:47 am

  5. One of the best things we’ve hosted on the blog. Thanks, Kris.

    Comment by Ben P — April 9, 2013 @ 8:03 am

  6. Useful. Insightful. Awesome.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 9, 2013 @ 8:05 am

  7. This is powerful. Thanks, Kris.

    Comment by David G. — April 9, 2013 @ 8:32 am

  8. Thanks Kris. This is fantastic.

    Comment by WVS — April 9, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  9. Wow. Last paragraph is fabulous.

    Comment by Ryan T — April 9, 2013 @ 9:06 am

  10. Thanks for all of the positive responses. You are all making my day.

    Comment by Kris Wright — April 9, 2013 @ 9:10 am

  11. Both brilliant and beautiful. Among other things I remember a relative who worked hard on the needlepoint for an altar in the Manti Temple when they refurbished it in the 1980s. It remains a terribly important moment for her.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 9, 2013 @ 9:22 am

  12. Love this.

    Comment by M Miles — April 9, 2013 @ 9:30 am

  13. Brava! This is simply superb. Thank you, Kris.

    (I confess to wallowing in a moment of outrage — not at the story itself, but at the kvetching that followed. My own aggrievement at the aggrieved commentary soured the story for me, but you have redeemed with this wonderful reading. Thank you.)

    Comment by Rosalynde — April 9, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  14. Excellent, Kris; important thoughts indeed.

    Comment by Russell Arben Fox — April 9, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  15. Thank you so much for this. I have seen so much negativity directed towards this talk. I think it’s important to remember that being a feminist should mean that you stand up for a woman’s right to choose whatever she wants to do, or is moved to do. Even if it’s vacuuming.

    Comment by JW — April 9, 2013 @ 10:25 am

  16. So beautiful, and so true. Thank you, Kris.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 9, 2013 @ 10:31 am

  17. Beautiful.

    Comment by JennyW — April 9, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  18. When then scripture-under-the-carpet story came up, my wife looked at me significantly because of the flooring we laid last summer in our living room and dining room. Under the oak where the dining table sits, I copied with a Sharpie marker Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” onto the plywood. That poem is an inversion of this problem. The poet remembers the physical toil of his father and grandfather, and aims to make his mental work as meaningful as their labors were, concluding “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I?ll dig with it.” It’s a very good poem for first-generation desk jockeys, occasionally wondering if what they spend their days on really counts as work.

    Comment by John Mansfield — April 9, 2013 @ 11:14 am

  19. What a beautifully written, powerful, and important piece. Thank you for this reading and reminder, Kris.

    Comment by Aimee — April 9, 2013 @ 11:53 am

  20. wonderful redemption of the bloggernacle–and it ties in well with the mormon women and material culture work from a couple years back. thanks for your insights!

    Comment by anita — April 9, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

  21. Well done, Kris. Excellent.

    Comment by Rechabite — April 9, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

  22. Kris, I echo that this is excellent work. You have some very good frameworks that apply to my own research with young women’s diaries. Your piece has some helpful suggestions for how I can write about how young women’s objects “embodied belief.” Thanks!

    Comment by Natalie R — April 9, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  23. Thanks so much for reaffirming a different way of looking at lived religion and unexpectedly sacred objects. This was uplifting and insightful- thank you.

    Comment by Rachael — April 9, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  24. This was a lovely way to contextualize Dalton’s work in a history of women connecting to their religion and religious communities through the work they do.

    But, I think you missed the reason her talk fell flat with many feminists in the telling of this story (because it sure fell flat in other places, too). It’s not because these feminists despise women’s work or finding the sacred in the work of living. Where Dalton went wrong was in telling women to do their part and to know their roles and then offer a very specific example of what a woman’s part looks like: cleaning. Is cleaning sometimes the part women must do? Yep. Same for men. Life’s messy. But, is cleaning a woman’s part? No. And one woman’s part is not the same as that of another. But, Dalton doesn’t make either distinction.

    Comment by dankrist — April 9, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

  25. This was awesome. Thank you.

    Comment by michelle — April 9, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

  26. I’m going to make a set of resin grapes in your honor right now, Kris…

    Comment by Kevin Barney — April 9, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

  27. Fantastic, Kris. Last paragraph is amazing.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — April 9, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

  28. I think dankrist?s comment underscores the point of my argument. A woman?s use of a vacuum can hardly be described as challenging male authority or be seen as a symbol of freedom or empowerment which the current paradigm of historical agency privileges. Historians will need to do the difficult work pushing past their own preferences and biases as they seek to construct a more complete picture of Mormon women?s history.

    Comment by Kris Wright — April 10, 2013 @ 8:07 am

  29. dankist makes a fair point and something I felt in response to this piece. But to be fair, I don’t think Kris’ intention was to say “feminists are wrong to be upset by this talk.” At least the way I read it was more of, “there are ways to find tender appreciation of things in our history (or present) that are (legitimately) upsetting to us as feminists.” Kris, do you think that’s a fair reading?

    Comment by Cynthia L. — April 10, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  30. I don’t think that one needs to use the term “tender appreciation”. The reality is that many Mormon women chose to reproduce LDS religious structures instead of working against them. The current paradigm of historical agency encourages historians to think in binaries: Mormon women are dupes or victims of patriarchy who are unworthy of inclusion in historical narratives or Mormon women are heroines who find liberation in their oppression. The bottom line is that a more complete history of women and religion needs to be inclusive, and not just be about leaders or rebels. Finally, my intention in pointing out some of the online reaction to President Dalton’s talk was to underscore the point of the initial quotation from scholars in a broader field than Mormon history — that the discomfort many feel with the study of women’s domestic and decorative work is very real and can be a roadblock to more comprehensive constructions of the past.

    Comment by Kris Wright — April 10, 2013 @ 10:14 am

  31. Late to the party on this one, but the post is phenomenal, Kris! Well done.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 10, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  32. Hi, Kris: I look forward to everything you write, and this did not disappoint. Thanks for always bringing women’s agency into the mundane, and reminding us of its complications.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — April 10, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

  33. I loved Elaine Dalton’s talk for these same reasons, plus it cut across feminist and nonfeminist positions, with its woman-centered reality and cultural feminism. Totally agree about the common view of religious women as either doormats or rebels–precisely my motive for deconstructing that binary. Real agency and disempowerment coexist.

    Yes, it requires a different lense (multiple lenses) to see and understand women’s experience, agency, perspective and participation in Mormon history. Their agency is different than men’s in many ways, plus they simply had more agency than has been realized. Woman-centered and women’s culture and material culture approaches can be taken much further, with surprising results.

    An obvious example is making clothing for temple workers in Kirtland and Nauvoo, and making temple clothing and furnishings (veils, etc.) which can be understood in terms of both routine and ritual, mundane and holy work– integral in the envisioning, creating, and experiencing of the temple. A different aspect of temple experience.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 11, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

  34. Wow. Love this, Kris. So much to think about here.

    Comment by ZD Eve — April 13, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

  35. M. Hanks,
    That is exactly where I’m headed with my MHA paper this year. Hoping to re-define temple workmanship (or workwomanship) to include the mostly invisible and gendered material culture of temple building. Also, thanks for the point of needing more than one different lens.

    Comment by Kris Wright — April 13, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  36. Kris — I’m delighted to hear that you’re doing a paper on this, it’s long overdue, and a perfect illustration of how women’s spheres and women’s work are often different and overlooked by history– yet still central and uniquely contributing to that history.

    I’ve focused on women’s access to theological and ecclesistical and spiritual avenues of religious experience. So I greatly appreciate and admire the research and approach you’ve brought to Mormon studies (with J.) in the new work and articles you’ve contributed to the field.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 15, 2013 @ 11:40 am

  37. oops, ecclesiastical….typed too fast

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 15, 2013 @ 11:41 am


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