Review of: Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman, eds., Women of Faith in the Latter Days: Volume Two, 1821 – 1845 (Deseret Book, 2012).
I really cannot improve upon the opening lines of the introduction to this projected seven-volume series:
Although approximately half the people in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been women, their lives of faith and dedication are just beginning to receive the attention they merit. This series, Women of Faith in the Latter Days, aims to enhance awareness of these women through inspirational accounts written for a general readership.
The newest edition, the second in the series, considers thirty women* born between 1821 and 1845, and it’s a blockbuster volume both in the women who are included and in the list of authors who set their hand to crafting readable yet accurate and historically contextualized narratives of their lives. The essays purposely introduce both “well-known and previously obscure” women, presenting them in alphabetical order, a notably democratic editorial decision. They epitomize the pioneer women whose piety and self-sacrifice could have easily become fossilized in sentimental hagiography. But that’s not what this series is about, thank heaven. These are real and complex women, often told in their own words, whose struggles, challenges and triumphs have much to say both on a personal level to their contemporary readers and as a window into the genuinely messy world of 19th-century Mormonism.
Each essay includes a thumbnail portrait image, a brief biographical sketch and a longer “Life Experiences” section, sometimes quoting at length from the subject’s own extant personal writings including trail diaries, testimonies, journals, memoirs, and letters. I took some light notes on the women and their life experiences, looking for patterns (my notes are here as a Google spreadsheet). All but two were Anglo-American: one was Norwegian (though born in New York) and one was African American. Ten were born in the British Isles and emigrated to America; seven born in New York itself, three in New England, and the other ten in mid-Atlantic and frontier states (Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania). I find it interesting that so few come from Scandinavia – but maybe that’s the next volume; their conversion narratives reflect the fruits of the very early American frontier and British Isles missionization in the Church’s first ten years. Very many of them gathered to Missouri and/or Nauvoo, and all of them crossed the plains to Utah before 1857. Naturally the collection skews towards the long-lived because such women provided not only written sources but high numbers of appreciative record-keeping descendants, and some of these women died at a very old age indeed – their death dates range from 1877 to 1932! They became the core kingdom-builders in the latter half of the nineteenth century – temple matrons, presidents of Relief Society, founders of Deseret Hospital, deliverers of babies, healers, suffrage activists, leaders of Salt Lake church society. Others were groundbreakers in previously unsettled territories: Idaho, Arizona, Mexico, eking out lives perilously close to homesteading disaster. Marriage (especially young marriage, and then also abandonment, divorce and widowhood) and childbearing (and so infant death) are persistent themes; most of these women outlived their husbands and children, some of them by decades. As a group, they grew from young converts to a green faith into no-nonsense matriarchs of a staggeringly fertile people.
In my view, the series (and perhaps this volume in particular) has to strike a delicate balance between portraying “representative women” versus exceptional “founding mothers.” The takeaway message must be both that any woman can be faithful regardless of her circumstances and that the early Church’s particular history — with its emphasis on gathering, defending the faith in a hostile climate, and settlement-planting in harsh Western conditions — created a generation with uniquely tempered steel at its core. The essays each stand alone, without any overarching thematic or historical introduction (though Turley and Chapman do include a detailed timeline at the beginning), so it’s left to the reader to identify commonalities, linkages, or connections to broader historical developments. I’m intrigued to think about how the series, as it emerges, will come to be used – devotional reading? lessons? talks? as a reference encyclopedia set adorning living rooms? could they be used as a course text?
This volume’s contribution to a steady accumulation of high-quality stories about Mormon women (especially using their own words) bodes extremely well on many levels. It may lead more to the primary sources that form the basis of each essay. It shows (as if there was any doubt) that women contributed substantively to Mormon communities, publications, and leadership and thus to the extant written and visual record of the Mormon past. Thus, it strengthens the argument that the movement’s history cannot be told without meaningfully including women’s voices. But it also invites contemplation on women not included – those who died too soon to have left a memoir, or who were not educated, white, English-speaking or well-connected, or even those who were not stalwart. They are part of the story of Mormonism in the latter days, too, and it’s worth thinking about how (and why) we might explore their lives as well.
*Deseret advertises that there are additional biographies in the Bookshelf eBook edition – has anyone bought this version? The publisher’s website also includes this interview with the editors explaining the project’s genesis and goals – worth a look –