Women Praying in General Conference and Grassroots Efforts

By March 19, 2013

If (when) we see women praying in spring General Conference 2013 (hallelujah!), it may or may not be the result of grassroots efforts. Some will argue that the change was in place long before the efforts of ?Let Women Pray in General Conference,? yet those involved will not likely feel that their efforts were of no consequence. Nor should they, they are part of a significant LDS historical tradition.

For a historian, direct causation is always a somewhat difficult sell. I believe change is rarely the direct result of one single action, but the consequence of many concurrent waves. Within a strongly hierarchical organization, like the LDS Church, the power of grassroots efforts is too often overlooked. This is one of the significant paradoxes of the LDS hierarchy. A brief discussion of the history of LDS grassroots efforts reminds us to not disregard those significant efforts whether they bring about immediate change or not.

As I was reminded this weekend with my stake?s lovely reenactment of the organization of the Relief Society, when sisters met in Sarah Kimball?s home to form a benevolent society 171 years ago, they did not know how their grassroot efforts would end. They did not know that Joseph would quickly harness their eagerness and form an official women?s organization within the Church structure. Nor could they guess that Joseph would use that framework to change their theology of women in eternity. They were just doing what women had done in Kirtland and Nauvoo. They wanted to organize themselves to participate in God?s work and take care of people.

Around 1871 the young girls of the Seventeenth Ward in Salt Lake City ?spontaneously? went to their bishop requesting that they might be organized into their own society. Not yet old enough to join the newly formed Young Ladies Retrenchment Association, they wanted their own organization. Their bishop met their first request with coldness and a bit of confusion, yet two years later he agreed and allowed these girls to form a Juvenile Relief Society.  Though the details are somewhat limited, 1873 appears to be the year of their organization.[1] They organized with a president, counselors, and a secretary after the form of their mother?s Relief Society organization. Eliza R. Snow later praised and blessed them for their initiative.[2]

In 1878, Aurelia Spencer Rogers similarly saw that children in her ward needed instruction and activities while their parents were involved in Church meetings and responsibilities. Rodgers wrote to Eliza R. Snow and the first primary organization was started in Farmington, Utah. By the mid-1880s primaries were popping up all along the Wasatch Front.[3]

In December 1930, Harold B. Lee was called as stake president to the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City. He and his two counselors, Charles Hyde and Paul Child, began their tenure in the midst of the destruction of the Great Depression and saw great deprivation in their stake. They immediately went to work to meet the needs of their stake. They asked the presiding bishopric if they could change the regular path of tithing and fast offerings from their stake. Rather than sending the moneys to the general church fund, they asked to keep the funds within the stake to create a resource for bishops to help those in need. They created employment services, gave work to those without, better utilized farmer?s excess crops, and in the process created a pattern for what would eventually become the church wide Welfare Program. [See Paul Child?s own account here and Arrington and Hinton?s account here.]

As a member of the twelve apostles, Spencer W. Kimball felt it was his duty to sustain and uphold church structure as he understood it. He sometimes found himself at odds with some of the more progressive members of his quorum, such as Hugh B. Brown, particularly in regards to the Priesthood Ban. His son, Edward Kimball, writes about his transition from one who didn?t question to one who earnestly sought to effectuate change.[4] In June 1978 that ?long promised? change came, transforming the lives of not only those men who could now hold the priesthood, but offering the blessings of the priesthood to Saints around the globe.

While we often focus on the top-down nature of hierarchical LDS church structure, there is a significant and long-standing heritage of efforts bubbling up from the bottom. Those rippling waves can bring change that benefits the whole body of the church.


[1] Seventeenth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, September 17, 1873.

[2] Woman?s Exponent 6 (15 February 1878): 138.

[3] Carol Cornwall Madsen and Susan Staker Oman Sisters and Little Saints: One Hundred Years of Primary (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 3-4.

[4] Edward Kimball, ?Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthod,? BYU Studies 47:2: 4-78. Lengthy, but I think important not just in terms of the history of the priesthood ban, but the transition of Kimball himself.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Gender Miscellaneous Women's History


  1. I love the chapter on non-hierarchical revelation in Women and Authority.

    Comment by EdwardJ — March 19, 2013 @ 6:44 am

  2. This is a beautiful summary. I have bookmarked it and shared.

    Comment by Jessica F — March 19, 2013 @ 7:00 am

  3. Amen.

    Comment by Clean Cut — March 19, 2013 @ 8:00 am

  4. Notwithstanding the grass-roots efforts, we must always remember that the Church is run by revelation from the top to the bottom. Yes, grass-roots efforts may have a play in policy changes within the Church, but not all grass-roots efforts cause change, nor will all (such as women being ordained to the Priesthood, which will never occur because God called women to be mothers, not Priesthood leaders).

    Comment by Clark Herlin — March 19, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  5. Causality is awfully difficult to parse, even when we have lots of data. I tend to bristle at simplistic narratives of underdog grassroots triumphing over the inevitably large and impersonable corporation/church/establishment.

    Comment by Ben — March 19, 2013 @ 10:08 am

  6. #4 is a fantastic example of why we need more change.

    Also, I want to enthusastically distance myself from the Ben in comment #5. Dismissal of connections made in this post (or in the recent news) as simplistic narratives is just as counterproductive as, well, simplistic narratives. Both the above comments demonstrate the the *necessity* of grassroots participation, if for nothing else than to adjust our sense of how the Church and revelation works.

    Great post, JJ.

    Comment by Ben P — March 19, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  7. Clark-

    The point of this post is to look at the tradition of grassroots work within LDS history, certainly not to discount the role of revelation. One could argue that Sarah Kimball or Aurelia Spencer Rogers were just as led by revelation as were President Kimball and Stake President Lee.

    We could likewise look at the strictures within which grassroots efforts are successful. Historically, change doesn’t occur with all out rebellion, but working within the structure already present.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 19, 2013 @ 10:22 am

  8. Awesome, Janiece. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  9. Janiece, I suspect that there are many other examples, but I love this list. One more that I recalled had to do with providing better mission homes and a building initiative in Europe during the administration of David O. McKay. Mission presidents and return missionaries described the difficulty of trying to attract a higher class of investigator or be taken seriously as a church by governments when meetings were almost always held in rented halls. A building boom resulted, first in Europe, and then throughout the church.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the modern PEF also had a grass roots beginning. None of this should be a surprise when we look at Joseph Smith’s revelations, which were mostly dialogic in nature; he had a question, often brought up by someone else, and sought answers.

    Comment by kevinf — March 19, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  10. Ben P, you’re mind-reading, and you’re wrong. Stop, please.

    Comment by Ben — March 19, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  11. JJohnson, I love the idea of revelation coming through a variety of sources in the body of Christ. We praise reformers like Martin Luther and John Wycliffe for furthering the God’s work, and they certainly weren’t ever church presidents.

    I suppose some believe the church president’s job is to be the only person in the world who can receive revelation that would be useful to the church. I don’t think that’s the case; I think anyone can be inspired with great ideas. The president’s job is to wisely study and ponder the “data” and decide where to guide the church.

    Comment by Trevor — March 19, 2013 @ 11:19 am

  12. #4 wasn’t there when I was typing, but I can perhaps see how reading it would color my following comment.

    My “Causality is awfully difficult to parse” = JJohnson’s “it may or may not be the result of grassroots efforts….For a historian, direct causation is always a somewhat difficult sell.”

    Since I’ve essentially restated the OP in agreeing with it, I don’t see how you think my critique of simplistic narratives applies is a critique of the post…unless YOU think the post contains a simplistic narrative. Moreover, you have read enough of my posts (I’d have thought) to know I’m not some top-down McConkie-ite, but you’re quick to label and dismiss me as part of the problem.

    I enthusiastically call your comment a sloppy and uncharitable misreading.

    Comment by Ben — March 19, 2013 @ 11:31 am

  13. Thanks people.

    From the outside it is often very easy to only see the hierarchical structure; the structure is important, but official structure is never the only element at work. I think there are a lot of potential examples. I’d be very interested to hear other possibilities.

    Ben- Unfortunately, I also misread the comment originally…good to now understand the intent.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 19, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  14. Ben: I sincerely apologize if I misread your comment, but you must understand how I interpreted your choice to comment on (out of anything) the need to be hesitant with celebrating grassroots influence, coming on the heels of #4, can seem counterproductive given the setting and discussion.

    mea culpa.

    Comment by Ben P — March 19, 2013 @ 11:58 am

  15. Thanks JJ. I remember running across the Juvenile Relief Society minutes when trolling through the 17th ward records. I love moments like that. Here is the ref. if anyone is interested:

    Seventeenth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, Juvenile Relief Society Minutes, in Relief Society Minutes and Records, vol. 6, LR 8240 14, microfilm of holograph, LDS Church History Library.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 19, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  16. For your penance, I suggest Todd Compton’s Sunstone article, “Counter-hierarchical Revelation” June 1991.

    Or maybe you’ve all read it (as this is JI.) It was my first introduction to this idea, way back as an undergrad.

    Comment by Ben — March 19, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  17. Ben- I haven’t recognized significant difference between the Sunstone version and the Women in Authority version noted by EdwardJ in the first comment, but yes. Penance taken.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 19, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

  18. Peggy’s story in the Trib does not rise above the level of unsubstantiated rumor. We’ll see what happens.

    Near as I can judge, there is nothing bothersome or disturbing — or even remarkable, for that matter — to do with women supposedly offering prayers in General Conference. Unprecedented occurrences take place in General Conference on a fairly regular basis. Indeed, the Church conducts such meetings for this very purpose.

    Such things are not generally made public through the Salt Lake Tribune or other news media sources.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 19, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

  19. Jim, Peggy posted this on Facebook: Dear FB friends, My sources for this story are solid. Trust me. I am a professional journalist. I do not go into print with rumors.”

    Comment by Trevor — March 19, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

  20. I love the concept of seeking personal revelation and figuring out how to make things work. I love how Sarah Kimball applied the way the priesthood quorums were set up in the SLC 15th Ward Relief Society and, like the D&C outlines the different responsibilities for different quorums, she outlined responsibilities for deaconesses and teachers. Not all grassroots ideas take hold, but I love the ability to figure out how to make things work where we are and according to local needs.

    Good job, JJ!

    Comment by Jenny R — March 19, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

  21. When a woman is called on to pray in a few weeks, I hope we — I — can restrain the joyful outburst, in person and online, to actually listen to the prayer. It won’t be easy, and I suspect we won’t hear much of any hymn that might follow it, but I want to *be* there in that moment.

    Your posts on this issue and its history have been wonderful, J.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 20, 2013 @ 10:24 am

  22. Thanks JR & Ardis.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 20, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  23. […] Women Praying in General Conference and Grassroots Efforts (JJohnson, Juvenile Instructor)– One of the most frequent criticisms that “protest” movements within the LDS Church get is that the Church is run by revelation and that leaders do not respond to pressure or input from “below.”  The historical truth is that almost everything the Church does today is the result of somebody other than the hierarchy’s ideas– Primary, Sunday School, the welfare program, the Relief Society, and the list goes on. […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.12 (March 18-24) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — March 31, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

  24. Janiece, thanks for this thoughtful discussion, I agree and have posted on this idea as well. Often change occurs when a critical mass consciousness is reached, via direct and indirect causes, or when formal, infomal, and personal vision coincide.

    Comment by M.Hanks — April 8, 2013 @ 9:07 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”