Dialogues With Myself
We Need to Liberate Mormon Men!
Read for the Women’s Conference, BYU, February 1983, and the east coast meetings of the Association for Mormon Letters, May 1983: a shorter version published in Exponent II (Spring 1983).
[p.153] In the past twenty years an increasing number of voices, male and female, from novelists to theologians, from heretics to housewives, have claimed that the rights and freedoms of women have been severely restricted under various patriarchal systems, particularly religious ones—and that women have thus been suppressed, prevented from their possible development and expression as creative, free human beings. Mormonism, with its strongly authoritarian male priesthood and family centered theology, has been attacked as an extreme example of this suppression by religious patriarchy. Marilyn Warensky, in her book Patriarchs and Politics, claims that “In the Mormon experience can be found the ideal case in support of feminism against any patriarchal society” because it “demonstrates how patriarchal power ultimately and inevitably becomes confining to women.” After reviewing Dostoevsky’s account of the Grand Inquisitor, who claims it is inevitable that humans give up painful freedom for the safe bonds of religion, Warensky claims that Mormon women “have not only accepted the security of religion, with its mystery and miracle, but have also embraced patriarchal authority as a necessary part of that religion.” Another noted critic of patriarchies, Sonia Johnson, of course has made the same claim. Others, Mormon women who are not at all heretics, have made similar complaints, though in milder tones. Even Linda Sillitoe and Mary Bradford, both of whom seem to me much more liberated than suppressed by the patriarchy—and certainly more liberated than most men I know—were worried a few years ago that Mormon [p.154] women were writing mainly through a “mask of maleness.” Bradford urged Mormon women, “Reveal yourselves, sisters. Risk it! Risk it!”1
I am naturally skeptical about any sweeping claims, but more to the point, I have found nothing to support these claims in my own experience with Mormon women, especially Charlotte England. However, many bright and good people feel something is wrong, so I began to look for evidence one way or the other in my own field of scholarship, Mormon literature.
The evidence, I am convinced, shows that Mormon women are more free, more daring, inventive, original in thought and unique in voice than Mormon men. In quantity and quality of literary production, certainly one of the great measures of freedom and creativity, they are more liberated than men under the “patriarchy.” In the first generation of writers after the Restoration, roughly 1830-1880, Mormon women wrote more than fifty percent of our best journals, diaries, letters, autobiographies, poems, and hymns. But that was not just an unusual, anomalous nineteenth-century phenomenon. In the twentieth century, after a fallow period from 1880 to 1930, a second generation of first-rate writers developed, from 1930-1960. Our best two Mormon novels, which come from that period, are by women. Our two most innovative histories were also written then—and by women. In the third generation of Mormon writers, since 1970, which contains such quality it looks to many of us like “The Dawning of a Brighter Day,”2 all of our collections of personal essays,3 about fifty percent of our finest individual essays and poems,4 and many of our best short stories are by women.5 Scanning down a select bibliography of Mormon literature I compiled lately, I find it clear that in every period and most genres more than half of our best, most challenging original work is by women.6 The most challenging, insightful, and successful independent journal in nineteenth-century Mormonism was the Women’s Exponent. And in 1982, when I began to make this investigation, the three modern independent journals of Mormon thought and literature, Dialogue, Exponent II, and Sunstone, were all edited by women. Contrary to the claim that the Mormon patriarchy suppresses its women more than its men—and does so more than other cultures, I can find no other culture, or nation, contemporary or historical, in which such a preponderance of creative thought and writing is by its women.
How can we explain this evidence? Is it a case of opposition and struggle against oppression producing, by natural selection, a hardier [p.155] stock, more feistiness and rebellion and thus freedom and creativity in the women? Or is it that the patriarchy—because it is inherently corrupt in its reliance on power—corrupts, enfeebles, and makes cowardly and inarticulate its men. Or that the pressures of career and priesthood responsibility simply keep them too busy, or too deprived of the necessary solitude? Or is it that Mormonism inherently contains liberating forces, challenges, paradoxes, spiritual trials and exaltations that women have, for whatever cultural reasons, learned to respond to better than men? I am persuaded that not only is the gospel true but that our Church and our culture have the greatest potential for stimulating creativity, so I opt for the third alternative and, rather than presuming to say much about women, will explore how men can more effectively grasp their opportunities. But first we’ll consider the first two possibilities and look at what Mormon literature itself can tell us.
At the end of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, The First Circle, a marvelous revelation occurs. Innokenty, a Soviet security official who in a sudden moment of compassion had tried to warn by phone someone about to be arrested, has been identified and is himself arrested and taken to Lubyanka prison. As his freedoms are removed and a process of dehumanization begins, a remarkable thing happens. Innokenty begins to see things, feel things, think things he had never before—in his life of privilege and ease and oppression of others: “He had had money, good clothes, esteem, women, wine, travel, but at this moment he would have hurled all those pleasures into the nether world for justice and truth … and nothing more.” He learns to perceive, to genuinely experience and value simple freedoms and skills. After one guard has ripped all the buttons off his tunic but another has given him a needle and old buttons, he learns for the first time to sew on buttons:
Unable to draw on thousands of years of experience, he then invented sewing for himself. … [T]his deliberate, concentrated work not only killed time but also quieted Innokenty completely. His emotions fell into place, and he no longer felt either afraid or despondent. He could perceive that even this legendary pit of horror, the Lubyanka Prison, was not totally fearsome, that there were people of flesh and blood here too. Oh, how he would like to meet them.
After a long, harrowing time, bread and tea are brought him. He has no desire for food but for the first time in his life genuinely tastes his tea: “With a shudder of happiness Innokenty drank the second cup, without [p.156] sugar but sensing sharply the aroma of the tea. His thoughts brightened to a clarity he had never known.”
This moving image of human response to opposition suddenly makes clear one subtle message of the whole novel: That the “zeks,” the political prisoners who staff the technical institutes of Moscow, slave labor suppressed under Stalin’s patriarchy, forced to work long hours without reward or power or the usual freedoms, these men and women are much more intellectually alive, inventive, interesting, moral, free in important ways, even happy, than their oppressors. This is, of course, one of Solzhenitsyn’s great testimonies about the “gulag,” that for all its evil, it contained in remarkable spiritual freedom the true soul of Russia, stimulated the best creativity, produced some of the highest Sainthood in the modern world.
This is not a new idea. The literature of Western Civilization is full of powerful images of men reaching heights of spiritual power or literary creativity when made powerless in prison or exile or by some other suppression: Socrates, Christ, Boethius, Thomas More, John Bunyan, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Smith, Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King. In Civil Disobedience Thoreau described the principle in ringing and influential words:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison. … It is there that the fugitive slave and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her—the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor. But Thoreau taught the more general principle as well—the danger of being conscripted into the power structures, seduced into the quest for wealth and stature, of any oppressive system, the value of being instead among the oppressed, the outcast, even the imprisoned, for the perspective it gives. He quotes Confucius: “Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it.” Thus, Martin Luther King saw and wrote better about America from Birmingham Jail. Gandhi, as we can see again in the current film, when in prison was the freest man in South Africa; later, when he was near death with fasting against oppression, he was the most alive person in India.
In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne gives a powerful example of the possibility that oppressive limitations can also be strangely liberating in a woman. Of his heroine, Hester Prynne, he writes:
[p.157] She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage by the seashore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England. … Had [her child] never come to her from the spiritual world, she might have come down to us in history as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess. Is it a similar patriarchal oppression, like that of the Puritans, and loneliness, like Hester’s, that have produced the free and creative, maturely speculative and spiritual, even prophetic, voices of Mormon women? Partly, but much more is involved.
Consider Eliza R. Snow, married to the first two prophets of Mormonism and sister to another, a Mormon woman to whom the term “prophetess” was literally given—as well as “poetess,” “priestess,” and “presidentess,” even “the president of the female portion of the human race.” She was certainly not suppressed—or isolated. She greatly influenced the development of almost all the Church’s auxiliaries: Relief Society, Primary, young women’s and young men’s groups; she published nine books, volumes of poems, many hymns—most notably “Oh My Father,” which remains one of the most popular and influential Mormon hymns. It is the single most powerful source for what may be our single most powerful new doctrine in Mormon thought, that of a Heavenly Mother. That doctrine nails down firmly the otherwise somewhat vague implications of Joseph Smith’s eternalism: the doctrine that we have existed eternally as separate, unique individuals—and always will—but that our individuality can only be fully realized, its potential completely developed, in an eternal, fully sexual union of opposites, that in fact God is not a single lonely male or female but an eternal creative partnership. That gives us our highest vision of the future and of the present, and, as Maureen Beecher has reminded us, Wilford Woodruff pointed out how fitting it was that the Lord revealed this profound doctrine through one of his daughters.7
Eliza was certainly the appropriate choice. Let’s listen to her voice in what I think was perhaps the crucial period in her discovery of self, of her seeking and receiving the spiritual gifts commensurate with that calling. Her “Trail Diary” from Nauvoo to the Great Salt Lake is known but not well enough known and is now out of print. She found her essential self in the black death and black mud of Winter Quarters, and in keeping her journal, as honestly and revealingly as she did, she provided [p.158] one of the central values of good literature, a catalytic aid in our own search for self. The desperate trek across Iowa and the great plains winter endured in caves and lean-to cabins was perhaps the most harrowing trial of the early Church. For those who did not die, or leave, it was a dark night of the soul and a being pushed back to basics, to frontiers of selfhood, from which they emerged discovered selves reborn. I feel certain this happened to Brigham Young. We have more direct evidence that it did to Eliza. What is most moving and to me makes her record fine Mormon literature is not so much how much of self she exposes but what she reveals of the process of her discovery of self. We meet her at first as the spirited, intelligent, and perceptive but also petulant, self-indulgent, and self-righteous young woman who had been Joseph Smith’s secret wife and is now uncertain of her status—nominally under Brigham Young’s care, but shunted off to travel with a troubled family she guiltily detests, and constantly seeking reassurance through blessings and counsel from authorities such as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball.
But after the chastening of that winter a fine, patient strength, directness, and sense of humor slowly emerge, climaxing, in the spring, with one of the most remarkable outpourings of spiritual power and intelligence in religious history, among Eliza and others of the women of Winter Quarters; they taught each other the doctrine of the kingdom and spoke and sang in tongues and laid their hands on their sick and afflicted sisters and blessed them to health.
Saturday, May 1. This afternoon had a most glorious time at br[other] Leonard’s. Sis. Sessions presided—present: Moth[ers] Chase, Cutler, Cahoon, Sis[ters] Whitney, Kim[ball], Katherine, Lyon, Buel, Knight, etc.—spoken by the spirit of prophecy that the Pioneers were well, happy & were in council—that tomorrow they will have a greater time of rejoicing than they have ever had.
Patty Sessions’ diary of that day reports:
Sylvia and I went to meeting to Sister Leonard’s. None but females there. We had a good meeting. I presided. It was got up by E. R. Snow. They spoke in tongues; I interpreted. Some prophesied. It was a feast.
Here is another report from Eliza, on the trail west:
Friday, June 18. Had a treat of a spirit in the wagon. Sis. Moore & sis. Sess[ions] p[rese]nt. In the aft. attended meeting at sis. Beaches’—most of br. Pratt’s fam[ily] pr[esen]t—had a refreshing time. Sis. Sess[ions] & I went to br. Hunter’s, found sis. H[unter]—went into the wagon—I spoke to br. [p.159] H[unter] in the gift of tongues, sis. S[essions] interpreted, after which br. H[unter], sis. S[essions] & I laid hands on sis. H[unter]’s head and rebuk’d her illness & blessed her. I then sang a song to them & sis. S[essions] sang the interpretation. Susanna present & arose & bless’d sis. H[unter].
In September, Eliza’s wagon train met Brigham Young’s group that was returning from the Salt Lake Valley settlement to Winter Quarters, where he would remain until spring, while she went on to Salt Lake; she writes:
Before the Pioneers left, Brigham came to the carriage and blest us. I ask’d who was to be my counsellor for the year to come. He said Eliza R. Snow. I said, “She is not capable.” He said, “I have appointed her president.”
I see this passage as ironic and deeply revealing. Both she and Brigham Young well knew that she had developed into a woman of marvelous spiritual daring and stature and had a resulting self-confidence and sense of self that could allow her to playfully pretend to her former dependence but with complete assurance, in both of them, that she was, whether he appointed her or not, now indeed “president” of her own soul.
Now listen to a very different voice, Mary Goble Pay, a pioneer woman essentially unknown to any but her family and small Utah community—no prophetess or president of anything prominent. Hers is a voice of spiritual nobility, revealed in the purity and understatement of a prose that is shaped toward genius not by any training or models, but by character and by honest response to great historical and personal events. It is a voice probably not approached, certainly not surpassed, by any Mormon man of the time. Her luminuous account of the sufferings of her family in the handcart disaster, devoid of any self-pity or excess of sentimentality, is quite flat. It sees clearly the detailed, hard surface of life and also its depth. It is moving in the finest sense. As we read of her endurance, at the age of thirteen, through the death of two sisters and her mother and then the loss of her own feet, then see her victory over that handicap and her long life of faith and service, we are motivated not only by passive wonder at a great human being but to an active sense of our own possibilities as human beings and children of God:
My mother had never got well, she lingered until the 11 of December, the day we arrived in Salt Lake City 1856. She died between the Little and Big Mountain. She was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. She was 43 years old. She and her baby lost their lives gathering to Zion in such a late season of the year. My sister was buried at the last crossing of the Sweet Water.
We arrived in Salt Lake City nine o’clock at night the 11th of December 1856. Three out of four that were living were frozen. My mother was dead in the wagon.
Bishop Hardy had us taken to a home in his ward and the brethren and the sisters brought us plenty of food. We had to be careful and not eat too much as it might kill us we were so hungry.
Early next morning Bro. Brigham Young and a doctor came. The doctors name was Williams. When Bro. Young came in he shook hands with us all. When he saw our condition our feet frozen and our mother dead tears rolled down his cheeks.
The doctor amputated my toes using a saw and a butcher knife. Brigham Young promised me I would not have to have any more of my feet cut off. The sisters were dressing mother for the last time. Oh how did we stand it? That afternoon she was buried.
When we had been in Salt Lake a week, one afternoon a knock came at the door. It was Uncle John Wood. When he met Father he said, “I know it all Bill.” Both of them cried. I was glad to see my father cry. Uncle said for him to pack up and we would start right away. That night we got to Centerville. There Aunt Fanny was waiting for us at Brother Garns. We stayed there that night. The next morning we went to Farmington and stayed there until the following April. My father married again.
Instead of my feet getting better they got worse until the following July 1 went to Dr. Wiseman’s to live with them to pay for him to doctor my feet. But it was no use he said he could do no more for me unless I could consent to have them cut off at the ankle. I told him what Brigham Young had promised me. He said all right sit there and rot and I will do nothing more until you come to your senses.
One day I sat there crying. My feet were hurting me so—when a little old woman knocked at the door. She said she had felt someone needed her there for a number of days. When she saw me crying she came and asked what was the matter. I showed her my feet and told her the promise Bro. Young had given me. She said, “Yes, and with the help of the Lord we will save them yet.” She made a poultice and put on my feet and every day after the doctor had gone she would come and change the poultice. At the end of three months my feet were well.
One day Doctor Wiseman said, “Well, Mary, I must say you have grit. I suppose your feet have rotted to the knees by this time.” I said, “Oh, no, my feet are well.” He said, “I know better, it could never be.” So I took off my stockings and showed him my feet. He said that it was a miracle and wanted [p.161] me to tell him what I had been doing. I told him to never mind that they were now healed.
I have never had to have any more taken from them. The promise of Brigham Young has been fulfilled and the pieces of toe bone have worked out.
I had sat in my chair so long that the cords of my legs had become stiff and I could not straighten them. When I went home to my father and he saw how my legs were we both cried. He rubbed the cords of my legs with oil and tried every way to straighten them, but it was of no use. One day he said, “Mary I have thought of a plan to help you. I will nail a shelf on the wall and while I am away to work you try to reach it.” I tried all day and for several days. At last I could reach it and how pleased we were. Then he put the shelf a little higher and in about three months my legs were straight and then I had to learn to walk again.8
What about the twentieth century? I mentioned our two best novels, which are Virginia Sorensen’s The Evening and the Morning and Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua. Sorensen and Whipple were part of our second major literary generation, what Edward Geary has called “Mormondom’s Lost Generation.”9 They were guilty of a certain patronizing tone, even of their own quaint forms of provincialism, in their reaction against Mormon provincialisms. They were, as Virginia Sorensen characterized herself, “in the middle—incapable of severe orthodoxies.” But, better than any of our male writers, Sorensen and her protagonist in The Evening and the Morning, Kate Alexander, understood sin very well, its complex beginnings in small, tragic misunderstandings and impulses, its power to require one to persist when the pains and costs become much greater than the pleasures and rewards.
Whipple’s The Giant Joshua is the richest, fullest, most moving, the truest fiction about the Mormon pioneer experience—one of the best about any pioneers. It gives, better than any of our male-written histories or biographies or novels, the human cost of pioneering and the faith that was willing to meet the cost and the human results won in the struggle. It is a most direct and perceptive access to understanding Mormon experience; it is our finest fictional access to our roots as Mormons and as Rocky Mountain, high-desert people, our most profound imaginative knowledge of the spiritual ancestors of us all, the Dixie pioneers.
Also in that second generation of writers were two women who made courageous and far-reaching breakthroughs in Mormon history: First was Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1946). It has many [p.162] faults, the main one being that Brodie’s considerable rhetorical skill is used, under the guise of objective scholarship, to bring Joseph Smith powerfully alive—but only as the engagingly clever charlatan Brodie had to see in him after she had rejected his Church. But the scholarship, particularly in non-Mormon sources, really is there, for the first time, and much Mormon historical scholarship since has been spent in responding to or imitating that breakthrough. The other is Juanita Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950), the first book by a Mormon historian to deal directly and fully with an incontrovertibly tragic mistake, a sin, by our own people.
What about our contemporaries, the third generation of Mormon writers—again, a majority of them women? These writers, compared to most of those of the previous generation, are characterized by various kinds and degrees of sincere commitment to the unique and demanding religious claims of Mormonism as well as its people, history, and culture—and they can be devastatingly critical of the world, of Babylon. But they are also clear-sighted in their analyses of Mormon mistakes and tragedies, both historical and present, in some cases more incisive because less naive and more emphatically involved themselves in Mormon conflicts and mistakes. Lavina Fielding Anderson, past president of the Association for Mormon Letters, in her Presidential Address (January 1983), described how this new voice is developing in fiction, as we move beyond the sentimental literature of the late nineteenth century that persists in our official magazines and popular novels and also beyond the somewhat alienated fiction of the 1930s and 1940s such as in Sorensen and Whipple:
The pretty romances, the cute tales of cute adolescents, and the melodramatic historical fiction that constitutes the majority of published works in the field of Mormon literature today consists mostly of cliches borrowed from the larger world of literature. The cheap and easy fiction seems preoccupied with its audience, dear in simple conflicts, simply resolved, flops broken backed between preaching and entertaining, and usually considers the craft of fiction as relatively unimportant. I see the new Mormon fiction as attempting something more ambitious. It is literature of intelligent affirmation, not of alienation, fiction that takes as its province the hitherto unexplored field of spiritual realism.
A fine new term that—spiritual realism—and Anderson goes on to describe it:
[p.163] In spiritual realism, the conflicts that a character may encounter in his or her social settings are primarily important as they provide information about the interior spiritual life of that person. The experiences move the person toward a greater understanding of the ambiguous nature of human good and human depravity. They affirm or challenge the reality of God. They illuminate by recording those perplexing moments when prayers are not answered and the equally perplexing moments when they are. They shoulder the burden of a community with a vision of holiness and unity that stands in contrast to its inevitable pettiness and cruelties of daily living. They attempt to make sense out of a large picture of human interaction that includes the values of faith, commitment, deepest doubts, anger focused on a seemingly uncaring God, and the swelling with rejoicing and gratitude focused on a seemingly loving and watchful God.
This is a crucial point. It describes what Mormon women have, for whatever reasons, done more often and better than men: that is, look at the depths and heights of human experience, not just the middle ground. Anderson herself gives us one of the finest examples of “spiritual realism” in her June 1982 Exponent Day Dinner Speech; published in Exponent II, it is entitled “On Being Happy: An Exercise in Spiritual Autobiography”10 and exemplifies the special voice we men need to listen to and imitate—clear, elegant but witty, contained, noble but unselfconscious, afraid neither of pain nor proper piety, clearly witness both to the hard surface of life and to its deeper mysteries, attuned to both the body and the spirit:
In 1973, I accepted a position on the Ensign staff and moved to Salt Lake City. Making that decision was difficult for me, not only because I felt that I had finally hit my stride in my chosen field, but because I didn’t know if I wanted to work for the Church. I’d already seen some of the difficulties an official publication has when I’d worked for the Daily Universe at Brigham Young University. As I was praying about what the right thing would be to do, the answer I got was a curiously oblique one but exactly the right one. (Many of my prayers are answered by a distinctively sarcastic personage whom I’ve come to regard as a kind of guardian angel.) It assured me that my friendship with Karen would not suffer. I hadn’t realized it myself, but that question—which I had not been asking—was the only one I needed the answer to. So I went.
After summarizing her unusual courtship with Paul Anderson, marked by her resistance due to being “thoroughly and happily single,” she describes her struggle to find the right questions to ask in her prayers about marrying Paul and then continues:
I received extremely clear information about all of those topics. I received insight into my attitudes about privacy, money, priesthood, professionalism, and ability to communicate that was somewhat shocking though not, I’ll have to admit, very surprising. But possibly the most important question that I asked was, “What kind of person is Paul?” In answer to that question, I had the closest thing to a vision I have ever experienced. A personage with a definable personality told me, almost in so many words, “Let me show you how I feel about Paul,” and then I experienced that person’s feelings for Paul: the deepest, most profound sensations of love and a respectful savoring of personality. There was not a question in my mind that I was in the presence of someone who knew Paul differently and better than I did or possibly could know him, someone who loved him totally. I acquired an awesome amount of respect for Paul quite suddenly.
There were other issues to be worked through, but one sunny day, as I knelt again in prayer, I asked again, “Should I marry Paul?” expecting to learn of a new question I should ask. Instead, I was distinctly told, “You have enough information to make that decision now.” I was stunned. I was supposed to make the decision? Yes. There was a long internal pause, a kind of mental breath holding, then I said, still on my knees, “Yes, I will marry Paul.” The reaction could not have been more vivid, an explosion of pleasure and excitement like being in the center of a fireworks display. It surprised me, pleased me, gratified me, and humbled me simultaneously. I knew that all of these emotions were not my own, and the delight shared with other presences who cared about the decision was reassuring in ways I don’t even know how to begin to describe. One of the consequences has been that I have never had to question the initial rightness of the decision nor had to wonder if I made a mistake. (That’s been important. I may be crazy about Paul, but I’m not crazy about being married.)
There are, of course, other such voices: there is Carole Hansen, who, in “The Death of a Son,” was the first Mormon to tell us in faith of priesthood blessings that seemed to fail.11 There is Claudia Bushman, writing of death with a majestic honesty and assurance not heard among Mormon men since John Taylor wrote (see D&C 135) about Joseph Smith’s:
When I entered the room I came face to face with reality, for there was my mother, cold and dead. Her naked body had been laid out under a sheet on a high platform. Her face and hair had been nicely done, and she looked as if she were asleep. Although I knew why we had come, the shock of seeing her there, her presence so familiar and so different, distressed me greatly. [My [p.165]
sisters and I] wept a few tears, trying to accept and understand the great and alarming mystery before us, and then we set to work.
Action may not always solve problems, but it temporarily removed the need to try. The question of how to confront death was put aside when the practical need became how to put complex garments on an inert and somewhat stiff figure. Aunt Jane taught us some of the necessary techniques as we went along. We worked together turning the body on one side and the other, in easing here and slipping under there. They had brought in an iron and a little board for us to touch up some of the clothes. We bustled about as if this were some regular housekeeping task, as it has been for women over the ages.
We put on the garments and the slip and the new dress. She wanted to wear her own temple robes so we put those on, including the brilliant green apron I had once embroidered for her, easily the brightest in any temple session. I also made some little white velvet and felt shoes for her for temple wear, but she had considered them too fragile to use. She had written that she would like to wear them for the occasion. In working these little shoes over her stiff, cold feet, I overcame any aversion I first felt about touching the dead.
After Mother was all dressed, we stayed around for quite a time discussing arrangements. By then we were more comfortable with her body, and one or another of us held her hand as we talked. She felt just the same, just cold.
We stepped out when the men came to transfer her body to the coffin, a white one as requested with some gold accents. We felt good about the way she looked. We added a favorite piece of music to the coffin, “Ah, love, but a day, and the world has changed …,” and a ring we had found in a drawer dating from my parents’ early courtship. I felt that our morning’s work had been well done.12
How I yearn to know how other Mormon men feel in the face of such unusual experience. We know much more about Mormon women’s feelings.
There is Dian Saderup, a young woman who wrote the extraordinary story “A Blessing of Duty” that appeared in Sunstone a few years ago13; it is a finely tuned, uncompromising but compassionate, creation of the feelings of a young mother, worn and torn to near exhaustion and despair by all the demands made on her, yet unsentimentally enduring in faith. (We don’t yet have male voices creating for us how her husband, a weary, enduring elders’ quorum president, might feel.) Here is Saderup’s voice, in a personal essay that bravely and tenderly reports, again for the first time in Mormon literature, from inside a bishop’s [p.166] court. She goes to support a friend who has sinned seriously and persistently; she has herself been somewhat inactive, alienated, but has now begun to feel the spirit return to help her help her desperate friend:
I sat next to Carol in a big shiny dark wood chair—the kind I remember seeing on TV’s Divorce Court
Then I started talking, explaining what I knew of Carol and her problems over the years. Much like the night I prayed with Carol when she was so upset long ago at BYU, the words flowed and I can’t remember now what exactly I said: things, I think, about her father, her deep—if not apparent—feelings for the Lord and the Gospel, and her terrible frustration at her failures to live faithfully. At some point she reached over and took hold of my hand. Then a strange thing happened, strange for me at least: I started crying, so hard that I couldn’t talk for several minutes. I rarely cry in private (especially not of late) and almost never in public, but the steel in me that had been so mysteriously softening over the past hour suddenly melted completely, like ice in fire. I remember a symposium on world religions I attended several years ago at BYU. A holy man from India spoke on the Buddhist (or was it Hindu?) belief system. Using a fable, he explained that the ultimate transcendence of the world and its cares for his people lay in experiencing what [p.167] he could only describe as an “unutterable gush of compassion,” whether for an individual or the whole of humanity. Sitting in the Divorce Court
The bishop asked Carol a few more questions, and then she and I stood up to leave the office while he and his counselors deliberated.
He rose and came to her, taking her hand. He spoke quietly, and said, as nearly as I can remember, “The Lord is full of grace, Carol. Let yourself accept that and take joy in his gifts. In my life I’ve had moments of peace and inspiration and encouragement from our Heavenly Father. Sometimes they even come when I know I’m not really worthy and I think he’s furthest away. Just remembering those moments helps me get through the dark times in the way I should. He loves us. You’re a precious girl.” It was the first time I’d ever heard a bishop say the word grace.14
It was another of God’s daughters, Linda Sillitoe, who was the first modern Mormon to reach back to our foremother, Eliza, and daringly speculate about that most fundamental metaphysical idea—the eternal, married companionship of the Gods, as she does in her poem “Song of Creation.”15 And it was another daughter, Eileen Kump, who in her story “Sayso or Sense”16 took on one of the most explosive subjects in Mormonism, one that derives from that eternal companionship of the sexes—that is, authority in the priesthood as it affects men and women; and Kump there handles that difficult subject more helpfully and yet more delicately than any man has, except Joseph Smith, in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants. But then he also was writing from prison, as well as bravely and clearly—from Liberty Jail, in 1839, as part of a letter to the Saints:
… when we undertake to … exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the heavens withdraw themselves.
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.
… let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
That passage is the clearest warning anywhere about the destructiveness of seeing priesthood as power rather than duty to serve—a warning both to men who think they have such power and to women who want to get it. And it shows how clearly the role of oppressor is more destructive to the oppressor than to the oppressed, whether in a patriarchy or a matriarchy.
But many Mormon men as well as women have understood the 121st section and resisted the seductions of authority. Where are their free and creative voices? Of course, some are being heard, but perhaps too many Mormon men are emulating the wrong voices. The Mormon patriarchy tends to produce, as models for men, the firm, invulnerable voice of success: the voice in the middle, about setting goals, establishing yourself, and being simply good, not about the dark night of the soul or its exaltation. That is the voice we hear most—or think we hear—from bishops, stake presidents, and general authorities, even academic leaders. May I suggest that we all, men and women, listen more closely to certain other voices as well: Read the women I have mentioned and other new voices that are developing in the third generation of Mormon writers—our contemporaries, an excellent sampling of which is gathered in Mary Bradford’s recent collection, Mormon Women Speak.17
But there are men with that voice of spiritual realism too, some, if we need it, men of authority. Spencer W. Kimball gives us, sometimes very subtly, the evocative, risky, vulnerable prophetic voice, as well as the safe priestly one. Read the parts of his journal quoted in the biography by Edward and Andrew Kimball or the separately printed excerpt [p.169] One Long and Sleepless Night,18 overwhelming in their revelation of his own sense of inadequacy but determination, of both his pain and his profound spiritual encounters. Read his fierce denunciation, in 1954, of Mormons who hold aloof from the Indians,19 or the 1976 rebuke of our materialism and jingoism in “The False Gods We Worship,”20 or his attack on Mormon blood sports in the 1978 address, “Don’t Kill the Little Birds.”21 A new volume, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, is a good place to start.22 And we might read LeGrand Richards (or better, get tapes if we can), to hear his gentle, fierce voice, his stark testimonies, his emotions uncensored by the teleprompter.
We men have failed to listen carefully to the voice of prophetic warning, even from other men, and have not let that voice affect our own. For instance, in a First Presidency Statement in 1969, Hugh B. Brown encouraged us to pray for the time when all men could hold the priesthood. Most of us did not listen and respond; President Kimball offered such prayers and received a revelation. After that revelation Elder Bruce R. McConkie pointed out that President Kimball had gotten the revelation because he asked in faith and wanted an answer: “It was a matter of faith and righteousness and seeking on the one hand, and it was a matter of the divine timetable on the other hand.”23 Elder McConkie also stated that because of the revelation there was new meaning in a familiar scripture (II Nephi 26:33): “[Christ] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female … and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” According to Elder McConkie, “Many of us never imagined or supposed that these passages had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have,” and it seems to me he calls us to greater vigilance against such misunderstanding in the future. But I don’t see many of us men creatively exploring how it is that we may still misunderstand how male and female are alike to God just as we used to misunderstand how black and white were. For instance, I still hear men repeat the deceptively belittling speculation that women cannot be Sons of Perdition—seeming to imply that women are too righteous, but really implying that women without the priesthood can’t know enough. And few men, compared to the increasing number of women, are thinking about and questioning the most sexist idea in Mormonism: that polygamy is the ideal, celestial state of marriage—which is, in fact, a most questionable idea.
[p.170] We need to listen to the voice of Elder B. H. Roberts, who, after quoting Josiah Royce’s description of two kinds of religious disciples, the mere partisans, who expound and defend “faithful to one formula,” and those who “bring to the new teaching, from the first, their own personal contribution,” writes this:
I believe “Mormonism” affords opportunity for disciples of the second sort: nay, that its crying need is for such disciples. It calls for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of the truths, but will develop its truths; and enlarge it by that development. Not half—not one-hundredth part—not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the Church has yet been unfolded, either to the Church or to the world. The work of the expounder has scarcely begun. The prophet planted by teaching the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fulness of times. The watering and the weeding are going on, and God is giving the increase, and will give it more abundantly in the future as more intelligent discipleship shall obtain. The disciples of “Mormonism,” growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas; cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.24
Let me add to that a confirming modern testimony from a woman, Lavina Fielding Anderson in that Presidential Address quoted earlier:
[p.171] I realized I had always assumed that the Lord wanted only my strengths, my abilities, and my competencies. It had not occurred to me that qualities I considered to be unique idiosyncracies or even weaknesses might be equally useful to him but that I, in wrongful humility, was withholding them from consecration.
And if those witnesses seem too remote or unspecific or unauthoritative, if we need a modern prophet to make us as brave as women in exploring both the tragedies and the exaltations of our faith, listen again to the voice of Spencer W. Kimball:
For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle man, Joseph Smith, of whom we sing “Oh, what rapture filled his bosom, For he saw the living God.”25
1. Mary L. Bradford, from an address, “The Secret Sharers: Utah Women Writers,” delivered at the Utah Retrenchment Society meetings, April 1976, and quoted in Linda Sillitoe, “New Voices, New Songs: Contemporary Poems by Mormon Women,” Dialogue 13 (Winter 1980): 48.
2. See my essay, “The Dawning of a Brighter Day: Mormon Literature after 150 Years,” BYU Studies 22 (Spring 1982): 131-60: also printed in After 150 Years, Thomas G. Alexander and Jessie L. Embry, eds. (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983), pp. 95-146.
3. Mormon Sisters, Claudia Bushman, ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Emrocline Press, 1976; rpt. Salt Lake City: Olympus Publishing Co., 1982); Sister Saints, Vicky Burgess-Olson, ed. (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1978); and Mormon Women Speak, Mary Lythgoe Bradford, ed. (Salt Lake City: Olympus Publishing Co., 1983).
4. See especially essays published in various Mormon publications by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Mary Lythgoe Bradford, Claudia Eauper Bushman, Judy Dushku, Dian Saderup, and Laurel Ulrich; and see poetry by Elouise Bell, Marilyn Brown, Carol Lynn Pearson, Vernice Pete, Linda Sillitoe, and Emma Lou Thayne.
5. See stories published in Mormon publications by Eileen Kump (and her collection, Bread and Milk and Other Stories, published by BYU Press, 1979), Phyllis Barber, Karen Rosenbaum, Dian Saderup, and Linda Sillitoe.
8. Published in A Believing People: The Literature of the Latter-day Saints, Richard H. Cracroft and Neal E. Lambert, eds. (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1974: rpt. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft. 1979), pp. 143-150; the quotation is from p. 145.
9. Edward Geary, “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s,” BYU Studies 18 (Fall 1977): 89-98; see also his “The Poetics of Provincialism: Mormon Regional Fiction,” Dialogue 11 (Summer 1978): 15-24. Sorensen’s The Evening and the Morning, published by Harcourt, Brace, and Co. in 1949, is now out of print; Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941, was reprinted in Salt Lake City by Western Epics in 1976.
23. Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” speech given 18 August 1978, collected in Charge to Religious Educators (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., 1982), p. 152.