At the Pulpit

185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women

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Jennifer Reeder, Kate Holbrook
  • Deseret Book Company
    , February
     2017.
     484 pages.
     $29.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781629722825.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Recently published by The Church Historian’s Press, At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women may tell us more about the Mormonism of today rather than the Mormonism it seeks to historicize. The work itself is exactly as advertised: It is a collection of primary sources, discourses delivered by Latter-day Saint women in the course of the nearly two hundred year history of the movement. Additionally, “introductions and annotation provide insight into the biographical, historical, theological, and cultural context of each talk” (xv). The work hopes to be both a “scholarly history” as well as a “resource for contemporary church members as they study, speak, teach, and lead” (xv).

The women’s discourses, which the work also informs us “can be found throughout the Latter-day Saint historical record,” are preceded by an introduction that contextualizes Latter-day Saint women’s discourse within the wider history of American Christian women’s discourse (xix). The reader is presented with a brief history of American women’s religious involvement and the effects of wider trends in the American religious cultural milieu on the Mormon people. For instance, here the reader learns that as “female speaker[s] before mixed-gender audiences became more common” in “other religious and social movements,” Latter-day Saint women “spoke at meetings where church members met together while fasting to share extemporaneous testimonies,” though women still seldom “spoke in sacrament meetings” (xix). The introduction also informs the reader that “Latter-day Saints women’s opportunities to speak in church meetings of both men and women at all levels of the church have increased over time” culminating in women regularly speaking in the church’s General Conferences in the 1980s (xx). However, the volume is nevertheless clear that despite the fact that the records of men’s voices are “more likely to be preserved” and “more commonly the subject of scholarly investigation” in the history of the Mormon movement, “church members have recorded the testimonies and teaching of thousands of women” (xv).

Is it surely no coincidence that this volume is published in a moment of outcry for greater women’s involvement in Mormonism. While perhaps fading from the memory of the lay Latter-day Saints, this volume stands, from the vantage point of Mormon historians to come, in the wake of the Ordain Women protests and Kate Kelly’s high profile excommunication. Criticism of Mormonism’s all-male clergy has mounted in recent years and, while survey data suggests many—indeed the majority—of Mormon women do not seek ordination, the criticism of women’s lacking presence in Mormon leadership is quite legitimate. To be clear, this volume is quite valuable both as a collection of primary sources and an instrument for contextualizing the history of Latter-day Saint women’s discourse. As a work of history it is wonderful, and I can celebrate its publication. However, in reading this volume one can’t help but wonder—is this work merely the attempt to assert women’s voices in the history of a movement that contemporarily excludes them? It is quite difficult to ignore the less than subtle undertone: “Looking for a greater role for Mormon women?...no need,” this volume implies; “after all, women have been speaking the whole time.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is a graduate student pursuing concurrent Masters' degrees in education and religious studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Reeder is the nineteenth-century women’s history specialist at the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She holds a PhD in American history from George Mason University.

Kate Holbrook is the managing historian for women’s history at the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She received a PhD in religious studies from Boston University.

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