Sarah Sturtevant Leavitt could scarcely express the depth of her conviction after her baptism as a Latter-day Saint in the 1830s. “I had some[thing] of more importance that was shut up like fire in my bones,” she wrote. Leavitt shared her message in local taverns, speaking earnestly to anyone who would listen. At one visit to a sick neighbor, where a large group had gathered, Leavitt remembered, “The Lord gave me great liberty of speech. I prayed with the Spirit and with understanding, also to him be the glory.”1

From the earliest days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, women and men have participated in religious discussion, shared the gospel message with family and friends, given testimonies, and spoken in meetings. In the two centuries since the church’s founding, church members have recorded the testimonies and teachings of thousands of women. Many of these records are difficult to access today, forgotten in old minute books and obscure newspapers. By contrast, the public teaching and preaching done by men, particularly church leaders, was much more likely to be preserved in historical records and published for a wide audience. For this and other reasons, the voices and experiences of men are much more commonly the subject of scholarly investigation and contemporary teaching and preaching in the church than are those of women. Nevertheless, the available records powerfully demonstrate that women have contributed to Latter-day Saint devotion through sermons, speeches, prayers, songs, and stories.

This volume showcases the tradition of Latter-day Saint women’s discourses with fifty-four speeches given from 1831 to 2016. Introductions and annotation provide insight into the biographical, historical, theological, and cultural context of each talk. In addition to being a scholarly history, this book provides a resource for contemporary church members as they study, speak, teach, and lead.

Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Emmeline B. Wells, and Eliza R. Snow

Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Emmeline B. Wells, and Eliza R. Snow. Circa 1876. Whitney (left) and Snow (right) were members of the Nauvoo Relief Society and served together when the general board of the Relief Society was organized in 1880. Emmeline B. Wells (center) edited the Woman’s Exponent and worked as the general secretary and then general president of the Relief Society in later years. These three women traveled often to speak to different congregations. Photograph by Charles R. Savage. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

“This Is My Voice unto All”: A History of Mormon Women Speaking in an American Context

In early July 1830, Emma Hale Smith received a revelation through her husband, Joseph Smith, about her position and responsibilities in the new Church of Christ. Recorded in the voice of God, the revelation (now known as section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants) described Emma Smith as an “elect lady” and charged her “to expound scriptures and exhort the church according as it shall be given thee by my spirit.” The responsibilities were weighty—in expounding, Emma Smith was by definition tasked to “explain, to lay open the meaning, to clear of obscurity, to interpret,” while in exhorting, she was to “encourage, to embolden, to cheer, to advise, to excite or to give strength, spirit, or courage.”2 The revelation contained specific counsel for Smith, but its charge to teach and preach can be interpreted as universal—“this is my voice unto all,” it concluded.3 While there are no surviving records of her preaching publicly in the roughly twelve years following the revelation, Emma Smith worked alongside her husband during those years in ministering to the Saints.4

In March 1842, Emma Smith and a small group of Latter-day Saint women worked with Joseph Smith to organize the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. In that body, she developed her voice, promoting unity and teaching the women that it was their duty as Relief Society members to “seek out and relieve the distressed.”5 In the first meeting of the organization, Joseph Smith read aloud the 1830 revelation directed to Emma Smith, explaining that “she was ordained at the time the revelation was given to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of [the] community.” He further stated that “not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.”6 In the meetings of the Nauvoo Relief Society, women preached, discussed, and endeavored “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls,” as they had been charged by Joseph Smith.7

The Relief Society was founded in an era when women’s speaking and preaching in church were contentious issues, even though women composed the majority in most Christian churches in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century America. Indeed, many Christian denominations at the time held that women should be “silent” in church.8 Female speaking in formal religious settings was the subject of lively and bitter debates—and yet women did speak.9 In the 1630s in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson had taught groups of women and men in her home, encouraging them to pray, to teach their children, and to attend religious services. “The elder women should instruct the young,” she wrote, paraphrasing the New Testament injunction.10 Viewed as dangerous because of her teaching and for other reasons, Hutchinson was expelled from the colony.

In the two centuries between Hutchinson’s expulsion and the revelation to Emma Smith, many churches became more open to public speaking by women. In the eighteenth century, the Great Awakening and American Revolution transformed the spiritual and political landscape. That transformation opened possibilities for women’s teaching and preaching, in part by emphasizing leadership by common people and encouraging personal expression. From that period of religious enthusiasm and ideological evolution to the early 1800s, many churches that were viewed as radical—from Quakers and Methodists to Shakers and Freewill Baptists—gave women the opportunity to speak publicly and even act as religious leaders.11

The Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century further encouraged ideals of equality and democracy within religious organizations, leading more women to preach in churches. Like many other people of faith, Latter-day Saints asserted the importance of everyday members instructing one another.12 Both Lucy Mack Smith and Elizabeth Ann Whitney, whose words are featured in this volume, demonstrated this type of religious expression as they gave extemporaneous voice to their faith.13 Following the Second Great Awakening, however, some churches reemphasized male authority and decreased the number of opportunities for women to preach.14 American Methodism, for example, allowed female preachers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but then returned to a system of primarily male preaching.15

During the early and mid-1800s, women speaking before mixed-gender audiences often provoked suspicion and hostility in the broader culture. As such, many religious women, including Latter-day Saints, spoke primarily in women’s meetings. The Relief Society provided an institutional pulpit for Latter-day Saint women from 1842 to 1844, but it was disbanded before the migration of the Latter-day Saints to the American West. Small, informal groups of women gathered often while crossing the plains and in the early days in the Salt Lake Valley, speaking and experiencing spiritual manifestations together.16 The exercise of spiritual gifts was an important part of public speaking for many early Mormon women, who spoke in tongues, gave blessings of health or comfort, and related dreams, visions, and revelations.17 After short-lived attempts to reestablish local Relief Societies in the 1850s, the Relief Society was permanently reorganized on a congregational level in the late 1860s.18 Organizations led by women and intended for young women (Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, later known as Young Women) and children (Primary) followed in the next decade. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these organizations—along with groups promoting suffrage, silk production, women’s health, and other causes—provided more venues in which Latter-day Saint women could speak. Leaders including Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. H. Young, and Mary Isabella Horne traveled to local wards and trained women to run local organizations.19 And in 1889, the Relief Society began holding semiannual conferences, where general leaders trained and preached to members and leaders from local societies.20 Most of the discourses included in this volume were delivered in meetings of official church organizations for women.

The creation of secular women’s organizations in nineteenth-century America gave women access to nonreligious lecterns in addition to the pulpits they commanded in their churches. Through benevolent associations, women sought social and moral reform.21 Starting in the 1820s, for instance, Catharine Beecher opened a female seminary and organized petitions and held public meetings to protest the removal of American Indians from their traditional lands in the eastern United States. Quakers Sarah and Angelica Grimké gained oratory experience in church meetings and then promoted abolition on lecture circuits in the 1830s.22 The Grimkés and other women used their public speaking opportunities to fuel the development of the women’s rights movement.23

Like women elsewhere in the United States, Latter-day Saint women claimed a role in the political process. In part because of cultural backlash against the practice of plural marriage, contemporary writers often derided Latter-day Saint women as weak and mindless. Mormon women therefore had particular motivation to demonstrate their eloquence and strength, which they did in “mass meetings” where they defended their faith and sought the right to vote.24 They also participated actively in national women’s groups and by the late 1800s were regular speakers at national conferences of women’s organizations; several such orations are included in this volume.25

Gradually, female speakers before mixed-gender audiences became more common both in Latter-day Saint meetings and in other religious and social movements. In the 1800s, Mormon women spoke at meetings where church members met together while fasting to share extemporaneous testimonies. With the exception of those meetings, women seldom spoke in sacrament meetings during the nineteenth century; men with leadership callings were the primary speakers, and attendance at these meetings was sometimes sporadic.26 Women did speak in cottage meetings, prayer meetings, and other informal gatherings from the early days of the church.27 By 1896, the general leaders of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association began holding annual training meetings with their counterparts in the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, with both men and women training leaders of both sexes.28 Additional opportunities came in 1898, when single female missionaries were called for the first time and began to preach publicly on behalf of the church.29

The twentieth century saw an overall expansion of women’s participation in the public life of many denominations—both in the United States and throughout the world—including the ordination of women by United Methodists, Presbyterians, Reform Jews, and others.30 Catholic, evangelical, and Jewish laywomen often spoke in women’s groups, advocacy groups, and women’s homes rather than at a formal pulpit.31 Latter-day Saint women in the twentieth century preached and taught in small, single-gender settings as their nineteenth-century counterparts had done—in weekly meetings of the Relief Society, Sunday School, Young Women, and Primary organizations.32 But in the early twentieth century, missionaries of both genders and representatives of auxiliary organizations—including the Relief Society and Young Women—occasionally organized and participated in their congregations’ sacrament meetings, which provided more opportunities for women to address audiences of women and men.33 The 1944 church Handbook of Instructions, however, ended auxiliary-sponsored sacrament meetings, specifying that “the sacrament meeting should be like a family gathering where as many as possible may participate in the exercises and all worship in love, reverence, and fellowship.”34

Nevertheless, Latter-day Saint women’s opportunities to speak in church meetings of both men and women at all levels of the church have increased in number and visibility over time. Mormons believe that members are to learn from each other and that any woman can enlighten those around her. During the 1900s, women leaders spoke on a churchwide level in Mutual Improvement Association June conferences, general Relief Society conferences, Primary conferences, and Sunday School conferences.35 With the end of auxiliary general conferences in 1975, firesides became a popular venue for women to speak in.36 For instance, the Relief Society held a churchwide fireside in 1978, and the Young Women organization sponsored one in 1980.37 Brigham Young University’s weekly devotionals—religious lectures meant to unify and strengthen the student body—started in the late nineteenth century. Rose Marie Reid was the first woman to speak at a BYU devotional, in July 1953.38 In 1976, the university began hosting an annual women’s conference, where women gathered both to teach and to be taught.39

Women began speaking consistently at the church’s semiannual general conferences in the 1980s,40 around the same time the Relief Society resumed holding an annual general meeting for all its members.41 Soon after, young women twelve and older were invited to join them for the general women’s meeting,42 and Primary girls ten and older began attending that meeting in 1983. This meeting continued to be held until the fall of 1993, when the Relief Society began holding an annual general meeting for adult women in the fall; the Young Women organization began holding its own annual meeting starting the following spring.43 Beginning in 2014, the Relief Society and Young Women discontinued their individual meetings, and all girls and women ages eight and older began again to meet for a general women’s meeting on the Saturday before general conference.44 Later that same year, church leaders officially designated that meeting the general women’s session and announced that it would be considered the opening session of general conference. Ordinarily, speakers at the general women’s session are members of the general presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary organizations, along with one member of the First Presidency.45

Women’s Conference crowd

Brigham Young University Women’s Conference. 2016. The Marriott Center holds plenary sessions of BYU Women’s Conference, which began in 1976. The image of Sandra Rogers, international vice president of BYU, appears on the large screen. Photograph by Maddi Driggs. (Courtesy Daily Universe [Provo, UT].)

“Have Something to Say”: Overcoming Obstacles and Speaking with Authority

Notwithstanding the tradition of Mormon women’s discourses, many Latter-day Saint women have been reluctant to speak or preach publicly for a variety of reasons, both cultural and personal. Even Zina D. H. Young—who became a prominent leader and celebrated speaker in later life—was initially hesitant at the prospect of addressing an audience. “I am not accustomed to public speaking,” Young said as she began her 1869 speech to the Lehi Relief Society, “but pleased to look upon the faces of my sisters.”46 Many early Latter-day Saint converts came from religious traditions that discouraged women from speaking in formal religious settings. The broader nineteenth-century cultural debates about the appropriateness of women speaking in public, particularly before audiences of both men and women, also contributed to Mormon women’s reluctance to speak from the pulpit.

To counteract this reticence, both male and female church leaders have encouraged women to speak and participate in church gatherings. In 1879, Eliza R. Snow, who became Relief Society general president the following year, told the women of Morgan, Utah, that “it was necessary that the sisters should stand up and speak to and bear their testimony to each other, as it would fit them to fill any position they might be called upon to fill with self-possession and dignity.”47 A decade later, apostle Franklin D. Richards spoke to the Weber Stake Relief Society, urging women to participate in public work even though they might feel timid or worry about appearing presumptuous. He also spoke against influences that contributed to women feeling insecure about their efforts, rebuking men who either taunted women speakers or viewed their public work with jealousy. “I think the brethren, by hindering them, withhold blessings from themselves,” he said.48

Eliza R. Snow also instructed women to be prepared when assignments or opportunities to speak came to them. Emily Richards remembered how Snow helped her learn to speak in public: “The first time [she] asked me to speak in meeting, I could not, and she said, ‘Never mind, but when you are asked to speak again, try and have something to say,’ and I did.”49 Years later, Richards spoke at a meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Washington DC, and a journalist described her on that occasion as “trembling slightly under the scrutinizing gaze of the multitude, yet reserved, self-possessed, dignified, and as pure and sweet as an angel.”50 Snow’s urging was echoed by later church leaders, who likewise encouraged women to increase their public participation. At a Relief Society conference meeting for officers in 1958, Joseph Fielding Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke of women’s authority to bear witness and to perform work necessary for salvation. “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you,” he proclaimed.51

Women throughout the church’s history, including those whose words appear in this volume, have seen their authority to speak as coming not only from official positions within the church but also by virtue of their expertise, their personal experience and conviction, and the witness of the Holy Spirit. Often multiple sources of authority, entwined together, reinforce their common strength.

A discourse by Lucy Mack Smith in this volume exemplifies these braided sources of authority. She spoke in April 1831 on the deck of a steamboat at the mouth of Buffalo Harbor on the frozen Erie Canal. Before embarking on their move to Kirtland, Ohio, the company of Saints from Fayette, New York, had given her leadership over the group. When they reached Buffalo, the ice made it impossible for them to continue. Others had waited for weeks for a thaw that would allow them to cross Lake Erie. Though Smith did not have a formal appointment in the young church, her position as the mother of founding prophet Joseph Smith bolstered her authority to lead and preach. With the authority of her faith, Smith proclaimed, “Brethren and sisters, if you will all of you raise your desires to heaven that the ice may give way before us and we be set at liberty to go on our way, as sure as the Lord lives it shall be done.” When she documented this incident in the 1840s, Smith reported that immediately after her speech, the ice cracked and parted, making a narrow pathway for the boat to cross.52

Women receive explicit authority with official positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.53 When Elaine L. Jack addressed the students, faculty, administration, and staff of Brigham Young University in 1993, she did so as general president of the Relief Society. Prior to her service in that position, she had worked for twelve years overseeing Relief Society curriculum and served as a member of the Young Women general presidency. She had concentrated on the elements of human development and had been responsible for helping women flourish from adolescence through adulthood. With the authority of her position, she interpreted the stories of people in the scriptures. She compared her vantage point to that of Moses, saying, “My dear brothers and sisters, like Moses, I stand watching you, the young adults of the church, prepare to cross into many lands of promise. Tonight I repeat Moses’s words and ask you to choose life.”54

Many women who speak in these pages do so from the authority of personal experience and conviction. Jane H. Neyman spoke with this kind of authority at a Relief Society meeting in 1869. Her initial petition to join the Nauvoo Relief Society was rejected in 1842 because of community gossip about her daughters. In 1869, six months after completing a term as ward Relief Society president, she encouraged “all to be forbearing and forgiving; refraining as much as possible from scrutinizing the conduct of our neighbors, remembering always that we are human and must therefore err.” She spoke as a former victim of neighbors’ scrutiny and as one who had forgiven ostracism from church members and stood by both the church and the Relief Society.55

More than a century later, Irina Kratzer, a convert to the church from Russia, likewise spoke from the authority of her personal conviction. She remarked, “I know how it is to live without the gospel. I lived that way for thirty years.” Kratzer said that she did not think about God before investigating the church but felt pain over her poor choices. She later came to believe that pain had been the Light of Christ, directing her to distinguish between right and wrong. As she read the Book of Mormon, she began to see a gap between Christ’s teaching and the way she lived, and she felt that discrepancy was the reason for her misery. She wanted to change. This is the background from which she declared her understanding of how to live and how to achieve happiness: “I have learned that almost every miracle I have experienced since my baptism has come as a result of prayer and effort. God requires effort and faith on our part.”56

Ultimately, Latter-day Saints believe that the Holy Spirit both prompts speakers to address topics of divine importance and confirms to listeners the authority of a speaker who preaches by genuine inspiration. Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, emphasized that speaking with inspiration is not exclusive to leaders: “My dear sisters, whatever your calling, whatever your circumstances, we need your impressions, your insights, and your inspiration. … Married or single, you sisters possess distinctive capabilities and special intuition you have received as gifts from God.”57 Regardless of their church positions, members generally feel an obligation to try to speak in concert with the Holy Spirit. For example, Carol F. McConkie, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, prayed and studied in preparation for a general conference talk and knew what she wanted to speak about. But when her husband, Oscar, asked about her topic, she found herself telling him something different from what she had prepared. She changed her talk during subsequent weeks, wrestling, praying, fasting, and writing. She clearly remembered kneeling to pray to ask God whether this talk was the right one: “My heart and mind and entire being filled with absolute assurance and a peace that gave me the confidence to submit the talk,” she said. The talks that preceded hers in the Sunday morning session of general conference coordinated with hers and convinced her that God had directed her efforts. “I knew,” she said, “that the words of the talk I had written were from God.”58

Throughout the church’s history, Latter-day Saint women have sought to fulfill the revelatory charge to “expound scriptures and exhort the church”—to give voice to the “fire in [the] bones” described by Sarah Sturtevant Leavitt.59 In the October 2015 general conference, apostle Russell M. Nelson declared, “The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God! … We need you to speak up and speak out.”60 The discourses in this volume allow readers to hear the historical and contemporary voices of women who have spoken up and spoken out. Their words serve as a testament to the idea that each individual’s witness strengthens the whole, as former Relief Society general president Julie B. Beck described. “The real power in this great worldwide sisterhood lies within each woman,” she said. “We all share a noble heritage and can develop a faith that is equal to that of the remarkable, faithful women who have gone before us.”61

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Introduction, At the Pulpit, accessed May 19, 2024