Each week, Hannah and Asriel will discuss the Young Women’s and Young Men’s lessons for the coming week from a feminist perspective. This week is lesson 36.
The Young Women
By Hannah Wheelwright:
The Young Women’s lesson for this week is titled “The Importance of Truth in Living a Virtuous Life.” I liked that the lesson mainly focused on general principles of “study, think, pray, do,” because this pattern emphasizes being proactive in seeking out truth and gaining a knowledge for oneself.
I did have problems with the stories shared in the lesson. The first story was about a young girl named Ann who realized that dating her non-member boyfriend “would lead me away from where I should be going.” This sentiment worries me because I think it perpetuates a belief that every and any Mormon man is better than a non-Mormon man. I appreciate that in the story she prays to know whether he is “right” for her and she eventually acts on the personal answer she receives, but I sense that many young women being taught the lesson will take it to mean that dating any non-Mormons will lead you away from the truth. I wonder if there would be the same process of studying and praying if he was “right” if he had been Mormon. This process is still important with dating a member because being Mormon does not mean a young man has a monopoly on being a good and suitable dating partner.
The other story in the lesson involves Jennifer, who when meeting with her bishop realizes that she has “done something wrong.” Tears well up in her eyes as she decides whether or not to admit to her bishop the sin she has committed. Personally, I immediately felt uncomfortable imagining myself in her place. While it’s not clear what the nature of transgression was, I feel that the implication in the story is that the transgression was of a sexual nature (though it’s possible I’m reading into it) and that motivates her hesitancy to openly admit her wrongdoing. I find the practice of young girls meeting privately with older males to be concerning for a number of reasons. When we are expecting girls to reveal very personal aspects of their testimonies as well as possibly their sexual behavior to older adult males, there is always a risk for inappropriate behavior, and there is currently no system within the Church for either women to confess to other women or for women to bring another woman with them into the room to meet with their male leader. Of the many stories that could be shared about young women’s experiences seeking after eternal truths, I find this specific story about a young girl’s confession to be misplaced as well as worrisome.
Along with that thought, the chart included in the lesson concerns me (see below). By starting out with general qualities (unselfish vs. selfish, self discipline vs. indulgence) and then immediately jumping to unlawful vs. lawful intimate relationships, the focus is placed squarely on sex. The implication that not following the path precisely will lead you to commit sexual transgressions and become a carnal being seems to allude to an understanding of virtue to only be in terms of sexual purity. I think a broader definition would be more helpful and healthier for young women viewing themselves and their sexuality.
The Aaronic Priesthood
How does testimony relate to equality in the church? We hope that you will approach Sunday lessons with a desire to learn, but also to participate and share your unique voice on these topics. You are an individual, and both your relationship to God and your personal life experiences make your perspective unique to you. The same goes for your peers, and their respective voices. On that note, let’s talk about the lesson: Testimony.
The manual suggests that the instructor invite “someone with a strong testimony, such as the father of an Aaronic Priesthood holder, to share his experience in gaining a testimony and to explain how he finds it useful in his life now.” When I was in the Aaronic Priesthood program, I had some pretty awesome LDS male role models in the church: The Young Men Presidency, the quorum advisers, Bishopric, and others. But, do the young men ever look up to women in the church as examples or role models? Men are fine role models for Aaronic Priesthood holders, but when it comes to gaining a testimony and using it in day to day life, a woman’s perspective would be both refreshing and educational for the young men. The young men will also have an opportunity to look up to her as a spiritual leader and example. The guest sharing testimony experiences could be a man or a woman, and a mother of one of the boys would be equally appropriate as a father.
The absence of discussion of Heavenly Mother is interesting. I guess we don’t know much about Her, but there is not even any instruction about having a testimony of Her love, or even that She is there. In fact, are there any female figures necessary to have a testimony about? There is Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the prophet—perhaps the twelve apostles, too. Is there ever a suggestion to pray about the Relief Society General President in order to gain a testimony that she is called of God? Maybe the young men reading this will think it seems strange that I would bring this up, but returning to my point about young men having plenty of role models for being a male in the church, Aaronic Priesthood holders can look up to local leaders, auxiliary presidencies, general authorities, the prophet, and even deity. Young women’s spiritual role models, however, stop at auxiliary presidencies, such as Primary, Young Women, and Relief Society general presidencies (interestingly, they are not classified as general authorities).
One thing that I very much appreciate about testimony lessons is the emphasis on gaining a personal testimony rather than following the crowd. Asking God for insights of truth reemphasizes the personal aspect of the relationship. The only advice given to those who do not get an answer, however, is to continue to seek the answer until it comes. This is a bit problematic because it seems impossible to know when you have asked a question enough times or for long enough. The approach that this lesson presents is that one should ask until he or she receives a confirmation of the church’s truthfulness. In that light, it seems that teaching about individual testimony is not quite as distinct from an attitude of following the crowd as it might first appear. The true/false quiz implies that believing “that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church” is part of a basic testimony, but we have also heard from church leaders that nearly all religions have truth in them, and as a church that believes in continuing revelation, we should not assume the church has all of the truth.
Hannah: I really liked your point about gaining a testimony of Heavenly Mother. The concept of Heavenly Mother has been affirmed by recent prophets such as Gordon B. Hinckley, but I think it’s interesting to note that many Mormons believe “God” refers to both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.
Asriel: That’s really cool. So, are you saying that when we talk about gaining a testimony of God, we could be saying that we should gain a testimony of both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother?
Hannah: Considering President Hinckley’s admonition that we shouldn’t pray to Heavenly Mother, I’m not advocating that we should pray to Her. But, I do think we need to be more aware of who we are addressing when we pray. I think “God” is more vague than we usually intend.
Asriel: Something I noticed about the Young Women lesson is that while the title of the lesson aimed to connect understanding truth to living virtuously, I didn’t notice a tie-in of those principles in the body of the lesson. Am I just missing the message as an outsider to young women terminology?
Hannah: They probably don’t define it because it’s such a part of Young Women’s culture—that we are striving to be “virtuous”—so maybe they felt like it didn’t need to be defined. However, I think it’s important to define it so that the YW know what they are working towards.
Asriel: Oh, ok. So, perhaps I would have been better able to connect the dots were I more familiar with typical Young Women lessons. Speaking of definitions, though, the Aaronic Priesthood lesson frequently refers to things being “true.” I don’t think we always know what that means. We talk about the church being true, or the Book of Mormon. The lesson even talks about the word of wisdom being true, but we know that it is really just a current practice meant to reflect a higher principle. So I guess I see some difficulty understanding what it means to be true, especially considering the wordstrip from the Young Women lesson that said “truth does not change.”
Hannah: I appreciate the point you made about not having any female role models in the typical LDS spiritual community. I noticed that there were no quotes or scriptural references to women in either of the lessons. That bothered me.
Asriel: That is true; a more representative selection of stories and quotes could be useful for establishing role models. As it is, some of the only role models cited for personal revelation are Joseph F. Smith and Richard G. Scott. Both of these men are or were in positions of authority that are not accessible to women, and thus are less relatable. A story of a Relief Society president receiving revelation to guide the RS efforts might have been more relatable.
Hannah: I agree. I think that there are better and more relatable examples of people studying and gaining knowledge of eternal truth. A prophet studying and gaining revelation for the entire church is not as relatable for women who will never be prophetesses in a similar situation.