A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by distinguished historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sponsored by BYU’s Maxwell Institute. She has recently released a new book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, and spoke a bit about her studies on gender in the early church.
The lecture was nothing short of amazing, which I’ve come to expect of Dr. Ulrich. She has a way of explaining her findings pragmatically enough that orthodox members won’t stop listening, but in my opinion her research often envelops radical implications. Without ever crossing into “opinion territory,” she presents historical facts that give context to the modern church and often make me think, “Ah, I think I understand why we’re so ridiculously patriarchal,” or “Wow, why has none of this changed since the nineteenth century?” All good, challenging, informative thoughts. Ideas that give me hope for a brighter future of Mormonism. I live for this stuff.
Which is why I rolled my eyes when, during the Q&A, a girl about my age asked the famed historian in earnest, “How do you maintain your testimony when studying difficult aspects of Mormon history?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Dr. Ulrich grinned and replied, “Things in history don’t shake my testimony.”
What a boss lady. She continued by explaining that she pities “our generation” because she believes we’ve been taught a form of LDS history that isn’t true. She said that if we understand history and what it can and can’t tell us, we can understand that it’s telling and not threatening. Both “good” and “bad” bits of history have brought us where we are today, and understanding both sides is vital. It’s not fun reading about Brigham Young’s horrendous misogyny or the disaster of polygamy in the early church, but acknowledging and understanding that past matters.
Over the past several months, even before I heard this lecture, I have found this idea immensely comforting. I’m aware that many members choose to transition to other belief systems after learning the truth about Mormon history, and I completely understand that choice. I’ve pondered that course of action myself many times. But for now, I’m trying to stay for the long haul. As frustrating as weekly attendance at my Provo singles’ ward can be, as much as I want to throw feminist texts into the faces of some of my BYU classmates, there are things about this church I don’t want to leave behind. Things that (occasionally) make staying worth it.
Turns out, some of those things that keep me active are the stories we’re not hearing in Relief Society. When I read Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright) over Christmas break, I began realizing that maybe church is hard because I rarely hear stories I can fully engage with. I can only handle so many anecdotes, scriptural or otherwise, that are experienced by men, written by men, repeated by men without a single reference to woman, without feeling A) bored to death, B) completely underrepresented, or C) altogether ignored. Mormon Feminism, for me, both named the problem and sought to correct it.
Soon I realized that the counsel to “pray about your questions” is too often used to silence women seeking a more equitable future through female ordination, less weirdly-gendered youth programs, and more respect and autonomy for woman leaders. What if praying about my questions only fortifies me with confidence to speak out against injustice? What if learning about our real history strengthens my testimony and gives me the courage to carry on another day as a tired, feminist Mormon? My questions might not be answered in the way naysaying leaders might hope, but engaging with LDS history and Mormon Feminism reminded me that these goals and aspirations still matter despite that. I read stories of brilliant women in the early church, others who fought for the ERA despite our faith’s baffling opposition to it, women who asked the questions no one else wanted to ask throughout our history.
I finished the book in three days. I felt alive, inspired, ready to fight the good fight. I learned that those “complicated” bits of Mormon history that this girl from the lecture saw as such a threat can in fact be used to free us from neatly-packaged narratives that have been used to silence us for decades. I learned that while her testimony may crumble when she learns it’s built upon facades, mine will only fortify itself with the power of truth, which now fills empty spaces I felt but couldn’t see before.
Fully realizing the role of patriarchy within Mormonism inspired me to tell my own version of the story and understand my worth as a headstrong LDS woman. I imagined for the first time a sacrament meeting where women have the same ecclesiastical function as men in the church. A future where my uterus isn’t used as an excuse to keep me from holding the priesthood or at the very least blessing other women through the power of Christ like our foremothers did. I looked for ways to apply historical truths to the present, to my own ideals, and ultimately felt gratified.
The central figure of our gospel, after all, understands the necessity of truth and seeks to share it whenever he can throughout the Four Gospels. When Christ proclaims He is the Messiah in John 8, He tells the Jews who believe Him that, “If you continue my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
I bet it was scary for the Jews to accept Christ, to become His disciples. He didn’t fit into the worldview they’d been taught their whole lives, and he preached radical ideas many found uncomfortable. Their cultural pasts, in many cases, blocked them from the truth, but Christ offered them His promise: know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
I hope we can all be disciples of truth like Christ was, regardless of our level of participation in church. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is. Those of us who take the time to educate ourselves on “unsavory” bits of church history without fear likewise embody discipleship. Because the truth is freeing: truth provides us with explanations, inspires justice, gives all sides of the story proper attention. Truth inspires positive change.
There are days I feel like waiting around for the changes I long to see is a waste of time; church isn’t usually the most spiritually gratifying part of my week. But knowing how much has changed in the past, seeing small steps toward justice add up each time an LDS woman prays in conference or someone acknowledges the existence of Heavenly Mother, I hold onto a bit of hope that Christ’s promise will indeed be fulfilled; that we will one day share the truth, and we, as women in the gospel, will finally—justly—find the freedom we deserve. That, my friends, is nothing to fear.