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FairMormon conference sheds light on impact women have had on the Church, why it needs to be talked about

PROVO, Utah — Two decades ago, FairMormon hosted its first conference in the Santa Cruz mountains above California’s Silicon Valley.

It was a humble affair.

“We had more speakers than people in the audience,” said FairMormon president Scott Gordon.

Now, alive and well in its 20th year, the annual conference has grown in both reach and interest. While many participants gathered Wednesday at the Utah Valley Convention Center for the opening day, hundreds of others tuned in via live streaming.

“It’s a global event,” said Gordon, “We have people all over the world watching us.”

A non-profit organization that is independent of the Church, FairMormon's mission is, at once, simple and challenging: to address charges leveled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of the Church "with documented responses that are written in an easily understandable style."

Traditionally a two-day gathering, FairMormon conference organizers opted for a third session this year (Aug. 1-3) to make time to examine several topics about women, both historical and contemporary.

“As many of our speakers have talked about (on Wednesday), women have had a great impact in our Church, and sometimes it’s just not talked about,” said Gordon.

Other FairMormon 2018 highlights include a Thursday discussion on grace by BYU ancient scripture professor Brad Wilcox. Meanwhile, Wilcox's fellow BYU faculty member, Daniel Peterson, will offer Friday’s concluding presentation entitled “Apologetics: What, Why and How?”

Elder Kevin W. Pearson, a General Authority Seventy, is scheduled to speak Friday morning on “sacred and imperative” duties.

A few highlights from Wednesday’s opening day:

In a presentation entitled “Fire in My Bones,” 19th century women’s history specialist Jenny Reeder echoed Gordon’s sentiment regarding the historical visibility of women in the Church:

“Women have been and continue to be an important part of the Restoration — but they are sometimes hidden.”

As the co-author of multiple books focusing on the legacy of Latter-day Saint women, she has been reminded of women’s essential and ongoing roles in the growth of the Church.

During her presentation, Reeder utilized historical photos and quotes from several Latter-day Saint women ranging from the well-known Emma Smith and Lucy Mack Smith to more obscure, yet equally devout, women such as Phoebe Angel and Jane Wilkie Hooper Blood.

The women, she discovered, were both unified and diverse. “I read these women’s stories to know I am not alone,” said Reeder, modifying the familiar quote on reading.

Studying the histories of Latter-day Saint women provides both scholarly information and devotional inspiration. The well-being of women, she concluded, “is crucial to the success of the (Church), and these women’s stories ... encourage us and help us to remember that we are not alone.”

Historian Lisa Olsen Tait focused her presentation Wednesday on the Gospel Topics Essays found at lds.org.

A prayerful examination of the wide-ranging essays reveals the spiritual interdependence between men and women, she said.

Discussing the history and roles of women in the Church can sometimes be painful, polemic and divisive. Tait called for care, humility and compassion as people search for answers and direction.

Taunalyn Rutherford presented her research on Latter-day Saint women in India.

The Church is, of course, in its infancy in India. There are about 13,500 Latter-day Saints in a country of well over a billion people. Still, Rutherford has witnessed local Latter-day Saint women exercising tremendous faith, often amid cultural conflict and even persecution.

Stakes are forming even as the Indian members prepare for their nation’s first temple.

India’s frequently observed caste system and marriage practices can pose day-to-day challenges for Latter-day Saints. “Where does religion end and culture start?” asked Rutherford.

Still, Latter-day Saint women in India tell Rutherford that the gospel has improved their lives, even as they make difficult personal sacrifices and often find themselves at odds with relatives and loved ones.

The FairMormon Conference continues through Friday. Visit the FairMormon website for more information, including instruction on viewing the 2018 conference presentations, both live and archived.

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