Sarah Jane Weaver: How ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things

On March 6, 2013, I sat with a small group of people in New York City at a United Nations side event — held in conjunction with the Commission on the Status of Women.

Sister Sharon Eubank, director of Latter-day Saint Charities and also first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency since 2017, spoke of work completed more than 150 years ago — by pioneer women who were poor and faced many barriers.

In 1870, the Salt Lake Valley was home to some 85,000 people. Diseases like influenza, small pox, measles, diarrhea and pneumonia, as well as inexperienced midwifery and home births, contributed to a very high infant mortality rate.

So Eliza R. Snow, Relief Society general president, went to President Brigham Young with a visionary plan, requesting that six women be sent to the Eastern United States and trained in medicine. They would return and train others. Sister Snow told the Church president, “We have got to do something to invest in the next generation.”

One 28-year-old woman, Ellis Shipp, left Salt Lake City for medical school. She was expecting a baby herself, found a job guarding the cadaver lab at night and studied by candlelight.

At a United Nations side event in 2013 featuring the Church's humanitarian work, Sharon Eubank shows a delegation of women from the Republic of Guinea a doll used by Latter-day Saint medical trainers.
At a United Nations side event in 2013 featuring the Church’s humanitarian work, Sharon Eubank shows a delegation of women from the Republic of Guinea a doll used by Latter-day Saint medical trainers. Credit: Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver

“In 1879 she came back to Salt Lake City with a medical degree,” Sister Eubank said. “Over her lifetime she delivered 5,000 babies. And she trained 500 midwifes to be certified and licensed. She was the beginning of the drop of the infant mortality rate in the state of Utah.”

Sister Eubank said she hoped that pioneer lesson would be relevant “for all of you in this room, who are working on big important things that have a lot of barriers.”

I remember looking at a photograph of Ellis Shipp displayed during the presentation. Sister Eubank voiced my thoughts.

“She does not look extraordinary,” said Sister Eubank. “She looks like an ordinary woman of 1879. But she did extraordinary things for that time that are still going on now.”

Recently I have been thinking about another seemingly ordinary woman whose pioneering efforts had extraordinary results.

Emmeline B. Wells, the Church’s fifth Relief Society general president, was held in high esteem by many in the nation. A women’s rights activist, she worked as a committee member for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the National and International Councils of Women and the National Woman’s Press Association.

Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries give insight to women’s suffrage movement

She served as editor of the Woman’s Exponent from 1877-1914 and was asked by Brigham Young to lead the grain-saving project for the Church in 1876. 

Friends with national women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sister Wells represented Utah at the 1879 National Woman’s Suffrage Association convention. 

This week, the Church announced that her diaries are now available at ChurchHistoriansPress.org/Emmeline-B-Wells. These historic works join the discourses of Eliza R. Snow, which were published digitally on July 13 and are now available to the public at ChurchHistoriansPress.org/Eliza-R-Snow

The first secretary for the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Sister Snow was a prolific speaker and poet who served as the second general Relief Society president from 1880 to 1887. At the request of Brigham Young, she traveled throughout the Utah territory to help bishops organize Relief Society — which she testified would “refine and elevate” Latter-day Saint women.

Who was Eliza R. Snow? Read her discourses to learn how she empowered women

In 1870 — a time of general misunderstanding about members of the Church and their beliefs — a group of women led by Sister Snow called a press conference and addressed newspaper reporters from across the country.

“It was high time (to) rise up in the dignity of our calling and speak for ourselves,” she said. “The world does not know us, and truth and justice to our brethren and to ourselves demand us to speak. …. We are not inferior to the ladies of the world, and we do not want to appear so.”

Reporters in attendance called the meeting remarkable. “In logic and in rhetoric the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the … women of the East,” wrote one reporter.

In New York City in March 2013 during the Commission on the Status of Women, I asked Sister Eubank why the Church had been given a seat at an international table with other major humanitarian organizations to talk about what they were doing to improve the lives of women.

Her answer is seared in my memory. When a woman joins the Church, Sister Eubank said, her life is immediately elevated. She learns to read, she learns about hygiene and is given opportunities to teach, speak in public, and lead. She sits in counsel with men and she is expected to share her voice. Then, empowered by these experiences, she goes out into her community and serves.

“Every Church member makes a covenant at baptism that they will serve the poor, mourn with those that mourn,” she said. “So you have people all over the world looking for the best ways to keep that covenant, whatever their circumstances are.”

This refinement is evident in the lives of Eliza R. Snow, Ellis Shipp, Emmeline B. Wells and millions of Latter-day Saints today.

“I think about the spectrum of human development and at one end of the spectrum are people who feel they are too poor and too disabled and too-whatever outside the norms of society to participate,” said Sister Eubank. “What they need is some experience that gives them evidence that God is aware of them and loves them.”

Humanitarian work — or meaningful service to others — is one way for that to happen, she said. “As a project unfolds, people make interpersonal connections. They build relationships based on acceptance, and they start to think, ‘Hey, I am good enough, I am important enough that I can participate in this.’ Once they feel that, they move further along the spectrum to: ‘If we cooperate together we can change things, we can do something to make our community better.’ … The broader scope is that they start participating in society. They start changing things that need to be changed. That’s human progression.”

It’s how Eliza R. Snow worked with bishops to organize Relief Society in the west, how Ellis Shipp trained midwives to safely deliver thousands of babies, and how Emmeline B. Wells became a national player in women’s suffrage.

And it’s how the Church today, made up of ordinary people, is accomplishing extraordinary things.