Episode 111: What members today can learn from ‘powerful’ early Latter-day Saint women leaders
Historians Jennifer Reeder, Lisa Olsen Tait and Cherry Bushman Silver talk about the life and influence of Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells
Episode 111: What members today can learn from ‘powerful’ early Latter-day Saint women leaders
Historians Jennifer Reeder, Lisa Olsen Tait and Cherry Bushman Silver talk about the life and influence of Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells
The words of two prominent Latter-day Saint women have been published by the Church Historian’s Press: “The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow” and “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells.” “The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow” includes more than 1,200 discourses, prepared from 1840 to 1887. “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells” includes 47 diary volumes spanning from 1844 to 1920. They are both now available online for free.
This episode of the Church News podcast features Jennifer Reeder and Lisa Olsen Tait with the Church History Department and co-editor Cherry Bushman Silver to discuss the projects and their significance.
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Jennifer Reeder: I’ve had a really personal experience — many really personal experiences — with these women. I think it was the year 2001, 2002 I think, where I was reading the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes and I felt their voices whispering to me from their pages. And that is when I think my passion and my sense of mission and purpose in my career and in my life arose — to find and produce and make accessible the words of these great Latter-day Saint women. And that I belong to a heritage of incredible women that have understood their place and role in the kingdom of God. And whatever it is that we contribute, it is vital and it is important.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Church Historian’s Press recently announced completion of two landmark online projects that feature the writings and ministry of two of the most influential women of their time. The works are “The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow,” with more than 1,200 discourses prepared from 1840 to 1887, and “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells,” with 47 diary volumes spanning from 1844 to 1920. They are both now available online for free. The projects included years of diligent and meticulous work. Today, we are joined by the Church’s lead historians Jennifer Reeder and Lisa Olsen Tait and co-editor Cherry [Bushman] Silver to discuss the projects and their significance. Welcome, ladies, to the Church News podcast.
Jennifer Reeder: Hi, I’m so excited to be here.
Cherry Bushman Silver: Important project.
Lisa Olsen Tait: Thank you.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it is so exciting for me to have you here. I love these women. I love the legacy they left all of us today and I’m really excited to talk about them. Eliza R. Snow is the sister of President Lorenzo Snow and she was a prolific poet, writer, teacher and an historian, herself. She was also the Church’s second Relief Society general president. Emmeline B. Wells was also a writer, editor, public speaker and was a nationally recognized champion of women’s rights. She also served as the Church’s general Relief Society president; she was the fifth. And so, I want to start today and just have each of you take a few minutes and tell us what their lives were like and give us some context for the time when they lived and served. Jenny, let’s start with you.
Jennifer Reeder: Great. Eliza R. Snow was born in 1804 in Massachusetts. She was the second daughter. When she was two years old, she and her family, they moved to Mandalay, Ohio, and that was the beginning of incredible things for her. She was very astute in her schoolwork and she would often write her school assignments, because they seemed so easy and simple and boring, she would write her assignments in poetry form. And so when one day her teacher asked her to read her assignment, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it without laughing, and so she had to beg off. Anyway, I think her first form of discourse was poetry. That’s where she felt most comfortable. She published a lot of poetry in local newspapers and she would write poems that would be read aloud and she would call them addresses and so that’s why we considered them discourses.
She was the first secretary of the Nauvoo Relief Society, and she kept the minutes of the Relief Society and she even carried those minutes with her across the plains. So this gave her even more of an understanding and an ability and desire to instruct other women about what Joseph Smith taught as the purpose of the Relief Society. In 1868, Brigham Young decided to reorganize the Relief Societies and he asked her to assist the bishops in organizing Relief Societies in the various wards. And then he gave her a second assignment, and that was to instruct the sisters, which meant public speaking. And this scared her to death. She said, her heart went “pitta-pat,” which I think is really real. And I love that about her. But I think it’s also beautiful, because it shows how she went from a very nervous woman, to a very accomplished woman in front of a crowd — a great orator. And not only that, but she also encouraged other women to speak up and speak out, just like our prophet, today, has asked women to do.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I just think that is so, so amazing. I sort of empathize with being a nervous public speaker. My producer can tell you, even the podcast is a little bit of a reach for me every week.
Jennifer Reeder: Well, you do a great job. Practice makes perfect, right?
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well and Cherry, why don’t you give us a little insight into Emmeline B. Wells.
Cherry Bushman Silver: Emmeline was a younger generation. She was born also in Massachusetts, but in 1828 and came to Nauvoo the last months of Joseph Smith’s life. She was the last general Relief Society president to have known Joseph Smith personally. But her overlap was only for two months. However, she had to prove her own fidelity to the Church, because the parents-in-law, with whom she had come to Nauvoo, left the Church. Her husband went away to get work after their baby died, and disappeared — shipped on board as a seaman to East India, never returned and she was abandoned. But she determined to stay true to the Church and had some early blessings there from Brigham Young that promised her a long life in which she would be useful. She lived to be 93. Her diaries cover those first months in Nauvoo, plus part of the Iowa trail. And then there’s a large gap. We don’t have any more writing until 1874. What was happening in 1874? By then Emmeline, no longer a young girl, was a mother and grandmother living in Salt Lake City, which was an increasingly sophisticated town. The Relief Society had been reestablished. The InterContinental Railroad had been completed, so people were coming from east and west. And particularly, the women had received the vote in Utah. So they already had a voice. And she listens to people like Eliza R. Snow and takes some opportunities and then begins to grow.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow, well, that is so interesting. Lisa, I’m hoping you can weigh in and just add anything else that might be relevant to the opportunities or the challenges in which these women lived.
Lisa Olsen Tait: Well, both Eliza and Emmeline lived in a period of really developing and intensifying opportunities for women — both in the Church and in American society at large. And that really shaped their lives, it shaped their consciousness, it shaped the Church itself and the world that they operated in. There was kind of a, we call it a paradigm of separate spheres, that was quite prevalent at the time, the idea that men operated in the public sphere and women operated in the private sphere. And that there were areas of life that men were in charge of, and areas that women were in charge of. It was never that simple. It was never that clean. What’s happening during Eliza and especially Emmeline’s lifetime, is that that paradigm is breaking down. And there has become, actually, a very vibrant public women’s sphere in the Church and in society through things like publications and women’s organizations.
And Emmeline, in particular, really participated in those trends, those developing avenues for women to network with each other, to express themselves, to participate in the world. So Cherry took us up, for example, to 1874 with Emmeline. At that point, she had already begun writing for the Woman’s Exponent, which was the newspaper for Latter-day Saint women that was founded in 1872. And in 1877, Emmeline takes over as the editor of that newspaper and this becomes her major platform for almost the rest of her life and a major hub for Latter-day Saint women for their conversations, for their activism, for their organizations and for their connections to women in the world at large. So it was a time of expanding opportunities, expanding consciousness and Emmeline, in particular, really embraced that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow, and while you’re speaking, help us understand why the messages of these women is still important and relevant to all of us today.
Lisa Olsen Tait: Well, I think there’s a number of ways and the more time you spend in their words, the more applications you can find. For myself, personally, with Eliza what I find is just incredible, pure, spiritual power. She was just unshakable and very confident in having spiritual authority and in having spiritual power in her life and in teaching other women about where that power comes from and how to tap into it and how to share it with each other. She was truly a great spiritual leader in that respect.
Emmeline, she was very focused on this activism and these practical, as well as political and big idea kind of ways, that women needed to grow and develop and step forward and become involved in the world. And so she’s always advocating for women to be educated, to speak up, to develop their abilities, to get involved, to participate. And for her, that’s always rooted in her membership in the Church, her allegiance to the gospel, because she believes that the advancement of women has been made possible through the prophetic actions of Joseph Smith. And so she has this large framework in which she’s trying to get women to raise their sights and raise their vision and see their own potential.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Oh, that’s beautiful. Cherry, what is powerful about these women’s words today for you?
Cherry Bushman Silver: I agree with what has been said that Emmeline became a defender of the faith and she learned from Eliza, how to overcome your personal worries and humilities, how to stand forth and just be that strong person that was always available to help and uplift others. But then Emmeline would go home and cry in her diary, say, “I’m so weary. How can I keep doing this? I have no resources. Other women are better endowed than I am. Why am I the one to do this?” But then she’d get up the next day and press on. When hard projects came along, she would often say, “You have to show that you are a leader by not giving up. You must keep pressing forward.” So she is an example of resiliency and of the comprehension that this gospel was a marvelous gift to men and women and we work together. She was very cooperative with the Church leaders and the priesthood leaders and was often in their offices seeking advice and taking commissions from them.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow.
Jennifer Reeder: I think I would actually go back a little bit before Eliza and Emmeline to Emma Smith. We know that in 1830, Joseph received a revelation for her from the Lord calling her an “elect lady” and telling her that she would have the responsibility of expounding the scriptures and exhorting the Church. And that comes about 12 years later, when the Nauvoo Relief Society is organized. And I think as Joseph taught those women who they were, and what their responsibilities were, and how they were like Christ in saving each other and saving souls, Eliza, particularly, took that to heart. And even though she was scared, she expounded the scriptures and she exhorted the Church and she taught other women to do the same. So, I really think that her sense of identity and responsibility stemmed from the Nauvoo Relief Society and her interactions with Joseph Smith.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And what do we learn from each of these women about service and leadership? They obviously saw that and learned that from the Prophet, himself.
Jennifer Reeder: Yes, they did. And I think this is — like Lisa was talking about — how this was an exciting time for women. Joseph had that vision. And he was extremely progressive in the way that he invited women to participate in the lay leadership of the Church and in speaking up. And I see that just blossom in Utah, under the direction of Brigham Young, where Eliza does the same thing. One of my favorite things about Eliza is that she not only understands her own personal purpose and mission, but she sees Emmeline Wells, who has been assigned by Brigham Young to lead the grain storage movement and she does everything she can to help her. She doesn’t take over, but she helps her. She sees Zina Young who’s been given the responsibility to lead the silk culture, and she does everything she can to help her and she brings both of these ladies with her as she travels around to give them a voice. We also see her support Mary Isabella Horne, who has been assigned to lead the retrenchment movement. And she does the exact same thing with her. It’s really incredible how she sees this as a shared responsibility and she wants everyone to flourish and to do well in what they are called to do.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Cherry, how did Emmeline then take the example she’d seen from both those early prophets and from Eliza and reflect that in her own leadership?
Cherry Bushman Silver: It was an act of courage often. She was a woman of courage, in that she was willing to speak up in front of groups, not to begin with. As early as her diaries in 1874, she is saying, “The first time I spoke in front of men” was at a retrenchment meeting one Saturday. “The first time I ever conducted a meeting” was when she was put in charge of the visiting teachers in her ward. But she was already in her mid 40s. She was a grandmother by then and she was just starting out to learn these skills. Four years later, she is in Washington D.C., speaking to congressmen and assigned to go to the White House and present their plan to the President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, and his wife. How could this all happen in four years? Because she had learned some leadership skills and had stiffened her backbone as Eliza would have taught her to do. What touches me also is that she was involved in little acts of service. Towards the end of one diary year, it’s Christmas time and then New Year’s; she is out on the streets, gathering charity for some families that are out of housing and need food. She takes in a baby whose mother has had to flee from a bad situation. And she says, “Maybe I’ll keep this mother and child here with me.” I think she doesn’t. I think it goes on to someone else. But she was willing to do the small acts of service to individuals, as well as to conceive the large program, like how can we save grain?
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Lisa, what’s the lesson for each of us as we look at the lives of those women? Is there something that we can do, today, to reflect their lives in our own lives?
Lisa Olsen Tait: Well, there’s so much, really. Again, as I was saying about Eliza, I think as women, we need to become anchored and have confidence in the spiritual power that we have access to as Latter-day Saint women and claim that and share it with each other — be a source of light and power for others. And to that I would add, maybe almost on the other side, is Emmeline’s willingness to work behind the scenes and do the work that needs to be done. She, at one point in her diary wrote, “Responsibilities come thick and fast upon the women and Zion. Those who will, must take up the burdens and carry them.” There are always burdens to be picked up and carried. And Emmeline stood up, and led out, and wrote her articles and did a lot of public things. She did the charitable work behind the scenes, as Cherry has talked about, but she also did a lot of the thankless work of administration. At the time they communicated by writing letters. She wrote countless letters to other Relief Society leaders to help bring the organization together to help make events happen. She goes to meeting after meeting. It’s in, you know, if you read her diary, she’s always in meetings where they’re planning things, they’re executing projects. So, there’s just really a broad range in these women’s lives of how they contributed to the kingdom and how they channeled spiritual power to do what needed to be done, both on a large public scale and on the very small, behind the scenes, sometimes even thankless level, as well.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Jenny, I want you to weigh in here, because when we think about that idea of what needed to be done, Eliza traveled. She went where she needed to go to stakes, and wards, and branches, in populated areas, in remote areas. I understand that sometimes she spoke as many as three times a day. Why did she feel the need to go to such extreme measures to take her message to the people?
Jennifer Reeder: I love this about Eliza. She had a desire to reach out and to gather everyone together. And she realized that sometimes that meant going to the far-flung settlements. So for example, when she visited Kanab, Utah, which is in South Central Utah, in 1881, they gave her such great praises and said, “You were the first to come to visit us of the women.” And they called her “the queen of all women” and “the great priestess” and “the president of the female portion of the human race,” which I love. But it was because she wanted to bring to them part of, I feel like she had this diplomatic mission to bring to them information from Salt Lake City. But even more important, she wanted to take away part of them. And she often talked about other societies that she had visited. She talked a lot about the Farmington young women and how faithful they were. But she just wanted to connect them all and I love that about her.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that is a big job — The president of the… What was it again?
Jennifer Reeder: Feminine portion of the human world, or something like that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow, that’s probably one that no one wants.
Jennifer Reeder: No, but it’s huge. And that’s really how they saw her. They loved her and they honored her and they were so grateful that she would come the distance to see them.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Okay, well, and Cherry, I want to talk to you about Emmeline, because as Lisa noted, she was the editor of the Woman’s Exponent newspaper for 37 years. As a newspaper editor, this is a woman after my own heart. What was significant about her desire to be a vehicle to get messages out to the women of this time?
Cherry Bushman Silver: She knew that this was a strong link. What was written on the page was not only coming out of Salt Lake, but it was coming from women’s journals on the east coast and on the west coast. They exchanged articles. It was through her newspaper that she became acquainted with the national women’s rights leaders and that they learned to trust her and invite her into their meetings. So when she first went to Washington, D.C. and met people like Sarah Spencer and Susan B. Anthony, they were already acquainted with her and had built some confidence in her abilities and her clear thinking. And then she turns out to be, what one editor called her, a “crack debater.” She knew how to present ideas and she could do it in writing and she could do it as a speaker. But behind the newspaper, also, the Woman’s Exponent was an injunction from President Brigham Young to tell the story of the women of the Church through the Women’s Exponent. And that she did — in their notes from the field, from all over the Church, published. Obituaries, life sketches, stories of the women were included in her newspaper. And by the time she had finished these 37 years, there’s quite a history not to be forgotten of our ancestors.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I remember the first time I read “Daughters in My Kingdom,” and actually came to understand that I’m part of this legacy of very, very strong women; that they were actually powerful, that they saw needs, and they met needs, and they solved problems and they took care of things whenever they could. And it was such a personal blessing to me to understand this. I’m interested in how getting to know each of these women on a deeper level has been a blessing to each of you. Lisa, how has this changed to you?
Lisa Olsen Tait: I appreciate what you’re saying there, Sarah, about how powerful it is to come to that recognition of being part of a larger tradition, part of a line and a legacy of women over time. That’s been really powerful for me, not just with Eliza and Emmeline, but with so many of the other women from their time and even after, who I’ve spent so much time with, really, is how I feel about it, getting to know them and seeing their work. It just opens up this beautiful network of sisterhood that extends over the generations and helps me to better understand my own place in history, my own place and, you know, to see how things have unfolded and where my experience fits into that. And to recognize that there is this larger story going on in the unfolding of the Restoration, the unfolding of the gospel in the world, and how central women have always been to that and still are and how I can join hands with those sisters over the generations to do my part in this time that I live in.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and Cherry.
Cherry Bushman Silver: Well, I could build on that too. I had an opportunity to work with the Relief Society general board at the time of the sesquicentennial and imagine how it felt to me to discover the writings of Emmeline Wells about The Jubilee of 1892. And what these women did to commemorate the founding of the Relief Society from the perspective of 50 years. And I was able to participate in the 150 years. I feel that sisterhood across the generations.
Jennifer Reeder: I’ve had a really personal experience with many really personal experiences with these women. I think it was the year 2001, 2002, I think, where I was reading the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes, and I felt their voices whispering to me from their pages. And that’s when I think my passion and my sense of mission, and purpose in my career and in my life, arose — to find and produce and make accessible the words of these great Latter-day Saint women from our founding era. I was in graduate school in the Washington, D.C. area, when I got leukemia, and I had just been called as the Relief Society president in my ward, as well. So I had a lot going on writing a dissertation and everything. That experience with leukemia returned — it recurred four times. I had two bone marrow transplants. I spent many lonely nights alone in my hospital room wondering, what is this all about? Why am I doing this? Why am I in the middle of this? But I would remember, I had a purpose and a mission in life. And I do so today, working on the Eliza R. Snow discourses. Like, I feel like I’m trying to understand her. And I’m trying to make her voice accessible more than to just the women she spoke to, but to all of us today, and to recognize that strength that she carried and that sense of purpose and part of the kingdom.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Jenny, do you have a favorite quote or teaching or something that she taught.
Jennifer Reeder: Oh, that’s like choosing a favorite child. But I’m going to tell you. First of all, I love that she talked about how women were responsible to work out their own salvation with Jesus Christ. They couldn’t rely on their husbands or fathers or anyone else. But the thing that really sticks out to me, is the fact that she would talk about Relief Society; it was like bringing together the embers or each of us has a coal. And separately, we burn out, right. We get cold. But when we come together and bring them together, it blazes up and warms up. And then we can take that blazing coal home with us, and work with our families, our communities, our jobs, whatever it is. And I love that. I love that I am a part of that. And it’s something so much bigger than I am. Eliza also taught that the purpose of visiting teachers — or ministering sisters, as we call them today — was to find a home that was cold, or a woman that was cold, and warm her up, “take her up into your bosom and warm her up.” And I love that, because I have felt that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that is amazing. So Cherry, what are some of your favorite teachings?
Cherry Bushman Silver: Early on, Emmeline said, as she started working with the Woman’s Exponent, “I desire to do all in my power to help elevate the condition of my own people, especially women.” And then in one of her early essays that famous quote, “I believe in women, especially thinking women.” Later on, she said, “I love going to these national meetings, because I’m with this group of brilliant, beautiful women.” She felt it in their inner core and knew that she could contribute.
Jennifer Reeder: You know, I have a T-shirt that says that: “I believe in women, especially thinking women.” And I love it.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it certainly reflects the courage of these women and just the going forward, tenacity of saying, “OK, this is what our charges and this is what we’re going to do.”
Cherry Bushman Silver: Here’s one for Sarah. After Emmeline had been working with the exponent for 20 years, and she was often weary, she said, “Newspaper work is not done by looking on and really, I do as much work as seven other women. I firmly believe.” That’s for you.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, she is a woman after my own heart.
Jennifer Reeder: I love it.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And, Lisa, we’d love to have you weigh in on that as well.
Lisa Olsen Tait: Yeah, you know, I’ve been spending time in Emily’s diary lately on a project that I’m working on, trying to understand her spiritual life and how she experienced that. And so much of it was through these connections with other women, but you also see some lovely comments in her diary about the temple. And I’m looking at the 1890s, in particular. And so the Salt Lake Temple has just been dedicated within the past year. And I think that’s bringing a new level of accessibility and consciousness about the temple, to people like Emmeline who live in Salt Lake City and it’s more accessible to them now.
On the 31st of January, she writes that she had gotten up and prepared to go to the temple. She says, “How strange this temple work would have been to our four mothers, wonderful have been revelations of the Latter-days.” So she, herself, is reflecting on having experienced and witnessed the growth, the introduction, actually, and the growth of understanding and temple work. She says, “The world is moving onward spiritually very rapidly, and we who are living now will undoubtedly see great changes yet to come. The temple is, indeed, a sacred and holy place, and one feels the solemnity on entering there. It seems as though we should make special preparation more even than we do and put aside all the thoughts of commonplace things, lifting our souls into the region of sublimity that is truly exalting in its nature. That will remain with us afterwards and help us win the battle of life we are compelled to fight — stern and hard and fierce.”
And isn’t that beautiful? And isn’t that the way we still feel about the temple today; about how it takes us out of the world, takes us out of the troubles of our lives. And gives us power and strength for when we have so much to bear and so much to see as we go back into our everyday lives? I just thought that was a beautiful, beautiful expression from Emmeline. And along those same lines, there is one of Eliza’s sermons where she also speaks of spiritual power in a way that I just find is so incredible. This is from 1873. She says, “To be sure we have trials, but what are they? I want to ask my sisters now a serious question. “When you are filled with the Spirit of God, and the Holy Ghost rests upon you, that Comforter which Jesus promised in which takes of the things of God and gives them to us and shows us things to come and brings all things to our remembrance — When you are filled with the Spirit, do you have any trials? I do not think you do, for that satisfies and fills up every lung, even the human heart and fills up every vacuum. When I am filled with that Spirit and my soul is satisfied. And I can say in good earnestness, that the trifling things of the day do not seem to stand in my way all.” There’s a lot more to it and you can find this sermon on the Church Historian’s Press website under “The First 50 Years” book. But isn’t that powerful? I mean, she catches a core, fundamental truth, there, about what power the Spirit has in our lives. And I think, I know for myself, sometimes, I do get so caught up in the trials and the, the noise and the commotion, and the controversy, and everybody has an opinion, you know, all these things going on. But when we have that Spirit in our hearts, it really does drive out all of those other worries and concerns.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I would love on that note, to have each of you also share your feelings about Relief Society. As we have all studied and looked at all the [efforts the] women went to in the name of Relief Society, and how they dedicated their lives to that cause, how does that transfer today and how is it reflected in your own participation in Relief Society?
Cherry Bushman Silver: One of my mentors, Aileen Clyde, said to me years ago, we need our younger women in the Church to remember Relief Society is not just a place to go on Sunday when you’re not teaching Primary or Young Women. But this is a fellowship with a long history and legacy. Reading these diaries helps me see that, how they worked for it, suffered for it, enjoyed it. How they socialize together and gave each other blessings, showed their love to each other through Relief Society. And I think we can find that joy in our own associations, thankfully.
Jennifer Reeder: So my ward boundaries were just realigned on Sunday. And I’ve lost a good portion of the — I have a lot of older sisters in my ward and I love them dearly, so much that the thought of not being able to see some of them on next Sunday, tears my heart apart. But I love that, because I love being a part of something that we’re not all the same age, we’re not all the same marital status, or kids, or education, or whatever. But we’re part of something huge. And I know that this Sunday, when I go to Church, that I’ll have a whole new range of women that I can build that up with. I love that Joseph Smith told the Nauvoo Relief Society that the purpose of their organization was to relieve the poor and save souls. And I have found in my own life that when we work to provide relief to others, we find relief for ourselves. But this incredible salvific responsibility to save souls means also saving our own souls and finding Jesus Christ in all that we do. Eliza talks a lot about being a Savior on Mount Zion and I think that’s so powerful. And I love that we do that for each other. And we do it in different ways and in different times, and sometimes we’re giving and sometimes we’re receiving, but it’s all part of this huge plan. And I’m so grateful for that.
Lisa Olsen Tait: I don’t know if I can add anything to that. Jenny and Cherry have expressed so many of my feelings and experiences over the years. I’ve had some really sacred experiences in ministering to other sisters. I remember, in one ward that I lived in, in Texas, helping an elderly sister, she was at least 80, and maybe over 80, helping her prepare to go to the temple for the first time. And being her escort as she went through and then was sealed to her deceased husband, and what a beautiful experience that was. And ministering to a sister in another ward who was just going through, just unbelievable trials and difficulties in her life and trying to think about how to be a friend and a support to her. So much of what happens in Relief Society happens on that level of the individual ministering to each other. And you know, as a historian I can sit and reflect on the permutations of Relief Society over the generations and what it’s looked like at different times. But I think that that has been the constant and the bedrock on which Relief Society has functioned over the years, always, of course, rooted in our shared testimonies and faith and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And as each of you talked, I think, all of us all of our listeners and myself included, think about the relationships we have with our own Relief Society sisters, in our own wards, I was, was mentored and taught and loved by an amazing Relief Society sister and my ward. Her name was Darlene Lamb and she had buried two sons and had grown very ill. And I got word that she wasn’t going to live very much longer. So I left work, and I ran to her house. And I remembered sitting right by her bed and saying, “Darlene, thank you so much for what you’ve done for me. I love you.” And she looked at me and said, “Sarah, I need you to take home the plastic containers that you have brought food to my house in.” And, and this idea that, in her final moments, she was thinking about me and she was thinking about things that she wanted me to have. She didn’t want me to lose those containers and she was closing the loop. And how sweet all of our experiences and interactions are, because of Relief Society.
Lisa Olsen Tait: Can I just say, as well, that I think it’s important to acknowledge that it isn’t always that way. And that there are times when we can have experiences in our wards and in Relief Society that are painful, for whatever reason. And then we feel maybe more or less like we belong or, or are loved and understood in Relief Society. I went through a period, myself, where my family was falling apart, not my marriage, but my children, and watching them make really devastating choices and feeling, you know, a lot of pain over that in my life. And to go week after week and hear people talk about their kids getting married in the temple and going on missions and have lessons about families and things like that. That was really, really hard. And I just want to say that I think that we need to acknowledge that and recognize it. And we need to look around our Relief Society rooms on Sunday and try to discern and invite the Spirit to help us understand who might be having a difficult experience in Relief Society that day. But I think that this vision of what Relief Society is and, and how it’s rooted in the gospel and the way that Emmeline and Eliza teach us so powerfully about our sisterhood. I think if we can cultivate that vision, then maybe we can feel empowered and safe to open up and to recognize, to speak for things that are difficult, to find a way to sucker each other and to minister to each other when we are having difficult times and make our Relief Societies even more of a safe and welcoming place.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and Lisa, I’m so glad you brought that up. And I would love for Cherry and Jenny to also weigh in on this, because Eliza and Emmeline lived in a complicated time too, when, when there’s loss and, and struggle, and everybody’s trying to deal with cold winters and building a city in the Salt Lake Valley. What have you learned from them about times that are hard, times when things don’t go the way we hope, when maybe we don’t feel as unified with the Saints as we had hoped?
Cherry Bushman Silver: That’s certainly behind the scenes in Emmeline’s diaries. She comes home after having kept a stiff upper lip and working hard during the day and then talks to her diary at night and explains the sorrows she feels in her heart and how she remembers all of the difficult times or when she feels someone has stabbed her and has treated her with envy and that her whole life is falling apart. The diary, to her, was an outlet so that she could be a sturdy, valiant person to the public. But also, it was a spiritual link for her, where she knew that she had received blessings in her life that she was living up to, that she was a special person, that she had a role to fill in God’s eyes and that she was ultimately accepted even if she had rejections and defeats along the way in her secular life. It’s a mixed story. And it’s true. It resonates with us as being real to our lives. And we can say to her, “Buck up Emmeline, things are going to get better. We know that there’s a future ahead for you.” And hopefully, as Jenny says, we’ll have a chance to meet these women face to face person to person and express our appreciation for them.
Jennifer Reeder: And that we can still be friends. I love the idea that we’re talking about someone’s diaries and we’re talking about someone’s public discourse, because those are two very different things. In Eliza’s discourses, she does speak from a place of lifting people up and we don’t get the silent longings of her heart like we do with Emmeline. So it’s interesting to put these two women together and their two forms of rhetoric together to understand those two parts. I’m sure that Eliza had those, but she did always keep a stiff upper lip, as Cherry said. I’m thinking of my own experience in Relief Society. One day, the discussion in our class became very difficult for me and I got up and walked out. And one of the women sitting by the door came running after me and had tears streaming down her face and just wrapped me in her arms, I think like Eliza would have taught us to do, and just told me how much she loved me. And it was so beautiful. It was one of those days and I’m so glad that Lisa brought that up, because it’s not all rainbows and hearts and unicorns and stars in Relief Society. Sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes we don’t feel comfortable, but it’s so wonderful to know that underneath all of that, and around and above all of that, we do have that support of women who do care and do love us.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, what a beautiful way to end the Church News podcast. We have a tradition where we always allow our guests the last word and we always have them answer the same question. And the question is, “What do you know now?” And so I hope each of you can answer the question, “What do you know now after studying the lives of Emmeline and Eliza?” And let’s start with Cherry, and go to Lisa and end with Jenny.
Cherry Bushman Silver: I think there’s fellowship across the years. And I bear witness that there are times in the middle of just ordinary research and drudgery when illumination comes and connections are made. And I know there’s a force outside interested in seeing this project move forward to a proper conclusion with love.
Lisa Olsen Tait: I know that it is and has been a sacred and powerful thing to be a woman and to be a woman connected to other women. And it’s not just something that happened in the past, but is something that is still a source of great power and joy today, and something that’s worth cultivating. And the more that we’re aware of how this has looked and operated in the past, the more opportunities and potential we can see in the present, for building those same kinds of relationships and that same kind of power in our own mind.
Jennifer Reeder: I know now that I belong to a heritage of incredible women that have pressed forward, that have done the impossible, that have understood their place and role in the kingdom of God. I know now that each one of us also has a place in that kingdom and whatever it is that we contribute, it is vital and it is important and that we can do so with confidence, and with love, and with faith and know that we are a part of something bigger than we are.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on theChurchNews.com.