Review of Reeder, Jennifer, and Kate Holbrook, editors. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017. 452 pp. Photographs, notes, appendix, index. ISBN 978-1-62972-282-5. $29.99
Review by R. Devan Jensen
R. Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.
At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women is well conceived, compiled, and edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook and a team of researchers who embody the high standards of the Church Historian’s Press. The volume is also timely, being released for the 175th anniversary of the Relief Society. But this is more than a book about the Relief Society or the Young Women organizations. It is a collection of wise, witty, and spiritual insights to inspire and enrich readers’ understanding of American religious history and Sunday School lessons. “In addition to being a scholarly history,” the editors write, “this book provides a resource for contemporary church members as they study, speak, teach, and lead” (xv).
How did this project come to be? In a recent interview, Holbrook said she envisioned a “journal of discourses” for women. Many collections traditionally emphasize the writings of male church leaders, whose writings were more likely to be recorded in church minutes. A stated goal of this volume is to “powerfully demonstrate that women have contributed to Latter-day Saint devotion through sermons, speeches, prayers, songs, and stories” (xv). She and Reeder pitched the concept to the Church Historian’s Press and found a willing reception.
To create this vital project, Reeder, Holbrook, and a team of researchers and editors scoured eclectic sources such as “old minute books and obscure newspapers.” Reeder emphasized nineteenth-century discourses, while Holbrook focused on twentieth- and twenty-first-century speeches. The editors then created introductions and notes that “provide insight into the biographical, historical, theological, and cultural context of each talk” (xv). The result is a compilation of fifty-four speeches or, in a few cases, notes of speeches. The latter do strain the definition of “discourses” and are sometimes shorter than their accompanying introductions, but the overall compilation is well done.
Auxiliary leaders such as Linda K. Burton, Julie B. Beck, and Sheri L. Dew are well represented, but this book includes other lesser-known women who spoke at BYU Women’s conference. To represent the global nature of the church, the editors quote women from North and South America, Europe, and Asia. These talks include warm and witty speeches by Jutta B. Busche, Chieko N. Okazaki, Irina Kratzer, and Gladys N. Sitati (who is both wise and hilarious).
In my honest opinion, Francine R. Bennion’s BYU Women’s Conference address of March 28, 1986, “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering,” is, by itself, worth the price of the book. Bennion begins with paradoxical couplets such as Proverbs 3:13 (“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding”) and “Ecclesiastes 1:18 (“In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”). How do we reconcile these paradoxes? “Theology,” she writes, “provides a framework that binds diversity and complexity into a more simple net with which we can make some sense even of things we don’t fully understand” (215).
Citing incidents of suffering worldwide, Bennion writes, “Good theology makes sense of what is possible but also of what is presently real and probable. . . . It is not enough that theology be either rational or faith promoting. It must be both. It is not enough that satisfying theology be mastered by a few expert scholars, teachers, and leaders. It must be comfortable carried out by ordinary people. It is not enough that theology help me to understand God. It must also help me to understand myself and the world” (216–17). Quoting the story of Jephthah’s vow and consequent sacrifice of his daughter, Bennion asks, “What do you think about Jephthah, his vow, and his God? Your answer will depend in part upon your own version of theology” (219). Complex, intriguing, and open ended!
Bennion then quotes a BYU Honors student’s conception of the celestial kingdom in the context of Voltaire’s “best of all possible worlds.” What is the celestial kingdom like? she asks. “Well, there won’t be any problems,” he replies, saying that “everyone will be–happy. There won’t be any unkindness. No one there will be rejected or abused, or laughed at, or ignored.”
“Oh,” Bennion said, “Are you suggesting that God experiences none of these things now?” Silence. Bennion then wrote, “In wanting to get to the celestial kingdom, these students had more awareness of traditional struggle-free utopias than of our own God and our own world” (221). Thus, our theology embraces the world as it is and our struggle to make sense of it.
This is just one of the many treasures to be discovered in At the Pulpit. The book is well worth efforts to mine it for other historical and doctrinal gems.
At the Pulpit certainly complements a related project titled The Witness of Women, by Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder.