Lesser-known but influential Mormon women in church history

Published: Tuesday, June 11 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

LAYTON — Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Lucy Mack Smith and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner are famous women in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but what about those whose names and accomplishments are not as well-known?

Scholars at the Mormon History Association conference on June 7 and 8 spotlighted various women throughout church history and their contributions to education, family life, women’s rights, Relief Society, medicine and missionary work.

Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball

There was “no stronger minded woman in Israel,” declared contemporary Emmeline B. Wells about early LDS Church Relief Society leader and women’s rights advocate Sarah Granger Kimball. Scholar Janelle Higbee detailed the life of this “self-proclaimed ‘women’s rights woman’ who stood at the forefront of Utah’s early suffrage movement” and who was only one of a few women who attended Joseph Smith’s School of the Prophets.

In early Utah history, Kimball used her talents as a speaker to rally both spiritual and secular causes through Relief Society events and women’s rights meetings. She connected the two, believing that women in the church, with their privileges and knowledge, should be heading the cause to make the world more equitable everywhere, according to Higbee. Kimball served for more than 40 years (1857-1898) as president of the 15th Ward Relief Society, which became a “model of Relief Societies throughout the church," Higbee said.

Kimball also attended suffrage meetings in the East with famous suffragettes and continued to use her influence for, what Kimball termed, “the cause of universal good.”

Emma Liljenquist

Emma Liljenquist of Hyrum, Utah, was called by her bishop to study obstetrics and nursing in 1887. Scholar Kate Holbrook described how Liljenquist left her young family and traveled to Salt Lake City for six months to complete her schooling.

Holbrook explained that once Liljenquist finished her education, “She was set apart by several apostles as a midwife.” And this blessing influenced the way she approached her work, believing it to be directed by divine guidance, according to Holbrook. Liljenquist wrote, “Many times when one of my patients was seriously ill, I would ask my Heavenly Father for assistance, and every time it was given to me.”

With friends and family helping, Liljenquist was able to both take care of her family as well as provide necessary midwife services for her community. She recorded late in her life, “I have brought over one thousand babies to Hyrum. It was not always maternity cases which I attended. Sometimes an anxious mother called to see if I could treat one of her children, or someone else might have a nervous spell and would ask me if I would just come and sit by their bed and assure them that they were alright and all was well.”

Amelia Telle Cannon

Scholar Andrea Ventilla spoke on “The Educational Opportunities of a Teenage Girl in the 1880s” and introduced Amelia Cannon, a 16-year-old woman who was taught to value education as she attended the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah. She wrote in her diary, “Study, study, study all the time! That’s what Hester and I have! We studied steadily all day yesterday on our geography and we have to study even on Sundays.” This study paid off, Ventilla explained, as Amelia passed her exams and continued to pursue educational opportunities throughout her life.

But it was not all study time. Amelia wrote in her diary, “I feel so cross and sleepy. I fear I shall be more dead than alive by the end of this week. Tomorrow night, party; Wednesday evening, party; Thursday night, party; Friday night Student Society or Theatre.”

These educational opportunities combined with her social calls placed her in a position to court her husband, an educator, Ventilla said. “Amelia, very similarly to other woman of her time, acquired her education not only for herself but for the welfare of her future family as well as the general society.“

Mary Bennion

Like Ventilla, scholar Natalie Rose also studied the journals of women in the late 19th and early 20th century. She spoke about Mary Bennion: “Born in 1890, Mary Bennion entered the Mormon world at a markedly different time than her predecessors.”

Bennion graduated from the Relief Society Nursing Program in 1909 and testified in her journal about how she “stayed and listened to the blessing given to a number of the girls. I was strengthened in my faith by hearing them. … I think we all felt our responsibility then more than we had done before.”

Rose said that for Bennion, completing the nursing program marked both a religious and professional milestone in her life.

Thus, women like Bennion “lived full, unique and complicated lives deeply influenced by their generation, position within history and their roles as church members during this transitional period for the LDS Church,” Rose said.

Female missionaries in Indonesia

In 1969, then-apostle Erza Taft Benson dedicated Indonesia for missionary work, but the seeds of Mormonism were planted decades before with members among the stationed naval families. So explained BYU professor Chad F. Emmett in a presentation on “Early Mormonism in Indonesia, 1915-1969.”

Emmett focused on one Dutch naval family, the Vlams, who wished to teach Sunday School lessons to non-LDS children. They promised to keep the lessons general, without any focus on Mormonism, but their 6-year-old daughter was too excited to teach about Mormon baptism to her playmates. Emmett said that the other families complained about the Mormon lessons and the parents had to admonish her. Emmett believes that young “Grace Vlam was the first missionary to preach the gospel in Indonesia.”

Another woman, Martine Grimm, sailed with her husband during his tour of duty to the various Pacific naval ports, including Indonesia, and took along a box of copies of the Book of Mormon to pass out to anyone interested. She later became integral in explaining to then-Elder Benson the importance of setting up the church in Indonesia.

Today, there are around 20 wards and branches with more than 6,000 members in Indonesia.

Emily W. Jensen covered the LDS online world for five years. She continues to track online developments and discussions. Email: ejensen@desnews.com

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