The subject of the conference was "Women and the LDS Church." But the big news coming out of the conference had to do with LDS men.
"From a sociological perspective, the priesthood system works," said Dr. David C. Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. "It appears to motivate Mormon men to a level of religiosity that is equivalent to Mormon women."
And that, Campbell said, is news.
"Sociological research consistently shows that American women are more religious than American men by almost any standard that you can measure," Campbell told an audience of about 300 people — mostly women — attending a conference called "Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives" in the Fort Douglas Officer's Club Theater Saturday afternoon. "But our research shows that LDS men and women are very close to each other in terms of religiosity."
The research to which Campbell refers is a study he conducted last January along with colleagues Quinn Monson and John Green among 500 self-identified Latter-day Saints. Although the results have not yet been published, Campbell said it will eventually be the basis of a book.
"It's a large enough sample size for us to have some confidence in our results," Campbell said. So when it became clear that the research was showing that Mormon men and women express similar levels of religious involvement, Campbell said he found that to be "surprising."
"It is a common concern across many faiths: 'How do we keep the men coming to church?'" Campbell said. "Within Mormonism we seem to have a system that keeps them connected."
Campbell said he also found it interesting that, according to his recent research, LDS men and women spend "exactly the same amount of time" working in their church callings and assignments. In light of the fact that the number for LDS men includes those who spend 20-30 hours per week in callings as bishops and stake presidents — church assignments that require significant time commitments — Campbell said that means "women are actually doing more in the callings that they are given" than the men who are in similar callings.
Most of the daylong conference focused on LDS women, with an emphasis on the religious principle of agency. For example, Quincy D. Newell, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wyoming, presented the results of her research on the life of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a pioneering Latter-day Saint who remained faithful in the church despite the fact that she was never able to participate in LDS temple ordinances because she was black (the LDS Church's 1978 revelation on the priesthood eliminated the previous policy that withheld priesthood ordination and temple participation from black Latter-day Saints).
James, Newell said, exercised her God-given agency and "chose to stay in the church despite her second-rate status. She praised and sustained the men that consistently denied her petitions for endowment. She was not a passive pawn of the system, but an active agent within it."
Perhaps, Newell suggested, "she found a spiritual freedom in the LDS Church." In any event, the story of Jane Manning James is an example of how "social change can happen from the small choices made by ordinary people."
"James had other choices," Newell said. "She was not powerless. She chose to remain in the church … and worked within the system that constrained her."
Kate Holbrook, specialist in women's history in the LDS Church History Department said that working within constraints was typical of pioneer-era Latter-day Saint women. She said Eliza R. Snow, second general president of the church's Relief Society organization for women, "felt women and men had to work together." According to Holbrook, when Aurelia Spencer Rogers had the idea for what eventually became the church's Primary organization for children, she approached Snow, who went to the First Presidency with the idea. Once they had the approval of the First Presidency, the program moved forward.
"That's how women learned to help in building Zion," Holbrook said.
Those pioneer sensibilities continue to enhance and inspire the agency of contemporary LDS women, who have "endless choices," said Dr. Claudia Bushman, professor of American Studies at Columbia University.
"We choose from among different alternatives, and then we make choices within those alternatives," she said. "Some people consider Mormonism oppressive, but if it is oppressive, that's a choice we have made."
Even when confronted by church policies or practices with which they may disagree, Bushman said LDS women still have a choice.
"You pick and choose the things you are going to get worked up about," she said. "It's picking and choosing that is the answer to everything."
The conference was directed by Holbrook and author and professor Matt Bowman. Sponsors included several different programs at the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University and the LDS Church History Department.