It’s a phrase licked clean by many tongues: In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the men tend to be theologians while the women tend to be Christians.
The expression is unfair to both sexes, of course. Especially since, in the new book “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women” (The Church Historian's Press, $29.99) theology is often on the menu.
I bought a copy of the book a couple of weeks ago.
I bought another one yesterday.
That fact alone could serve as my review.
Usually when I read compilations like this one, I begin with two questions.
First, are the heavy-hitters represented?
In an anthology of American poetry, for example, that means Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and others.
All are present and accounted for here, with a couple of notable exceptions. And I’ll get to those in a moment.
The second question I ask myself is: Have the editors unearthed some exciting surprises?
The answer to that is yes as well.
But before leaping into the book itself, I need to confess a major bias.
I have always been biased in favor of talks delivered by LDS sisters. Their talks feel more wide-ranging and, at the same time, more intimate. Personality tends to shine through, as with the colored outfits worn by women in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Talks by LDS men can be bracing, touching and even passionate. But more than a few have a buttoned down feel, a hide-bound quality, as if the heft of the gospel’s keys, callings and forms of authority were on the speaker’s shoulders. I suppose they often are. That’s not to say remarks by the sisters are never earnest and powerful. I challenge anyone to read the veil-piercing prayer by 19th-century suffragette Elvira S. Barney without getting goose bumps. And Belle Spafford, the ninth general Relief Society president, could make the folks listening at home sit up and take notes.
But for the most part, the women in “At the Pulpit” appear more intent on connecting than instructing.
Readers will remember some of these talks because, well, they're very memorable. We get Sister Okazaki’s well-traveled “Baskets and Bottles” discourse from a 1996 LDS general conference. Sister Dew’s “Knowing Who You Are” from the 1996 BYU Women’s Conference finds a place here. Sister Okazaki, who passed away in 2011, served in the Relief Society general presidency from 1990 to 1997 and Sister Dew, now the CEO of Deseret Book, served in the Relief Society general presidency from 1997 to 2002.
And the clarion call of Mother Smith (she didn’t much care for that name) still echoes from her 1831 challenge to LDS emigrants.
As for the surprises I mentioned, if the talks of Ellenor G. Jones to the 11th Ward's Young Women Mutual Improvement Association and Sarah M. Kimball, an original member of the Relief Society, to the National Council of Women don’t hold your attention, you might have ADD.
And I was delighted to see a 2016 talk by Kenya's Gladys N. Sitati chosen to end the book. I met her when she and her husband, Elder Joseph W. Sitati, a General Authority Seventy, visited the Box Elder Utah Stake in Brigham City. Sister Sitati offered some soul-brimming remarks, then went out and helped the stake president’s wife feed her chickens.
And finally, it must be said that in these kind of anthologies, some people must be left on the sideline.
Personally, I would have liked to read something by the formidable 10th Relief Society general president, Sister Barbara B. Smith. She spoke often and well in general conference. As my cousin once said, “When Sister Smith steps to the pulpit, don’t expect sharing time.”
Also, I must note the absence of one of my models and mentors. In her writing, family life and many leadership roles, Sister Emma Lou Thayne — for me — embodied LDS sisterhood. Her thinking was cutting edge (read “The Place of Knowing”). Her influence was boundless, and her discipleship beamed like a watchfire. (Consider her hymn, “Where Can I Turn for Peace?”)
In closing (since we’re talking talks, I thought I’d slip that in), LDS speakers use the pulpit like a witness stand in court. There’s even a Bible at both. Mormons testify when at the pulpit. And the most invigorating testimonies often tell of the workings of God in our lives with a spirit and style both universal and peculiar to the Saints.
This new book from the Church Historian’s Press does just that.
I may buy a third copy.