At the Pulpit: 185 years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook is a feast. It is good from beginning to end. Every bite is unique and something to savor.
In introducing At the Pulpit (the latest book from The Church Historian’s Press), editor Kate Holbrook tells former Young Women General President Elaine Cannon’s story of ingenuity and determination in Church service:
Sister Cannon said, “I am willing to go to the Lord and say, ‘Okay, I really care about this. If it’s something you’re interested in, then help me. Together we can go and do whatever we need to do.” When leading the Young Women she would tell the general board members, “If we can’t get to it this way, then we’ll just go like this to get there, around whomever or whatever obstacles.” She insisted the key to knowing when to persevere was to be alert to God’s will: “You have to be sure what you’re trying to do is also God’s will.”
We have Elaine Cannon to thank for the New Era magazine. Sister Cannon was committed to having a magazine for teenage members of the church. Her initial efforts to accomplish this were thwarted. She asked Elder Marion D. Hanks (with whom she had worked on other materials for youth) to arrange an appointment with Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the quorum of the Twelve.
Kate Holbrook continues:
She fasted and prayed, went to the meeting with Elder Kimball and pitched her idea. He whirled his chair around, pounded his fist on his desk and said, “Let’s do it, and I will be the 1st subscriber.”
This attitude of women’s determined will – hand in hand with Divine guidance – shimmers in every section of this brilliant and expansive book. Not only are the 54 discourses included in At the Pulpit insightful and invigorating, the prefaces to each woman’s contribution are gems as well. Each gives historical context, personal details about the highlighted speaker and an articulate and accessible framework for appreciating the talk, recorded minutes and – in one case – an inspired recipe for an herbal poultice which came as an answer to Phoebe M. Angell’s prayer in the 1850’s.
The preface on p. 28 reads:
In 1852, Angell was president of the Female Council of Health; Patty Sessions and Susannah Liptrot Richards were her counselors. They met weekly and presented lectures or shared personal experiences and recipes for natural prescriptions. At times, they also spoke in tongues and performed blessings, a common practice among nineteenth-century Latter-day women.
Sister Angell, whose private life was difficult, nonetheless devoted her life to service and the welfare of others. She served as the midwife for Mary Fielding Smith, even delivering Joseph F. Smith while his father Hiram Smith was in the Liberty Jail.
The process of creating the book was exhaustive – and no doubt exhausting at times for the corps of historians, researchers, and interns tasked with collecting every talk by or attributed to a woman since the beginning of the Church. In sifting through the vast results, the editors focused on two primary attributes to determine which talks would be included. These were 1) was there theological heft in it? and 2) did the story make the reader want to share it with others? The final selections are varied, fresh, unique and empowering.
Another bonus of this book is that it is definitely NOT a niche publication directed primarily for women. Like other publications of The Church Historian’s Press – including the Joseph Smith Papers – these texts contribute to the Gospel literacy of both men and women.
Just as Emma Smith was commanded by the Lord to “exhort the church” (D&C 25:7) (not simply to exhort the women or children of the Church), women have been called since the beginning of the Restoration to preach the Gospel. As Kate Holbrook reminds us, “This isn’t the women’s Gospel. This is THE Gospel.” While sisters in the Church may feel especially buoyed by the commitment and heritage the contributors represent, all members will benefit from reading these discourses, quoting from them in talks and lessons and generally enlarging our institutional rhetoric.
For everyone who contributed to this feast of a book – from the women whose stories were extracted from dusty archives, to the women who tell their stories in its pages, to the hard workers who did the research, editing, indexing and proof-reading, to the women and men who championed this project – may God bless you!
Get this book. Pore over it. You will learn lessons about responsibility and action, conflict resolution, prayer, Christ-like love, determination, sacrifice, creativity linked with faith, seeking God’s help and finding joy in ambiguity.
(And you just may cure your ague, too!)