I bought the first volume of Girls Who Choose God soon after it was published in 2014 to read with my daughters. At that point in my little mecca of motherhood, my children were ages 5 to 9 and they would snuggle on the couch with me every night for a story. That first book told of courageous women from biblical times. We loved the artwork and the succinct capture of each woman’s divine actions and attributes.
One year later, authors McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding published a second volume about the strength of women in the Book of Mormon. It told the lesser known stories of unnamed women like Nephi’s wife and the daughters of Zeniff.
Last Autumn, Krishna and Spalding published a third volume about extraordinary women in church history, and I have to tell you, this one is my favorite. After reading the first two books, I hoped they would write a book about latter-day women who were influential in establishing the restored gospel. I served my mission in Nauvoo, and after reading and talking about some of these women day after day, they began to feel like my friends.
The book highlights some of my most beloved sisters and includes a few with whom I am less familiar. When I cracked it open I was hunting first for Eliza and Emma (check), then for Jane (glory be – she was there – right smack in the middle of the book), followed by the Rollins sisters (Mary Elizabeth and Caroline – check), Lucy Mack, Bathsheba, and Mattie (check). The authors gave each woman a unique title to sum up the way she accomplished God’s will. Here are a few examples:
Lucy Mack Smith – Mother Moses. Remember when she Saints were traveling by boat in the frigid winter from Fayette to Kirtland? Their boat was frozen in the Buffalo Harbor and Lucy called on the Saints to exercise their faith and pray that the ice would be broken up. “And just as she spoke there was a thunderous crack! The ice miraculously parted and let only the boat Lucy was leading pass through before freezing again.”
Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins – The Revelation Rescuers. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner wrote one of the most gripping pioneer journals I have ever read. As a missionary in Nauvoo, we could check out any journal from the Lands and Records office. I even made copies for my own collection. Mary had a way of making you present in her life story. I thrilled at her courage as she and Caroline saw the printing press being destroyed in Independence, and ran to gather up pages of revelations we now have in the Doctrine and Covenants. “The sisters chose to be daring. They ran toward the printing shop, picked up as many pages as they could, and raced to a nearby cornfield to hide… The mob came within a few feet of where the girls were lying. Desperately, the sisters kept praying — and God protected them. The sisters were not found.”
Eliza R. Snow – Zion’s Poetess. That title could not be more apt and it was Joseph who gave it to her. I read much of Eliza’s poetry when I was younger, her history, and her records from the early days of Relief Society and the church. I was so taken with her ability to wordsmith phrases and teach truth that I decided I would name my first daughter Eliza. And I did. Eliza Roxcy strikes me as one of the wisest women our world has known. Occasionally friends would ask her to write them a poem, and on more occasions, without request, she would write poems as gifts for friends or acquaintances who were suffering arduous trials or loss. Eliza wrote these tender lines for a family who buried three children along the trail to the Salt Lake Valley.
Mourn not for them, their bodies rest
So sweetly in the ground —
And they’ll awake to life again
At the first trumpet’s sound.
Mourn not for them: they laid aside
Their dignity to come
And visit you & stay on earth
Until they were call’d home.
(Eliza R. Snow, Trail Diary, 152)
Krishna and Spalding tap into Eliza’s personal sacrifice as they explain her choice to join the church and put God first, rather than pursuing worldly fame and success with her writing: “Eliza chose to devote her poetry to inspiring the Saints. With the stroke of her pen, she taught many heavenly truths to the people of Kirtland and Nauvoo. Eliza also became the teacher to Joseph and Emma’s family. In her lifetime, Eliza wrote over five hundred poems.”
Jane Manning James – The Unstoppable Pioneer. Unstoppable indeed. Beautiful, devoted Jane. I came to revere her in deep ways while serving in Nauvoo. Often, after the visitors’ center closed for the evening, we sister missionaries would walk the streets of Old Nauvoo and tell each other the stories we had learned or read in journals that week. We talked a lot about Jane. We could not fathom that she walked barefoot for so long, her feet cracked and bleeding as she covered more than 800 miles, leading family and friends to join with the Saints. They were forced to walk because a boat captain stole her money and refused her passage.
She lived with Emma and Joseph up until the martyrdom in 1844, then made the trek west. While living in Salt Lake City, she petitioned every prophet, from Brigham on, for the opportunity to enter God’s holy temple. A temple she had helped to build. She asked every prophet until her death, “Is it time?” And eventually she passed into the next life never having received her endowment. That question makes me ache from my head to my feet. Susan Easton Black happened to be doing research in Nauvoo during the time I served there and gave some lectures on the prophet Joseph Smith. She spoke about Jane quite often. She had such respect and adoration for Jane. So I thought it absolutely appropriate when she told us that in 1979, she performed Jane’s proxy temple work. Jane’s commitment to the restored gospel was fierce. She was the first documented African-American woman to come to the Utah territory as a pioneer. Too often she was persecuted and treated poorly, but despite many hardships, she never gave up. She is a woman I hope to thank someday for her relentless example of discipleship. The authors wrote, “Jane had a choice to make. She could stop in Nauvoo, or she could never give up following her faith… She walked another thousand miles to Utah.”
The stories in this book are just a jumping off point for learning more about these women – more about how they lived, what they accomplished, and how faith guided their choices. Just yesterday, I noticed a novel in the King’s English Bookshop that tells the story of Martha Hughes Cannon. This book is timely as we will finally see Martha’s statue make its journey to our nation’s capitol in August, celebrating Mattie as the first female senator in Utah, as well as her tireless efforts to make Utah the first state to allow women to vote.
The Better Days 2020 movement is doing a fabulous job educating our community about the historical and current role of women in Utah. All those years ago, while organizing the Relief Society, Joseph said, “This is the beginning of better days for women.” He was absolutely right. The restoration of Christ’s gospel ushered in better days for women, a rectification that is still ongoing for women’s opportunities, status, and contributions.
Neylan McBaine wrote, “These women have not had enough attention in our official histories.” I agree. It is time we shared and shouted their stories from the rooftops.
If you haven’t purchased a copy yet of this volume of Girls Who Choose God, do it now. Give it to your granddaughters, daughters, nieces. Give it to your ministering sisters, or friends. Kathleen Peterson’s artwork is lovely and researched. She has incorporated meaningful details and motifs that represent each woman included. This book is a powerful way to share these stories with a new generation. These were extraordinary women, with brilliant minds, brave spirits, well-spoken and deliberate messages, who lived lives of discipleship in a variety of ways. Theirs is a story of strength and purpose that continues to be told by women all over the globe. Female pioneers thrive in every nation, making sacrifices for a Savior and God in whom they consistently trust.