From prayer to baptism to marriage, revelation played a key role in the development of Mormon women during their journey west to Utah, or the new Zion. Mormon women relied on the persuasive and undeniable powers of personal revelation to make multiple decision of eternal consequence, and often these women found themselves in opposition to those around them.
Eliza Roxcy Snow
Plural wife of Joseph Smith
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Cultivating a tradition of personal revelation, one of the first pieces of Mormon folklore described the remarkable visions of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the church. His testimony of his conversion was printed in his history and retold often and provided the basic text that demonstrated the steps one might take in order to decide to be a member of the church. In History of the Church, Volume I the story of Smith's confusion over finding the "true" church and his prayerful questioning to God demonstrate the possibilities of personal revelation in one's life:
|I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father's family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith […] During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness […] While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
… So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt […] I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me […] When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air.
This "first vision" presented the basic template for future converts to the new, "true," church - discovered by Joseph Smith through this and subsequent visions. These basic elements include personal turmoil over finding the truth and a sincere desire to discover it, prayerful search of and faith in the scriptures, and some extraordinary vision or feeling (or the confirmation of one's decision by the Spirit).
Women did not find themselves exempt from such extraordinary circumstances. Eliza R. Snow, plural wife of Joseph Smith and, later, Brigham Young, wrote of her decision to join the church:
|In the autumn of 1839 I heard of Joseph Smith as a Prophet to whom the Lord was speaking from the heavens; and that a sacred Record containing history of the origin of the aborigines of America, was unearthed. A Prophet of God - the voice of God revealing to man as in former dispensations, was what my soul had hungered for - but could it possibly be true …
The spirit bore witness to me of the truth. I felt that I had waited already a little too long to see whether the work was going to 'flash in the pan' and go out. But my heart was now fixed; and I was baptized on the 5th of April, 1835. From that day to this I have not doubted the truth of the work.
Zina Diantha Huntington Young also bore testimony of the extraordinary events leading to her baptism:
|… I had presented to me [a] heavenly vision of a man going down into the water and baptizing someone. So when this message came I felt that it was a testimony that the time had come for me to receive baptism. Brother Hyrum Smith was mouth in prayer, and in my secret soul I had a wish that he should baptize me […] Accordingly we all went down and were baptized by Hyrum Smith.
However, whether or not to be baptized would not be the only challenge Mormon women faced in the early days of the church, and manifestations of the spirit changed as the trek out West grew longer. In an effort to find strength while confronting adversity, Mormon women relied on the "gift of tongues," or inspired religious dialogue spoken in another language other than English and then interpreted. Although Smith discouraged the use of the gift of tongues in 1839, the practice continued to flourish among women, reaffirming their faith as they encountered obstacles such as polygamy. Eliza R. Snow's trail diary is littered with references to speaking in tongues such as, "I spoke & she interpreted," "Moth. Cutler receiv'd the gift of tongues," etc. (Snow 176-177).
Speaking in tongues was as much a communal event as it was a personal one. The gift often required two people - one to speak and one to interpret. Often, Mormon women would gather together in Blessing Meetings to receive and communicate spiritual revelation and interpret its meaning. Men also appeared at these meetings, and the two sexes shared in their joy of divine prophecy together. Zina Diantha Huntington Young wrote of one such occasion:
|I commenced singing in tongs […] and as I arose the speret [sic] said go and bless Clarry Decker or young. I done as the impression bid. After I had blest her I blest Lucy B[igelow] and elizabeth and Sall (the Lamanite that Charles Decker brought) was setting by. I lade my hands upon her hed [sic] and my language changed in a moment and when I had finished she said she said she understood every word. I had talked in her mother tongue. The speret bore testimony but there was positive proof that could no be denied. I told her that her mother and sisters ware [sic] coming, and She must be a good girl. It was to her understanding it was a great cross but the Lord crowned it with joy for which I feel to praise his name.
Revelations through tongues also reaffirmed the goals of the Latter-day Saint women. Often the interpretation would mention the Lord's will or other such phrases that would remind members of the church of their divine foundation. One interpretation, provided by Zina Presendia Huntington, stated:
|The angels are watching over us. Some of you think you are exiled from the Church, not so. You are a part of the church. Many of your sons here will fill missions in this land for there are many in this land yearning for the Gospel & yet this nation will seek for wisdom. The Lord is watching over us.
As these sisters in the Mormon community relied on each other for support, revelation, and interpretation, one member, Emma Smith, first wife of the prophet Joseph, received direct revelation from God through her husband that was later canonized in Doctrine and Covenants, a sacred text that follows the trek across the continent and the re-establishment of the "true" church on earth:
|Hearken unto the voice of the Lord your God, while I speak unto you, Emma Smith […] thou art an elect lady whom I have called.
[…] And the office of thy calling shall be for a comfort unto my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., thy husband, in his afflictions, with consoling words, in the spirit of meekness.
[…] And thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound the scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.
(Doctrine and Covenants 25:1-7)
Not every woman received revelation canonized in sacred texts. Many had to bear their burdens on their own, especially at the onset of polygamy or the loss of a child during their travels. Although the women supported each other in their endeavors, personal revelation became an even greater factor in their times of need. Eliza R. Snow wrote after learning of the new institution of polygamy:
|In Nauvoo I first understood that the practice of plurality [of wives] was to be introduced into the church. The subject was very repugnant to my feelings - so directly was it in opposition to my educated prepossessions, that it seemed as though all the prejudices of my ancestors for generations past congregated around me. But when I reflected that I was living in the Dispensation of the fullness of times, embracing all other Dispensations, surely Plural Marriage must necessarily be included, and I consoled myself with the idea that it was far in the distance, and beyond the period of my mortal existence. It was not long, however, after I received the first intimation, before the announcement reached me that the "set time" had come - that God had commanded his servants to establish the order, by taking additional wives - I knew that God, who had kept silence for centuries, was speaking - I had covenanted in the waters of baptism to live by every word He should communicate, and my heart was firmly set to do His bidding. As I increased in knowledge concerning the principle and design of Plural Marriage, I grew in love with it, and today esteem it a precious, sacred principle - necessary in the elevation and salvation of the human family - in redeeming woman from the curse, and world from corruptions.
Whether personal or communal, revelation helped to shape the lives of Latter-day Saint women. Their tightly knit community, combined with their sense of spiritual mission, aided in the experience of the extraordinary events of which the journals, letters, and poetry of these women testify. Revelation allowed these women to endure the hardships of their travels, the challenges of baptism into the new church and polygamy, but it was not the only gift in which women found solace. The manifestation of their sisterhood in the organization of the Relief Society and the gift of healing also became sources of strength for this unique group of women in the American framework.