The Armies of Shelamen: Traces of Women in the Book of Mormon

A few years ago when I was an advisor in the Young Women’s, I tried whenever possible to include stories by and about women. In my search to uncover the hidden women in the scriptures, I came across Marjorie Meads Spencer’s “My Book of Mormon Sisters”[1] and was impressed at her comprehensive teasing out of the women—both named an unnamed—in the Book of Mormon. Yet, I felt the need to look beyond established lists and re-imagine our familiar stories populated with the women and girls we know are there. Why is this necessary? As Neylan McBaine, author of Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact explains,

We are currently in the process of digging ourselves out of a deep hole in the sheer volume of role models women today have to look to. Why are role models important? Because they act as a blue print upon which we can pattern our choices and life paths. As Marie Wilson of the White House Project said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”[2]

With this idea of re-imaging or recreating narratives that include women, it brought to mind a literary theory application from my university days. It has been a very long time since I studied Jacques Derrida, much less applied his method to any text, but there has been a particular concept of his that has always stuck with me. Derrida’s “presence absence” theory[3]—the idea that you cannot have a story about, say, men (presence) without evoking meaning through the absence of women. In a simplified manner, men bear the traces of women, as do women of men, as a sign of their absence. So in the case of the Book of Mormon, we can find women present in absence. Continue reading

Our Cumorah Connections

A recent article on lds.org, Reclaiming Hill Cumorah1, prompted me to share some interesting Hill Cumorah stories of our own. My grandmother Dorothy Smith Clark’s book of remembrance and collection of letters reveal her deep connections to Hill Cumorah’s beginnings, both through her mentor Torleif Knaphus and her parents Hyrum and June Bushman Smith, who were missionaries at the Cumorah Farm from 1935 to 1939.

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The Things We Keep

With a toss of her hair, my daughter disappeared down a narrow tunnel called Junior High. I peer at her in there, stubborn and beautiful, through an entrance too small for my maternal and clumsy reach. So, in a surge of both yearning and domestic sanitation I decided to clean her room. It was Saturday and she was away at an all-day rehearsal. I had time.

When you clean a teenager’s room, you are compelled to overturn the rock of their hidden world and see, half-frightened, what wriggles beneath. Pull back the bed and you will find secrets: candy wrappers, forgotten notes and all the dusty things she aches to tell you but never will. Empty the closet and the smell will wrap you in melancholy. Bring everything out from its hiding place you will mark the chaotic battle between girl and woman, strewn in a sea of nail polish, socks, and teddy bears.

After a few hours I found myself surrounded by piles. Some were easy to define. Garbage. Laundry. Hair things. Pencils. Other piles were more elusive as I struggled to attach meaning to the growing piles of Things We Keep: the regrettable souvenirs, the trophies everyone gets, and the swollen, tumbling mass of church paraphernalia. It was the last pile that troubled me the most. What would I do with the trinkets, handouts, crafts, bookmarks, framed pictures, quotes, stories, empty journals (at least eight), and other minutia she had accumulated over her short 13 years of church attendance. They were thoughtfully given and kindly received, but what did they mean?

Take girls camp. She returned with a camp shirt, matching bandana, cowboy hat, stick horse, modge podge temple scene, secret sister gifts, a miniature lantern, a foam noodle flotation device and bags of candy. She had the snipe hunt. She had The Testimony Meeting Where Everyone Cries. She had a blast. Months later I sit surrounded by the material reminders of her experience and wonder if her spiritual self is suffocating under the weight of material things. And by extension, are leaders so burdened with the expectations of providing stuff  that we laden our youth—especially our young women—with too many things, often at the expense of more meaningful experiences?

 Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your alabor for that which cannot bsatisfy…- 2 Nephi 9:51

While gifts and impactful conversion are not mutually exclusive, the evidence around me revealed a dependence on gospel paraphernalia, as if growth were impossible material reward. As I recalled my own experiences as a vulnerable youth, I craved the time, respect, and attention of my leaders. I appreciated those few who got to know me personally, and showed a genuine concern for my spiritual welfare.

Now, as one who teaches youth I understand the fear of going in bare, without material support to shore up a lesson. Sometimes, gifts of treats and trinkets reflect our my own efforts to “make up the difference”. Our mind wanders from our lesson prep and searches for that one gift that will gild the lily or that clever quote that will impress. As we ask, “Is it enough?”, do we resist the urge to plug the hole of our own spiritual inadequacy with a scrolled quote and a bow? We have been reminded,

“… my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;
-Ether 12:26

When we utilize the gift of grace we are promised ensure our teaching is sufficient in the Lord’s eyes. It is enough. And yet, not every gift is a crutch. Often material gifts, treats, and incentives open the door for more spiritual gifts that may not otherwise be attainable for some. My mother has taught me that the visiting teaching message goes down much better with banana bread. Receiving the medallion in the Young Women’s Personal Progress has become a unifying symbol among women in the church. And often through the benign process of crafting or creating, doors of fellowship are opened.

Because of the subjective nature of such gifts, gospel “extras” should be a matter prayerful discretion and not fodder for the classroom arms race. With four daughters and 24 cumulative years of Young Women’s ahead of them, I look at the perils (and piles) ahead and hope that we can love them more and give them less. When Christ walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they were left with no gift but a burning heart:

And they said one to another, Did not our aheart bburn within us, while he ctalked with us by the way… – Luke 24: 32 

The courage to rely on respectful, thoughtful discussion and most importantly, the Spirit will perpetuate a pattern of learning that can be mirrored in the real world. Especially in light of the missionary age change, this generation of girls should be taught the gospel unfettered so that they are armed with the full force of gospel knowledge and power. I don’t know how the gospel message for young women became so entrenched in the cutesified world of Pinterest-inspired crafts, themes, and decor, where gospel truths are reduced to the obligatory bite-size treat, but scaling back even a little and dedicating that time instead to personal attention would yield spiritual dividends. With the new Young Women’s curriculum goals stated as conversion to the gospel, such attention to the personal, spiritual needs of each young woman is essential.

Imagine Christ, instead of walking and talking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, giving instead that same message as a handout (scrolled, of course), themed shirt (or robe?), and treat (honeycomb?) and sending them on their way. Would it have the same spiritual impact? While some may miss the superfluous, I would trade it all for my daughter to settle in for her Sunday afternoon nap feeling the love of the Lord and her leaders and think, “Did not my heart burn within me?”

di1A few weeks ago I happened to be at D.I.* looking for a used photo frame. What I saw among the stacks of used and broken pictures was a large scale version of the pile in my daughter’s room. Framed images of Christ, portraits of the prophets, discarded copies Proclamation to the World: The Family with pressed flowers still intact, framed temples, various gospel art, and quotes from church leaders and scriptures. These sad, discarded images embodied an opportunity lost to choose grace over gifts, and the need to wean ourselves from this clutter and reach for the elusive courage to embrace the gospel it unfettered by an excess of adornments.

di2 In the end, she kept a few things from the church pile, but not many. A drawing of the empty tomb. A photo of the temple. A tile with quote on faith placed among the jewelry boxes and jars. After a day of sifting through her elusive world my tenderness for her swelled, as did my hope for her honorable return from the teen tunnel. That would be gift enough.

*Deseret Industries is a thrift store operated by the LDS Church.

General Laborer

“How the Lord loves the laborer” -Dieter F. Uchdorf

I have looked at enough census records to know that the center column—the occupation—is where much of the lives of my ancestors are revealed. While many researches take pride in a discovery of distinction—a gentleman perhaps, or a minister, doctor, or politician—I have yet to strike gold in a vein of worldly merit. Rather, as I have turned back to my fathers  and mothers, I have found them laboring in the trades of the lower class as fisherman, farm laborers, gardeners, maids, and most frequently, general laborers. It is this last title of general laborer that has caused me to reflect on the merits given to the poor, unskilled, and weary. I picture the enumerator, peering up from his broad census sheet, quill poised. Occupation? Laborer. Any trade or skill? No, he says, eyes down. General Laborer, then.

laborerWhat more do we know of some of our laborers? My fifth great grandfather, a farm laborer in Essex, died of “sloughing of the foot”, leaving behind ten children. My husband’s family worked in the damp fields of Northern England. Such laborers did not receive payment for their work until after their term of hire was completed. Poor and hungry, they ate raw turnips in the fields to stave their hunger.

Our laborers were not always virtuous. My third great aunt Ellen Chamberlain was brought to trial for stealing two loaves of bread. Trial notes reveal when confronted, “she then took the loaf from under her shawl and said “This is the loaf—pray, sir, forgive me.”  For this she was given two months hard labor, a sentence of apparent leniency. My fifth great grandfather Ben Chamberlain was relieved from his apprenticeship in 1785 due to “disorderly behaviour and frequent absences”. Rumors abounded of drinking and ill tempers, an apparent occupational hazard of our ship laborers.

labourernew1Then there were the deaths, inexplicable and beyond comprehension. My sixth great uncle was a farm laborer and father of eleven children; all of his children died in childhood save two. When my third great aunt was pregnant with their first child, her husband Edward Austin worked as a laborer in a neighboring town. While he was digging a ditch when a man nearby leaned his rifle against a tree. The rifle fell, fired, mortally wounding the young father-to-be. Most of our fathers were taken young. Looking back six generations down to my grandfather, all passed in their 30’s or 40’s with the exception of two.

And the women? What is not written can only be imagined. They suffered ill-timed relationships and abandonment, and worked as maids, nurses, and farm laborers at tender ages. Many did not rest in their old age, working as cleaning women or doing laundry.

When our Chamberlain family reached New York City in 1888, there could not have been a more obscure family with more dubious health and almost no wealth. When they arrived in Salt Lake City a few weeks later, they were taken to the Tithing Yard for needed food and supplies. It was there on a bale of hay that their infant son Robert died, a pained and mournful offering in the midst of others sacrifice. A few months later, his mother Ellen Gardner Chamberlain died from tuberculosis.

When I think of who have labored before me, I wonder, was there room for joy amidst the sodden fields and leaky roofs? Could they look up from the plough and see the mist rising, the birds gathering, and have hope? Were there glimpses of peace amidst the pain of loss? Between mending nets and cleaning fish did they look up at the same stars and feel the eyes of God?

 Therefore, athrust in your sickle with all your soul, and your sins are bforgiven you, and you shall be laden with csheaves upon your back, for the dlaborer is worthy of his hire. Wherefore, your family shall live. -D7C 31: 5 

aac_1943Their grandson—my grandfather—was also laborer. His forearms—as wide as melons and too large for sleeves—have found a place in me. My own body and soul bears the traces and echoes of the laborer. My legs, disappointingly large yet strong as rocks, have carried my children up mountains and pushed me down miles of roads. I have inherited a strength that has given me a willingness to jump and climb and shovel and lift.

While my stomach has never soured from raw turnips, or my coat hidden bread, my blood carries the virtues and flaws of the laborer. My face reveals the crease of worry, my clothes show stains of earthly chores, my skin maps the scars of adventure and my soul the ache of every weakness. It is with the same exhaustion I fall to bed, giving prayers as apologies of exhaustion on my back because life is, well, hard. So hard that one night I reached out to my Father in Heaven in frustration, seeking relief  from trial’s long shadow. Then, with a voice more of compassion than admonition, this scripture came to my mind:

 For behold, this alife is the time for men to bprepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of cthis life is the day for men to perform  their dlabors.

Performing your labors is preparing to meet God—especially difficult, refining labors which deepen our natures toward the divine. These terms are  couched in a deep compassion by One who is pained by my pain and grieved by my grief. The Lord of the vineyard aches for his laborers as they bend in the field in trial, in callings, and in every earthy adventure that tests us.

I’ll go where you want me to go.

lac_c1944webAnd because we are laborers and not artisans, we have no claim on an occupation, but are rather called and refined in broad fields, taught, refined, and humbled many times over in a continuing cycle of mortal education. Like the laborer who  may dig trenches, haul hay, or perhaps for a season lay bricks, we may labor for a time. As the building rises, her skill is refined with the mortar and brick, and she begins to see beauty in her work and love for her fellow workers. But she is a laborer, and before long will be called to another job, sowing seeds in the fields or pulling fish from the boats, hoping someday to glimpse the walls she built as part of a gleaming building.

When I die, don’t list my callings; just write General Laborer under my name, this title that I so tenderly share with those before me. To achieve such a distinction as this would be to have prepared myself in all things, not only to meet those who have gone before me and said, “I have done as you have done,” but also to say to God, “I have tried it all, I have finished my course.”

D&C 75:3 Behold, I say unto you that it is my will that you should go forth and not tarry, neither be aidle but blabor with your might—