Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder. The Witness of Women. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016.
Thousands of stories in delicate pointillism convey the grand picture of the Restoration. Remove the women’s voices and experiences — remove half the dots — and the image loses half its color, half its clarity. Include them, and our vision of our history expands, our understanding of modern Mormon women sharpens, and we have new potential to understand the course of our people’s future.
A recent and welcome momentum in Mormon Women’s history continues with the publication of The Witness of Women, by Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder. Academic in methodology, the book is yet wonderfully accessible in presentation. Its introduction describes its audience as “Gospel Doctrine teachers, Young Men and Young Women teachers, religion professors, family history researchers, and church members in general.” Any of the above will find it a useful and approachable tool.
The Witness of Women is an unprecedented and long-overdue resource. It is not, as it states itself, a standard historical narrative. It is a collection of women’s experiences and testimonies from the early days of the Church, organized by topic for ease of use. (Yet when one reads cover to cover, the narrative becomes clear and Story is everywhere present.) The book includes eighteen topics, and many sub-topics, ranging from “Gifts of the Spirit” to “the Book of Mormon” to “Abrahamic Sacrifices.”
Our foremothers speak for themselves in this volume, with the authors providing minimal but helpful context by way of introduction to each excerpt. If I have one complaint about the book, it is that I yearned after reading each entry for more context. I wanted the hear more about Alice Merrill Horne, who served in the Utah Legislature and on the Relief Society board. I wanted to read Laura Farnsworth Owen’s “Defense Against the Various Charges that Have Gone Abroad.” I wanted to hear the rest of the story, when it was mentioned that Elizabeth Ann Whitney journeyed to the “Great West” of Ohio with “an adventurous spinster.” Of course none of these footnotes could feasibly fall within the scope of this volume, and their absence is in the end not a shortcoming of the book. On the contrary, it urges the reader onward to more exploration of the lives and words of these women.
This book is crowded with joy (Zina Diantha Huntington Young: “I pressed [the Book of Mormon] to my bosom in a rapture of delight, murmuring as I did so, ‘This is the truth, truth truth!’”), with yearning (Emma Smith: “I desire a fruitful, active mind”), with grief (Amanda Barnes Smith: “Yet was I there, all that long, dreadful night, with my dead and my wounded, and none but God as our physician and help”), with testimony (Elizabeth Jones Lewis: “I testify today more strongly than ever before that this is the true gospel of Jesus Christ in its power”), with wisdom (Mary Jane Crosby: “There is no end to the intelligence that might be gained by study, by reading, and by reflecting”), with agony (Emmeline B. Wells: “Oh I wish life were a dream, a vain delusive dream, but no, O no, it is an awful reality”), with hope (Temperance Bond Mack: “We have been sifted, and if we should be faithful, what remains will be so much better”), with exhortation (Mary Tyndale Baxter Ferguson: “Sisters, do we understand the honor and privileges that are bestowed upon us through the Holy Spirit and everlasting priesthood of God?”), and with instruction (Susa Young Gates: “A new angle on an old truth, a fresh facet turned on an understood fact, makes for intellectual elasticity”). Its hundreds of entries, from church leaders and from women whose names we may never have heard, illuminate the Restoration even as they cast light on our present condition as a church and as individuals. Modern women and men may seek guidance in our private lives as we navigate parenthood, education, work, and church membership, from these women who have gone before. Modern church members can establish ourselves more firmly in the truth, learn the realities of discipleship, and above all be filled with gratitude for the women who laid our foundation, co-laborers in the great work of Restoration which continues to unfold in our day.
We encourage and entreat every teacher and missionary and member to search the words of women. They are more than just half of our story — they are infinite in value.