The Gospel Doctrine lesson #28; Doctrine and Covenants 121:1–33; 122; “Within the Walls of Liberty Jail”; “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints”; “Waiting for the Word of the Lord”; and “Preparation of Joseph Smith: Strengthened by Trials.”
In October of 1838, Governor Boggs of Missouri signed Executive Order 44, also known as the extermination order. “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” This order legalized the terrorizing and murdering of Mormons in the state of Missouri (notably, the Order wasn’t rescinded until 1976).
Three days after the Order was signed, a Missouri militia raided the village of Haun’s Mill. Homes and businesses were destroyed, 17 people were killed and 13 injured. Some of the essays and articles provided in the Church manual detail the horrors of children being murdered and of people being shot en masse.
Does the report of 13 people injured in Haun’s Mill include the women who were raped? I suspect not. I suspect it focuses on flesh wounds. Sexual assault is a difficult thing to talk about and can be hard to prove. There has been speculation as to whether or not women were raped during the Missouri-Mormon war. The general conscience now amongst Church historians is, like so often in war, rape was used as a weapon against our early sisters.
It’s believed that Eliza R. Snow was raped sometime in 1838. Some historians have theorized the scope and violence of the attack left Eliza unable to have children, and speculate this is a contributing factor to her being a plural wife of Joseph Smith, and later Brigham Young. Hannah Kinney Johnstun’s great-great-grand nephew believe she was raped based on family stories, the wording of her patriarchal blessing and a census report. And then there are the the affidavits of Hyrum Smith, Parley P. Pratt and Brigham Young presented to the municipal court of Nauvoo in 1843 detailing the atrocities (the affidavits are explicit in detail and can be disturbing to read).
If we are going to provide statistics of atrocities done to the early saints, why is sexual assault not mentioned? Is it any less impacting or wounding than being shot in the arm? Is it just too horrific to talk about? Do we feel tarnished by this part of our history? Ashamed that it happened to our foremothers? Is it prudery?
What is silencing us from talking about sexual assault in our history?
I do not fault our foremothers for not voicing their sexual assaults. It is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about when you have resources and support, but these women were living in a time and community that did not talk of such things. We, however, as we tell the stories of our pioneer sisters, do know better.
How would our Mormon community change if we were more willing to learn about and give voice to the realities of these women’s stories? Would we be more compassionate toward and understanding of survivors of sexual assault today? Would we stop looking for ways to blame the victim?
I do want to note Church policy is very clear that sexual assault is the fault of the perpetrator, not the victim. “Victims of abuse should be assured that they are not to blame for the harmful behavior of others. They do not need to feel guilt. If they have been a victim of rape or other sexual abuse, whether they have been abused by an acquaintance, a stranger, or even a family member, victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin.”
Even with a clear policy, church culture, family dynamics and societal beliefs can lead survivors to blame themselves or believe that they are damaged and of little value – like a chewed up piece of gum.
Perhaps, if these stories were part of our known history, victims of sexual assault would feel less alone. They would have examples of resiliency and healing (hopefully).
Perhaps we would create a culture that supports victims and doesn’t tolerate abuse. And perhaps it wouldn’t have taken until October of 2016 for BYU to recognize that rape victims should not be held, in any way, accountable for the actions of their assailants. We cannot create that culture unless we are willing to talk about sexual assault.
Shame researcher, Brene Brown, says that shame needs three things to grow – judgement, silence and secrecy. As a survivor of sexual assault, I can tell you that the shame of being sexually assaulted was more damaging than the assault. It was shame that told me that I was damaged and worthless. It was shame that kept me silent. It is shame that keeps all of us silent. Shame is like the secret combinations that destroyed the Nephites and Jaredites. It methodically destroys self-worth and undermines the knowledge of our divinity.
The Lord doesn’t work in secret. In fact, He says in Alma, “I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations…” (Alma 37:25). Telling these stories and meeting them with compassion and empathy is doing the Lord’s work.
What does sexual assault have to do with Joseph in Liberty Jail? The words spoken by Joseph in his dark days of the soul are relatable to the feeling of being imprisoned by the shame of sexual assault.
“O God, where art thou?…let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us. Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs” (D&C 121:1-5).
The Lord’s response to Joseph is one of the most comforting found in scripture, and when read through the lens of sexual assault it is all the more profound.
“My [daughter], peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment…” (D&C 121:7).
“Behold, mine eyes see and know all their works, and I have in reserve a swift judgment in the season thereof, for them all…(v. 25).
“..If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren…If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters…and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb…if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee…” (D&C 122:5-7).
Does this not sound like the experience of many sexual assault victims? The validity of their claim challenged. Their character and behavior judged.
The Lord concludes, ”…know thou, my [daughter], that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way…fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever” (122:7-9).
The Lord reminds Joseph that Christ himself suffered greatly – more than any other. Even Christ himself from the cross called out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) I often think about the strengthening angel Luke describes in the Garden of Gethsemane with Christ. I have to believe that we are afforded the same. I have felt the presence of my ancestors as I’ve walked this mortal journey. I also know that when we suffer our Heavenly Parents and the Heavens weep.
I hope that we are brave enough to hear and share these stories of our foremothers. I hope that we are empathetic enough to hear the stories of sexual assault from the women in our lives. I hope that we are courageous enough to share, with trusted individuals, our stories of sexual assault. We can create a culture that supports victims of sexual assault one story at a time.
If you are a victim of sexual assault, know that you are not alone, and there are resources available to help you. The church does provide counseling services. I also recommend RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). And remember the atonement of Jesus Christ is real and can heal all things.
It’s On Us is a wonderful organization that advocates for victims sexual assault.
Mormon Women Project Interviews of Sexual Assault
Rescued from Exploitation, Stephanie M. Larsen
A Formula for Overcoming Abuse, HDH
The 3 Browns, Deondra, Desirae and Melody Brown
Knowing Her Worth, Elizabeth Smart
Accounting for the Debt: A Sexual Abuse Collection