The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
Cover image: Queen Esther via Wikimedia Commons.
Women’s role as witnesses in sharing the message of Jesus Christ begins anciently and continues into our day. Latter-day Saints believe truth is established by God through the Law of Witnesses, “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word shall be established.” The term has had a historic legal meaning as well as a more general meaning, “a witness can also be someone who gives such a statement or evidence based on personal knowledge; that is, someone who bears testimony.” The English word “witness” comes from the Old English witness meaning, “attestation of fact, event, etc. from personal knowledge.” Witness acts as a literal translation of the Greek word martureo, signifying “to testify.” And it’s worth pointing out that when the Greek or Hebrew verbs meaning “to witness” have been found in ancient sentences, women were the subjects of the sentences and were therefore the ones who were doing the witnessing.
Hannah acted as both a witness and an example of the way that women in ancient times were able to contribute to religion significantly. She mothered Samuel the prophet after intensely praying for the opportunity to be a mother. Within the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) account of her story, she has a distinct role in many respects. She named the child, acted as an instigator of a temple sacrifice, and witnessed a miracle of the Lord. Her example of devotion and motherhood sets her apart as a strong woman of faith—and one who depended wholly on the Lord.
It would be remiss to talk about witnesses in the Bible and not follow up the story of Hannah with the story of Mary, mother of God. In Mary’s story in the gospel of Luke, the author alludes directly back to the story of Hannah to show a connection between the two. Mary meets an angel who communicates what her role will be and also communicates the name of the child to her. The fact that Mary was the one to receive this message reflects how important Mary’s motherhood and discipleship were in God’s eyes. Mary’s role as a witness to Jesus’ life continues as Mary also witnesses the life of Jesus. When Jesus was twelve years old and had taught those at the temple, we read, “but his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Mary acts as a witness to His divinity even perhaps without fully comprehending what that will mean for Him in the later years of His life. As His mother, Mary observed Him from the moment He was born until He was on the cross, ultimately serving as an enduring witness to people ever since that He was who He said He was.
Another woman by the same name, Mary Magdalene, acted as a witness both to the life of Christ as she walked with Him, but most significantly as a witness to the Resurrection. We read, “Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” As the first person that the Lord revealed Himself to following His Resurrection, Mary Magdalene fills one of the most sacred roles anyone could have. She is then tasked with witnessing this to the disciplines—a pattern that occurs throughout the gospel, where women act as witnesses to relay messages to the disciples.
Women’s sacred role in witnessing miracles, testifying of truth and having an active role in temple rituals and ordinances began anciently with the covenant Eve makes with the Lord all the way up until modern times. When we consider the witnesses of women anciently, it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us to see that pattern in the modern reestablishment of the gospel of Christ.
The Witness of Pioneer Women
Mirroring ancient times, women acted as witnesses in the period where Latter-day Saints believe the ancient Church has been restored in our day. In her 2020 FAIRMormon Conference presentation, “Women in Global Church History,” historian Melissa Inouye introduced the “name five women in church history” quiz. She explained that a few years ago, her colleagues at the church history department made an informal survey to ask Sunday School attendees to name women in church history. Most, she explained, couldn’t even name five, and the ones they did know were Emma Smith, Eliza Snow, and “the woman with the milk strippings.” Inouye offered this quiz to her own family, with similar results.
The church has made serious efforts to rectify this problem. About 40 percent of the names mentioned in the first volume of Saints are women, a significant improvement over past church history volumes. Additionally, the Church History Department has an entire team of female historians who specialize in the history of Latter-day Saint women. The work of these historians includes The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History and At The Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. Last year, the Church Historian’s Press published The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow and The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells online. “Women of Conviction” is a section on the Church’s official website dedicated to Latter-day Saint women’s history.
These new efforts highlight women like Mary Isabella Horne, who was charged by Brigham Young to lead the women of the Church in an effort to simplify their meal preparation and sewing so that they could focus on spiritual development.” Horne served in leadership positions in her ward, stake, and the general Relief Society, a chair of the executive committee of the Deseret Hospital. She testified, “I first met the Prophet Joseph Smith,” writes Isabella, “in the fall of 1837, at my home in the town of Scarborough, Canada West. When I first shook hands with him I was thrilled through and through and I knew that he was a Prophet of God, and that testimony has never left me.”
We also learn of Emma Anderson Liljenquist, who was appointed by her bishop to leave her family in Cache County for six months to study obstetrics and nursing in Salt Lake City. She was set apart by apostles, and promised that if she lived right, she would “always know what to do in case of any difficulties.” During her lifetime, she delivered over 1,000 babies. In her autobiography, Emma testified of the help the Lord provided to her while she served as a midwife. “Many times when one of my patients [was] seriously ill, I have asked my Heavenly Father for assistance and in every case, it was given to me.” In one case, a mother suffered from a postpartum hemorrhage. As she asked the Lord to help them, “The hemorrhage ceased and I did the necessary things for her. When the doctor arrived he said he could hardly believe what had happened but said I had done exactly what he would have done.”
Consider the many Utah suffragists, who were the first women in the nation to legally vote in government elections. Non-Latter-day Saint legislators throughout the country supported female suffrage in the Utah territory, assuming that the women would surely vote against polygamy and end the practice. This was not the case. An article in the Evening Deseret News explained, “we have no doubt as to the result, and are satisfied that it will strengthen the cause of Zion, polygamy included. In all matters pertaining to church government the sisters have always had the same right to vote as the brethren; but in civil matters they, here as elsewhere, have had no say; but if this bill passes they will be their equals in that respect too.”
These women and others like them played a key role in establishing the Church of Jesus Christ in the modern era. As their stories are highlighted in lessons and homes, Latter-day Saints can be strengthened and encouraged in their own efforts to lift others around them.
The Witness of Contemporary Women
Women continue to serve as important witnesses and leaders in the Church today. President Michelle Craig, first counselor in the Young Women’s general presidency, recently discussed the role that she and the other members of her presidency have played in training church leadership around the world to minister more effectively during the pandemic. President Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, also serves as the director of Latter-day Saint Charities. As the humanitarian arm of the Church, this organization has provided extraordinary relief for those affected by the current pandemic, as well as by wars, natural disasters, and other tragedies around the world. These women, as well as those with whom they serve, are doing great good surely approved by God.
Of course, not all women who powerfully testify of the gospel are leaders in the Church. Many of them are in our wards, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our community organizations. The Mormon Women Project has been compiling inspiring interviews with faithful Latter-day Saint Women for over ten years. The inspired ministering program gives Latter-day Saints everywhere an opportunity and responsibility to get to know, befriend, and serve women in their own congregations. And the Latter-day Saint Women Podcast is another wonderful source of interviews and stories of women who are devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.
In 2019, the Church announced a historic policy change that allows women to serve as witnesses to ordinances; this aligns with the way women acted as witnesses in both ancient and pioneer times. While it is clear that Our Heavenly Parents have always trusted their daughters to play an important role in the work of salvation, it is also the case that too many women in the church sometimes feel undervalued. As President Russell Nelson has often done, it is incumbent upon us to emphasize in our lessons in church and in the home that women and girls are important, powerful daughters of the almighty God. We should neither forget nor de-emphasize the importance of including women’s voices, nor should we dismiss the witness of women when they testify of gendered roles, the complementarity of men and women in marriage, or the importance of motherhood in a gospel context.
Women’s roles in the church and historic practices such as polygamy might present some discomfort for girls and women who look for a place in the Church. One way to grapple with this discomfort is to read the testimonies and experiences of faithful women who practiced polygamy and also those who have successfully found comfort regarding women’s roles in the church. These faithful voices, women like Eliza R. Snow and Valerie Hudson, empower women to see that our role as witnesses to Jesus Christ has a meaningful place. The onus is on us as faithful women to seek out the voices of faithful women and to then share how we have learned from them and from our own experiences as well.
In Inouye’s talk, she concluded, “We must be accountable for the presence of women in the center of our bookshelves, lessons, and cultural references. Like learning a new language or culture, it will take time and effort; it will make us feel occasionally dumb and vulnerable. But now we have great historical resources and great direction from the leaders of the Church.”
As we seek out the voice of faithful women, we should always remember to seek out those who bring us closer to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Speakers, writers, and social media influencers should not become a replacement for scripture or the voices of inspired men and women God has called to teach and lead in the Church. We should be skeptical of those who would lead us away from our covenants or seek to minimize the commandments or standards set forth by the church. In the words of our prophet, “A woman’s richest rewards will come as she rises to fulfill her destiny as a devoted daughter of God. To all faithful Saints, He has promised thrones, kingdoms, principalities, glory, immortality, and eternal lives. That is the potential for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is exalting, everlasting, and divine.”