I understand that I was given this slot so that those who slept in or had to come late to the conference wouldn’t be missing out on anything. So to reward all of you for being here with your smiling faces this morning, I thought I’d start with what I hope will be ten of the best minutes that you’ll have here today, and luckily for you and for me that doesn’t involve me speaking to you. I’m going to go ahead and start with a short video that I think will set the tone for the rest of my remarks.
I’m Matt McBride. I’m going to be talking today about women of the global Church, and who better really to talk on this topic than a white man from Salt Lake City. Now, the irony is not lost on me. That’s why I felt like it would be important. You may have wondered why I would start with this somewhat long video presentation. I felt it was important to start off this morning by letting Julia and her family speak to you first.
I’ve had the privilege of working on a couple of projects for the Church History department over the past few years that have opened my eyes and my ears to the voices and the stories of women in the global Church, Latter-day Saint women from various parts of the world. I obviously can’t speak for Julia and I can’t speak for these other women, but what I can do is tell you how these women have spoken to me, and what they’ve taught me about the world that I live in, about the Church, about the work that I do, and about myself and my family. So I’d like to begin by introducing you briefly to these projects that I’ve had the blessing to work on and share some of the stories that our team has tried to tell. And then along the way, point out some of the lessons that I’ve learned, the things that I’ve learned as I’ve listened to the voices of Mormon women from Africa, from Europe, from Asia, and the Pacific, and from Latin America. So first off, I want to call your attention to our little corner of the big sprawling jungle that is lds.org and that is history.lds.org and it’s on history.lds.org that you can find all of the stories that I’ll share with you today. Some of them are written up in stories; some of them are videos that have been produced. There’s one video series in particular that we’re very proud of, and it’s called Pioneers in Every Land. You can see some of the stories represented here and that is the series in which the story of Julia Mavimbella is told. I would just say that these videos make a great starting point for a family home evening or for a lesson. I think they have some important uses.
The second project that I’d call your attention to is the more recent project that we’ve begun to create global histories. These are short, about eight page histories of the Church in over 100 countries or regions of the world and they are also available on history.lds.org. They have statistical overviews and chronologies, but the heart of each one really is a series of short stories about individuals, members of the Church, both men and women who are local to that area and who have made a difference in the presence of the Church there. These stories are also available in the Gospel Library App. And I’ll just take a minute here to introduce the Church History Section of the Gospel Library App, where you’ll find a lot of the publications that you’re going to hear about, not only from me, but I think from a couple of the other presenters today. If you scroll down past the scriptures and the manuals and toward the bottom of the Gospel Library App, you’ll see a Church history section. And then it pulls up a screen that looks somewhat like this. And you can see in the top left there, Saints Volume One, which you’ll hear about more; you can see At the Pulpit and the Gospel Topics Essays and a whole variety of different resources relating to the history of the Church that our department has helped to prepare and publish. And then you can see there the global histories that I’m referring to.
And when you click on that, you see a list of those histories and then [are] able to read the stories. And I’ll hasten to point out for those of you [I can see a few of you that are all looking at the app already], not all of these histories are published yet. So we’ve just begun this effort and the first few have [been] published over the past few weeks and more will be added every week and every month for the next little while. These are a great resource for someone who’s called on a mission to a country, to give them an opportunity to get to know the culture and the people in the Church that they’ll be serving. And they have a variety of other uses as well.
So with that introduction to these projects, that’s hopefully explained why I’m here and why we started with the video, and what this is all about. I’m going to go ahead and talk you through a few of the stories that have made an impact on me, and there are a lot of women’s stories in those global histories and in the series of videos. I can only highlight a few of them today, but I’d encourage you to read others.
The first one is the story of Carmen O’Donnal in Guatemala. One evening in the fall of 1942, Carmen Galvez and her friends were playing table tennis at a club. “Hey Carmen, come here. This gringo wants to meet you,” a friend told her, pointing at John O’Donnal, who was a young American man who was working for the US Department of Agriculture in Guatemala. “Why in the world should I have to go to the man? If he’s a gentleman,” she said in Spanish, thinking that he wouldn’t understand, “he can come and meet me.” O’Donnal surprised her by walking across the room and replying in perfect Spanish, “Where in the world have you been?” The two soon fell in love, but because John was Mormon rather than Catholic, Carmen’s friends and family were opposed to their marriage. After overcoming their objections, John and Carmen were married in June of 1943 and the two hosted in their home the first missionaries to Guatemala. Carmen wanted desperately to understand her husband’s dedication to his faith, so she read the Book of Mormon. When she found it difficult to understand, “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” she complained to John, and he patiently asked her to continue to pray for understanding. One evening while he was away, Carmen prayed. She felt surrounded by evil spirits who she said were laughing at her and mocking her.
For some reason she thought, Satan is trying to destroy me in this. So she ran to the missionaries’ room and she asked for their help and the missionaries gave her a blessing that helped to calm her fears. Just a short while later, in November of 1948, Carmen O’Donnal became the first Guatemalan to be baptized a member of the Church. A few days later, the first sister missionaries arrived in Guatemala. These sisters were instrumental in helping Carmen become involved in the Relief Society. And then in December she was called as the Relief Society president for the Guatemala City Relief Society. And as president, she began to put together and to compile simplified lessons about gospel principles that she could use to help teach new members of the Relief Society and to teach investigators and friends. This was something that she did because of her experience trying to understand this new religion so recently herself.
In 1976, John was called to be the president of Guatemala City mission. And later they presided together over the Guatemala, Quetzaltenango Mission. And in Quetzaltenango they developed programs that would have an impact on the worldwide Church. They proposed the now familiar three hour meeting schedule, a consolidated schedule to reduce the need for frequent travel for members that had to cover long distances each Sunday. They oversaw the construction of small, less expensive local meeting houses and then notably they developed a series of simplified Sunday School lessons that were designed for new members, and they were based on Carmen’s earlier efforts as a Relief Society president. And these lessons actually ended up becoming the basis for the Church’s Gospel Principles Manual. So that’s Carmen.
Priscilla Sampson Davis. As a young woman, Priscilla attended an Anglican college in Nkoranza [?], Ghana. One day she had a dream when she met Jesus, while he was carrying the cross. His face and eyes were covered with blood and tears, and he asked for a handkerchief to wipe his face so he could see. “I will do that, my Lord,” she promised. Priscilla and her husband, John Sampson Davis, were later among the first to be baptized when missionaries came to Ghana in 1978. One Sunday morning in 1980, Priscilla was relaxing at home after Church when she had another visionary experience. She saw herself in sacrament meeting and she was approached by a figure in white who told her to look around and tell him what she saw. She noticed that many in the congregation had bowed heads and did not join in the singing. When he asked her why, she replied that they did not speak English. He asked if she’d be willing to help her brothers and sisters, “…so that they too could join in singing praises to our Heavenly Father.” And when this vision ended, she immediately took out paper and pencil and began to translate the hymn Redeemer of Israel into her native language of Mfantse. And she soon read an article in an Ensign magazine about how The Book of Mormon had been translated into another language recently and she heard a voice whisper, “Couldn’t you do that, too?” And so she began to work on her own early translation of The Book of Mormon and some other Church materials into Mfantse. And she said, “I always have an eraser with me, because the Spirit is always teaching me.” She felt that by translating hymns and scriptures so that the people of Ghana could “see” as she put it, she was fulfilling her promise to give the Lord a handkerchief.
Francisca Brodilova could hardly have foreseen the role that she would play in Church history when a missionary knocked on her door in Vienna, Austria, in 1913. She was baptized, and then, within a year of her conversion, World War I engulfed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and missionaries returned home. Many male members were called into military service. And this left Francisca and a few other sisters to meet on their own. It actually turned out to be the most contact that Francisca would have for the Church for many years, because after the war, her husband Frantisek was promised a post in the new government of Czechoslovakia. They moved to Prague where Francisca was the only member of the Church in the country. Frantisek passed away a few years later and Francisca was left with two young daughters, Frances and Jane. She had to provide for them, raise them alone, and she kept the faith as a Latter-day Saint mother in isolation for more than 15 years.
You can imagine how hard it would be to help her children appreciate her prior experience as a member of the Church. She would say, “I was raised in the Church. The Church was our home.” Francisca wrote to Church leaders asking that missionaries be assigned to Czechoslovakia. And they were reluctant at first, because the last missionary in Prague, some 40 years earlier, had been first jailed and then banished from the city. But undeterred, she continued writing her letters and praying for a mission to be established. Then finally in 1929, Elder John A Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived in Prague with a group of missionaries. And that evening, Francisca joined the group who climbed a hill near Karlstejn Castle where Elder Widtsoe dedicated Czechoslovakia for the preaching of the gospel and formally organized the mission. Her 15 years of isolation were finally at an end. “Few people can realize the joy we experienced,” she wrote, “We had been praying for years for this day.” And for nearly six months after that, the branch met in her home. She eventually assisted her daughters in translating The Book of Mormon into Czech and in laying the foundation for the Church in what is now the Czech Republic.
Carol Gray is a housewife, a mother of seven and a Relief Society president in Sheffield, England, and she wept in 1992 as she watched the television news coverage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the suffering of refugees displaced by the hostilities. She wanted to help, so she wrote a check, but she felt prompted to do more. As a Relief Society president, she put out a call for supplies, diapers, formula, sanitary supplies, clothing, blankets, food. She found a charity that could help deliver the goods. Little did she realize that this was only the beginning of a decade-long pursuit that took her on dozens of journeys deep into war-torn Bosnia to distribute the supplies. In the end, she helped deliver over 38 tons of aid. On one occasion, she drove one of 110 trucks in a large convoy deep into dangerous territory with one of her daughters. When the convoy would pull up to a refugee settlement or village, at first the people would be afraid to come out. But Carol’s hugs brought trust and restored light to their eyes. The relief workers would unwrap the children’s feet blue with cold and give them socks and shoes to keep them warm. On one occasion they found an old couple in the ruin of a dwelling, too afraid to answer the door. All of their children and grandchildren who lived in houses surrounding them had been killed. As they opened the door a crack, Sister Gray said the only thing she knew how to say in their language, “I love you.” They wept and embraced her. “What a wonderful challenge it is to take both the good and the bad things in life,” Sister Gray said, “and create something out of them that brings about the renewing power of hope.”
Rigmor Heistø was a 43 year old mother of three. She lived in a comfortable home. She was married to a well known physician and she began to meet with LDS missionaries. Her husband, influenced by the negative writings of a Norwegian theologian named Einar Molland, opposed her conversion, though he grudgingly agreed to her baptism. Unfortunately, her conversion caused additional stress on their already strained marriage, and they divorced three years later. Rigmor enrolled in college at that point and studied education, and during one class, the professor, Inge Lønning, asserted that Norwegians have freedom of religion. Rigmor disagreed. “That applies only to members of the state church,” she said. “Just try and believe some other religion.” After class, she recounted to the professor her experiences and explained the negative impact that the misinformation in Einar Molland’s book had had on her marriage.
Her professor turned out to be a personal friend of Einar Molland and arranged for her to meet him. Einar Molland told her he could not understand how anyone could convert to Mormonism. “Well, if I hadn’t known any more about the Church than you do,” she replied, “it would be the last thing I would have done. Where did you get the nonsense in your book?” Einar Molland explained that the information was gathered from sources in his university library. Rigmore countered that these sources were biased. She suggested that he could have found correct information simply by contacting the mission president, whose office was less than 100 meters down the road from his. At the end of the meeting, Einar Molland promised to correct the errors in the next edition of his book and to allow members of the Church to review the changes. “I’d never felt the Spirit move me so much,” Rigmor later recalled. In 1994, she served as the editor to a book entitled This We Believe, a collection of essays written by representatives of 37 faiths in Norway, discussing their religions on their own terms.
Now, I don’t have time to relate more stories like this in depth. We could talk about Jean Kirshbaum from the Netherlands, who organized cultural nights for the elderly in her city for over 20 years and led an aid project for the people of Poland involving representatives from 17 different religions. We could talk about Evelyn Kleinert in France who kept the Church alive in Paris during World War II via a ministry of letters. Tsune Ishida Nachie in Japan, who served as a second mother to missionaries for years and then later helped to preach to expatriate Japanese in Hawaii, or Elsie Damerashi [?], whose faith was instrumental in opening portions of India for the preaching of the Gospel. Even a woman named Telii who welcomed Addison Pratt and the other missionaries who were the first to arrive in Tubuai in the Austral Islands, and who converted, taught hymns to new members of the Church and administered healing blessings to the sick and afflicted.
These are just a few of many of the stories and I hope that you’ll take time to read more of these stories and incorporate them into your work, to your family devotion and your teaching. Now, if I could just take a moment and reflect with you on some of the things that I’ve learned as we as a team have researched these stories, interviewed these women, and come to appreciate their lives and their faith. The first is an awareness of the biases and the blind spots that we often have. People are biased. Their biases are persisted through cultures and the products of those cultures, including historical archives. Those biases most often privilege the accounts of men, and of North Americans, particularly in a Church context, and those in positions of institutional power, and it takes work to write history that doesn’t reflect this bias.
My colleague James Goldberg often uses the metaphor of gravity. He reminds us that sources have gravity that will pull us in a certain direction unless we resist the pull. Sometimes this requires new research. Sometimes it’s as simple as deciding to recast an episode from a different point of view. So for example, Carmen O’Donnal’s story, as I told it to you today, is actually derived almost entirely from the autobiography of her husband, John, but with a little bit of additional research and just kind of that shift in perspective, we were able to foreground Carmen’s experience, and you get a different kind of story as a result. The second is–I’ve kind of just used these little two word pairs to describe what I’ve learned–private and public. We’ve long had a habit of celebrating the public contributions of men and the private or domestic contributions of women, Jean Kirshbaum’s community organizing, Rigmor Heistø’s book on religions in Norway and Carol Gray’s humanitarian trips demand that we celebrate also the public contributions of LDS women. To paraphrase Joseph Smith, a woman filled with the love of God is not content with blessing her family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.
Inside and outside. Julia Mavimbella’s activism in South Africa that you saw in the video. It leads me to think more carefully about the ‘us versus the world’ dichotomy that is so easy to embrace, and that often leads us to discount the tremendous good that comes to the Church and its members through the actions of other people of goodwill. There’s undoubtedly evil in the world, but I think of Joel’s prophecy reiterated by Moroni to Joseph Smith, that “The Lord will pour out his spirit on all flesh in the last days.” The prophets undoubtedly decry the evil in the world. Sometimes though we neglect to see how they also embrace the good that’s out there. There’s much truth and good in the world that comes to us from outside of Church channels, and we when we hear Julia’s story, we want to be able to claim her goodness somehow for the Church, and yet she was fighting injustice and healing youth in Soweto for years before she encountered the missionaries. So her story helps me to see the Church differently, to see it as a beacon that can attract people like Julia and other people of goodwill, to work together.
Institutional and individual. We routinely undervalue the power of individuals as compared to the power of institutions. The stories of Carol Gray and Julia Mavimbella urge us not to wait for a program to tell us to do good, but to do many things of our own free will and to bring to pass much righteousness as agents. The stories of Francisca Brodilova and Evelyn Kleiner show us how the faith of one Relief Society President or one faithful mother can sustain families and branches even when they’re isolated from the organized Church geographically or by war. They help us appreciate all the more of the communion we enjoy in our wards and branches.
Top down and bottom up. We emphasize, and rightly so, the priority of revelation through prophets flowing from the head down through the body, but even the revelations given to Joseph Smith didn’t come in a vacuum, and the stories of Carmen O’Donnal and others remind us that revelations comes to all of us. Sometimes the Lord uses humble vessels. Carmen didn’t agitate for simplified instruction in the Church. She just went to work using the light that the Lord gave her, and that light eventually became the spark for a new initiative. She reassures us of the wisdom of the Church’s emphasis on councils and the importance of humility in Christ-like leadership.
Charisma and structure. These women are a constant reminder of the more radical spirituality of the early Latter-day Saints. The visionary experiences of Telii and Priscilla Sampson Davis and Carmen O’Donnal , force those of us who live in a skeptical world who have come to rely on routines and structures, even those of the Church and certainly of our of our culture, that there’s something more. Dreams, visions, other miracles are sought for and experienced. An awareness of this flowing back from periphery to center can have a revitalizing effect on our faith, just as resources and experience of history historically flowed outward from the center here.
And finally, to borrow an analogy for mission studies, I want to talk for a second about the idea of the kernel and the husk, the idea that there’s a transcendent transcultural core to the message of the Gospel, but that it’s always carried by and nurtured in a husk of culture. The stories of these women impress this concept on my mind constantly, and even though this kernel-husk metaphor is often contested as a model for understanding transculturation, I think it’s helpful because it forces us to think more critically about what is essential or universal, and which of our beliefs and practices may be contingent or ephemeral. A greater awareness of these stories might help us realize that our own faith as individuals sometimes becomes captive to other philosophies, or it might make us blush at some of the awkward ways we attempt to translate and re-contextualize the gospel for people whose cultural backgrounds are so different from our own.
In conclusion, let me just say how much I respect the women whose stories I have shared today. They have done remarkable things in their families, their wards and their communities while working against obstacles I can’t fully understand and appreciate because of my privileged circumstances. I hope you’ll accept the challenge to read more of their stories and let the women of the global Church speak to you, and through you to those you teach and influence. Thank you.
Q 1: Will your focus include minority communities inside the US and Canada?
A 1: Absolutely. I know that’s a short answer. We’re still in the middle of working on these projects and we fully intend to. When we say the global Church, we don’t mean everywhere except for here. I think we fully intend to address and hopefully tell the stories of people from the US and Canada, both members of minority communities in those countries and others as well.
Q 2: Would you cite the quote from Joseph Smith about a woman with faith?
A 2: That was a paraphrase of Joseph Smith. I should have been very clear about that. That wasn’t meant to be a sleight of hand, but Joseph Smith said that a man filled with the love of God is not content to bless his family alone. And I paraphrased that to say a woman. I felt like that helped make that point. And if you’re hoping for a citation, what I would do is go to the Joseph Smith Papers website. I am a good history department soldier. The Joseph Smith Papers website really is going to be the best place to find out anything about Joseph.
Q 3: Are the global histories available also on lds.org in addition to the Gospel Library?
A 3: Very soon. And I was hoping that the landing page on history.lds.org would have launched today. It may still launch today. I have my fingers crossed. So there will be a kind of a portal to be able to get to them. They are published online. But having that nice front door that gets you to them is the one piece that’s currently missing. And that should arrive, if not today, later this week.
Q 4: Will these stories ever be published in book form?
A 4: We’ve thought a little bit about this too. I can’t make any commitments on that yet today. I think I’d love to see those stories compiled and put together in that way. Right now they’re designed as digital only content. We felt like that was the most economical and the easiest way to deliver them to the membership of the Church. They’ll be translated, I should add, into Spanish, Portuguese, and then to the language of each of the countries or regions that we write on.
Q 5: Any histories about converts in Bangladesh?
A 5: I don’t have any for you today. That is currently on our list and we’re just kind of working through these. As you can imagine, it’s a little bit of a daunting task for a group of generalists. Really each of us has our specialty, but when it comes to trying to work out how you complete a project that involves writing about the history of the Church in a hundred different places, all of us are generalists, and so we’re just kind of working through them a few at a time, and also consulting with subject matter experts and specialists in each field for their input and their review, and Bangladesh will have its day.
Q 6: Many years ago in Relief Society, the sisters of the Church were privileged in our study curriculum to learn about sisters in other cultures. How can we get this back into our curriculum for Relief Society? It would bless many lives.
A 6: Well, hopefully somebody more powerful than me is listening to that. I love this idea and the only thing I could suggest is that we’ve got a lay ministry and we have a room full of people here, all who probably hold callings in your wards. Many of us teach. Take the opportunity to do what James, my colleague, suggested that I shared with you, to work against the gravity that exists because the sources not only in the archive, but even some of the sources that we publish and put out there in this more finished state, they all have a gravity and tend to exhibit some of these biases. It does take a little bit of work not only as historians who write or archivists who collect, but as teachers who share the gospel with their classes, whether in Young Women or Relief Society. I would say work against that gravity. Look for the stories and hopefully you’ll find that these resources that we are publishing in the Church history section of the app can be something helpful to you. They are Church publications and I think I’m safe in saying that they’re fair game for anybody who’s preparing a lesson or wanting to teach a gospel principle, to try to illustrate them with these stories. That’s probably the best advice I could give now.
Q 7: I as a man feel so unworthy when I see the amazing meek and humble things that women do in our lives and for God. What can we do better as men?
A 7: Oh my goodness. It’s no doubt a sincere question. I don’t have a good answer to it. Probably just we can do everything better.
One thing though that this experience has taught me to do better as a man and as a husband is to just be constantly aware and then consequently amazed at the good that my wife does, not only in our family but with the students that she teaches. That’s a hard question.
Q 8: The apps and pages on history.lds.org are great tools in building faith through accurate information, but [are] not well known. How can Public Affairs help raise awareness of what is available on a global level?
A 8: Is this a question coming from someone who works in Public Affairs? If so, we can talk afterward. Maybe this is just an opportunity to conclude with a call for everyone to just be more aware and to actually do that work that I’ve been talking about. To kind of cut against that grain and that gravity in that bias that’s there, not only specifically relating to women’s stories, but really relating to all of the stories that are out there that are Church history stories, but that are happening elsewhere. We tend to focus a lot on Joseph Smith and rightly so, and lavish a lot of attention on that early Church history, and sometimes even to devote a lot of our time trying to answer specific controversies or questions. One of the things that this has helped me to see is sometimes that prevents you from treating these other stories with the dignity that they deserve. Maybe one example, and this isn’t a woman of the global Church, but it is a woman who has been on my mind and the mind if some of my team members lately. Her name is Fanny Alger, and when I say that name that I know what popped into your head. There’s only one thing that popped into your head and that’s polygamy and Joseph Smith, but one of the things that these projects have helped me to see that I need to look at Fanny as a person, as a woman who had a life that went beyond just that one, perhaps controversial moment in the mid 1830s in Kirtland,. She has an interesting story and deserves to be understood and respected on her own terms as a person and a woman of faith. There are probably other examples, but hopefully that gives you something to think about along those lines, so thank you very much.