Let me say it from the start: in some sense, for as long as I can remember, I have known that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ’s true church upon the earth today. But I have also questioned that knowledge, its source and sureness, and like anyone else, I had to be converted.
Because I grew up in the LDS Church, my conversion began in my childhood, through experiences with priesthood blessings, the testimonies of my parents, and the witness of the Holy Ghost. My father blessed me and I was healed and comforted when I was feverish with tonsillitis or in pain from ear infections. When I was eight I was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church. I still remember feeling hands on my head at my confirmation, and hearing my Father’s voice inviting me: Receive the Holy Ghost. Immediately a deep warmth filled my entire body, from head to toe. It was not a mere physical sensation; even as a child I knew that.
My mother had three of her vertebrae crushed in a fall and was partially paralyzed when I was a baby; yet she was able to learn to walk again after priesthood blessings. As a child I knew my mother walked again only because of her faith and the healing power of God marshaled on her behalf through priesthood authority. Her testimony in Jesus Christ was unwavering. My father did not bear his testimony in words as readily as did my mother, but I remember one Sunday dinner after church, hearing my mother, her father, and my father discussing religion. I don’t know what my grandfather said, but I do recall my father responding by quoting scripture from memory. He affirmed the source of spiritual knowledge by reminding us of Christ’s question to his disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” He looked at us and answered, quoting Peter: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and then acknowledged, in the words of Christ, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-16). Those words, his witness, spoken as a simple conclusion, have stayed with me across the years. I knew in whom my parents trusted, and in whom I, too, can trust.
My parents and the Holy Ghost were my first witnesses of Christ and his church. As a child I was taught from the scriptures. With particular clarity I have come to know that the Book of Mormon is imbued with the Spirit of God in extraordinary measure. Teachers, my husband, and my friends have been additional witnesses. I, too, am a witness of Jesus Christ. I know that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, who, with his blood, bought our souls that we may be alive in Him, now and forever. This knowledge, borne by the Spirit, is less like a proposition, or a bare fact, than it is like knowledge of a relationship.
My testimony has also been shaped by my concerns. Of particular interest to me has been the treatment of women throughout history. My concern over the maltreatment of women is, I suppose, a subset of the problem of evil. I have spent a significant amount of time and energy studying women’s issues, feminist theory, and scripture as I have considered women’s “place” in the world and in the Church. As a college student, I preferred to state it as an effort to improve the status of women. I suspect that, too, is likely a variation on the existential question: What is the point of being me? Because I am female, that question also encompasses What is the point of being a woman?
It is the restored gospel of Christ which for me makes sense of the lives and the work of women throughout the ages. Latter-day Saint scripture and doctrine show that mortality is a necessary, positive step toward exaltation. The giving and sustaining of human life, the care of children and the vulnerable, has always belonged to women. Those important, worthy works are not lost in this life, and will not be lost to death nor lost in the resurrection. Our bodies will be raised to perfect immortality, and for the exalted, the ability to give and sustain life continues through the eternities: it is the work and the glory of God (Moses 1:39). Any religion or theory which does not appreciate the human body and bodily resurrection, or which does not provide for a continuation of women as givers and sustainers of life throughout the eternities, does not, in my estimation, fully appreciate or recognize women and the bodily and spiritual gifts with which women are endowed.
My testimony of Christ and of his restored Church is personal, practical, experiential knowledge gained by personal revelation, by receiving and acting on the witness of the Spirit, the witness of others, and my own trial and error in trying to get things right. This is not to say that I can recount a string of toasty warm spiritual “highs.” Rather, it means that as I have studied, and prayed, and tried to make right decisions, I have at various times been guided, goaded, corrected, chastised, comforted, enlightened, pierced, strengthened, humbled, or healed by the power of the Spirit and the testimony of others. These experiences are not the ups and downs of emotionality; they are forms of spiritual knowledge that often prompt further study and work, whether the topic is related to my own personal life, or related to social, political, or academic issues. My testimony of the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides a standard against which academic theories and practices can be judged after all the study I can do. That is a form of intellectual knowledge.
Because our church has a living prophet, we receive counsel for our everyday lives. This counsel is not ahistorical, nor is it merely contingent. We don’t obey blindly, but neither do we thoughtlessly reject such counsel. I’m grateful for prophets who are willing to testify of truth, even when that truth is unpopular. I’ve benefited from considering their counsel. For example, as a young wife and mother, I was shocked and deeply puzzled by the Church’s statement deploring injustices women have suffered in law and in society generally, but opposing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution (“ERA”). The Church stated that ERA was not the right means to improve the status of women, and that it would likely have unintended, negative consequences for women and the family. I thought of the ERA as part of a political movement that could only help women, and I could not see why the Church would not support what appeared to me to be a self-evident proposition about equality between men and women—not that I had actually studied the ERA myself. Stinging from what I took to be a slight toward my sex, as I looked at a chart of the general authorities of the Church, I thought to myself: All men. What do you know about being a woman? The next “thought” caught me off guard: What do you know about being a prophet? I had to consider the possibility that a prophet could be guided in this matter, even if that guidance was not couched in the language of sociology, psychology, economics, law, or political science.
Because of that challenge from the prophets and the Spirit, I decided I needed to research more fully both the means and the ends of legislation or advocacy purporting to help women. I found Rex Lee’s analysis of the ERA very helpful in understanding why the proposed amendment was not the best means to equality for women, and in better understanding the negative impact such legislation could have on laws regulating marriage, family, and abortion. His analyses have been borne out over the years in the states which adopted ERAs in their state constitutions. Had it not been for the Church’s stand on the ERA as a moral issue, I would not have taken the time to study the issue carefully myself. A year or so later, I was able to participate in a brief interview of then-President of the Church Spencer W. Kimball. I had a list of what I supposed were “hard questions” for him about women’s roles in the Church. He was gracious in receiving us and in considering and answering questions. During the interview, I felt as though there were light pouring into me through the top of my head, and filling my entire body with the knowledge: this man is a prophet of God. Knowing for myself that the Church is led by a prophet, I could not ignore the Church’s teachings about women’s fundamentally important contribution in the family. Nor could I simply believe it; I needed to learn about it by living it. The knowledge and testimony that family relationships are the primary means for each of us to learn who we are and what life is about, has guided both my personal life and my academic interests. Had I not listened to that counsel of the prophets, I would have missed out on many of the joys of family life.
My questions about women’s issues did not disappear, but I have felt a profound sense of trust in God, in scripture, and in prophets, and that trust has made it possible for me to study women’s issues without the anger or cynicism I had felt so sharply for a time, and has allowed me to be open to a more nuanced view of gender relations than what might be commonly referred to as either a “feminist” or a “traditional” approach. Over time, I’ve learned some of the answers to some of my questions about the status of women, and men, and how they can work together in the family and in society. I’m still learning. Most answers have come incrementally, but occasionally answers have appeared suddenly. This has happened not only when I have been considering issues specific to my own life, but also when I’ve been reflecting upon issues related to my fields of study and to my profession.
I recognize that some of these answers are specific to my life and my needs, but the process of seeking knowledge of God and of the Church is the same for each of us. Obviously, the best of our literary, linguistic, scientific, and social scientific theory and knowledge is partial. Religious knowledge is also partial, in the sense that none of us knows it all. The question, then, is Who will be our guide? How can any of us judge among competing intellectual or religious propositions or theories? I have learned by my own experience that I must study a thing out in my own mind and ask whether it is right, and the Spirit will help me know whether it is right (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8).
Decades ago, my major professor, Arthur H. King, told me that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ should be the standard by which everything else is measured. I have found that to be helpful. I count it a blessing to have worked for years with his language approach to the plays of Shakespeare. We and others have extended that language approach to other texts, including the King James Version of the Bible, and to the scriptures of the Restoration: The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. Using academic tools to analyze the form and content of those religious texts considered scripture by the Church increased my testimony of their truth and spiritual power. That apprenticeship to Professor King also gave me a chance to learn from someone who grew up in a different religion, a different culture, and who was quite willing to critique Latter-day Saint subcultures. He pointed out to me on more than one occasion that when Latter-day Saint Primary children sing “I Am a Child of God,” they need to remember that everyone else is, too.
Because each of us is a child of God, each of us is entitled to learn the truth for ourselves, about our origins, the purpose of our lives on this earth, and God’s plan for our eternal happiness. We cannot be fully happy without that knowledge. I echo the words of the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni, who wrote: “And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever” (Ether 12:41).
Camille Stilson Williams (J.D., M.A., Brigham Young University) is former Administrative Director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Project at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University. She has taught family law for undergraduates, and other courses at BYU. Her publications include “Planned Parent-Deprivation: Not in the Best Interests of the Child,” 4 Whittier Journal of Child and Family Advocacy 375-406 (2005); “State Marriage Amendments, Essentialist Arguments, and the Non-Essential Woman,” 7 Florida Coastal Law Review 453-472 (2005-2006); “Women, Equality, and the Federal Marriage Amendment,” 20 BYU Journal of Public Law, 487-525 (2006); “Women in the Book of Mormon: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Juxtaposition,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11:66-79 (2002); “A Response to Professor Ruether,” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, David L. Paulsen and Donald W. Musser, eds., (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2007). She currently works as an assistant city attorney. She and her husband, Richard, are the parents of five, and the grandparents of eighteen.
Posted September 2011