Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mormon Women's Involvement with the Sacred: Reflections on Kris Wright's Lecture on Bread, Water, Oil, and Cloth

The other night I had the opportunity to hear Kris Wright, co-author of Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism with J. Stapley, speak on Bread, Water, Oil, & Cloth: Religious Objects, Mormon Women, and History at the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake.  I'd been so excited for this night to come because I enjoyed the above-mentioned paper so much, and she did not disappoint in her presentation!

You may be wondering what could be interesting about bread, water, oil, cloth, and women in the LDS Church.  Well, I will summarize and hopefully you will also be enlightened as I believe so many in the room were.  I'm going to follow the general outline of Kris's presentation and interject my own thoughts as we go.  She did move through everything pretty quickly, so forgive me if I'm mixing up my details!

Think back to the construction of the Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake Temples.  You can surely recall stories regarding the building of those structures.  Who do you think of when you think about the construction?  Generally men?  Most likely.  You may remember a few stories of women helping, specifically the one about women making shirts for the men building the Nauvoo Temple.  You can probably also conclude that it was a sacrifice to an entire family for for a man to leave his wife and children to go build, but were the women directly involved?

Now, think back to something someone made for you, by hand.  Perhaps it was your grandmother, possibly your mother.  Maybe it was mittens (as Kris described), possibly it was an afghan (as my mother has made for my children), maybe it was a quilt someone made you for your wedding.  How do you feel when you think of these items?  You probably feel sentimental and connected and bound to whomever made them.

Well, as Kris described, women in earlier days of the Church were intimately involved in the creation of edible and tactile items for religious worship, which uniquely bound them to their faith, just as receiving a hand-made gift binds you to the giver and making something for someone binds you to the receiver.

Bread - Kris shared the example of one woman who baked the sacrament bread, cut off the crusts, and sliced it a certain way so that the priests could tear the pieces very uniformly.  This woman also delivered her bread on a special dish.  Another woman prepared the sacrament table, polished the trays, and made the tablecloths.  Another woman cared for the sacrament table for 25 years by making the tablecloths, the bread, and preparing the table each week.  In one ward, the women embroidered the ward name in one of the tablecloths and a scripture on the other.  All this service, these domestic duties, became ritual and bound these women to their religion.

Water - In one ward, the young women filled the sacrament water cups and placed the bread in trays. After the sacrament, they washed the cups.  In the 1940s when disposable cups became available, the girls' involvement decreased, and by the 1950s preparation and cleanup became the young men's responsibility.  A question I had after this story was why couldn't the men do the preparation and the cleanup in the first place?  Who said males couldn't wash the dishes?  I'm hopeful that having the girls wash the cups was not meant to be a put down, but a way they could participate.

Oil - Women started using consecrated oil in 1834.  It is recorded as being used by women in places such as Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Winter Quarters.  They used it both ritually and therapeutically.  It was essential in caring for the sick and blessing with it was a responsibility of the Relief Society.  A 1905 Relief Society banner stated:

Bless the Sick
Soothe the Sad
Succor the Distressed
Visit the Widowed and Fatherless

I would guess that at that time to "bless the sick" meant to actually bless them with consecrated oil and prayer, not the modern "bless" as in a kind word or good fortune.

Kris mentioned that women were thought of as the gateway for birth and death.  I thought that was beautiful.  It's obvious that women are physically the gateway into life, but they also played a greater role in the past at times of death (now most everyone is far removed at times of death!).  Not only being physically there, but to provide blessings.  In 1880 it was recorded that women gave blessings at birth.  Midwives also anointed newborn babies.  Not only did women bless with consecrated oil, but sometimes the oil was ingested by the person being treated, or the oil was put on the whole body.

Cloth - Women had a huge part in the production of textiles in the early days of the church.  What are some of the sacred fabric items that we see now?  How about garments, temple clothing, altar cloths, sacrament tablecloths (as mentioned), and the veil of the temple?  Now days, we go out and buy those things, but in years past, the women had the duty to make them.  It was a great time commitment, and surely a labor of love that kept women thinking about WHY they were putting forth such great effort.

In Kirtland women made the veil of the temple.  In Nauvoo, as mentioned above, women made shirts for the temple builders; they also made the veils of the temple and the carpets.  Emma Smith, Eliza Snow, and Elizabeth Warren Allred under the direction of Joseph Smith designed the first garments. Years later, swimsuit designer RoseMarie Reid redesigned them, who by chance (or not), was a descendant of Elizabeth Warren Allred!

In earlier days, Relief Society women gathered together to sew temple clothing.  Eventually they were asked not to sew temple clothing during Relief Society where it could be exposed to those who had not been to the temple.

During the construction of the Logan Temple, records were kept of all the donated labor hours.  The data includes the sewing and cleaning done by women.  The seamstresses involved were professionals, just as the men working on the outside were skilled laborers.

Earlier in the lecture, Kris broke down the word textile.  Yes, we think fabric, but the first four letters are T-E-X-T, which means that which is woven, such as fabric or embroidery.  Just as text contains words and memories, so do these domestic items that women created; they tell a story, too.

At the end there was a question and answer period that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Question 1
As everyone recognized that women's roles with physical religious objects has somewhat diminished over the years, the first query concerned how can we create this connection to religion through objects like the women had in years past.  Kris suggested offering to bake sacrament bread, cleaning ward buildings (sure, not glamorous, but still an opportunity to serve and connect), creating artwork for the walls of the church (if permissible), making tissue box covers (some women do find joy and connection in this!), and just watching for other tangible ways to connect.

I was recently asked to make the sacrament meeting programs.  Today as I sat in Relief Society folding them and putting in an insert, I thought about this being a way to connect to my religion.  Sure enough, even making the programs, knowing what's going on in the ward, helping others know what's going on in the ward, does help me connect to my religion.

Question 2
The second question was my favorite.  A younger woman, you could tell she was extremely touched by the lecture, shared that women today are trying to get away from the mundane, especially the repetitious traditional women's work, such as cleaning and cooking.  Kris had brought up Elaine Dalton's story about vacuuming the Conference Center earlier in the lecture, and the woman asking the question shared that at the time the story was given she did not like it because again it was an example of women being "reduced" to domestic work.  Yet, because of the lecture, she could see that there is sanctity in the mundane.  So much like the first question, how do we appreciate and reconnect with the simple sacred?  Kris suggested becoming a temple worker and carefully observing what goes on there, including the blessings of the temple.

The thing that popped into my head here is serving in our homes!  We have so many opportunities day in and day out to serve our spouse and children by taking care of (and teaching) domestic responsibility like cooking and cleaning. These jobs can keep our minds set on our families and our eternal purpose and goals as a family unit.  If we can't bake bread for the sacrament, we can bake it for our families whom we love; if we can't crochet coverings for the altars of the temple or make the carpets, we can create other heirlooms with our hands for our children.  Sewing is becoming such a lost art, yet as it is a labor of love, it connects us to whatever we've sewn as well as to whomever the item is for.

Question 3
The third question concerned how we've gone from a producing to a consuming society, and since much of what was produced by women is now purchased (and their necessary contributions were eliminated), women do not feel the same religious identity.  Kris suggested here being a producer in the home.  I realized that as home production is disappearing (see above paragraph), and even homemaking and child raising are going away in US culture.  Fewer people have children and sometimes when they do other people raise them.  When women do not have these emotional connections to their own children and their own homes because they outsource the work, my guess is there will be a lack of connection to those things (or people) that should be valued most.  Those important things and people will go by the wayside and connections and value will be lost.

I am going to suggest that there is some of this loss of connection and feeling going on in the ordain [LDS] women movement. Some women, because they're not directly connected to certain rituals and ordinances, even as they were historically, feel they want more out of our religion by obtaining the priesthood so they can more fully participate.  I will argue that even though women are not doing the same things, we can still have the same feelings and connections as men, but through different channels as has been discussed.

When I got home and told my husband about the lecture, my husband summarized it brilliantly:  So, women worked hard and sacrificed to sew and cook items for religious worship, and then "they" came along and said we're going to make your life easier by buying bread and disposable cups and purchasing garments and other linens, but now women complain they want more work again? Interesting thought.  Maybe we should try our hands at making our own garments and baking the sacrament bread.  Maybe then we would feel more connection to our religion through that labor.  Or, we could just find ritual, religious connection through other things we've been asked to do.

Question 4
Someone brought up creating connections through raising our children.  She remembered looking at her own working hands and seeing the hands of her mother -- this created a connection to her mother through her work.  This person stated that when we look for fulfillment outside our homes, we miss the special, spiritual experiences we can have inside the home.  We also need to create our own family rituals because they will create meaning in our lives.

Question 5 & 7
Question 5 concerned women giving blessings historically and how it was phased out.  I'm not even going to get into that here, but if you're really interested, just go read the paper mentioned at the top of this post.  Question 7 was similar as the asker wondered why we don't do these rituals anymore. Again, I think this is addressed in the original paper.

Question 6
Someone asked if female rituals of the past (blessings, textile contributions to the temples, sacrament offerings, etc.) were more valued within Mormonism than women's contributions outside of Mormonism.  Kris answered that some of these things were uniquely LDS, and yes, highly valued.

I was so glad I was able to attend Kris's lecture.  I felt empowered recognizing that even though in some ways I don't participate in religious rituals as regularly or directly as women in the early days of the church, I still can find modern ways to connect to my religion.  If you are interested in watching this lecture and getting more than my notes and personal interpretation, it was recorded for publication at a later date.  If I find out when or where that is, I will update it here.


Brenda said...

Thanks for sharing this, it is the first I have heard of this paper and I look forward to reading it.

It is so easy to miss beauty and connectedness that comes with what seems like mundane tasks. Understanding consecration seems to be the key to getting out of that mindset.

Heather@Women in the Scriptures said...

Wow this sounds awesome! Do they ever record these lectures? I would have loved to have heard this one. I have often thought that we have lost SO SO much more as women than we even realize by the "ease" of our life. I remember feeling a bit frustrated in one of my wards because when we were planning a RS dinner I kept suggestino that we could ask sisters to make rolls, or cook the food, but the older sisters kept answering, "Oh, but you can get them so cheap at Costco. It is so much easier." It was funny to me that it was the younger women who WANTED To cook and contribute but the older women who wanted to just buy the things. I think that the younger sisters were hungry for a way to feel connected to RS, a way to contribute, and that maybe the older sisters already had plennty of this and so didn't see the value anymore.

Also, in one of my wards the activity days girls made the bread for the sacrament a few times. The bishop even announced it and it really made them feel special. Also, it was so much more tasty than usual!

Thank you for sharing this. It has given me so much food for thought.

Jeanine said...

Thank you for posting this. It is very interesting. I am somewhat concerned though, that women whose talents and interests do not lie in traditional homemaking skills might feel they have no place at the table so to speak. Some women really enjoy cooking and cleaning and are talented in those things, but we need ALL our sisters, including those whose gifts lie in other areas. I think this lecture would have been comforting to the first group, and painful for the rest of us. Perhaps you are suggesting that women whose God-given gifts lie in other areas should somehow cultivate culturally appropriate ones like cooking in order to feel more connected to the Gospel? Or is this just meant as historical commentary, without extrapolation to modern day? I think God wants us to use the gifts He gave us, whichever ones those are, to bind us more thoroughly to the Kingdom. To narrow the sphere of women to cooking and cleaning seems like it would be both inefficient and denying the richness the Lord has seen fit to bless us with in the gifts He gives us.

Emily said...

Hi Jeanine - Thanks for your comment!. Just to clarify, I do think the lecture was more for a historical explanation of things, but there was some application to the modern day. The more extreme leanings toward modern application of homemaking is me.

However, there is a season for all things and sometimes we do need to choose when to lay our own interests aside and raise a family. Believe me, I was not interested in cooking and cleaning and raising children and it took a lot of study and a major paradigm shift. I know I'll be able to get back to nurturing my talents, but currently, I'm paying it forward to my kids until they can stand more on their own. God DOES want us to use our talents, but also wants us to raise his children and that doesn't take forever, even though it feels like it sometimes. So back to a comfort for the "first group" yeah, I really liked that element of "my" interpretation.

Emily said...

I guess the cooking and cleaning bit doesn't have to become ritualistic, but it CAN be a way to connect if you're looking for it because, it too, has to be done, so I suspect we may as well learn to enjoy it.

Heather@Women in the Scriptures said...


I think that is a really good point you bring up. Personally I didn't really enjoy normal "homemaking" things at all before I kind of got thrust into them-- and HAD to do them-- for my own family. now I like some of them much better than I ever thought I would. Though there are still LOTS of traditional homemaking skills that I don't enjoy and don't bother with. But I think that the key to feeling connected is to remember that ALL women (and men too) are at their cores CREATORS. We each have a beautiful God given desire to create and to build and it manifests itself in so many different ways. Women who don't necessarily like traditional homemaking things may find other ways to create-- to teach a class, to paint or sculpt art, to write books, to plant gardens, to coach the YW basketball team, to do a thousand other creative ventures. I think the key idea is to CREATE.

I am reminded of a quote by Belle Spafford, one of the General RS presidents, about how she was so bad at quilting and hated all things homemaking that the sisters in her ward wouldn't even let her help with their quilting projects. Then she got called to be the General RS counselor in charge of homemaking. She said that she though God was playing a mean trick on her. But she said that God really knew what she needed because she gained an appreciation for the more "mundane" and traditional jobs that women had done. I think that sometimes we don't view those things as talents, just like women might have other talents and as valuable contributions, not just "fluff."

Michelle said...

Emily, thank you for taking the time to write all these notes!

I read your post and thought of this quote [actually, there's another one in my head that I still want to find, but this one was excellent]: “Sister Susa Young Gates related to me that she once asked her father [Brigham Young] how it would ever be possible to accomplish the great amount of temple work that must be done, if all are given a full opportunity for exaltation. He told her there would be many inventions of labor-saving devices, so that our daily duties could be performed in a short time, leaving us more and more time for temple work. The inventions have come, and are still coming, but many simply divert the time gained to other channels, and not for the purpose intended by the Lord” (“Put on Thy Strength, O Zion!” Improvement Era, Oct. 1952, p. 720).

As beautiful as the rituals of our foremothers are (and as much as I don't want the homemaking arts to die...there is nothing quite like the nurturing power of homemade power and heirlooms), I tend to think that maybe we ought not necessarily disparage the time-saving opportunities we have because we live in the time of the Lord hastening His work. More temples. More missionaries. More opposition and need for prepared, spiritually-sound youth who need their mothers to teach them and help them so that the MTC will be a review, not a revelation. More pleas from our leaders to learn and embrace the doctrine of the priesthood and preach it and tap into the power and blessings of the priesthood to help us with our roles in the work.

I dunno. I admit to sometimes feeling a bit baffled at the sentiment that we as women somehow cannot connect with the work. I am trying to figure out how we're supposed to sleep in the midst of all there is to do. :)

Robyn said...

Thank you for taking these notes and sharing them. It is definitely food for thought. I know it means so much more to me to make a gift for someone, than to buy one and also when I receive a hand made gift. I don't always have time to do this and I know not everyone does either.