Jill Derr clip

Ep 108 – High Priestesses

On this episode, Jo writes an epistle to the Relief Society. What were women’s roles in the Nauvoo Church? Did they have priesthood power? Was their society separate but equal to the men’s? Turns out Jo was a product of his time and he uses religions led by women in his day as an example of what terrible fate awaits a female-run church. But, is there more to it? Were the women of Nauvoo “good Masons” who could keep a secret?


Jill Derr on Eliza Snow and Relief Society

Women and Priesthood

Relief Society Minute Book

Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah

Joanna Southcott’s bibliography

The Public Universal Friend by Paul Moyer

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What was the purpose of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society? This has been a hot subject of debate in Mormon historical studies for quite some time and even at the inception of the Relief Society in 1842 and its resurrection in Utah in 1868 people weren’t sure exactly what powers were right to be held by this female body.

One thing is certain, whatever powers granted to the Relief Society, at the most progressive trajectory that hasn’t even been realized to this day, it would be equal in power over Mormon women as the priesthood has power over men, but still under the umbrella of Mormon leadership that is 100% men. Right off the bat, Relief Society can never be equal in power in any way shape or form because of this handicap, it will always answer to the brethren and never hold the executive powers the priesthood holds.

And that’s the harsh reality here. If the Relief Society presidency has wanted to do anything throughout its entire history which conflicted with what the brethren wanted, it simply didn’t happen. How much authority does a presidency of women have if they always have to answer to a higher presidency of men?

How was it initially intended to be organized? What was Joseph and Emma’s initial intent in organizing the Female Relief Society? Dozens of quotes can be pulled from the prophet and they seem contradictory to say the least. Today we’ll spend a bit of time going through an epistle that Jo wrote to the Relief Society which was read in the last meeting of March 1842, the third gathering of the society. Before getting to that epistle, let’s look at a bunch of quotes from Joseph Smith or other leaders in the Nauvoo church to try and get a holistic understanding of what they viewed the purposes of the Relief Society to be.

Where the arguments so often lie with the Relief Society and authority boils down to the question, did Joseph ordain them with the priesthood? Was the Relief Society seen as a female priesthood body and did they utilize the priesthood the ways elders did? And, if they did have some kind of priestesshood authority, when was that taken away because it surely isn’t practiced in the Brighamite tradition today?

1. Joseph Smith’s private journal reads that he “gave a lecture on the pries[t]hood shewing [sic] how the Sisters would come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood. & that the signs should follow them. such as healing the sick casting out devils” -Book of the Law of the Lord, 8 April 1842, in Joseph Smith Papers (josephsmithpapers.org, original document here)

2. “He [Joseph Smith] propos’d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office— that he would ordain them to preside over the Society— and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church….If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c.” -March 17, 1842, Eliza R Snow, Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes, in Joseph Smith Papers (original document here)

4. Joseph Smith said to the Relief Society, “the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and that he was “going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.” -30 March 1842, Eliza R. Snow, Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes, in Joseph Smith Papers (original document here)

5. Joseph also said to the Relief Society, “the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them that they may be able to detect everything false, as well as to the Elders...I now turn the key to [changed to ‘for’ by Willard Richards] you in the name of God, and this society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time ” … -28 April 1842, Eliza R. Snow, Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, in Joseph Smith Papers (original document here)

9. Joseph Smith’s First Counselor Sidney Rigdon said, “Emma was the one to whom the female priesthood was first given.” -June 1868, communication to Stephen Post, LDS Archives

11. Bathsheba W. Smith, 4th General Relief Society President and wife of First Presidency member, wrote, “I never like to hear a sermon without hearing something of the Prophet [Joseph Smith], for he gave us everything, every order of the priesthood. He said he had given the sisters instructions that they could administer to the sick and he wanted to make us, as the women were in Paul’s day, ‘A kingdom of priestesses.’” -9 June 1905, Pioneer Stake Relief Society minutes, LDS archives

You get the idea. Joseph and early Mormon leaders can be quote mined all day to substantiate the claim that women were given the priesthood. The resurrection of the Relief Society in Utah under Eliza R. Snow is wonderfully fascinating. Brigham Young commanded in 1867 that the Relief Societies should be started again as the local leadership saw fit. Eliza Snow went around the entire state for the next few years and established local Relief Societies. She taught the local women the purposes of the society, how to keep proper minute books, and gave them access to resources only the Relief Society could attain.

A number of these minute books exist to this day in Eliza’s remarkably beautiful handwriting, a few even list priesthood offices, like for the 14th Utah Ward when it says “minutes of the meetings and the recordings of the quorum of teachers of the female Relief Society” and also ordained some of the women as “deaconesses”.

Dozens of data points can be used to claim that early Mormon women had the power of the priesthood. If we consider how much healing they did by administering to the sick and weary, it’s arguable that the women in Utah exercised the priesthood more than the men. The men may come in and pronounce a healing blessing with anointing oil on somebody who was sick, but it was often the women of Relief Societies who were by the person’s bedside for days nursing them back to health where the real healing took place, including when they administered medicine infused in the topical “consecrated” anointing oil.

If we’re judging the presence of priesthood power based solely on the number of people who were healed when administered to, the women outranked the men, especially when it came to administering medical care to new mothers in early Utah. Otherwise, what testable priesthood power is there, the ability to make decisions? Yeah it turns out men AND women who are in positions of authority are equally capable of making executive decisions, the Church has simply never tried allowing women to have that specific part of priesthood authority.

But where did Joseph Smith come down on this issue? That’s where some interesting conversations can really kick off. Did Joseph ordain women to the priesthood? Did Bloody Brigham Young take that away in his Utah theocracy like he did with African-Americans receiving the priesthood? Jo was such a progressive, right? Further, if not for priesthood ordination, what were some of the practical purposes of the Relief Society?

Let’s spend today reading through Jo’s epistle to the Relief Society and see what can be garnered from his understanding of the role of Relief Society and women in leadership positions in the Church.

I’m reading this from the Vogel history of the Church source and text critical edition 2015 vol 4:549. That’s the entire epistle, but the Relief Society minutes taken by Secretary Eliza R. Snow for March 30, 1842 are fairly well recorded. The HoC version is just more lecture-like instead of being Eliza’s minutes while Jo was speaking which make them very hard to read.

Jo’s lecture was the first item of business, we’ll wrap up at the end with the remaining items of business after the epistle as I think it provides the context of the entire meeting.

“Try the Spirits

Recent occurrences that have transpired amongst us render it an imperative duty devolving upon me to say something in relation to the spirits by which men are actuated.

It is evident from the apostles’ writings that many false spirits existed in their day, and had “gone forth into the world,” and that it needed intelligence which God alone could impart to detect false spirits, and to prove what spirits were of God. The world in general have been grossly ignorant in regard to this one thing, and why should they be otherwise—“for no man knows the things of God, but by the Spirit of God.”

Jo then goes on to provide his evidence for where people were able and unable to detect whether a spirit was of god or of the adversary. You’ll find that much of this entire epistle is constructed merely to cast aspersions at religions which aren’t Mormonism, both ancient and contemporary.

“The Egyptians were not able to discover the difference between the miracles of Moses and those of the magicians until they came to be tested together; and if Moses had not appeared in their midst, they would unquestionably have thought that the miracles of the magicians were performed through the mighty power of God, for they were great miracles that were performed by them—a supernatural agency was developed, and great power manifested.

The witch of Endor is no less singular a personage; clothed with a powerful agency she raised the Prophet Samuel from his grave, and he appeared before the astonished king and revealed unto him his future destiny. Who is to tell whether this woman is of God, and a righteous woman—or whether the power she possessed was of the devil, and her a witch as represented by the Bible? It is easy for us to say now, but if we had lived in her day, which of us could have unraveled the mystery?

It would have been equally as difficult for us to tell by what spirit the apostles prophesied, or by what power the apostles spoke and worked miracles. Who could have told whether the power of Simon, the sorcerer, was of God or of the devil?”

It seems as if Jo was misunderstanding the story of the witch of Endor. She was a conjurer of spirits, not a necromancer. Of course, Saul had outlawed witchcraft in Israel at this time, so the woman was terrified she would be imprisoned, and Saul was required to approach her in disguise to see the conjuration of the recently deceased Samuel.

From 1 Samuel 28:3

“3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had lamented over him and had buried him in Ramah, his hometown. In the meantime Saul had removed the mediums and magicians from the land. 4 The Philistines assembled; they came and camped at Shunem. Saul mustered all Israel and camped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was absolutely terrified. 6 So Saul inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him—not by dreams nor by Urim nor by the prophets. 7 So Saul instructed his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her.” His servants replied to him, “There is a woman who is a medium in Endor.”

8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothing and left, accompanied by two of his men. They came to the woman at night and said, “Use your ritual pit to conjure up for me the one I tell you.”

9 But the woman said to him, “Look, you are aware of what Saul has done; he has removed the mediums and magicians from the land! Why are you trapping me so you can put me to death?” 10 But Saul swore an oath to her by the Lord, “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not incur guilt in this matter!” 11 The woman replied, “Who is it that I should bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up for me Samuel.”

12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out loudly. The woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” 13 The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid! What have you seen?” The woman replied to Saul, “I have seen one like a god coming up from the ground!” 14 He said to her, “What about his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up! He is wrapped in a robe!”

Then Saul realized it was Samuel, and he bowed his face toward the ground and kneeled down. 15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul replied, “I am terribly troubled! The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He does not answer me—not by the prophets nor by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what I should do.”

A female conjurer in the Bible, using the power of god to communicate with spirits as a medium for Saul. Jo was using his hindsight to claim that her story made it into the Bible, therefore the power she wielded must have been by the spirit of God. But Jo asks a relevant question, how would the people at the time have been able to unravel the mystery of whether or not this priestess was empowered by the spirit of God? A skeptic needn’t wrestle with such absurdities. Is Santa’s sleight powered by harnessed gravitational waves from Venus or by the souls of captured children from the naughty list? But, for a person claiming to speak to and for God on earth, it’s important Jo was using white magick and using arguments from the Bible to try those spirits.

Jo then takes the opportunity to look to sects outside the Bible to cast his aspersions at those sects led by the devil. Mormon God is the only way to heaven. Any time the conversation comes up that Mormonism doesn’t tear down other religions, I would point people to the claims that the first vision claims that god and Jesus said that all religions are evil and their professors corrupt, but also this epistle to make the point even more clear as to where Jo stood on other religions.

“There always did, in every age, seem to be a lack of intelligence pertaining to this subject. Spirits of all kinds have been manifested, in every age, and almost amongst all people. If we go among the Pagans, they have their spirits; the Mohammedans, the Jews, the Christians, the Indians—all have their spirits, all have a supernatural agency, and all contend that their spirits are of God. Who shall solve the mystery?”

I’ll bet it’s Jo, it’s gotta be, right?

“Try the spirits,” says John, but who is to do it? The learned, the eloquent, the philosopher, the sage, the divine—all are ignorant. The heathens will boast of their gods, and of the great things that have been unfolded by their oracles. The Mussulman will boast of his Koran, and of the divine communications that his progenitors have received, and are receiving. The Jews have had numerous instances, both ancient and modern, among them of men who have professed to be inspired, and sent to bring about great events, and the Christian world has not been slow in making up the number.

“Try the spirits,” but what by? Are we to try them by the creeds of men? What preposterous folly—a cobweb of yesterday. Angels would hide their faces, and devils would be ashamed and insulted, and would say, “Paul we know, and Jesus we know, but who are ye?” Let each man or society make a creed and try evil spirits by it, and the devil would shake his sides; it is all that he would ask—all that he would desire. Yet many of them do this, and hence “many spirits are abroad in the world”.

It seems that his entire line of argumentation could be rendered moot by simply saying, “But Jo… to be fair… look in the mirror.” If anybody wants to know how deluded Mormonism is, just ask another Christian pastor. If you want to know how deluded Christianity is, ask a Muslim Imam. If you want to know how delusional Islam is, ask a Jewish Rabbi. It’s a massive finger-pointing circlejerk of pots and kettles screaming at each other for not being truly black. And sure, if you grant that Jo had some kind of insight that no other human being has ever had on the entire planet, then this line of argumentation is consistent, but if you don’t grant special pleading to Joseph Smith and view him to be similar to hundreds of other Christian sects of his day, it just falls apart.

“One great evil is, that men are ignorant of the nature of spirits; their power, laws, government, intelligence, &c., and imagine that when there is anything like power, revelation, or vision manifested, that it must be of God. Hence the Methodists, Presbyterians and others, frequently possess a spirit that will cause them to lay down, and during its operation, animation is frequently entirely suspended; they consider it to be the power of God, and a glorious manifestation from God; a manifestation of what? Is there any intelligence communicated? Are the curtains of heaven withdrawn—or the purposes of God developed? Have they seen and conversed with an angel—or have the glories of futurity burst upon their view? No! but their body has been inanimate, the operation of their spirit suspended, and all the intelligence that can be obtained from them when they arise, is a shout of “glory,” or “hallelujah,” or some incoherent expression; but they have had “the power.”

This is skirting dangerously close to being self-reflective. Once again, a person could say, well Jo, isn’t all of that exactly what the Mormons are doing? Aren’t Mormons doing everything you just listed and also speaking in tongues and experiencing group hallucinations of angels after you feed them the Lord’s Supper? He digs in pretty deep here, and trust me, we’re going somewhere with all of this when it comes to women in authority positions of religions.

“The Shaker will whirl around on his heel, impelled by a supernatural agency or spirit, and think that he is governed by the Spirit of God; and the Jumper will jump and enter into all kinds of extravagances. A Primitive Methodist will shout under the influence of that spirit, until he will rend the heavens with his cries; while the Quakers (or Friends) moved, as they think, by the Spirit of God, will sit still and say nothing. Is God the author of all this? If not of all of it, which does he recognize? Surely, such a heterogenous mass of confusion never can enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Whew, he almost got there. Jo almost got to the point of saying these religions all do stuff that we do, how can we know that our version of all these “spiritual manifestations” is the Spirit of God. But it gets worse with Jo’s lack of self-awareness.

“Every one of these professes to be competent to try his neighbor’s spirit, but no one can try his own, and what is the reason? Because they have not a key to unlock, no rule wherewith to measure, and no criterion whereby they can test it.”

Ah… there’s the special pleading. They don’t have the “key” to tell what’s the spirit of God or that of the devil, only Jo holds all the keys.

“Could any one tell the length, breadth, or height of a building without a rule? Test the quality of metals without a criterion, or point out the movements of the planetary systems, without a knowledge of astronomy? Certainly not; and if such ignorance as this is manifested about a spirit of this kind, who can describe an angel of light? If Satan should appear as one in glory, who can tell his color, his signs, his appearance, his glory?—or what is the manner of his manifestation? Who can detect the spirit of the French prophets, with their revelations and visions, and power and manifestations? Or, who can point out the spirit of the Irvingites, with their apostles and prophets, and visions, and tongues and interpretations, &c., &c.? Or, who can drag into daylight and develop the hidden mysteries of the false spirits that so frequently are made manifest among the Latter Day Saints?”

Oh boy, who could test those spirits? What is this magic yardstick we get to use to determine that the Mormon church is actually the only religion led by God while all the others on the planet are led by the devil? Spoiler alert, it’s going to be the same litmus test as every Christian uses to test whether or not a spirit is of God, the Bible. But, of course, because the bible is such a massive convoluted work of literature by dozens of authors, passages can be extracted from it to justify anything the reader sees fit. You want to justify owning people as property, physically abusing your wives, overthrowing the government or rendering unto Caesar what’s his, genocide against unbelievers, or really anything else you want, the Bible has your back.

“We answer, that no man can do this without the priesthood, and having a knowledge of the laws by which spirits are governed; for as “no man knows the things of God but by the Spirit of God,” so no man knows the spirit of the devil, and his power and influence, but by possessing intelligence which is more than human, and having unfolded through the medium of the priesthood the mysterious operations of his devices; without knowing the angelic form, the sanctified look and gesture, and the zeal that is frequently manifested by him for the glory of God, together with the prophetic spirit, the gracious influence, the godly appearance, and the holy garb, which are so characteristic of his proceedings, and his mysterious windings.”

Bingo, you can only know if something is the Spirit of God by the yardstick Jo personally gives you when you convert to the Church. This is coercive. This is how you tell everybody that the entire world is corrupt and on fire, but I’m not corrupt and I’m the only one with a fire extinguisher. The next paragraph is particularly prophetic when we reflect on 19th-century Utah history.

“A man must have the discerning of spirits before he can drag into daylight this hellish influence and unfold it unto the world in all its soul-destroying, diabolical, and horrid colors; for nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit, when they think they have the spirit of God. Thousands have felt the influence of its terrible power and baneful effects. Long pilgrimages have been undertaken, penances endured, and pain, misery and ruin have followed in their train; nations have been convulsed, kingdoms overthrown, provinces laid waste, and blood, carnage and desolation are the habiliments in which it has been clothed.

The Turks, the Hindoos, the Jews, the Christians, the Indians, in fact all nations have been deceived, imposed upon, and injured through the mischievous effects of false spirits.”

This coming from a man who was literally trying to build his own theocratic kingdom and overthrow the United States government, who’d also backed down from a horrific battle in Missouri when he was outnumbered and surrounded by Missouri state militia forces. And look, his logic is sound. Religion has been used to inflict complete and utter chaos, commit countless genocides, large and small, segregate people because of geography or skin color. Is the best solution to all these religious issues really yet one more person claiming to have the one true religion?

After that, Jo goes on another 6-paragraph screed against the ancient false spirits, which I’ll spare you from. He picks up with casting aspersions at modern religious groups.

“Having said so much upon general principles without referring to the peculiar situation, power and influence of the magicians of Egypt, the wizards and witches of the Jews, the oracles of the Heathen, their necromancers, soothsayers and astrologers, the maniacs or those possessed of devils in the apostles’ days, we will notice, and try to detect (so far as we have the scriptures for our aid) some few instances of the development of false spirits in more modern times, and in this our day.

The ”French Prophets” were possessed of a spirit that deceived; they existed in Vivaris and Dauphiny, in great numbers in the year 1688; there were many boys and girls, from seven to twenty-five; they had strange fits, as in tremblings and faintings, which made them stretch out their legs and arms, as in a swoon; they remained awhile in trances, and coming out of them uttered all that came in their mouths (see Buck’s Theological Dictionary).”

This is pretty interesting. Europe, and France specifically, during the enlightenment was a hotbed of religious innovation. With the Protestant reformation throughout the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s, Catholicism was losing a lot of control they’d exercised in the past when squashing out small religious uprisings in opposition to their iron fist. The Protestant reformation may have kicked off in Germany, but France throughout the 16 and 1700s was where art, science, philosophy, religion, and especially occult sciences flourished with relative lack of restraint when compared to the previous 1000 years of the medieval period. Most of the major schools of occult philosophy Jo knew gained popularity during this time, even if the genesis of the curricula was before the actual 1600s. Hermeticism, Kabbalah, post-enlightenment Gnosticism, all comprised Jo’s understanding of the nature of God. From Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah by Lance Owens, beginning with a quote from Harold Bloom.

“What is clear is that Smith and his apostles restated what Moshe Idel, our great living scholar of Kabbalah, persuades me was the archaic or original Jewish religion. . . . My observation certainly does find enormous validity in Smith's imaginative recapture of crucial elements, elements evaded by normative Judaism and by the Church after it. The God of Joseph Smith is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the true religion. . . . Either there was a more direct Kabbalistic influence upon Smith than we know, or, far more likely, his genius reinvented Kabbalah in the effort necessary to restore archaic Judaism.2

While I would not diminish the inventive genius of Joseph Smith, careful reevaluation of historical data suggests there is both a poetic and an unsuspected factual substance to Bloom's thesis. Though yet little understood, from Joseph's adolescent years forward he had repeated, sometime intimate and arguably influential associations with distant legacies of Gnosticism conveyed by Kabbalah and Hermeticism—traditions intertwined in the Renaissance and nurtured through the reformative religious aspirations of three subsequent centuries. Though any sympathy Joseph held for old heresy was perhaps intrinsic to his nature rather than bred by association, the associations did exist. And they hold a rich context of meanings. Of course, the relative import of these interactions in Joseph Smith's history will remain problematic for historians; efforts to revision the Prophet in their light—or to reevaluate our methodology of understanding his history—may evoke a violently response from traditionalists. Nonetheless, these is substantial documentary evidence, material unexplored by Bloom or Mormon historians generally, supporting a much more direct Kabbalistic and Hermetic influences upon Smith and his doctrine of God than has previously been considered possible.

Through his associations with ceremonial magic as a young treasure seer, Smith contacted symbols and lore taken directly from Kabbalah. In his prophetic translation of sacred writ, his hermeneutic method was in nature Kabbalistic. With his initiation into Masonry, he entered a tradition born of the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition.”

Jo casting aspersions at the “French Prophets” comes into focus when we know just how in touch he was with occult philosophies like Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Rosicrucianism mysticism. Those “wizards and witches of the Jews, the oracles of the Heathen, their necromancers, soothsayers and astrologers, the maniacs or those possessed of devils in the apostles’ days” needed to be delineated from Jo’s version of all those practices. How could one know that Mormon necromancy, prophecy, maniacal behaviors, convulsions, and astrology were moved by the spirit of God? If all of them were practiced using the priesthood. But, are women privy to that priesthood power to properly utilize these gifts?

“Johanna Southcott professed to be a prophetess, and wrote a book of prophecies in 1804, she became the founder of a people that are now extant. She was to bring forth, in a place appointed, a son, that was to be the Messiah, which thing has failed. Independent of this, however, where do we read of a woman that was the founder of a church, in the word of God? Paul told the women in his day, “to keep silence in the Church, and that if they wished to know anything to ask their husbands at home”; he would not suffer a woman “to rule, or to usurp authority in the Church”; but here we find a woman the founder of a church, the revelator and guide, the Alpha and Omega, contrary to all acknowledged rule, principle and order.”

Joanna Southcott is actually a really interesting case study when talking about people who styled themselves prophets of the lord. Her first book of revelations circa January, 1803 deals with men who would claim that women can’t be prophets because of justifications written by Paul.

“WHEREAS the learned, and self-righteous, have condemned me for an impostor, for saying, "the Lord saith," when they affirm he has not spoken; now let them bring forth their arguments, and show their strong reasons, why they pretend to judge of a thing they know nothing about, and why they judge in the dark, when they were invited to judge in the day-light, and have the perfect truth laid before them. Such judgment is throwing aside both the Law and the Gospel. Let men capable of reason attend to reason. Should a man condemn the Bible who never read it through? forming his judgment upon a few pages of it, and condemning the whole? Would you not be ready to condemn such a one? You would answer, yes. You were in duty bound to blame him:-and I answer I am in duty bound to blame all men that condemn my writings, without coming to the clear light, truth, and knowledge of them.”

Southcott wrote over 60 books. If we judge a prophet by volume of work, she about 9 billion times more of a prophet than Joseph Smith by sheer word count. But volume of publications does not a prophet make. The lord spoke to her in rhymes. She published thousands of pages of her communications with deity. Here’s a sampling from June 1804 when she was led to ponder her role as a woman in the male-dominated society of religious ministers and self-proclaimed prophets.

"NOW this hath been the pondering heart of thee-

How thou wouldst act sooner than disobey?

And from thy heart I'll now appear,

And prove that men are devils here,

If they would have thee disobey,

And let the serpent now to say,

It is a fever of thy brain,

That thou with men do thus contend

Thy Maker's will for to obey;

They all shall find the woman's free

From the temptations of the Fall,

And from that guilt, I tell you all-

And so by her the serpent's cast:-

But now in man he strong does burst:

So 'tis with man she must contend;

Because the devil's now in men-

And like the serpent doth appear,-“

Joanna Southcott is a really interesting case. She joined Wesleyan Methodist in 1792 then soon after claimed that she possessed supernatural gifts in communicating with spirits. She even sold special “seals of the Lord” which were basically passports to be one of the 144,000 spoken of in Revelation to get into heaven. Instead of taking tithing donations, she literally sold people a way to get into heaven. Finally at age 64, in 1814 when little Jo was just 9 years old, Southcott claimed to be with child and that she would deliver the Messiah, as Jo alluded to in the epistle passage we just read. She literally thought she would be the woman clothed in the sun and the moon under her feet with the crown of twelve stars who would fight it out with the dragon in the last days.

Right before her death, Southcott had a box made for the sealed portion of her unpublished revelations. The contents of this box are disputed to this day by a few remnant families dotting the planet who still believe she was a prophetess. Honestly, the more I looked into Southcott for this little segment, the more I realized that somebody out there needs to do a Naked Southcottism or something. This is a wonderfully fascinating religious movement that boasted at one point to have over 100,000 followers.

Needless to say, Southcottists had a remarkable penchant for charismatic leaders, just like many of the Mormons, which partially explains why Jo thought it necessary to bring her up in his screed about women’s roles in religion. Jo was happy to cite Paul’s statement that women are to remain silent in Church and ask their husbands for instruction once they’re home. Sure, Jo may have been comparatively progressive with respect to some of his contemporaries, but really, he was a product of his time and he couldn’t supersede the prescribed social structures of his day.

Southcott wasn’t the only focus of Jo’s derision.

“Jemimah Wilkinson was another prophetess that figured largely in America, in the last century. She stated that she was taken sick and died, and that her soul went to heaven, where it still continues. Soon after, her body was reanimated with the spirit and power of Christ, upon which she set up as a public teacher, and declared she had an immediate revelation. Now the scriptures positively assert, that “Christ is the first fruit, afterwards those that are Christ’s at his coming, then cometh the end.” But Jemimah, according to her testimony, died, and rose again before the time mentioned in the scriptures. The idea of her soul being in heaven while her body was on earth, is also preposterous. When God breathed into man’s nostrils, he became a living soul, before that he did not live, and when that was taken away his body died; and so did our Savior when the spirit left the body, nor did his body live until his spirit returned in the power of his resurrection. But Mrs. Wilkinson’s soul [life] was in heaven, and her body without the soul [or life] on earth, living [without the soul, or] without life.”

Jemimah Wilkinson is another fascinating case study in religious history. At the age of 24, in 1776, Wilkinson was afflicted with typhoid fever, the same illness which hit the Smith family and resulted in Jo’s leg operation in his youth. There were frequent bouts of typhoid, Wilkinson’s case is nothing particularly rare. At the height of her illness, Wilkinson had an out of body experience, to which Jo alluded when talking about her claims that her body and spirit were separated. When Wilkinson came back, they claimed that they were neither male nor female and that all are alike unto Christ, and thus kicked off their religious movement derived from the Quakers. Wilkinson’s movement came to be known as the Universal Friends society, and they “the Public Universal Friend,” at the head of the society. Quakers regularly were referred to as Friends and their publications frequently included “friends” in the title, like the Friends Weekly Intelligencer I cited back on part 2 logical of the Book of Abraham episode when they met with Mother Lucy Mack Smith. However, upon Wilkinson’s reinvention of character as a sexually ambiguous person, they offended the Quaker societies and thus they were forced to create their own religious movement.

In “A Queer History of the United States,” Michael Bronski tells of Wilkinson’s increasing success on the preaching circuit throughout the 1780s and 90s.

“mid-1780s the popular press and pamphlet culture covered Wilkinson's sermons in detail and placed particular emphasis on their sexually ambiguous persona. Wilkinson had a huge following that verged on a cult and eventually started a religious settlement in central New York State.”

This cult would be one of the earliest communalistic cults included as part of the First Great Awakening area of New England, which would enjoy a renewed level of religiosity in the 1810s-30s during the Second Great Awakening in the Burned-over District. Let’s just take a pause here, can you imagine what it would have been like to be a gender non-binary person at the turn of the 19th century in America? They were executing women less than 100 years before this for epilepsy or drug overdose and today, more than 200 years later, people are executed all over the globe because their sexuality or identity falls in the realm of proscribed perversion of the status quo religion. Add in to that, being a public figure like Wilkinson was in a market led almost exclusively by men. They received universal condemnation as prophet of the Universal Friends Society. Some interactions with Wilkinson are recorded by other preachers who shared discourse with them. It would be understandable that they was rather embittered by such public derision as a constant onslaught of their character. Paul Moyer has a very interesting book on Wilkinson and the Public Universal Friend religious movement. Moyer recounts some interactions. Moyer uses the masculine to describe Wilkinson.

“the Friend’s community of the faithful soon proved to be all too exposed to the baleful influence of outsiders. Methodist circuit preacher Thomas Smith demonstrated this in 1806 when he held an outdoor meeting in Jerusalem near the prophet’s home. According to Smith, he spoke to a large crowd while the Universal Friend observed from a distance. The preacher directly challenged the Comforter’s identity as a holy messenger, taking as his text Revelations 2:20: “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.” Who Smith considered Jezebel was clear to everyone. When some of the Friend’s adherents reported what he had said to their leader, Smith recalled that “she wept, and then put the black mark of reprobation on me.” 1

Itinerant preachers were not the only visitors to Jerusalem, and by the nineteenth century, tourists on their way to see Niagara Falls frequently made an excursion to see the Universal Friend. Several of these travelers published accounts that give the impression of a prophet whose charismatic powers were clearly on the wane. In 1810 a man who simply signed his narrative “T.C.” described the holy messenger as “a corpulent women, masculine featured, her hair (nearly gray) combed back, her age fifty-nine . . . neither her tone of voice nor manner bespoke much intercourse with the world, and nothing with the polite part of it.” After talking with the prophet about his religious views, the visitor took his leave, having found the Friend’s conversation “unpleasantly parenetic and didactice, abounding with scripture phraseology applied somewhat at random, and strongly savouring of what seemed to me affected mysticism.” Similarly, an anonymous traveler’s report from 1812 describes the Comforter as “selfish,” “tyrannical,” and “overbearing” and his followers as “weak in intellect, and inclined to superstitions.” The writer also foresaw the sect’s decline, asserting that it did not “exceed one hundred in number” and predicting “the submission which they made [to the Friend], will not probably be imitated by their children.” 2 It would be easy to pass off these observations as uninformed opinions that do not accurately portray the Universal Friend or his Society, yet there is more than a kernel of truth to them. The prophet was aging and losing the energy and comeliness of youth that had served him so well in the early years of his ministry. After the move to the New York frontier, the Friend also lost access to large numbers of potential converts in the thickly settled East; worse yet, the followers he had already attracted began to fall away. The primary source of trouble, however, was a rebellion against the prophet’s rule led by defecting members of his sect. These rebels challenged the Universal Friend’s claims to divine status and focused their attacks on his earthly bases of power.”

That was from Moyer, The Public Universal Friend p. 166-7, you’ll find a link in the show notes.

Needless to say, women and genderqueer religious people were universally derided by their male counterparts. There’s plenty of religious justification for this derision, stemming from the Paul in the Bible, which Jo was happy to quote in this epistle discussing women’s role in the Church.

Back to Jo’s divisive epistle, presented in the first women’s leadership quorum in the Mormon church a mere 2 weeks after it was founded. He continues on to deride the practice of speaking in tongues used by women of these various religions led by women. Presumably, they weren’t as pleasing to his ears as Zina Huntington, Sarah Whitney, and Emma Smith’s speaking in tongues were.

“They there were honored as the prophetesses of God, and when [the women] spoke [in tongues], Mr. Irving or any of his ministers had to keep silence. They were peculiarly wrought upon before the congregation, and had strange utterances, uttered with an unnatural, shrill voice, and with thrilling intonations they frequently made use of a few broken, unconnected sentences, that were ambiguous, incoherent, and incomprehensible; at other times they were more clearly understood. They would frequently cry out, “There is iniquity! There is iniquity!” And Mr. Irving has been led, under the influence of this charge, to fall down upon his knees before the public congregations, and to confess his sin, not knowing whether he had sinned, nor wherein, nor whether the thing referred to him, or somebody else. During these operations, the bodies of the persons speaking were powerfully wrought upon, their countenances were distorted, they had frequent twitchings in their hands, and the whole system was powerfully convulsed at intervals; they sometimes however (it is supposed) spoke in correct tongues, and had true interpretations.”

This is so very fascinating to me. Jo just described the Kirtland Temple Dedication Ceremony. All of those things happened in Kirtland at some point. I suppose that’s one of the major takeaways of this entire epistle, if you’re not doing all these religious practices while calling yourself a Mormon, you’re led by the devil. If you’re experiencing tongues, spiritual ecstasy, seemingly epileptic fits, it better be in a Mormon Church or you’re led by the devil.

“Under the influence of this spirit the church was organized by these women; apostles, prophet, &c., were soon called, and a systemic order of things introduced, as above mentioned. A Mr. Baxter upon going into one of the meetings, says, “I saw a power manifested, and thought that it was the power of God, and asked that it might fall upon me; it did so, and I began to prophesy.” Eight or nine years ago they had about sixty preachers going through the streets of London, testifying that London was to be the place where the “two witnesses” spoken of by John, were to prophesy; that (they) “the Church” and the Spirit were the witnesses, and that at the end of three years and a half there was to be an earthquake and great destruction, and our Savior was to come. Their apostles were called together at the appointed time watching the event, but Jesus did not come, and the prophecy was then ambiguously explained away…”

Jo was relatively smart when it came to his prophecies. Google end of days prophecies and see how many thousands of results you’ll get for just the last 8 years. End of days and second coming prophecies happen all the time, claimed by thousands of people all across the globe, and none of them have ever actually come to pass. Jo was calculated in most of his prophecies that were testable. For example, he prophesied that an uprising would happen in South Carolina, he prophesied that three witnesses would behold the plates, and he saw to it that it happened, he prophesied of Zion being in Missouri, but we’ll have to wait until the second coming to see if that one holds up, prophesied of the United Order, Mormon communalism, that’s failed every single time it was tried, but simply by virtue of trying I suppose the prophecy was fulfilled, apparently Jo claimed that none of the leadership’s lives would be taken while in captivity in Liberty Jail, but scores of Mormons outside lost their lives due to sickness and starvation during the exodus, so we’ll call that a halfy, he also prophesied that he would never step foot back in Missouri, alive or dead, and that was true. All of these are either vague enough or within Jo’s control that the prophecy couldn’t help but come true. Mormons are happy to ignore the mountain of other prophecies which never came to pass, but it is worth noting that Jo was relatively careful with his prophecies. I would contend that he learned his lesson seeing so many charismatic doomsday revivals fall to pieces after those doomsday prophecies failed, therefore used more vague and calculated language to issue his prophecies. Some other time we’ll go through Jo’s failed prophecies, one could argue they’re more prolific than any prophecies which could be interpreted as having come true.

The point is, Jo was a charismatic prophet with decades of fulfilling leadership roles. Prior to Mormonism, he was the seer of a treasure-digging troop. After April 1830, he was the seer of a different kind of treasure-digging troop. He is quick to point out the flaws of Mr.’s Baxter and Irving in the next passage from the epistle. Apparently, these men were failed prophets in that Baxter had called a false doomsday, and also he couldn’t heal a child by the power of God who died in his arms. Yes, according to Jo, Baxter and Irving’s main flaws have to do with them putting women in leadership roles.

“It may be asked, where is there anything in all this that is wrong?

1st. The church was organized by women, and “God placed in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets”; and not first women’ but Mr. Irving placed in his church first women, secondarily apostles; and the church was founded and organized by them. A woman has no right to found or organize a church: God never sent them to do it.

2nd. Those women would speak in the midst of a meeting, and rebuke Mr. Irving or any of the church. Now the Scripture positively says, “thou shalt not rebuke an Elder, but intreat him as a father”; not only this, but they frequently accused the brethren, thus placing themselves in the seat of Satan, who is emphatically called “the accuser of the brethren.”

The last two points merely claim that he didn’t get baptized and confirmed into Mormonism and doesn’t follow Joseph Smith, therefore can’t possibly be a true prophet. There was a subtle allusion in there about the women rebuking Mr. Irving, and we’ll get to that in a moment after we wrap up the epistle.

Jo goes on to talk about discerning false spirits and admits that Mormonism has been gripped by false spirits from time to time.

“No man nor set of men without the regular constituted authorities, the priesthood and discerning of spirits, can tell true from false spirits. This power they possessed in the Apostles’ day, but it has departed from the world for ages.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have also had their false spirits;…”

The Kirtland era was absolutely wonderful for these spiritual manifestations. There were dozens of stories Jo could have used as an example to talk about false spirits in Kirtland, but the one he provided is absolutely golden, of which I only became recently aware of the genesis of this story.

Here it is:

“Soon after the Gospel was established in Kirtland, and during the absence of the authorities of the Church, [Jo, the vision quest guide] many false spirits were introduced, many strange visions were seen, and wild, enthusiastic notions were entertained; men ran out of doors under the influence of this spirit, and some of the got upon the stumps of trees and shouted, and all kinds of extravagances were entered into by them: one man pursued a ball that he said he saw flying in the air, until he came to a precipice, when he jumped into the top of a tree, which saved his life; and many ridiculous things were entered into, calculated to bring disgrace upon the Church of God….”

That story of a guy hallucinating a white floating ball and chasing after it until he fell off a ledge into the top of a tree which saved his life is simply amazing. There was a man in Kirtland named Peter Kerr, but even that is already problematic. You see, Kerr was the last name his mother took when she was purchased by the Kerr family. People referred to Peter Kerr simply as “Black Pete”, a freed slave. Robert Beckstead in his 2007 Sunstone presentation, Restoration and the Sacred Mushroom, contends that Peter Kerr knew hoodoo magick from his African ancestry and was supplying Jo with datura or some other psychoactive plant medicine of similar entheogenic properties. Don’t these spiritual gifts and manifestations begin making a little more sense when we view this through the Smith-entheogen theory lens? If you’re not familiar with it, last July, Cody and I did a couple episodes reading through our Sunstone paper about the Smith-entheogen theory, I’d recommend going back and listening to those two episodes if you’re a new listener or if you just want a refresher.

So, this story of Peter Kerr chasing a white orb floating in the air, likely only visible to him, or else maybe a bunch of people would have ended up in that tree, that story seems to be accurate as corroborated by a local newspaper account.

“It is alleged that some of them have received white stones promised in the second chapter of the Revelations. Such of them as have "the spirit" will declare that they see a white stone moving about the upper part of the room, and will jump and spring for it, until one more fortunate than the others catches it, but he alone can see it. Others however, profess to hear it roll across the floor. These two stories, and others of a similar character, are told by them with solemn asseverations of their truth.

Among them is a man of color, a chief man, who is sometimes seized with strange vagaries and odd conceits. The other day he is said to have jumped twenty-five feet down a wash bank into a tree top without injury. He sometimes fancies he can fly.” (Geauga Gazette, 1 Feb 1831, Painesville, Ohio, Fanaticism; The Golden Bible, or The Book of Mormon, http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/chrd1831.htm#012131)

Can I have some of those white stones, or whatever it was that John had on the isle of Patmos when he wrote Revelation? I ask you, what’s more likely, that supernatural forces were moving and affecting the Mormons similar to what other groups were experiencing, but those spirits are approved of when presided over only by Joseph Smith whereas every other sect is led by spirits of the devil…. You see how convoluted this already has become. Or, is it more plausible that Jo and some of the Mormons didn’t have the recipe quite tuned in and people saw and did some crazy stuff? Both are plausible, only one is probable when we view Mormon history through a naturalistic lens.

Let’s rerail this conversation back to the conclusion of Jo’s epistle. Remember, he made some bold assertions that the entire reason behind these false spirits being manifested in other religious sects was due to women being put in leadership roles over men. He concludes his epistle by invoking juris prudence of the Church court when false spirits and people claiming to speak for god have come forward. He begins with an unnamed woman who gave a revelation which didn’t come true. The last paragraph I feel really sums everything up really well. Given the content of the epistle and the fact that this was given only to the Female Relief Society, these concluding thoughts seem more of an ultimatum than idle reminiscing.

“We have also had brethren and sisters that have written revelations, and have started forward to lead this Church. Such was a young boy in Kirtland, Isaac Russel[l] of Missouri, and Gladden Bishop, and Oliver Olney of Nauvoo. The boy is now living with his parents, who have submitted to the laws of the Church. (Don’t disobey authority) Mr. Russell stayed in Far West from whence he was to go to the Rocky Mountains, led by three Nephites, but the Nephites never came, and his friends forsook him, all but some of his blood relations, who have since been nearly destroyed by the mob. (Don’t leave the flock or your friends and family will leave you and the mob will destroy you) Mr. Bishop was tried by the High Council, his papers examined, condemned and burned, and he cut off the Church. (Don’t you dare claim to be receiving prophecy or the same fate awaits. The next line sums it up perfectly) He acknowledged the justice of the decision, and said “that he now saw his error, for if he had been governed by the revelations given before, he might have known that no man was to write revelations for the Church, but Joseph Smith,” and begged to be prayed for, and forgiven by the brethren. (we’ll allow you to come back if you just submit to my authority, and mine alone) Mr. Olney has also been tried by the High Council, and disfellowshipped, because he would not have his writings tested by the word of God; evidently proving that he loves darkness rather than light, because his deeds are evil.”

To provide context for the remainder of the Relief Society meeting, we need to understand that rumors were really starting to become a problem in Nauvoo. Jo was exercising polygamy and acquiring more wives by the month. But it wasn’t just him. Brigham Young had propositioned Martha Brotherton by locking her in a room with him and coercing her, John C. Wreck-it Bennett was running around town with his “spiritual wifery” which were relationships not approved of by Jo, and there were a number of other Mormon elites who were working to acquire wives. Rumors inevitably spread from all this drama and scandal.

After reading the epistle, Jo dismissed himself from the meeting. Emma took the pulpit and spoke of some scandalous rumors surrounding a woman named Clarissa Marvel. Clarissa Marvel was living with Agnes Moulton Coolbrith Smith, who was the widow of Jo’s younger brother Don Carlos, and had married Jo 3 months prior to this meeting. It seems as if her rumors may have had something to do with Jo and Agnes Coolbrith.

Referring to the first meeting of the Relief Society when it was organized, Avery and Newell write of the purposes of the Relief Society in Mormon Enigma p. 108

“Emma and Joseph together outlined the purposes of the society, which were “to provoke the brethren to good works . . . to save the elder the trouble of rebuking . . . to look after the wants of the poor . . . [to] do good . . . [to] deal frankly with each other,” and to “correct the morals of the community.” There would be no arguments about doing good and caring for the poor, but women dealing frankly with each other and correcting the morals of the community would become explosive issues in the city of Nauvoo…

Emma reported that a young woman, Clarissa Marvel, “was accused of [telling] scandalous falsehoods on the character of Prest. Joseph Smith without the least provocation,” and asked that “they would in wisdom, adopt some plan to bring her to repentance.” She continued, “I presume that most of [you] know more about Clarissa Marvel than I.”

There must have been silent consternation among a few in the group who were privy to the teaching of celestial marriage. Joseph’s plural wife Louisa Beaman sat in the meeting as did Sarah Peake Noon and Vilate Kimball. Did Emma know that her husband had approached some women and asked them to become his plural wives?

Agnes Coolbrith Smith, Don Carlos’s widow, came to the accused girl’s defense, apparently unaware that gossip linked her own name to Joseph’s. “Clarissa Marvel lived with me nearly a year and I saw nothing amiss of her,” she reported.”

This issue was only just beginning. It wouldn’t be for another few weeks until it was wrapped up, during which it was made abundantly clear that the Relief Society isn’t just a 2-hour gossip session every week, but had much loftier goal, like silencing those who would spread such scandalous fake news about the one true prophet. At the Relief Society meeting in mid-April, Emma took the pulpit again and read another epistle trying to stifle such rumors.

Mormon Enigma p. 111

“Before adjourning the meeting Emma read a document that Joseph and the church leaders had prepared for the Relief Society in March. It stated that some men were approaching women to “deceive and debauch the innocent,” saying that they had authority from Joseph or other church leaders. “We have been informed that some unprincipled men . . . have been guilty of such crimse—We do not mention their names, not knowing but what there may be some among you who are not sufficiently skill’d in Masonry as to keep a secret . . . Let this epistle be had as a private matter in your Society, and then we shall learn whether you are good masons.”

Are you skilled enough Masons to keep a secret? So, what was the real purpose of the Relief Society? We can’t truly know. We can use markers like these and surmise that to some extent it was created to slow down the Nauvoo rumor mill, but instead it seemed to merely create a Petri dish where the rumors could abound without limitation. It’s abundantly clear that Jo never sought to allow the Relief Society any real executive authority. He provided plenty of examples of religions led by women who were in error and used the Bible to make his arguments. He was no different than his contemporaries in that regard.

Did the women of the Relief Society have some kind of priesthood? Yes. They performed many of the ordinances that the men holding priesthood did, but they didn’t have any tangible power when it came to executive decisions and the deliberation leading to those decisions within the church, so what powers did they actually have? Was there priesthood separate but equal? I would argue that it was not separate or ever intended to be equal, but they did exercise some kind of priesthood in Nauvoo.

One significant takeaway from all this content is that early Mormonism is distinctly a product of its time. It wasn’t some ancient religion initially created by Jesus and then restored through Joseph Smith. Mormonism is a 19th-century American religion and suffered from all the same limitations and dicta of the society and culture from whence it sprang. Anybody making an argument to the contrary has ulterior motives for doing so. Jo may have been progressive for his day in some regards, but he was still a product of his time. If he were magically transported to our society he’d seem incredibly backwards and bigoted by today’s standards. He might even be elected President. #JoSmith2020, who’s with me!? Make America a theocracy again.


Sunstone D&C cover to cover inside and outside. Marie and I are nearly completed reading through the Doctrine and Covenants and we’ll be presenting at Sunstone Symposium on Saturday July, 28, 2018. Our time slot is currently 10:15 in room 200-C. Sunstone this year has outgrown the University of Utah, where it’s been hosted for a very long time, and is now at Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy with tons of parking and quick access to the trax station just across the street. Sunstone is an awesome conference so if you can make it for the whole conference, or even just for the presentation Marie and I are giving, it would be really cool to see you there. But, never fear. If you can’t make it to Sunstone, but that Friday night, 27th, is open, I hope you’ll join us at Squatters pub. Marie and I will be doing a show, just like last year, on the second floor of Squatters Pub at 147 Broadway in downtown Salt Lake City, also right on the trax line if you don’t have a designated driver. We have to pay for the staff and venue so we’re doing a $5 door charge and asking everybody to be generous to their servers so it doesn’t cost Marie and I money to do the show like it did last year. We’re kicking off at 8 p.m. to give everybody plenty of time to get there from the last session of Sunstone and grab a bite to eat. The show itself should run around an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and we’ll be mingling until everybody calls it a night. We’re also excited to have a super special guest join us for the live show.

I’ll keep bugging you guys about it for the next month until Sunstone and sharing updates as they come together. If you don’t have your tickets for Sunstone yet, get em. Or, if you can’t make it to Sunstone on Saturday morning, come to Squatters Friday night July 27th and hang out with us, it’ll be a lot of fun.

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This show is produced with the help of Julie Brisco as production assistant and director of social media, and Brian Ziegenhagen as audio engineer. Music is produced by Jason Coamsdoweau from aloststateofmind.com and is used with permission. Naked Mormonism is a production of Ground Gnomes llc copyright 2018 all rights reserved.

Copyright Ground Gnomes LLC subject to fair use. Citation example: "Naked Mormonism Podcast (or NMP), Ep #, original air date 06/22/2018"