In a short article in the October 15, 1876, issue of the Woman’s Exponent, an author identified as Inez relates a testimony given at fast meeting. A brother told of the support he received from sisters wherever he was called to preach:
“In the Ward meetings or the Tabernacle, everywhere, it was the sisters much more than the brethren, who would turn out to perform these religious duties. ‘The sisters’ he said, ‘form, substantially the Back Bone of the Kingdom of God!’”
Inez goes on to explain her contemplative journey that, although she was taught that man was the head, she could not discount the importance of her own role:
“Now I believe I see this little manner as it is.
“Of what use would a head be without a backbone to assist in keeping it in its proper position? It would be worth just about the same as a kingdom of men without women.”1
Women of the early Church, especially those set apart by priesthood power to lead, took their role as spiritual advisers seriously. The work of sister leaders goes far deeper than meeting the temporal needs of Church units—it is the work of salvation. One of the founding tenets of the Woman’s Exponent was to “inculcate sound principles.”2 The word inculcate means more than simply informing or teaching. It expresses the desire of the founders of the paper to instill spiritual ideals and attitudes by providing a platform where women could repeat valuable instruction from the scriptures, expound on their own religious opinions, and most importantly, bear testimony to each other. The newspaper became a source of spiritual and doctrinal information, from the profound and thought provoking to “daily dose” inspiration.
Many articles in the Exponent expound on scriptural texts. Some provide commentary on passages and verses, and some address the importance of scripture in women’s lives.
Blanche Beechwood (Emmeline B. Wells) presents a lovely take on the sermon found in Galatians 6:2 about serving Christ by bearing one another’s burdens. She applies this doctrine specifically to women: “God has not given to all the same gifts, therefore He must have intended for us to help each other; women as well as men. Why should not women uphold each other?”3
An article by Hannah T. King, a regular and locally renowned writer, addresses the accessibility of the scriptures for those willing to read prayerfully. She states with some lament, “I hear intelligent educated women exclaiming ‘I cannot read the Scriptures, they are so deep, I know nothing about them.’” But she promises that through the scriptures, women will be “enlightened, strengthened, and invigorated” and that in the Lord’s word they would find “panacea”—a cure for all ailments.4 King also wrote an article for the Exponent highlighting women in the scriptures that was printed in four issues of the paper through the spring of 1878, beginning March 1. She later expounded on this series of articles in a pamphlet with a dedication that included this expression of hope: “And should they call out in my young readers a desire to ‘search the Scriptures’ in these days of cold and insensate infidelity, and ‘prove all things,’ great will be my reward.”5
It was evident that King felt passionate about women becoming as well versed and committed to scripture study as their male counterparts and understood the importance of women finding female representations in holy writ. Reading God’s word was a blessing ready to be claimed regardless of gender.
The Exponent also features articles that deal with the philosophy of religion and reflect the national interest in discussing issues of existence, science vs. religion, good and evil, etc. Utah women were thinking big about the theoretical and using their unique theology to support their ideas. Consider this article by an anonymous writer who argued in favor of a truth that encompasses both science and God:
“There are people whose ideas of religion lead them to pray a very great deal, and do but little else, for fear of doing wrong, and who dare not read other than spiritual works; while many scientists, who demonstrate great truths, being 'unbelievers,' take all the glory to themselves instead of rendering it to God, the great Originator of all intelligence. … These two extremes are both wrong. In whatever form the principle of divine truth is illustrated it is sacred, … and is an established, fundamental rule or portion of a rule pertaining to the one true religion—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”6
Or this profound comment on the permanency of the soul: “How can a living soul be buried? Man is where his conscious being is—his memory, his love, his imagination; and since that cannot be put into the grave, the man is never put there.”7 Especially insightful is the article titled “Answer to Woman and Sin” that overthrows the common belief of the time that Eve’s guilt enslaved all women. The article promises “that [women] will reign in like majesty and power as a queen or goddess over the kingdom which she has helped to inhabit.”8
Nestled within the lengthier articles on scripture and philosophy are the simple yet moving commentaries that focus on testimony and a personal connection with God. Throughout the 40-year run of the paper there are several pieces on the principles of prayer, chastity, love, charity, etc. that encourage women in their daily endeavors to live a life of character.
It is important to recognize that many of these articles were contributed by readers of the paper who were inspired to share their spiritual insights with their sisters. A contributor identified as Mary teaches that prayer fine tunes and elevates our soul; it “enwraps our thoughts, to draw them away from the corruptible things of time and mortality; refines the sensitive part of our beings; leads us to higher qualities; and makes us aspire to heavenly things.” She goes on to encourage daily prayer both individually and with children.9
Other women shared testimonies of conversion and commitment. “For are we not the favored of the Lord? Is He not stretching out his mighty arm for our deliverance? Should we not be proud of our name and station?”10 wrote one woman, expressing her gratitude for her Church membership. “I shall never forget my feelings when Harriet was healed, wishing I might realize the same when I should be sick,” wrote another woman of the powerful event that led to her conversion and baptism.11
Hannah T. King wrote again in her energetic style: “Arouse that strong individuality that you all possess … and be not drawn by example or importunity from the ‘straight and narrow path.’”12 This message of innate personal strength to resist temptation is resonant even today. How can women be the spiritual backbone of the Church without an understanding of the sacred that sinks deep into the marrow? Or a commitment to obey the principle of the gospel? The articles of the Exponent empowered and taught women that they too could read the scriptures, be scholars, and rely on one another to be uplifted. As women of the Church today embrace these foundational values, we will become a spiritual force capable of holding up the kingdom in the latter days.
Top image: Women in Argentina study the gospel