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From our exchanges: “Transformations of Power: Mormon Women’s Visionary Narratives”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 03, 2008

Margaret K. Brady, “Transformations of Power: Mormon Women’s Visionary Narratives,” The Journal of American Folklore 100:398 (Oct.-Dec. 1987), 461-468.

Brady writes, “[F]or most women living within patriarchal religious systems, … feminine reproductive goals and values are inextricably entangled with the goals of their chosen religion.” She examines personal narratives of LDS women gathered over a 30-year period, all having to do with dreams, visions, or other premonitory experiences concerning an as-yet unborn child to develop “insights into the ways in which the women themselves conceive of their own power.”

These narratives (only one of which is presented in full in the article, although elements from two or three others are briefly paraphrased; there is no indication of whether or where these narratives might be examined by other scholars) reportedly contain five elements in common: a woman considers her family complete; she has a visionary experience of a child not yet born; the child is aware that he or she is “supposed to” come to the woman’s family, and calls her “Mom”; the experience is so powerful that the woman becomes pregnant again as soon as possible; the mother determines whether or not the baby is the one she saw in vision (is it the right gender? is some characteristic appearance present?), and if this is not the foreseen child, the mother is so convinced that there is yet another child waiting to come to her family that she immediately plans another pregnancy.

Brady theorizes that these experiences are repeated within Mormonism because of the centrality of the family, the doctrine of premortal existence, and the concept of personal revelation. All these doctrines are loosely enough defined that they allow a woman to interpret her experiences to her personal advantage — that is, she can see them as confirmatory of a personal life mission, and, according to Brady, grant herself status within the Mormon community, “for one who has experienced a personal revelation is clearly marked as a spiritual individual.”

The women in Brady’s narratives have also, almost to a woman, previously decided that they will bear no more children, for what most of us would consider entirely valid reasons, and yet feel guilty for their decisions.

The visionary experience delivers a woman from the throes of guilt, uncertainty, and the necessity of constantly justifying her decision both to herself and to others. She no longer has to decide; Heavenly Father has so clearly spoken the decision for her — through the voice of her own child. At the same time, He has touched her personally, marked her as spiritually worthy — and all this at a time when she most questions her own spirituality because of the guilt of the former decision not to bear children.

Brady reports her narratives were told as personal experiences in Relief Society meetings, over the pulpit in testimony meetings, or in classes for young adults. She writes,

One woman who had used such an experience in a class on spirituality for teenage girls said to me that ‘in the Mormon religion a spiritual person is a prestigious person. A person who related such an experience, a ‘spiritual experience’ is the phrase used, would be special and would be thought of as righteous and close to our Father in Heaven. Many people would repeat the story with awe and decide to pattern their lives after the individual so perhaps they too could have a similar personal revelation from God.’ The status derived from the telling invests the teller with a new kind of personal power.

Although I do not recall ever having heard such an experience directly from a woman who claimed to have lived it, I have no trouble believing that some women have had such visionary experiences and spoken about them in church settings. I do question Brady’s interpretation of such narratives as giving status within the community to women who tell of them — I can and do say “amen” following a testimony of healing, or physical protection, or divine help in resolving a personal dilemma, but I do not raise a pedestal for the bearers of such testimonies, nor regard them as more spiritual or more righteous than someone who has not had such blessing. I certainly have never “decide[d] to pattern [my life] after the individual so perhaps [I] too could have a similar personal revelation from God.”

Indeed, while I found this article to have value for presenting a new type of “spiritual experience” which I can readily accept but with which I have no direct experience, the article fails on another level. The author does not present her data and then follow it where it leads; rather, she appears to be agenda-driven and interprets her data with a predetermined end in mind. Without giving the reader any background, without discussion of the events or presentation of evidence, Brady baldly asserts:

Unlike the medieval women visioanries, Mormon women have not always lacked access to real ecclesiastical power. … Interpretations of different patriarchal leaders over the last hundred years, in subtle changes in emphasis, have continued to alter Mormon doctrine regarding appropriate spiritual activities for women. While late 19th-century Mormon women healed the sick, spoke in tongues, cast out devils, had visions, and prophesied, their modern counterparts have been barred from all of these activities except the right to have their own personal visions. The history of how these changes came about presents another side to this same patriarchal story, but what is relevant here is the fact that the only spiritual “gift” still allowed Mormon women today is the ability to have visions. No wonder, then, that many Mormon women find through the visionary experience and its narrative counterpart an access to spiritual power denied them in other traditionally appropriate arenas.

Perhaps Brady’s assertions are true, in part or in full. But Brady makes no argument which can be examined by a reader for persuasiveness (accuracy, completeness, logic, fairness — whatever your criteria are for judging the success of an argument). She merely describes a phenomenon (women’s visionary experiences in connection with childbearing), then announces a conclusion about other phenomena (women’s access to all other spiritual gifts). This was a disappointing end to an otherwise promising beginning.



20 Comments »

  1. Ardis – thanks for publishing this. I agree with your conclusion about the sloppiness of Brady’s analysis, but her description of women’s visionary experiences with respect to childbearing rang true for me. I participated in the YW program in the late 80s and early 90s (when the Church’s position on birth control was still inscrutable to most people), and I heard women tell these stories to explain both welcoming more children, and also for limiting the number of children.

    I can’t speculate as to these womens’ motivations, but invoking their spiritual experiences silenced any questions regarding their family planning decisions. Nowadays, however, the Church has explicitly told its members that family planning decisions are the own personal business of the married couple, so I don’t hear many stories about these sorts of spiritual experiences anymore.

    Comment by ECS — June 3, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  2. ECS — Thanks for taking the time to comment. The related experiences rang true for me, too, in that I could easily imagine hearing such a story in almost any LDS women’s gathering, and I *think* I’ve heard these stories second or third hand, but not directly from a woman who had such an experience.

    Do you think women’s narratives of some other specific type would today have the same effect on hearers? Family historians trade uncanny experiences relating to genealogy and temple work in a way that sometimes inspires awe in the hearer, including a desire for similar experiences, but those aren’t specific to women, of course.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  3. I have encountered such narratives first-hand (i.e., the women and men who claimed them told them to me themselves) in weak (without a “visual” vision) and strong (with the visual vision) forms. Most were told in private settings rather than in public (which is why I am anon-for-this).

    As I understood the conversations, the narratives were used, respectively, to (1) support an expression of hope that physiological obstructions to full-term, healthy pregnancy would be removed/ameliorated/healed, (2) give glory to God for His power and individualized love for us, (3) help siblings accept the arrival of yet another child (when, by that time, the siblings were old enough to know that their family was different, even at church; this was the experience involving men), and (4) to head off or shut down criticism of childbearing decisions.

    I have also encountered a slightly different narrative used to account for a delay in child-bearing. (The experience came before the children; it was related decades later, after the children had been born; I don’t know if it was used at the time to justify the delay).

    Comment by Anon-for-this — June 3, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  4. Interesting–I’ve heard first-hand accounts like these often, as well as those expressing a spiritual confirmation that the woman is finished bearing children. I’ve heard them so much that I have felt guilt that I never received a spiritual message that my family was complete. Was there another child waiting in the preexistence to come to our home?

    I, too, agree that Brady’s conclusions may be founded upon speculation, but they are intriguing. What direction might Mormon women’s spirituality take were it discouraged in some of its earlier manifestations (healing, tongues, prophecy, etc.)? Ardis, what do you think would make an argument such as Brady’s more persuasive?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — June 3, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  5. Anon, thanks, especially for broadening the meanings women and their families might give to experiences like these. The way you frame it, these stories are a variation of testimonies with which we are all familiar — a blessing, an insight, a still, small voice — that are confirmations of divine love.

    It may be that Brady is using folklorist or feminist terms of art with which I am not familiar, neutral in their professional sphere but harsher, un-Mormon, in the way I read them as a layman. I like your take.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  6. BiV, since Brady didn’t make any argument, merely asserted a conclusion, almost any argument could potentially be persuasive to me. For instance, she could have

      Defined terms

    — One spiritual activity she claims is no longer available to women is prophecy. I don’t know what she means by prophecy. She may mean something quite different than I understand by that word (receiving and speaking revelation about the future), because my mother had and exercised that gift within our family. I’ve heard Relief Society presidents exercise it, too — always within their stewardships, but still very much what I would call prophecy. So Brady would be more persuasive if she defined her terms so that I could consider whether she was intending something different from my contradictory experiences.

      Outlined some history

    — We’ve all been made aware of the changing attitudes toward women’s healing blessings, although her non-Mormon audience would not necessarily be familiar with it. Is there a similar history curtailing women’s access to other spiritual gifts? There may be, although I’m not aware of any. Brady could be more persuasive if she actually established that such changes had occurred, rather than merely asserting that they had.

      Discussed modern demonstrations of spiritual gifts

    — When is the last time you heard of a man casting out a devil? Do men have access to speaking in tongues, while women do not? To be persuasive that women’s spiritual gifts have been curtailed by a patriarchal society, it would be necessary, I think, to demonstrate that men in this patriarchal society continue to exercise gifts from which they have barred women.

    The extract beginning “Unlike the medieval women visionaries …” that I included in the original post, together with this sentence fragment: “Doctrinally, as part of the duties of the Mormon priesthood, men are called to ‘mediate the relationship of women with God’ [citing John Heeren, Donald B. Lindsey, and marylee Mason. 1984. The Mormon Concept of Mother inheaven: A Sociological Account of Its Origins and Development. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23:396-411, which I have not read] is Brady’s FULL discussion regarding restrictions on modern Mormon women’s access to spiritual gifts — I have not distorted her conclusion by abbreviating it.

    So I’m back to saying that since there is no argument, only simple assertion, any argument would have the potential of being more persuasive.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  7. Yes, like ECS I heard these narratives in previous decades in public and do not hear them anymore. I don’t live in the Mormon corridor anymore, so that may influence the narratives I hear.

    Just as a matter of trivia, I remember hearing one of these narratives in testimony meeting from a father. As a fairly young child (10-13?) I listened to his account (not the first time I had heard something like it) and concluded that he was lying. Curious incident, but I’ve learned over the years that I’m often right about impressions like that.

    I heard the additional-child narrative as described in the article (the mother who has two additional children because the first one doesn’t fit the mold). I don’t remember feeling that the woman had any ulterior motives in telling the experience. Looking at her reputation within the ward, it would be hard to assert that telling her experience would give her more religious capital than she already had.

    Doctrinally, as part of the duties of the Mormon priesthood, men are called to ‘mediate the relationship of women with God’

    Wow. That is so contrary to my experience with spiritual gifts, both my own and others’.

    Few experiences with spiritual gifts are actually shared in public or would be available to an author like this.

    The experiences that I have felt comfortable sharing in public (usually in Relief Society) have been rather run of the mill. I would never discuss my child-related experiences in public and most of the ones I’ve heard from others have been shared privately around the time I was expecting my first child.

    Often people don’t share experiences like this unless you have a firm relationship of trust with them. I was recently the recipient of an account by a woman who is not a member of the church about an experience regarding her recently deceased son. She told me that she shared it with me because I had shared a visionary narrative with her about one of my deceased relatives shortly after her son died.

    Why did I tell her my experience? Because she needed comfort. Because I know her well enough to rely on her treating my experience with respect. Because it made the point that her son could be remembered even in future generations.

    Why did she tell me hers? Because she knows me well enough to rely on my treating her experience with respect. Because I could validate her experience.

    My point here is that when Brady argues that women have been restricted to one spiritual gift, she simply may not have access to peoples’ experiences. Yes, we are not speaking in tongues in RS meetings in the way that was recorded in the early days of the church, but that is a limited view of spiritual gifts and their manifestations.

    Comment by Anon-for-this #2 — June 3, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  8. Whoops. Bad choice of pseudonym. I meant that I’m a different Anon-for-this than in comment #3.

    Comment by Anon-for-this #2 — June 3, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  9. Anon #2, that’s beautifully said. As candid and personal as I have been on various blogs, including some tender experiences, I will not talk about other experiences here or elsewhere in public. The setting — the people, and the mood, and the need — has to be exactly right before some things can be shared.

    I wish Brady had said something about the conditions under which she collected her narratives. Whatever those conditions might have been, you’re no doubt right that she would not have been granted access to everything.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  10. I don’t know if you want other experiences on this specific topic but I, too, have heard stories like this first-hand. I think I recall one being shared in RS, but maybe my memory fails me and that was a personal discussion. I think they can be valid, but certainly don’t place women like that in a higher plane in my mind. I don’t expect every woman to have clear revelatory experiences like this just as I don’t expect everyone’s testimony to come in the same way, or don’t expect us all to have the same spiritual gifts and guidance come in the same forms.

    I also have seen women take their personal experiences and expect that they are generalizable (e.g., “Of course you will know when your family is complete”) — to which I say that you can’t generalize personal revelation.

    I appreciate your analysis of the article, Ardis.

    Comment by m&m — June 3, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

  11. Thanks, m&m. I’m trying to pick up articles that would be generally unfamiliar to the Bloggernacle because they were published before most of us were reading the journals, or because they appeared in journals that are not primarily oriented to Mormon studies. Even when they’re a little dated like this one, I think they’re valuable — especially when we can update them a little with personal experience, like yours and those of others who have heard these tales that I apparently missed.

    And no, you *can’t* generalize personal revelation, can you? I mean, isn’t that the point of *personal* revelation? (I haven’t clicked to your link yet, but will.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  12. Interesting conversation.

    Comment by Edje — June 3, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  13. Ardis, my wife and I have six kids. In two cases, we have had experiences that fit some of the characteristics listed by Brady. One (the more “visionary” one) was my wife’s alone and was very much what is described – minus the “guilt” factor, since it was long before we thought we were done having kids.

    The second one was when we thought we were done. It was not the type of vision described here, and it was mine, not my wife’s, but it was every bit as real.

    My biggest problem with Brady’s conclusion is the idea that these experiences confer some kind of spiritual capital. That, imho, is hogwash. The experiences were incredibly personal, as you can see in my lack of detail here – and, among those with whom we have shared the details, we never once had anyone express the idea that we somehow were more spiritual because we had them.

    Comment by Ray — June 3, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  14. Thanks, Edje — it is.

    Ray, that claim from one of Brady’s narratives is entirely out of my experience, too. I picked up the article in the first place because I thought it would be interesting to read about modern Mormon visionary experiences, and I actually wrote this post as I read, summarizing each section before going on. Had I read it all before beginning to write, I might have been so exasperated by the disconnect between the body of the article and its conclusion that I probably wouldn’t have bothered posting — but I’m glad I did, because of the experiences some commenters have shared, sketchy as they are. I don’t know how I’ve missed hearing such narratives myself!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

  15. Ardis, contrary to what other commenters have said, I do believe that people who share their spiritual experiences (in whatever context) are often rewarded with at least the appearance or reputation as one who is worthy enough to have spiritual experiences. And in our close-knit religious communities this reputation can be real currency – especially for men – who may be asked for priesthood blessings, given leadership positions, etc. because of their ability to be spiritually “in tune”.

    (That said, it can backfire if you overshare and so people feel that you’re being manipulative or, well, just plain crazy by talking about your personal experiences with the divine.)

    Comment by ECS — June 4, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

  16. So much seems to depend on personal experience and perception, doesn’t it? I can agree with ECS to the extent that when someone bears a testimony of a spiritual experience, and it feels sincere to me, I’ll nod in approval or recognition and no doubt edit my mental image of that person with a “faithful Saint” or “sensitive to the spirit” or “believes in prayer” label. To the extent that a reputation is strengthened, maybe that is a reward, of sorts, and maybe I’m not particularly conscious of why I might choose to ask someone for a blessing or for counsel.

    I’m far more conscious of your backfire position, when something feels manipulative. The statement by the woman quoted in the article — “Many people would repeat the story with awe and decide to pattern their lives after the individual so perhaps they too could have a similar personal revelation from God” — feels manipulative to me. The implication that I would be in awe of someone who lives as she ought to live, that I would choose to live a gospel principle because someone else did and not because the principle was right, or that I would ape a person with the goal of manipulating God into rewarding me — all that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe that’s what I’m denying, and not recognizing that I reward less manipulative claims with a more subtle currency.

    You make me think.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  17. Ardis,

    This is a fascinating post to me. Around Christmas time I was trying to do some research to find records of women having these types of experiences. As much of early Mormonism seems to be a recapitualtion of events in the scriptures, I wondered if women experienced “anunciation” type visions, etc.

    I wonder what the role of women’s “stewardship” re: childbearing plays in all of this. If women’s “sphere” is raising children, are they more entitled in their own minds to such revelation.

    As an aside, I have had two such experiences, both in a temple, both totally surprised me as I was not really seeking spiritual guidance on the topic at the time. Hopefully, no one I’ve shared that with thinks I’m manipulative OR crazy. :)

    Comment by kris — June 4, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

  18. Thanks for this, Ardis. I’m posting it on Blog Segullah’s sidebar.

    Comment by Kathryn Soper — June 6, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  19. I have heard such narratives on a couple of occasions, but always in private settings. I suspect that many women have received revelation and visions more often than is related. Perhaps women feel more comfortable sharing certain visions, especially regarding to childbearing, because it does explain the choice for more children or not.
    I personally would be more inclined to share a spiritual impression received about having another child than other impressions or experiences I have had.
    I have had a few spiritual experiences that were so sacred and private that the only person I have shared them with, was my husband.
    I disagreed with the anaylsis of the author study.

    Comment by Tiffany — June 9, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  20. […] sociological discussion of the LDS concept of Mother in Heaven. She has an other discussion of women’s visionary narratives as well as several other posts you might find interesting while […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 2: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — June 9, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

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