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

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by Emily

Driggs sisters Maud top MZ

Some Mormon women: Driggs sisters, photograph in possession of the author

On Thursday, September 12th I had the opportunity to hear Kris Wright, co-author of Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism with J. Stapley, speak on Bread, Water, Oil, & Cloth: Religious Objects, Mormon Women, and History at the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake.  I’d been so excited for this night to come because I enjoyed the above-mentioned paper so much, and Kris did not disappoint in her presentation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bless the Sick

Soothe the Sad

Succor the Distressed

Visit the Widowed and Fatherless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I got home and told my husband about the lecture, he summarized the circumstances succinctly:  So, women worked hard and sacrificed to sew and cook items for religious worship, and then they (whoever that is) came along and said we’re going to make your life easier by buying bread and disposable cups and purchasing garments and other linens, but now women complain they want more work again? Interesting thought. Maybe we should try our hands at making our own garments and baking the sacrament bread.  Maybe then we would feel more connection to our religion through that labor.  Or, we could just find ritual, religious connection through other things we’ve been asked to do such as preparing future missionaries, temple work, better learning and understanding doctrine*, etc.  I can’t help but recall feelings I’ve had when we’re offered to do less with church, such as fewer meetings.  Don’t we love those we serve? Won’t it be harder to love and sacrifice for a church that doesn’t ask as much of us as it once did?   I think instead of allowing this to distance us from our religion, we need to identify our personal ministries and seek to magnify them, which could indeed draw us closer to our faith.

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

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

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

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

Food for thought:

  • What tangible things do you do to connect with your religion?
  • What can we do to feel united with our religion even if in some ways we are not producing religious items to the extent we once did?

*The thoughts on what to do came from Michelle at Mormon Women.  She also shared this: “Sister Susa Young Gates related to me that she once asked her father [Brigham Young] how it would ever be possible to accomplish the great amount of temple work that must be done, if all are given a full opportunity for exaltation. He told her there would be many inventions of labor-saving devices, so that our daily duties could be performed in a short time, leaving us more and more time for temple work. The inventions have come, and are still coming, but many simply divert the time gained to other channels, and not for the purpose intended by the Lord” (“Put on Thy Strength, O Zion!” Improvement Era, Oct. 1952, p. 720).  That leaves me with a lot more to think about.

About Emily

I'm a busy mom of 4 living in Utah and have been married for 14 years. I went to Ricks & BYU and have a BS in Health Science and minors in History and International Development. I did my student teaching in Western Samoa. If I ever have time, I enjoy blogging and sewing (especially re-enactment sewing), but usually I'm just trying to make time to exercise and clean the house. I hope to someday remodel and get more into historical research.

2 Responses to Mormon Women’s Involvement with the Sacred: Reflections on Kris Wright’s Lecture on Bread, Water, Oil, and Cloth

  1. jendoop says:

    Thank you for this summary, I appreciated especially the thought that women were the gatekeepers of birth and death. Such holy times which have been significantly outsourced to male dominated careers. Don’t think I’m going off on a feminist rant here, bear with me. In a recent gender studies class I learned that it has been proven through research that when a career is dominated by women it is automatically valued less than a career typically dominated by men. If this applies to other areas, and to specific tasks, it is our modern culture that demeans the contributions of women. Once those contributions are degraded, they are deemed below women of substance, and women cast them off as much as they can. Once these duties are cast off by women someone has to do them, so we pay someone. Often this has been men who needed pay. Once men are seen as responsible for that duty it automaticallyl gains respect in the eyes of society, and is no longer associated with women. This may just be a long winded way of saying that it is not the gospel that demeans the work of women, it is the world, and we let that thinking seep into our perspective of duties in the church. We are the ones who see Relief Society as less because it is run by women. We are the ones who see Primary as less because it is run by women. We are the ones who see motherhood as less because it is done by women. We are not willing to give duties performed by women the respect they have in the eyes of God, because we are viewing them with worldly eyes. It is not the duties that need to change, it is our eyes.

    One other thing I wanted to clarify. You mention sewing our own garments, but that’s not even allowed now is it?

    • Emily says:

      That is just fascinating!

      And no, I don’t believe you can sew your own temple garments – sorry if it came across as a “real” suggestion, more rhetorical, I suppose.

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