Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Inspired Founding Mothers

You know that I love Eve, but the title of this post doesn't refer to her.

I've been thinking, recently, about the reverence in which members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. During his tenure as prophet, Ezra Taft Benson declared that "Our Father in Heaven planned the coming forth of the Founding Fathers and their form of government as the necessary great prologue leading to the restoration of the gospel." Those founding fathers included "delegates [to the Constitutional Convention, who] were the recipients of heavenly inspiration." The Founding Fathers were inspired during their lifetimes, and they have, in turn, inspired Church leaders from the grave.

As the president of the St. George Temple, immediately prior to assuming the prophetic mantle, Wilford Woodruff received a vision in which he saw many of the Founding Fathers, who demanded that he perform saving and exalting ordinances on their behalf: "Before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, 'You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God" (Discourses, 160). As the prophet, President Woodruff later explained that "those men who laid the foundation of this American government were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits . . . inspired of the Lord" (Conference Report, Apr. 1898, p. 89).

Because Church leaders have repeatedly identified the words of our Founding Fathers as "inspired," we frequently hear their words invoked in General Conference and other settings. The words of John Adams, for instance, have been quoted in conference addresses quite a few times. And yet, for all of the emphasis that we place on the words of men like Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others, we rarely hear anything at all about the women who stood by their sides, the mothers and wives, sisters and daughters, who stood with the Founding Fathers as equal partners (spiritually and intellectually, if not socially). Church leaders have never taught us from the pulpit in General Conference about inspired Founding Mothers any more than they've taught us about our Heavenly Mother, but we know much more about them and there is no reason we shouldn't benefit from their example and counsel.

To be fair, this apparent bias reflects the fact that we have far fewer published records documenting the lives and words of Revolutionary-era women than we do Revolutionary-era men. But I also suspect that the patriarchal culture of the Church has inadvertently overshadowed the contributions of women like Abigail Adams by shining the light of inspiration so brightly on her husband and his companions. Elder G. Homer Durham did once reference a letter written by Abigail Adams that calls for inspired mothers and wives, but he also framed that letter in terms of Abigail's relationship to John: "In 1775 John Adams, designing a new nation in Philadelphia, wrote his wife Abigail of his concern for the nation's future leadership. She replied, 'If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, . . . we should have learned women."

Our ecclesiastical emphasis on Founding Fathers obscures the fact that our unsung Founding Mothers were, by and large, more obedient to the commandments of God (Franklin was an open adulterer, and Jefferson's sexual exploits with his slave, Sally Hemmings, have been a matter of public record for more than a century) and more diligent in their worship. I would suggest that for most of these women their behavior qualified them to receive visitations of the Holy Ghost far more frequently than their philandering husbands. To paraphrase President Spencer W. Kimball, "It has been said that many of the great [founders] were perverts or moral degenerates. In spite of their immorality they became great and celebrated [statesmen]. What could be the result if discovery were made of equal talent in [wo]men who were clean and free from the vices and thus entitled to revelation?"

As just one example of the way in which a Founding Mother who was clean and free from vice received eternally significant inspiration, let me share an excerpt from a letter written by Abigail Adams to her niece, Lucy Cranch Greenleaf, on August 27, 1785:

"Why may we not suppose, that, the higher our attainments in knowledge and virtue are here on earth, the more nearly we assimilate ourselves to that order of beings who now rank above us in the world of spirits? We are told in scripture, that there are different kinds of glory, and that one star differeth from another. Why should not those who have distinguished themselves by superior excellence over their fellow-mortals continue to preserve their rank when admitted to the kingdom of the just? Though the estimation of worth may be very different in the view of the righteous Judge of the world from that which vain man esteems such on earth, yet we may rest assured that justice will be strictly administered to us.

"But whither has my imagination wandered? Very distant from my thoughts when I first took my pen."

In this passage, Abigail Adams anticipatorily summarizes the doctrines that Joseph Smith would publicly reveal in the Doctrine and Covenants more than fifty years later: "Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:18-19). Adams also seems to intuitively understand that the heavens include a number of kingdoms, referencing the same Bible verse (1 Corinthians 15:41) that missionaries around the world use today in explaining the three degrees of heavenly glory to investigators.

It also seems significant to me that Abigail Adams recognizes the words she has just written have come from outside herself--that she recognized an influence (even if she did attribute it to her "imagination") which prompted her to write about something other than she originally intended. I would suggest that in this letter we have evidence that she was as or more inspired than her husband.

Our Founding Mothers, like our Founding Fathers, were inspired! Having recognized that fact, we ought to treat their surviving words in the same way that prophets have directed us to treat the words of their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers--with the careful scrutiny due the lives and letters of those valiant spirits our Heavenly Father entrusted with preparing the way for a restoration of the gospel.


Jo Jo said...

Very nice tribute. Love Abigail Adams! Should have saved for mother's day ;-)

Jenny said...

I like this.
Thanks, Zach.

Alana said...

GOooooooooooooooooooooooooo Abby!