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What Joseph Smith Taught Women About Gifts of the Spirit

“Here let thy holy Spirit rest
Without a chain to bind:
May all who enter in, be blest
In body and in mind.”

—Eliza R. Snow (The First Fifty Years of Relief Society 3.24, 396)

Joseph Smith focused his sermon to the Nauvoo Relief Society on 28 April 1842 on gifts of the Spirit, using Paul’s teachings to the Corinthians as his text. He taught that receiving a testimony of Christ, foundational for disciples, should be joined by other gifts of the Spirit in the lives of “holy women” (FFY 1.2.6, 54). Scripture helps us identify and begin to understand gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12, 13; Moroni 10; D&C 46). Joseph suggested that some of the gifts of the Spirit included “the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.”1 The “so forth” reminds us that none of these lists is exhaustive, but suggestive to help us recognize gifts of the Spirit in our own lives and in the lives of others. Consider Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s list of less-conspicuous gifts of the Spirit: “The gift of asking; the gift of listening; the gift of hearing and using a still, small voice; the gift of being able to weep; the gift of avoiding contention; the gift of being agreeable; the gift of avoiding vain repetition; the gift of seeking that which is righteous; the gift of not passing judgment; the gift of looking to God for guidance; the gift of being a disciple; the gift of caring for others; the gift of being able to ponder; the gift of offering prayer; the gift of bearing a mighty testimony; and the gift of receiving the Holy Ghost.”2

Joseph’s earlier March 1831 revelation implores the Saints, “Seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given. . . . that all may be profited thereby” (D&C 46:8, 12). Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ reinforced the same idea: “For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” Paul continued, “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:14-16, 21). Not everyone needs every gift—no one can do everything, but we all can do something. We all have a gift to contribute. And collectively we need all the gifts—the body of Christ needs all of its parts. Joseph reminded the sisters of this as he taught, “Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbors’ virtues, but be limited towards your own virtues; and not think yourselves more righteous than others; you must enlarge your souls toward others if yould [you would?] do like Jesus, and carry your fellow creatures to Abram’s bosom.” As Joseph taught them of the possibility of gifts of the Spirit, they experienced an outpouring of the Spirit. Eliza R. Snow recorded, “The spirit of the Lord was pour’d out in a very powerful manner, never to be forgotten by those present on that interesting occasion” (FFY 1.2.7, 58, 61).

Our experiences may be different from that of these early sisters, but that does not mean we have lost opportunities to experience an outpouring of the Spirit. There is never just one way to experience these gifts of the Spirit—there are always “diversities of operations” (D&C 46:16) How we experience these gifts changes depending on our specific needs, circumstances, and expectations, yet the Lord expects us to seek out these gifts. Receiving and applying gifts of the Spirit is a critical part of how early members of the Relief Society sought holiness. The section of the introduction to First Fifty Years titled “Seeking Holiness” offers an important historical overview of how early women of the Restoration received gifts of the Spirit and enables us to begin to think about change over time (see xxi-xxv).

As you study the experiences of these early sisters, think about how you recognize your own gifts, as well as the gifts of your sisters, and how we all might better receive and employ these gifts for the profit of all. Study gifts of the Spirit in scripture; study Joseph’s teachings to the Relief Society and the words and experiences of these women. How did women in the first fifty years of the Relief Society experience gifts of the Spirit? How is this similar to your own experience? How is it different?

Nauvoo Relief Society, 19 April 1842 (1.2.6) 

Eliza’s minutes of the fifth Relief Society meeting conclude: “The meeting was very interesting, nearly all present arose & spoke, and the spirit of the Lord like a purifying stream, refreshed every heart.” They did not have “much business to be attended to, therefore” counselor Sarah Cleveland suggested, “we might spend the time in religious exercises before the Lord.” They took advantage of the opportunity to share concerns, their witness, and blessings with one another, including expounding and exhorting in powerful ways. The minutes reference speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, and healing blessings—these are certainly manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit. As all participated and contributed, the Spirit could flow and teach them. What gifts of the Spirit are seen here? How do women bless their sisters? How do we create an atmosphere in Relief Society where all feel comfortable to contribute? How do we demonstrate that we value the gifts of all?

Speaking in Tongues

Eliza R. Snow, Account of 1868 Commission, as Recorded in “Sketch of My Life,” 13 April 1885 (3.5) 

Jane Wilkie Hooper Blood, Diary Entry, July 1883 (4.3) 

General Relief Society Meeting, Report, 17 July 1880 (4.5) 

Early converts to the Restoration often experienced gifts of the Spirit in distinct ways from what we experience today. The charismatic gift of speaking in tongues—an unknown language—was often manifest. The goal was to communicate more perfectly through the Spirit. This was a significant gift of the Spirit experienced by Latter-day Saints into the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Ann Whitney’s 1832 patriarchal blessing bestowed her with the gift of singing in tongues—an entirely unique gift—that she would practice until the end of her life.3Jane Blood’s diary recorded an 1883 visit of Eliza R. Snow and Zina D. H. Young, another occasion of teaching through the gift of speaking in tongues.

Most often when we refer to the gift of speaking in tongues today, we describe a gift to speak a foreign language; might speaking in tongues also more broadly apply to speaking with the Spirit so that all might understand? Eliza R. Snow records her trepidation when Brigham Young gave her a mission “to instruct the sisters”—she said her “heart went ‘pit a pat.’” She had no idea what lay ahead of her, yet she relied on the Spirit (FFY 3.5, 268-69). After Eliza’s death, Emily Woodmansee wrote of her:

From thy lips fell words of wisdom,
Pure as pearls, or grains of gold;
Far and wide the same have rooted,
Yielding many a thousand fold.
Far and wide thy inspirations
Are “a joy” in these last days;
Zion’s numerous generations
Lovingly repeat thy praise.4

How might we receive the gift of speaking in tongues today? What unique gifts do you have? How do we ensure we are communicating through the Spirit? How do we rely on the Spirit?

Healing

Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Circular Letter, 16 April 1880 (4.8) 

Eliza R. Snow, “To the Branches of the Relief Society,” 12 September 1884 (4.14) 

Wilford Woodruff, Letter to Emmeline B. Wells, 27 April 1888 (4.19) 

Female healing was another consistent part of women experiencing gifts of the Spirit in the nineteenth century. Since New Testament times, believers have participated in healing according to faith in Christ. In Nauvoo, Joseph taught that “there was no sin” in female healing. This practice began to change in the early twentieth century as women were encouraged to call on the elders for priesthood blessings.5 In the Twelve’s 1880 circular letter, they explained their current understanding of how priesthood leaders and women could work together to care for the Saints. In her 1884 message to the Relief Societies, Eliza R. Snow instructs that it is not only a right but a duty that endowed women should “administer to our sisters in these ordinances. . . . It is not only our privilege but our imperative duty to apply them for the relief of human suffering.” In his 1888 letter to Relief Society General President Emmeline B. Wells, President Wilford Woodruff details how women would administer to and care for their sisters preparing for childbirth and the difference between that and the temple ordinance of washing and anointing. You might not lay your hands on a sister’s head today, but how do you relieve suffering? It is our “imperative duty”; how can we accomplish it? Eliza makes it clear—when we operate in “faith and humility” we will be “accompanied with mighty power.” How do we recognize and then relieve all aspects of suffering? How do we understand what our sisters are going through? How can we share the Savior’s healing balm with our sisters?

Charity

“Dedication Hymn” in Eliza R. Snow, Report to Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, March 1876 (3.24) 

Belinda Marden Pratt, Diary Entry, 5 September 1880 (4.6) 

As Joseph taught of the gifts of the Spirit in April 1842, he also quoted Paul reminding the Corinthian Saints that not all gifts of the Spirit are created equally. Valued above them all is the gift of charity. “Searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants” was one of the initial purposes of the Relief Society as outlined by Joseph. Attending to the wants and needs of others is likewise an oft repeated element of the law of consecration. Moroni teaches us that ultimately charity is the “pure love of Christ” and that if we hope to possess it, we must “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart” (Moroni 10:47-48). Some of us may innately possess this gift; others will have to pray for it, yet we all must further develop it. In the end, this is the most important gift. Review Belinda Marsden’s concise journal entry basking in the charitable work of the Relief Society. She regards it a privilege to participate. Let us consider Snow’s hopes in the 1869 “Dedication Hymn”:

Here may th’ influence of thy love,
Devotion’s pulses fire;
And may we strive in every move,
To lift our natures higher.

Why is charity an integral focus of the Relief Society? How can you gain charity? What specific part of your life most needs charity right now? How does learning about the gifts of the early Relief Society members expand your understanding of gifts and recognition of your own? We all have gifts, but we must choose to receive each gift and exercise it for the benefit of all.


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In 2016, the Church Historian’s Press published a long-awaited collection of 19th-century Latter-day Saint women’s documents—an institutional history of the Relief Society from 1842 to 1892. The First Fifty Years of Relief Society is a resource to scholars and general readers, placing women with men at the forefront of the Church. But its physical heft and scholarly composition can easily intimidate a general reader. This eBook study guide is a starting point for readers to better understand these essential documents and have conversations about what they mean for us today. Highlighting some of the more outstanding teachings and insights from the book, this guide will help you connect with your Relief Society sisters of the past and apply their wisdom and knowledge to your daily life.


Additional Reading

Marvin J. Ashton, “There Are Many Gifts,” Ensign, November 1987.

David A. Bednar, “Quick to Observe,” BYU Devotional, 10 May 2005.

Gordon B. Hinckley, “Ten Gifts from the Lord,” Ensign, November 1985.

Chieko Okazaki, “Baskets and Bottles,” Ensign, May 1996; see also Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, eds. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 253-258.

Notes

1. Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842, 3:709, in Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee et al. (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 500.

2. Marvin J. Ashton, “There Are Many Gifts,” Ensign, November 1987.

3. Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, eds., At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 7-9.

4. Emily H. Woodmansee, “Apostrophe, to the Liberated Spirit of Zion’s Late Prophetess and Poetess, Eliza R. Snow Smith, Suggested by the Singing of ‘Oh My Father,’” Woman’s Exponent 16, no. 15 (1 January 1888): 113.

5. “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women,” Gospel Topics, lds.org. See also Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Winter 2011), 1-85.

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