“My Book of Mormon Sisters,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 66
A long-standing curiosity about women in the scriptures has recently prompted me to study the standard works. I have hungered to learn more about my ancient female counterparts—what they were like, how they coped with their pressures, how they nurtured their spirituality.
Admittedly, there have been times, during my sporadic adventures into the standard works, when I have been disappointed in my search for scriptural women. Women characters seemed to be so few and far between among the overwhelming numbers of men that it was easy to conclude that women had been slighted.
But a year ago, in conjunction with a religion class, I began a project that challenged my former impressions. As I worked my way from cover to cover in the Book of Mormon, I undertook a thorough and exacting examination of all verses that explicitly referred to women. As my lists grew longer than I had ever expected, I was nicely surprised—perhaps thrilled—to discover so much that was not noticed in my previous casual reading. I found that the Book of Mormon has more than 150 passages of explicit references to women, offering an exciting bundle of information about our fore-sisters in the gospel.
Outwardly, the Book of Mormon fails to create a strong impression of women. There are reasons for this I think: individual women in the record are few, rarely spotlighted, and usually anonymous; women in groups often become obscure; the concise index in the current edition includes few entries dealing with women; etc. In recent conversations with Latter-day Saint friends, I have asked how many women characters they can remember from the book. My friends have been hard pressed to list as many as half a dozen. Lehi’s wife, Ishmael’s family, and the mothers of the 2,000 young warriors were the most familiar; other women were more elusive to the memory.
While in no way a comparison to the number of men mentioned in the Book of Mormon, there are actually twelve or so individual women who were noted. Only six (Eve, Sariah, Mary, Sarah, Abish, and Isabel) are identified by their names, which may be part of the reason why the women are not remembered easily. Nevertheless, there are a dozen women presented in enough depth to reveal interesting personalities and provide role models for individual study.
Three Book of Mormon women are familiar to us from the Bible. Eve is named from the brass plates account of our first parents (see 1 Ne. 5:10–11) and again where Lehi instructed Jacob about partaking of the forbidden fruit, banishment from Eden, and the beginning of the “family of all the earth” (see 2 Ne. 2:18–25). This information was probably extracted from a more complete account of Adam and Eve in the brass plates. The very fact that this story was recorded in both the brass plates and the Book of Mormon underscores the importance of Eve’s role in the inception of humanity.
Consistent with the Book of Mormon’s stated purpose, that of serving as another witness of Christ (see title page), new testimonies regarding Mary, the mother of Christ, are included. (Mosiah 3:8; Alma 7:10.) Nephi beheld the mother of the Son of God, “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins,” cradling the Lamb of God in her arms. (See 1 Ne. 11:14–21.) The Lamanite king Lamoni also bore testimony that his Redeemer was to be “born of a woman.” (Alma 19:13.)
Sarah, wife of Abraham, is mentioned only in passing as “she that bare you.” (2 Ne. 8:2.)
Two women were wives of prophets. Both were closely tied to Nephi, yet one is a comparatively major Book of Mormon character while the other remains anonymous. The first, Sariah, was the helpmate of the visionary Lehi and mother of the eight or so sons and daughters who were the roots of the extensive Nephite and Lamanite civilizations. But more meaningful to me than her role as a progenitress is the model she presents of a woman growing in testimony of the Lord’s purposes through a worrisome trial that strengthened her faith. (See 1 Ne. 5:1–9.) Not uncomplaining (human!) and grieving for unreturned sons, Sariah was comforted by Lehi’s language expressing his faith. After her family was reunited, she testified of her new-found surety that the Lord had told Lehi to flee into the wilderness, had protected her sons, and had given them power to accomplish his commands.
The unnamed wife of the great leader Nephi comes across with a less clear profile. However, she does present a good example of a distraught woman turning to prayer when her husband’s life was endangered. “With her tears and prayers” and in spite of threatenings, she tried to persuade the rebellious brethren to release her bound husband. (See 1 Ne. 18:19.) Perhaps she was the same daughter of Ishmael who, with her mother, pleaded for Nephi’s life on an earlier occasion. (See 1 Ne. 7:19.)
Another Nephite woman who appears briefly was one of the maidservants of Morianton, “a man of much passion.” (Alma 50:30.) She became the victim of a beating at the hands of her angered master. In response to this abuse, she fled to Moroni’s camp with information that thwarted the intended plans of Morianton’s people to occupy the land northward. (See Alma 50:31–36.)
The first of the Lamanite women discussed is Isabel, who led away the hearts of many—including Alma’s youngest son Corianton—through her wicked harlotry. He abandoned his missionary work for conduct with Isabel that caused his father’s and others’ continuing missionary efforts among the Zoramites to suffer lost credibility. (See Alma 39:3–4, 11.) In this example, readers learn from a negative representation of womanhood. The lesson is powerful because it notes the consequences of immorality to innocent others and also the degree of seriousness to its participants. In God’s eyes, Isabel’s harlotry in Siron was an abomination, “yea, most abominable of all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.” (Alma 39:5.)
The first of three Lamanite queens, the vigil-keeping wife of king Lamoni, and Abish, who was her servant, illustrate for us excellent ideals of faith. By summoning Ammon and then believing his words, that her husband would rise on the morrow, Lamoni’s wife demonstrated greater faith than among all the people of the Nephites, according to the lofty compliment paid her. (See Alma 19:1–11.) Later, Abish, who had been a convert in secret for many years because of a “remarkable vision of her father,” ran to gather a crowd of Lamanites to witness their royal court prostrated by the power of God. Having maintained her faith over a long period, she saw this as a missionary opportunity, a chance to show her people the power of God. (See Alma 19:16–18.) Sorrowed at the crowd’s contention, she tearfully took her mistress, the queen, by the hand to raise her from the ground. The queen in turn raised her husband. (See Alma 19:28–30.)
In contrast to this queen’s response to her husband’s “sleep,” another queen, the wife of Lamoni’s father, angrily commanded that Aaron and his missionaries be slain when her husband was overcome. In spite of her anger and determination, she and the entire household were later converted as a result of the restored king’s ministrations. (See Alma 22:19–23.)
The third Lamanite queen was widowed when her husband was stabbed at the order of Amalickiah, a conspiring Nephite who wished to be king over the Lamanites. She initiated an investigation of the murder, but was appeased by Amalickiah’s lying witnesses. Amalickiah later “sought the favor of the queen, and took her unto him to wife,” thereby fraudulently becoming the Lamanite king. (See Alma 47:32–35.) She was again widowed when the sleeping Amalickiah was slain by Teancum. (Alma 51:34.)
Finally, the sole Jaredite woman we learn of is the wicked daughter of the wicked Jared. Wily and “exceeding expert,” she devised a sinful plan to help her father regain his lost throne. It included her dancing to entice Akish to behead her reigning grandfather in exchange for marriage to her. (See Ether 8:8–12.) Credit goes to her for planting the desire in Jared’s heart to search for the secret plans of old for obtaining glory, kingdoms, and “power.” (Ether 8:16–17.) Her suggestion led to Akish’s establishment of a secret combination like those of old, “most abominable and wicked above all, in the sight of God.” (Ether 8:18.) She reaped her reward later, however, when Akish in turn had her father murdered and jealously starved their young son in prison. (See Ether 9:4–7.)
With only a dozen individual women to study, references to women in general are the next basic source of additional insights. These references usually concern women in various groupings—familial, small, or general in nature—with varying degrees of specific involvement in important Book of Mormon occurrences. For example, Nephi had sisters (see 2 Ne. 5:6) who are mentioned only once compared to the more substantially presented brothers. This is in contrast to the daughters of Ishmael, about whom there is a lot of information—how they went into the wilderness and became wives for Lehi’s sons and Zoram, suffered and were blessed with childbearing, mourned at their father’s death, followed righteousness or shared the Lamanite mark. Another small group of women was the twenty-four Lamanite daughters who were kidnapped by the wicked priests of King Noah and later became their wives. (See Mosiah 20:1–5; Mosiah 23:33–34.)
In much larger groups, the northward migration from Zarahemla of 5,400 men included their wives and children; and Hagoth’s vessels also sailed forth with women and children abroad. (See Alma 63:4–7.) In an endearing passage from Third Nephi, it is told that Jesus blessed the little children, and that the multitude who heard and bore record of angels ministering to the children included women. (See 3 Ne. 17:21–25.) Although these common terms wives and women and children can be easily skimmed past, the underlying information that women took part helps create a more complete understanding of the whole scene.
Most often women are referred to in terms of their relationships to other people, by the use of words such as wife, mother, widow, daughter, queen, or servant. It appears that the use of these terms instead of names reflects the cultural norms rather than any attempt on the writer’s part to lessen the worth of women. For example, the Ammonite mothers of Helaman’s 2,000 young warriors do not seem to lack importance because they are labeled “mothers” and “daughters.” They instilled incredible obedience and faith in their sons. “Yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” The young warriors rehearsed their mothers’ words and added: “We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” (Alma 56:47–48.) What an unusual illustration of success for modern Latter-day Saint mothers to emulate! At the other extreme, a failure model that Mormon daughters of all ages should choose to avoid may be found in several verses. Third Nephi 8:25 and 9:2, Mormon 6:19, and Ether 13:17 all deal with the anguishing and lamenting for destroyed daughters that could have been avoided by repentance. [3 Ne. 8:25; 3 Ne. 9:2; Morm. 6:19; Ether 13:17]
Beyond the ways in which Book of Mormon women are grouped or identified, I was curious about the adjectives used to describe their personalities. Fairness, beauty, strength, and tenderness are some of the traits specifically noted.
“Fairness” is a frequently used term, yet perhaps our modern language fails to give it the complete meaning it had then. Beyond the distinction of whiteness of skin, the word fairness perhaps indicated a quality of character or beauty. The virgin of Nazareth was described as “exceedingly fair and white.” (1 Ne. 11:13.) Mormon mourned over the nonrepentant “fair ones” that had fallen. (See, e.g., Morm. 6:17–19.) The “fair sons and daughters” of the Jaredites also did not repent. (See Ether 13:17.) Jared’s cunning daughter is described as “exceeding fair.” (Ether 8:9.) The “fair daughters” of the Nephites were sent to plead with the enemy, and Nephite lives were spared because the Lamanites were charmed with the beauty of these Nephite women. (See Mosiah 19:13–15.)
As part of Lehi’s group struggling in the wilderness, the women were “strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.” (1 Ne. 17:2.) In a different vein, however, the Lord of Hosts referred to the “tenderness” of the daughters of his people. (Jacob 2:33.) Two verses later, there is another reference to “tender” wives whose hearts had been broken, and “died, pierced with deep wounds” from their husbands’ iniquities.
Women are not only described through adjectives but also through their many actions and behaviors. They plead, mourn, suffer, praise, show faith, pray, complain, bear children, fear, cry, convert, summon, make merry, are comforted, murmur, sin, run, are overcome, love, mother, hide, flee, are slain, believe, have broken hearts, toil, spin cloth, sing, dance, charm, are rude, escape, fight, are captured, etc.
It would be difficult to create a “composite” Nephite, Lamanite, or Jaredite woman from these ideas, but these bits of information help to develop our mental pictures of them.
Occasionally, representations of women supply analogies in which the feminine imagery is not especially flattering, but useful. With considerable emphasis between 1 Nephi 13 and 17, for example, the great and abominable church is repeatedly likened unto a harlot and is dubbed the “whore of all the earth.” (E.g., 1 Ne. 14:10.) And in the latter part of 2 Nephi 13, Isaiah uses vivid description of erring women rulers and haughty daughters of Zion in outlandish extremes of dress who “shall be [made] desolate,” (2 Ne. 13:26.)
Affliction and suffering seem to have come in mighty doses to Book of Mormon women throughout the text, in both the religious and the more secular parts of the record.
Ishmael’s daughters mourned because of afflictions of “hunger, thirst, and fatigue.” (1 Ne. 16:35.) Their husbands stated emphatically: “It would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions,” for they had suffered “all things, save it were death.” (1 Ne. 17:20.) Alma and Amulek witnessed women and children being painfully consumed by fire because of their beliefs and what they had been taught. (See Alma 14:8–11.) And Mormon, in his final epistle to Moroni, told of the depravity of the people: “The suffering of our women and our children upon all the face of this land doth exceed everything; yea, tongue cannot tell, neither can it be written.” (Moro. 9:19.)
In addition to physical suffering, there was much mourning because of the great losses of loved ones. Many times hundreds became widowed or fatherless and terrible mourning cries were heard for lost kindred, even to the point of howling. (See Ether 15:17; also Alma 28:5.) Most of this grief was due to the almost commonplace battling among these societies.
In cultural conditions shadowed by numerous battles and wars, the need for women and children to be protected must have been a wearing constant. Nor could women always take a passive role in battle. On occasion, the situation appeared so desperate that persons of both sexes and of all ages were expected to take up weapons. In one instance, Moroni had threatened Ammoron that if certain conditions of prisoner exchange (one Nephite family for one Lamanite warrior) were not met, Moroni would come against him: “Yea, even I will arm my women and my children, and I will come against you.” (Alma 54:12.) Later, Moroni’s men smuggled arms in to his people held prisoner in the city of Gid. Although the drunken Lamanite captors were outwitted without actual fighting, weapons had been given to all the Nephite prisoners, “Yea, even to their women, and all those of their children, as many as were able to use a weapon of war.” (Alma 55:17.)
In the final Jaredite battle, women and children actually did fight along with the men to the literal end of their civilization. Four years were spent gathering all the people together, that they might have “all the strength which it was possible that they could receive.” Sides chosen, a lamentable scene unfolded: “Both men women and children being armed with weapons of war, having shields, and breastplates, and head-plates, and being clothed after the manner of war—they did march forth one against another to battle.” (Ether 15:14–15.) Women were not immune to death by the sword, unfortunately, and slaughter claimed untold numbers of female lives. Even before this great and final battle, Coriantumr sorrowed that “two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children,” had been slain (Ether 15:2), to the extent that the bodies of men, women, and children covered the face of the land (see Ether 14:21–22).
Also unfortunate were the women who “survived” battles to be taken as prisoners of war. Imprisoned women sometimes experienced gruesome fates up to and including death. The Lamanite daughters captured by the people of Moriantum were deprived of “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue,” and were then murdered by torture and their flesh eaten by the Nephites as proof of bravery. (Moro. 9:9–10.) On the other hand, Nephite women and children captured from the tower at Sherrizah were made to eat the flesh of their slain husbands and fathers. (Moro. 9:8.) The distressing reports of all the atrocities suffered in the Book of Mormon because of fighting seem to indicate that much of the high price of war was dearly paid by women.
Leaving the heinous deeds of war behind, I have been particularly gladdened in my research by several specific scriptures presenting doctrinal principles. In these instances, the inspired writers were careful to address their messages to women as well as others. This approach seems to lend the ideas more impact than if they had been trusted to the assumption that a general presentation reaches all.
The process of being born of Christ and becoming his spiritually begotten children, correctly “his sons and daughters,” is presented more than one time in this manner. The hearts of King Benjamin’s people were changed, for example, when they made a covenant with God that earned them the right to become “children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters.” (Mosiah 5:7.) Also, the reformed younger Alma reported that the Lord told him that “all mankind, yea, men and women … must be born again” to be “redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.” (Mosiah 27:25.) And when he appeared to the brother of Jared, the Savior stated that those who believe on his name shall become “my sons and my daughters.” (Ether 3:14.)
In a similar vein, Nephi gave an invitation to both sexes to “come unto [the Lord] and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, … male and female,” for “all are alike unto God.” (2 Ne. 26:33; italics added.) This equality with respect to blessings also holds true with respect to condemnation. According to Jacob, those who fight “against Zion, … both male and female, shall perish,” for those of either sex who are against God are labeled “the whore of all the earth.” (2 Ne. 10:16; italics added.)
Additional gospel teachings are presented in this male-and-female frame of reference. For example, the promise of restoration from temporal death as Amulek explained it to Zeezrom “shall come to all, … both male and female.” (Alma 11:44; italics added.) Both will be restored to their perfect frames to be arraigned and judged at the bar of Christ according to their works. Another instance is the instruction that the receiving of heavenly messages is not limited to men. As Alma preached to the poor class of Zoramites, he told them that God “imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also.” (Alma 32:23; italics added.) Finally, on a rare occasion when Nephi’s brothers wished to worship him, Nephi told them that they should worship the Lord and “honor thy father and thy mother” (1 Ne. 17:55; italics added), making the same distinction as the third of the Ten Commandments, that honor is due each parent.
Elsewhere there are other fundamental gospel principles—charity and chastity—that reflect evident concern for women. For example, an admirable standard of charity was set by the church in the second year of Alma’s reign: “They did not send away any … ; therefore they were liberal to all, … both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” (Alma 1:30.) In an earlier era when the women of King Limhi’s people outnumbered the men because many were slain, Limhi “commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children, that they might not perish with hunger.” (Mosiah 21:17.) Christ also, in repeating the words of Malachi to the Nephites, said, “I will be a swift witness against … those that oppress … the widow and the fatherless.” (3 Ne. 24:5.)
In final summary, I have come a long way from my earlier impressions that women were next to nonexistent in the scriptures. I think I was originally motivated to study that premise by a disturbing feeling that the apparent dearth of women in the scriptures implied they were insignificant or unimportant. I am glad I was bothered enough to look closer. By watching closely and carefully for the passages that explicitly noted women, I truly surprised myself in uncovering far more about womanhood than I had anticipated. This experience has altered my former thinking: women are not so absent as I once believed!
Still, questions remain for me: Why aren’t the records more complete when it comes to the lives of our foresisters in the gospel? Why does so much between-the-lines reading still seem to be necessary to fill in the gaps? In spite of these questions, as I look over the bulk of my newly discovered evidence of women in the Book of Mormon and consider the enlightenment that has come from pondering why women appear as they do (or don’t), I feel there is a great deal that can be useful to us in positive ways. Examples of our ancient Book of Mormon sisters are there; and if we use what we have and become personally acquainted with them, this can aid us all—male and female—in our growth in the gospel.