Our Sisters from the Beginning
January 1979

“Our Sisters from the Beginning,” Ensign, Jan. 1979, 61–63

Speaking Today

Our Sisters from the Beginning

This address was delivered at the dedication of the Nauvoo Monument to Women, 29 June 1978.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie

President Kimball and his—and our—beloved Camilla, Sister Barbara Smith, Sister Belle Spafford, and all of you—mothers in Israel, daughters in Zion:

I come in a spirit of humility, honored by the opportunity to speak to you, subdued in spirit, desiring to be given utterance, and to have guidance from the Holy Spirit so that what I say will be what the Lord wants said on this occasion. I shall take as a subject “Our Sisters from the Beginning,” and I have chosen this text from the words of Alma:

“And now, he [meaning the Lord Jehovah] imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men, but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times which confound the wise and the learned.” (Alma 32:23)

Where spiritual things are concerned, as pertaining to all of the gifts of the Spirit, with reference to the receipt of revelation, the gaining of testimonies, and the seeing of visions, in all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness and which are brought to pass as a result of personal righteousness—in all these things men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord. He is no respecter of persons nor of sexes, and he blesses those men and those women who seek him and serve him and keep his commandments.

The Lord is merciful and gracious unto all those who fear him, and he delights to honor those who serve him in righteousness unto the end—both male and female. It is to them that he promises to reveal all the hidden mysteries of his kingdom; they are the ones whose understanding shall reach to heaven and to whom he will reveal those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man. (See D&C 76:5–10.) I speak both of men and of women. Indeed, I have no hesitancy in stating that women from the beginning have acquired great spiritual talents.

Now, the Lord in his infinite goodness and wisdom has highly esteemed women from the beginning; he has honored and dignified them in his earthly kingdom, and in his dealings with mankind on earth, in a way that perhaps many of us have never supposed. What I shall now do, if properly guided by the Spirit, is to invite you to view with me successive scenes involving our sisters of the past and our sisters of the future, as these scenes are set forth in the revelations and in our history.

Scene one: Mary, the blessed virgin

We encounter Mary first in Nazareth of Galilee, perhaps sixteen years of age, being visited by Gabriel, the angelic ministrant who is second only to Michael in the heavenly hierarchy. Gabriel announces to her: “Thou shalt have a son. His name shall be called Jesus. He shall be the Son of the Highest. He shall reign on the throne of his father David forever. You will be overshadowed by the power of the Holy Ghost. You will be the mother of the Son of God.” (See Luke 1:30–35.)

In my judgment, Mary is one of the greatest women who has ever lived on earth; the spirit daughter of God our Father, she was chosen to provide a body for his son, who was to be born after the manner of the flesh.

We see Mary travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea to be at the place where the Son of God is destined to be born. We see her large with child and after a long journey, arriving late at a wayside caravanserai, which consists of a central court in which animals are kept and of surrounding rooms to be occupied by travelers. The rooms in this oriental inn are all filled. We see her, with Joseph, bed down where the animals are tethered; and that night God sends his son into the world, angelic choirs attend, and angels’ voices are heard.

We see her through a long period of difficulty and testing and turmoil in life; she travels with Joseph into Egypt and no doubt stays with relatives or Jewish friends in that land. We see her back in Nazareth as the mother who influences the young and growing years of God’s son, who teaches him to crawl and to walk and to speak and to learn the Shema and the various other Jewish religious requirements which then prevailed. We see her at Cana of Galilee, having some control and influence at a wedding feast, inviting her son to do something that commenced his public ministry of miracles. We see her, finally, standing before a cross when her son says to John, his beloved disciple, “Behold thy mother,” and to her, “Behold thy son.” (John 19:26–27) And John from that hour took her into his own home.

I think we see in Mary a pattern of piety and submission to the will of the Lord which is the perfect example for all women.

Scene two: Eve, the mother of all living

I rate Eve also as one of the greatest women among all of those who have or will come to earth. She, as the mother of all living, set the pattern for all future mothers with reference to bringing up their children in light and truth. She received all the blessings of the gospel, enjoyed the gifts of the Spirit, and sought to prepare her posterity for like blessings. With reference to her, I shall simply call your attention to the occasions when “Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord, and they”—the two of them—“heard the voice of the Lord” (Moses 5:4); when Adam first offered sacrifices; when an angelic ministrant stood by; and when Adam, the first man, stood up and prophesied of all things that would befall his posterity. The scripture says: “And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying”—and now comes a perfect one-sentence summary of the whole plan of salvation, one of the greatest short sermons ever preached: Eve says, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5:11)

Then the record says that “Adam and Eve blessed the name of God”—now note, not just the man, but the man and the woman—“and they”—the two of them—“made all things known unto their sons and their daughters. … And Adam and Eve, his wife, ceased not to call upon God.” (Moses 5:12, 16)

Thus, in the beginning, the perfect pattern is set for perfecting the family. The man and the woman are together in worship; they are together in teaching their children; they are together in establishing the family unit that hopefully will endure in the eternities ahead, thus giving eternal life to all those who earn it.

From this point I somewhat arbitrarily select scenes that please me, scenes that dramatize the part women play in the eternal scheme of things.

Scene three: Rebekah, whom Isaac loved

I think Rebekah is one of the greatest patterns in all the revelations of what a woman can do to influence a family in righteousness. Here, among other things, is what happened in her life:

“And Isaac intreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren: and the Lord was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.” (Gen. 25:21)

The man and the woman have a great problem: they desire posterity; the united faith of both of them is involved.

“And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord.” (Gen. 25: 22)

Now note it well. She did not say, “Isaac, will you inquire of the Lord. You are the patriarch; you are the head of the house,” which he was. She went to inquire of the Lord, and she gained the answer:

“And the Lord said unto her [the woman], Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23)

That is to say, “To you, Rebekah, I, the Lord, reveal the destiny of nations that are to be born which are yet in your womb.”

Now, one more episode from Rebekah’s life. When “Esau was forty years old, … he took to wife Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite: Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah.” (Gen. 26:34–35)

That is to say, Esau married out of the Church; Esau did not marry in the everlasting covenant revealed to Abraham; Esau chose to live after the manner of the world, rather than to keep the standards of righteousness which the Lord had given them. In the light of all this, the account says:

“And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?” (Gen. 27:46)

In effect she is saying, “If Jacob marries out of the Church as Esau has done, what good is there left for me in life?” And having been encouraged and impelled to step forward and assume his responsibility, this is what Isaac did:

“And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan” [which means, “Thou shalt not marry out of the Church”].

“Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother.”

And then Isaac gave Jacob, in effect, a patriarchal blessing which promised him the blessings of Abraham, his father:

“And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people;

“And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee.” (Gen. 28:1–4)

Rebekah—truly she is one of the most noble and glorious of women!

Scene four: The widow of Zarephath

We see the widow of Zarephath suffering for want of food in the day of Elijah the prophet. He has closed the heavens for three and a half years so there is neither dew nor rain. The Lord tells Elijah, “Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.” Arriving in Zarephath he sees the widow out gathering sticks and calls out, “Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” As she goes to do so, he calls again, “Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.”

To this she responds:

“As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Though the woman feels she is about to die, yet Elijah says:

“Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.

“For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.”

Her faith is tested; she passes the test; and the scripture says:

“And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.

“And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.” Later Elijah raises her son from death. (1 Kgs. 17)

What a pattern of faith and devotion to Jehovah is seen in the life of this widow, whose name we do not even know! When Jesus was rejected by his own in Nazareth, he contrasted the unbelief of his own townsfolk with the faith of this nameless Israelite of old. “I tell you of a truth,” he said, “many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.” (Luke 4:25–26)

Scene five: Two sisters in Bethany

The beloved sisters, Martha and Mary, daughters as we suppose of Simon, the leper, who made the great feast for Jesus where Mary anointed the Lord’s head and feet with costly spikenard; Martha and Mary at whose home Jesus was often entertained and cared for, on one of which occasions Martha served and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, and Martha said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me,” to which Jesus replied in tender tones: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40–42)

The beloved sisters, Martha and Mary, whose brother Lazarus was raised from death; Martha and Mary, both of whom at Lazarus’s tomb said, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died”; and it was Martha who added, “But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee”; and it was also Martha who testified, with as great fervor as Peter himself had done in the coasts of Caesarea-Philippi; it was she who said to the Lord Jesus: “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” (John 11)

What more need we say of these beloved ones whose homemaking skills were great and whose faith was even greater?

Scene six: Before an open tomb

Our gospel authors tell us that Mary Magdalene and other women travelled with Jesus and the Twelve in their Galilean missionary journeys. We find this mixed group in Galilee, hearing from the lips of Jesus these words: “The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again.” (Matt. 17:22–23)

We see these same women at the open tomb seeking to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. We find Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, making her the first mortal to see a resurrected person. We find a group of faithful sisters at the sepulcher, to whom angelic visitants affirm: “He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

“Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (Luke 24:6–7)

Then Luke records:

“And they remembered his words,

“And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.

“It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.” (Luke 24:8–10)

Scene seven: Sisters in modern Israel

As it was in ancient days, so it is today—the sisters in the kingdom are great pillars of spiritual strength, of compassionate service, of devotion to the truth, of personal righteousness. As with their ancient counterparts they provide bodies for the spirit children of the Father; and as did the faithful sisters of old, they bring up their children in light and truth and teach them to have faith in the Lord and to keep his commandments. Nor does their service to mankind stop at the hearth. Their influence reaches forth in the Church, in the government, in uplifting organizations everywhere.

In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith for his wife, Emma, we find a partial pattern of what our wives can do in furthering the Lord’s purposes on earth. “The office of thy calling,” the Lord said to her, “shall be for a comfort unto my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., thy husband, in his afflictions, with consoling words, in the spirit of meekness.

“And thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.

“For he shall lay his hands upon thee, and thou shalt receive the Holy Ghost, and thy time shall be given to writing, and to learning much.

“Let thy soul delight in thy husband, and the glory which shall come upon him.” (D&C 25:5, 7–8, 14)

A married woman’s place is in the home, where she sustains and supports her husband; a woman’s place is in the Church, where she expounds scripture, writes wise documents, and learns much; a woman’s place is out rendering compassionate service to her fellow beings, in and out of the Church; a woman’s place is in preaching the gospel and doing missionary work; her calling is to do good and work righteousness in every place and under all circumstances.

It is thus that we see the mothers in Israel and the daughters of Zion today. We see them weeping at Haun’s Mill; we see them standing beside burning houses in Missouri; we see them bowing before open graves at Winter Quarters. Our sisters are like those of old. They fight the family-destroying influence of unfortunate legislative proposals. They lobby in legislative halls and rally the forces of good around the ballot box. They importune the Lord for the preservation of their families and for his guiding hand over the destinies of nations.

The brethren do not stand alone in building up the Lord’s latter-day kingdom. And when our faithful sisters depart this life, they will continue to labor with the downtrodden and spiritually depressed until the work of the great Jehovah shall reach its glorious consummation.

Scene eight: Our celestial sisters

Then, finally, we see a scene of mothers in Israel and daughters in Zion in celestial rest—where they have overcome the world, where they have come forth out of great tribulation, where they have done all things that they were appointed to do, and where they hear the voice of the Lord say to them: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 25:34)

It is an eternal principle—the man and the woman are not alone: neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord. Women are appointed, Rebekahlike, to be guides and lights in righteousness in the family unit, and to engineer and arrange so that things are done in the way that will result in the salvation of more of our Father’s children. God be praised for the infinitely wondrous and glorious system of family unity which he has provided—the system that enables a man and a woman to unite together, provide bodies for the children of our Eternal Father, bring them up in light and truth and righteousness, and prepare and qualify them to return to the Father’s presence and be inheritors of eternal life.

What a wondrous thing it is to know what we know, have the assurances that we have, and the feelings in our souls, born of the Holy Spirit of God, that men and women together can be as God, our Eternal Father. God grant that it may be so for all of us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.