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Op-ed: Why strong Mormon women stay in the church

Eva Witesman speaks at a BYU Devotional earlier this month.
Eva Witesman speaks at a BYU Devotional earlier this month.
BYU Speeches screenshot

Editor's note: This article from Eva Witesman is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

People often wonder why strong Mormon women stay in the church. As though a secular, godless, power-driven reality would be better suited to our intellects, our ambitions, our self-respect. As though the mere idea of religion (and the Latter-day Saint religion in particular) might be antithetical to our tenacious temperaments. But I have found that, at least for me, nothing could be further from the truth.

I was born knowing — knowing — that there was divinity in me. In the words of Sheri Dew, I was born for glory. We all were. I saw it in my mother, my grandmother, my sister. I think this is at the core of every strong woman: This knowing. This fire. This sense of eternal destiny. This greatness.

I remember learning about the restoration of the gospel — about angels reinstating long-hidden powers so that we could prepare ourselves and the world for the second coming of Christ. I knew that I was meant to be part of this throng of Latter-day Saints. These fulfillers of prophesy. These waymakers. I heard these things and somewhere inside of me, a burning voice said yes.

I remember learning each gospel truth like a crescendo of dominoes. I am a child of God. Yes. The Book of Mormon is His word. Yes. Joseph Smith was a prophet. Yes. There are prophets on earth today. Yes. The power of God is moving on the face of the earth. Yes. I am His daughter and meant to be like Him. Yes. I can become an heir of God, a creator, a goddess in the eternities. Yes, yes, yes.

There have been times, however, when that affirming voice has been silent. It is a favorite argument of the critic to suggest that the confirmatory spirit deep in our souls is merely some optimistic hope — that we are deceived by appealing stories that we wish were true; that we fall prey to pretty lies.

But there were no pretty lies to console me when facing the greatest challenges of my life. Mere hope, mere idealism, mere desire for some beautiful reality did not resonate so deeply as the knowing — the yes — of faith. In the depths of my own life’s pain, there was no comfort in empty promises. No consolation in lovely words or aspirational fantasies.

The only true hope I felt was when I discovered truth through the still, small, burning yes. Here, in the crucible of experience, I clung to this power of discernment. This is how I learned that there is more than yes. There is also no — a lonely, cold, confusing emptiness. And there is not yet: a whisper of understanding accompanied by knowing that the truth is just beyond my reach.

Why do strong women stay in the church? I cannot answer this question for anyone else. But I can answer it for myself. I stay because of yes. Because when I keep my covenants, I have the power of knowing — seeing — in a way I cannot achieve without my Father in Heaven. No man or woman can; we are all equally reliant on the God who fills the empty vessels of our humanity with His love and His power.

I stay because through the power of yes I have seen and felt and understood transcendent truths about the eternities and my role in them. I stay because through the power of yes I have learned what real authority is, and what it is not. What is true, and what is counterfeit. What is real, and what is misunderstood. What has been revealed, and what is yet to come.

I stay because I understand that we are a church comprised of imperfect people figuring out how to safely use the fire given to us by the heavens. With this charge come mistakes, failures, misunderstandings, and sometimes even inequity and injustice. This is why our pleading for more knowledge continues to be met with not yet. But some day, not yet will give way to a glorious yes, just as it always has before — line upon line.

I stay because I know — have always known — that there is greatness in me. And through the gift of the Holy Ghost, through yes, I have learned what that greatness is. That in addition to the transcendent gifts I already possess, there is more inside of me that is just beyond my reach. Present but hidden. Real, powerful, essential and necessary, but veiled. Something new and great that builds on the greatness I already have the privilege to exercise. By the power of yes, I see not subjugation but preparation and the promise of more to come.

Eva Witesman is an associate professor at the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University.