SALT LAKE CITY — What did Joseph Smith’s First Vision mean to early Latter-day Saint women?

A church magazine article published by a prominent member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in April 1920, commemorating the sacred event’s centennial anniversary, offers some insight.

Susa Young Gates, a prominent Utah woman, author and a daughter of Brigham Young. | Utah State Historical Society

The essay was titled “The Vision Beautiful,” by Susa Young Gates, and came in the context of the women’s suffrage movement, according to Lisa Olsen Tait, who presented on the topic at the Church History Symposium Friday at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

“Gates’ answer that the vision held the bright promise for the equality and freedom for women reflected her own efforts to come to terms with women’s changing status,” Tait told the audience. “It also expressed her own vision of the ultimate meaning of the restored gospel.”

Tait was one of three women who presented on topics relating to the First Vision and women at the symposium Friday. Jennifer Reeder, a women’s history specialist at the Church History Department, explored Emma Smith’s role in the First Vision. Maxine Hanks, an author and historian, also discussed feminine influence surrounding the First Vision.

Gates was a prolific writer, a Relief Society board member and a high-profile church member in her time, which made her the right woman to write the 1920 article, said Tait, a historian, writer, specialist in women’s history at the church history department.

In presenting background for the 1920 essay, Tait said Gates was part of a centennial memorial company led by President Joseph F. Smith that traveled to Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont in December 1905.

“The journey seems to have been a watershed event in Gates’ internalization of the First Vision narrative,” Tait said. “This is evidenced by her writing almost as soon as she returned, maybe she even started before she got home, a lengthy account of the trip that was published in two parts in the Improvement Era.”

Tait examined excerpts of Gates’ short 1920 feature, giving the audience a sense of the writer’s voice and style.

“But if (the vision) meant much to men, with their hold upon the earth and its fullness, what was the effect upon the women of the world?” Gates wrote before answering the question with a metaphor. “That wonderful appearance in the grove held in its heart, like the half-opened calyx of a rose, all the promises of future development for women.”

Gates continued: “The divine Mother, side by side with the divine Father, the equal sharing of equal rights, privileges and responsibilities, in heaven and on earth, all this was foreshadowed in that startling announcement of the Son.”

From this vision, in other words, flowed all the other restored truths about the nature and relationship of men and women, including the idea that we have a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father, Tait said.

Gates’ 1920 piece even quoted the final verse of the hymn, “O My Father,” Tait said.

“These truths, Gates believed, contained that bright promise of equality and freedom for women,” Tait said. “Gates’ ‘Vision Beautiful’ captures the attempt of one very intelligent and deep-thinking woman to translate the First Vision of Joseph Smith into terms relevant for her own complex times.”

Jennifer Reeder, a women’s history specialist at the Church History Department, talks about Emma Smith’s role in the First Vision in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Assembly Hall on Temple Square as part of the Church History Symposium Friday, March 13, 2020. | Trent Toone, Deseret News

During Reeder’s remarks she told about Emma Hale Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, having her own prayer-in-the-woods experience as a young girl.

When she was around 7 to 8 years old, around 1811-1812, Emma went into a grove of trees near her home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to pray to her soul and her father’s soul. Secret prayer was a common practice among reviving Methodists in 19th century America, Reeder said.

“Emma readily believed in Joseph’s ability to see and establish divine communication, perhaps because of her own experience praying for heavenly communion,” Reeder said. “While she did not physically see what Joseph saw in his multiple manifestations, she played a vital, pragmatic role in accomplishing Joseph’s overall vision of the Restoration.”

Reeder cited several church history accounts to demonstrate how Emma helped Joseph to procure, protect and produce scripture, including the Book of Mormon and other revelations. Emma also created a hymn book and and served as the first president of the Relief Society, among other important contributions.

The first hymnal was published in time for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836 and included William W. Phelps’ famous hymn, “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” The special hymn empowered the Saints during a spiritual outpouring and conveyed the feelings and elements of Joseph’s First Vision, Reeder said.

“Emma’s selection of hymns helped facilitate Joseph’s vision for all,” Reeder said.