Women in the Book of Mormon
Some general conclusions about Book of Mormon women can be drawn from the book's fragmentary material about marriage, family, and religious organization. Six women are mentioned by name: Sariah, Isabel, Abish, Eve, Sarah, and Mary. Since no women are mentioned as religious or military leaders and only a few as political leaders, it appears that males held virtually all leadership positions in this society. Also, since the Book of Mormon was written primarily to remind future readers of the goodness of God and to persuade them to believe in Christ, it contains no law books and little intellectual or social history discussing the meshing of familial and religious practices. It is reasonable to assume, however, that these people began with many customs similar to their ancestral Semitic cultures and that their practices changed somewhat over the years.
In Nephite society, marriage and childbearing were expected, carrying religious significance and responsibilities (1 Ne. 7:1; Mosiah 4:14—15; 4 Ne. 1:11). Marriages may have been arranged within ethnic groups (1 Ne. 16:7; Alma 17:24) and were restricted outside certain groups (Alma 3:8). Polygamy and concubinage were prohibited and scorned; monogamy was expected, except as the Lord might command otherwise to "raise up seed" unto himself (Jacob 2:27—30).
Husbands and wives were expected to be faithful and loyal to each other (Jacob 3:7). One case shows that a wife was valued, even if unable to conceive. The righteous Jaredite king Coriantum remained with his barren wife until her death at age 102. He then married a young maid and fathered sons and daughters (Ether 9:23—24). It was, likewise, a sign of great wickedness that the priests of king Noah deserted their families. While in hiding, they abducted twenty-four Lamanite women for wives. When Lamanite kinsmen discovered and sought to kill the priests several years later, however, these women faithfully pleaded for the lives of their husbands (Mosiah 23:33).
Men were expected to support their wives and children, as well as the widows and children of men killed in war (Mosiah 21:17). Men were to pray for their households (Alma 34:21), and many took up arms to defend their families.
Both parents were concerned about their offspring (1 Ne. 5:1—7; 8:37). Lehi blessed and counseled his granddaughters and grandsons (2 Ne. 4:3—9). Children were taught to honor their mother and father. Helaman1 and his 2,000 young warriors credited their Ammonite mothers with instilling in them the faith that "if they did not doubt, God would deliver them" (Alma 56:47).
In religious life, women participated in assemblies at the temple (Jacob 2:7; Mosiah 2:5—8), in teaching their children about God (Alma 56:46—47), and in offering sacrifice (1 Ne. 5:9). Evidently they were not excluded from, or segregated during, worship (2 Ne. 26:28—33); nor is there any indication that they were considered ritually unclean during menstruation. The gospel taught by the Nephites and Christ in the Book of Mormon is addressed to all, regardless of gender, age, or descent (2 Ne. 26:33; Mosiah 27:25; Alma 11:44; 32:23; 3 Ne. 17:25). Baptism was offered to all men and women who believed (Mosiah 18:16). Women demonstrated profound faith and were tested by great sacrifice. In Ammonihah, women were burned to death with their children for refusing to renounce their faith in Christ (Alma 14:7—11). Apparently the Liahona responded to the collective faith and diligence of the entire group, men and women (1 Ne. 16:28).
During the years in the wilderness, the Lehite women toiled and were strong, but little is known about their activities, other than pregnancy and childbirth. Spinning is the only work specifically attributed to women (Mosiah 10:5; Hel. 6:13). Women's dancing is associated with leisure and sometimes with wickedness (1 Ne. 18:9; Mosiah 20:1; Ether 8:10—11). Harlots provided immoral sexual activity in return for sustenance (Mosiah 11:14).
Politically, women had rights of succession to the Lamanite throne, for when Amalickiah murdered a Lamanite king, rule passed to the queen, whom Amalickiah then married to gain the throne (Alma 47:32—35). In extreme crises women took up arms in war alongside their men (Alma 54:12; 55:17; Ether 15:15).
Assignment of tasks in the family or in the whole economy—trade, planting and harvesting crops, and tending animals—is not apparent. Cycles of colonization, agriculture, urbanization, war, destruction, and renewal, as well as differing belief systems, certainly affected family and work patterns.
The Book of Mormon women Sariah, Abish, and Isabel can be viewed not only as historical figures but also as archetypal figures of, respectively, the righteous mother, the godly servant, and the attractive but sexually impure outsider.
Sariah was the faithful mother of the Nephite and Lamanite nations. She left a comfortable home near Jerusalem with Lehi and their family to suffer the rigors of desert and ocean travel, bearing two more sons, Jacob and Joseph, late in life while in the wilderness (1 Ne. 18:7, 17—19). She complained against Lehi when she thought their sons were dead, but affirmed his calling and the power of God when they returned unharmed (1 Ne. 5:2—8). With Lehi she gave sacrifice in thanksgiving. She was the mother of six sons and at least two daughters (2 Ne. 5:6).
Abish, a Lamanite convert of surpassing faith, servant to the queen of king Lamoni, recognized that the power of God had overcome the king, queen, and Ammon when they fell to the ground unconscious; she gathered people to witness the event and then raised the queen with her touch when the confusion of the crowd led to contention. Many believed the testimonies of the revived queen, who then raised the king, who also testified of Jesus (Alma 19:16—36).
Isabel, according to Alma2 (Alma 39:3—4), was a harlot who stole the hearts of many, including that of Alma's son Corianton, who for a time forsook the ministry to go after her (Alma 39:3).
The other three named women are biblical figures: Eve (e.g., 2 Ne. 2:15—20; cf. several references to "our first parents," e.g., 2 Ne. 9:9); Sarah (2 Ne. 8:2); and Mary, the mother of Jesus (e.g., Mosiah 3:8). Eve is mentioned in the context of an explication of the doctrine of the fall of Adam as the precursor of the salvation of mankind. Sarah is recognized as the faithful mother of nations. Mary is called "a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins" (1 Ne. 11:15).
Other women are known in the Book of Mormon only by their individual deeds: the wife of Nephi1 a daughter of Ishmael, tried to soften wicked hearts with her tears (1 Ne. 7:19; 18:19); Ishmael's wife and three of their daughters supported Nephi (1 Ne. 7:6); a maidservant fled from Morianton's camp, after being severely beaten by him, to warn Moroni1 of the plans of her rebel master (Alma 50:30—31); a daughter of Jared originated a plot to regain the kingdom for her father through enticement, violence, and deceit (Ether 8—9); two Lamanite queens were converted by the sons of Mosiah2 (Alma 19:29—30; 22:19—24). Perhaps, as in some Semitic cultures today, the formal or more polite way of referring to a woman was not by her given name, but by describing her position in the family, such as "the daughter of Jared." Others so designated include Ishmael's wife, Ishmael's daughters, Ishmael's eldest daughter and wife of Zoram, Lehi's daughters and Nephi's sisters, Lamoni's daughter; and Coriantumr's unrepentant daughters.
The behavior and treatment of women were seen as an index of social and spiritual health. Many references to women concern their suffering during war, captivity, and hardship. Nephi and his brothers measure the difficulty of their travels in terms of the suffering of their wives, though Nephi emphasizes that the women were made strong like the men, while his brothers describe their wives' sufferings as being worse than death (1 Ne. 17:1, 20). Jacob sharply contrasts male infidelity with the tenderness of the women (Jacob 2—3); immorality is described as precipitating the collapse of both family and society. The inhumanity and depravity of dying civilizations are also described in terms of the suffering of women: Lamanites fed to women and children the flesh of their dead husbands and fathers (Moro. 9:8); Nephite women were sacrificed to idols (Morm. 4:15, 21); Nephites raped captured Lamanite women, tortured them to death, and then ate their flesh as a token of their bravery (Moro. 9:9—10).
Much of the imagery involving women in the Book of Mormon parallels that in the Bible. For example, Christ compares his gathering of the repentant to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing. As in Proverbs 3:13—20, wisdom is female (Mosiah 8:20), as is mercy (Alma 42:24). Sometimes female imagery is applied to the Lord, as when the mother nursing her child is the image used of the Lord comforting and remembering his covenant children (1 Ne. 21:15).
In a sense, the woman is the image of God's people. The biblical imagery of God as husband and his people as wife is continued in the Book of Mormon, mostly from the writings of Isaiah. Decadent Israel is described as devoid of honorable men, in that they valued women as decorative sex objects (2 Ne. 13:16—26; Isa. 3:16—26). When God's people become unfaithful to him, they are called "the whore of all the earth" (2 Ne. 10:16). When he calls his people to repentance, the Lord asks rhetorically, "Have I put thee away . . . ? Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement?" (2 Ne. 7:1; Isa. 50:1). The images of a mother too weak to nurse her child and a pregnant woman so near term she is unable to flee destruction are used to motivate the Nephites to repent (Hel. 15:1—2); the woman whose children are lost is the image of desolation (1 Ne. 21:20—21). Those who accept "marriage" with the Lord are to experience joy as abundant as that of a barren woman who becomes a mother of many children, and the Lord consoles his people by saying, "For thy maker, thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; . . . For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee" (3 Ne. 22:1, 5—8; Isa. 54:1, 5—8).
Spencer, Majorie Meads. "My Book of Mormon Sisters." Ensign 7 (Sept. 1977): 66—71.
Bennion, Francine. "Women and the Book of Mormon." In Women of Wisdom and Knowledge, 169—78. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990.
Donna Lee Bowen
Camille S. Williams