Daniel C. Peterson suggests historical bias is what prevented any women from being official BOM witnesses.

Aug 2019
Speech / Court Transcript
Daniel C. Peterson
Scribed Verbatim

Daniel C. Peterson, "'Idle Tales'? The Witness of Women," FAIR Conference, August 2019, accessed December 29, 2022

Daniel C. Peterson
Reading Public

At a crucial scene here, it’s women who bear testimony, women who are the first witnesses. Women who bear, in a sense, the first apostolic testimony of the resurrection of Christ. We’ve been hearing before about how women share priesthood responsibilities in some ways with men. Here they are holding an almost apostolic role, if you will. It’s their testimony that comes first.

The ancient world was not fond of the testimony of women, and to illustrate that, I’m going to make a point from a text that doesn’t belong to the New Testament, and some of you may say, “Well of course, we’d expect it from this culture.” Here’s the second Surah of the Quran; it’s a 7th Century Middle Eastern text so it still kind of illustrates my point. “Oh you who have believed, when you have contracted a debt for a fixed term write it down. And let a scribe write it down between you in justice. Let no scribe refuse to write it down as God has taught him to do. So let him write and let the one who has the right to do so dictate. And let him fear God, his Lord, and omit nothing. And if the one who has the right is feeble of intellect or weak or unable to dictate himself, let his guardian dictate in justice. And take as evidence to two witnesses from among your men. But if there are not two men, then take a man and two women from those who are acceptable as witnesses – so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.” Now that is plainly sexist right? You know, two men or one man and two women, because women are kind of flighty and so on and so forth.

Women had no legal status. Their testimony was inadmissible in court. Not only among Muslims but earlier in first century Judaism. “But let not the testimony of women be admitted on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” This is from Flavius Josephus.

Women were put in the same category as slaves who were not allowed to testify due to the “ignobility of their soul.”

“Market places and council chambers, and courts of justice, and large companies and assemblies of numerous crowds, and life in the open air full of arguments and actions relating to war and peace are suited to men. But taking care of the house and remaining at home are the proper duties of women. The virgins having their apartments in the center of the house within the innermost doors and the full grown women not going beyond the vestibule and outer courts.” That’s Philo Judaeus, both of these from the 1st century. The Talmud took its final form probably in the 400s, although it commenced in the 200s, and it says, “Any evidence which a woman gives is not valid to offer.” This is equivalent to saying that one who rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman.

Then it says, the Tanna or tanaim taught us an unattributed misna here as we learn the misna “such and such.” “These people are disqualified from bearing witness as they are considered wicked and guilty of monetary transgressions, one who plays with dice, those who lend money with interest, those who fly pigeons, and merchants who trade in produce of the sabbatical year. And Canaanite slaves are disqualified. This is the principle. For any testimony for which a woman is not fit, these too are not fit.”

Although, in certain cases, a woman’s testimony is accepted. For example, testimony concerning the death of someone’s husband. That’s nice! The woman can testify “my husband is dead” right? In most cases, her testimony is not valid.

Sir John Polkinghorne is a very noted British physicist and Anglican priest, a fellow of the Royal Society. He says this:

Perhaps the strongest reason of taking the stories of the empty tomb absolutely seriously lies in the fact that it is women who play the leading role. It would have been very unlikely for anyone in the ancient world who was concocting a story to assign the principal part to women since, in those times, they were not considered capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law. It is surely much more probable that they appear in the gospel accounts precisely because they actually fulfilled the role that the stories assigned to them, and in so doing, they make a startling discovery.

The point here is that this is actually an argument for the credibility of the story because had the author been simply inventing a fictional story, he wouldn’t have chosen women. He would have chosen somebody else, somebody respectable, like a man.

And you see that really clearly in Paul’s formulation of the evidence for the resurrection. You remember Paul’s recitation of the witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, a chapter that we often look to for baptism for the dead and doctrine about the resurrection. But he starts the chapter off this way in verse 3 (chapter 15 in 1st Corinthians),

… I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And he was buried, he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And he was seen of Cephas, (or Peter) then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am.

Now that’s a really impressive list. You’ve got various mentions of the apostles, 500 brethren who saw him or who saw the resurrected Christ, but who’s missing from the list? The women aren’t there. Paul is a trained Pharisaic lawyer, and by the standards of his day, they didn’t count, so he leaves them out. It’s all men. All of his witnesses.

So at this pivotal moment, one of the most important moments in history of the gospels, the history of humankind, the resurrection of Christ, the crucial witnesses, in many ways the first witnesses, are women. But there’s a prejudice against allowing them to testify formally.

I’m just going to kinda take a detour here. Just as I began throwing this together, there were a couple of other women whose witnesses, even though they’re not Latter-day Saints and not in the scriptures, appeal to me, and I wanted to mention them. One is Julian or Julianna of Norwich in England. She was an English Anchorite who died very early in the 15th century. The earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman is by her. It’s called The Revelations of Divine Love, and the classic line from that is her sense, above all the doctrinal things and so on, that everything is going to be okay with the gospel. This is what she writes: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” That’s the concluding line of her book. It’s like the end of the hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints” right? That for the faithful, everything in the end will turn out all right.

I’m going to surprise you with maybe another choice. While I was thinking about women and their witnesses, I thought about this one, Saint Joan of Arc. In the early 15th century, late in the Hundred Years’ War, Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc) claimed to have received visions: the Archangel Michael, St Margaret, and St Catherine of Alexandria telling her to support the as yet uncrowned Charles the 7th of France, and thereby free France from English domination. Now I’d always thought that this was a nice story until a saw a play at BYU, written by Leilani Larson, called Angels Unaware, a story of Joan of Arc in 2006, in which she took those angels as serious from a Latter-day Saint perspective, post death, post mortem people — the real St Catherine of Alexandria and so on, who’d been called upon to help this French girl and make things work for her. And I thought, “You know, could this story be true? I mean God does things that we don’t always know about. Could this be a true story of angelic intervention on behalf of this French girl?”

Let me tell you who was impressed by her. There’s a young boy by the name of Coley Taylor who told this story late in his life. He approached the aged Mark Twain one day, after noticing the author, very famous, standing alone on a stone bridge in Redding, Connecticut. Twain was a familiar figure around the town and young Coley had always wanted to talk to him to express his admiration for him. “I was glad,” he says, “that he was alone.” He wrote an article about this. “I had wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.”

But Twain’s response to the young boy’s was shocking. “I had never seen him so cross. I can see him yet, shaking that long forefinger at me,” Taylor recalled. “You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys!” Twain scolded him. “Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my recollection of Joan of Arc.” This is his last novel. “You are too young to understand and enjoy it now, but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.” Now most literary critics have not agreed with him but he made that same comment at other settings. “I like Joan of Arc best of all of my books,” he said shortly before his death, “and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”

Now this is very odd. She was a visionary and he was a notorious religious skeptic, very likely an atheist. His background was Protestant, anti-Catholic, and he hated the French. Couldn’t stand them.

She was French, died a Catholic martyr, and in 1920 became a Catholic Saint, but he was really, really impressed with her story, and if anything tempted him to abandon his religious cynicism, I think it was Joan of Arc. In his epigraph to the novel, Twain wrote, “The only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.” That’s a pretty remarkable story however you look at it. Now Twain was almost certainly unaware of the prophet Mormon. Mormon had become the leader of his people’s army in his 16th year. That is at 15. Almost certainly because of his lineage and, like Saint Joan, because of his religious stature.

I want to talk about women’s testimony in America. This is where I’m coming to my real theme.

The great 18th English barrister and jurist Sir William Blackstone—you see his Commentaries of the Laws of England here that Abraham Lincoln studied by firelight to become a lawyer; classic, classic book. He was a major proponent of the idea of women’s exclusion from jury service. Propter defectum sexus, that is, “based on the defect of sex.” It’s the same attitude. Can’t trust them, they’re not competent to serve on juries. Until 1919, women were automatically disqualified from serving in trial juries in England and Wales. And even after 1919, gender prejudice had the practical effect of keeping women from service as jurors even when they were legally permitted to.

I want to give you some examples of how women jurors were regarded. Here’s an illustration of how ridiculous a women jury would be. Look at the way they’re dressed. Can you take anybody like that seriously? (This is a 1902 cartoon.)

Blackstone’s beliefs were integrated in to the legal systems of the US and other English heritage jurisdictions. The notion of female jury service was resisted because of their supposed lack of intelligence, their emotional instability and need to tend to domestic duties. Women it was contended were too sensitive, too incompetent to be jurors.

Here’s an example of it. They’re swayed by non-intellectual issues, right?

I want to give you a brief timeline of suffrage and admission to jury service. You’ll be astonished, I was, at how late these things changed. 1869, Wyoming territory grants women the right to vote on the 10th of December 1869. 1870, Utah territory grants women the right to vote on the 12th of February, only about two months later or thereabouts.

This is how women and their children would be distractions to the serious nature of the deliberations of a jury.

In 1870, remember Wyoming territory given women the right to vote. In 1871 they’re disenfranchised. In 1870, they’re removed from jury duty. 1879, the Supreme Court Scotter vs. West Virginia, it says that States have the right to bar women from juries. 1883, Washington territory grants women the right to vote and the right to serve as jurors. 1887, the right to serve as jurors is taken away. 1887, Utah territory congress disenfranchises Utah women by the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, taking away their right to vote and any legal rights they have in that regard. 1895, Utah has a proposed state constitution and ratifies it, granting women the vote, but it’s very much against—this seems wrong for Utah, which seems a very patriarchal and sexist state—but Utah grants women the vote very, very early after the Federal government has taken it away from Utah women. 1896, President Cleveland claims Utah a state so Utah women can vote.

Now here’s an example of what juries would be like if men behaved like women. They’re all so emotional. They just can’t make a rational decision.

1898, the Utah state legislature grants women the right to serve on juries. It’s the first state in the Union to grant that right to women. 1898, this is pretty late. 1917-1919, Canada gives most women the right to vote in Canada. The Native American women are excluded. 1918, the United Kingdom, women gain the right to vote, but only if they own sufficient property in their own names or if they’re university graduates and they’re 30 years of age. 1920, the U.S gives women national women’s suffrage finally. 1928, the United Kingdom gives women full suffrage. 1942, though, Glasser vs the United States, the Supreme court rules against defendants, that all-male juries are acceptable.

Think of this film, some of you may remember it, 1957, Twelve Angry Men. Think about the title. This is about a jury do you remember? Not the Twelve Angry Men and Women; Twelve Angry Men. There are only men on this jury in 1957. A classic court room drama and it still shows its sexist presuppositions.

The last state in the Union to grant women the right to serve on a jury was Mississippi. Maybe that’s not a surprise, but in 1968. 1968! In 1971, Switzerland gave women the right to vote in national elections.

So this is an amazingly recent development in many countries. Can there be any serious question that I would ask is to why there are no women among the official 1830 witnesses to the Book of Mormon. How seriously would they have been taken?

Most Latter-day Saints are aware of the testimonies of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and they are a pretty powerful thing. That’s what this movie is going to be to a large degree about.

Let me tell you an experience I had years ago. I was debating in a group of five Latter-day Saints against five evangelicals before the Evangelical Philosophical Society. The national meeting was in Denver that year. I remember at one point William Lane Craig. That name will mean something to a few of you anyway. He is probably the leading evangelical philosopher in the United States – very, very bright guy. I really do admire him. He at one point said, “Look, the difference between Christianity and Mormonism”—that’s the way he put it—”the difference between Christianity and Mormonism is that Christianity has eleven credible witnesses for its central event, the resurrection of Christ. And Mormonism has got nothing like that. I was the one to respond to him, and I thought, oh, thank you, thank you! You just painted a target on your back.

Of course, not only do we have reputable witnesses, we have eleven of them, right? So that was fun. I could see as soon as he said that, Richard Mouw, who was an evangelical, the head of Fuller Theological Seminary, who was the moderator for the debate, was sitting out in front of me, and he just looked at me, and he knew that Craig had just put a target on his back. And I’m not one to pass it up.

These eleven men, impressive as they are, were not the only people besides Joseph Smith who had direct encounters with the gold plates. There are the official witnesses, all male, as you see.

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