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A working woman prioritizes family amidst the city's rush, symbolizing her commitment to motherhood.

When Doctrine Meets Context: Takeaways From Sister Johnson

What sparked the Sister Johnson controversy? Explore how priorities remain the same even as doctrine meets context

For years, a particular Sunday has stood out in my memory, not because of unease but due to the surprising clarity and peace I felt in the face of uncertainty. On that occasion, close friends not of our faith were in town for a visit. They proposed an activity conflicting with our usual Sabbath observance. With their understanding nature, they weren’t offended when we declined the invitation—they were considerate of our norm. The next morning, however, as my husband and I prepared for church, a distinct feeling arose that our path for the day was different than usual. Though it defied explanation, we prayed for guidance and felt a conviction to spend the day with our friends. As we explored how to explain the change of plans to the children, we quickly realized any attempt sounded more like justification. We settled on transparency with our children, presenting them with the same dilemma and encouraging them to seek their own clarity through prayer. Our friends’ genuine happiness at our change of plans only reinforced our unanimous conviction. Despite the lack of any extraordinary events, that Sunday remains a singular experience amidst countless others of devout observance. 

What does this Sunday years ago have to do with Sister Camille Johnson’s recent address at the BYU Women’s Conference? In recent days, a controversy over it has erupted within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community. During her talk, Sister Johnson candidly shared her experience of balancing a career while raising a family, a revelation that has ignited a firestorm of debate, prompting both passionate support and harsh criticism, with thousands of comments and tens of thousands of reactions. The discussion has raised questions not only about gender roles and religious doctrine but has also exposed underlying tensions about the shifting landscape of expectations within many women of faith. This discussion is not merely about one woman’s choices but underscores the intense complexities of balancing personal desires with doctrine and prophetic counsel.

Navigating the intricacies of personal revelation and exceptions can be complex.

Amidst the fervor, I’ve reflected on that previous Sunday decision and other personal choices I have made as a woman of faith. The easy answer would be to allow myself to explain why that Sunday or my choices fall within categories of acceptable exceptions–I can be quick to grant myself alternatives. However, navigating the intricacies of personal revelation and exceptions can be complex.

Nephi’s experience with King Laban, one of the most commonly used examples of an exception, provides us with a template when we wonder if we are following the right path:

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. And the spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yeah, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yeah, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord … And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.

Nephi operated on more than feelings—he relied on clear guidance; he fulfilled his calling under authority, ensuring alignment with his responsibilities; he followed guidance even when it contradicted his desires. 

Similarly, we must carefully discern genuine revelation from personal biases or false impressions. An experience of one sister sheds light on the wisdom of prioritizing adherence to principles before seeking exceptions. In her story, a woman publicly challenged a Relief Society leader, expressing her belief that her unique circumstances warranted an exception to established guidelines. Despite the tension, the leader responded with grace, gently affirming, “We’d like to follow the rule first, and then we’ll take care of the exceptions.”

Seek a higher, holier path rather than hastily seeking exceptions.

This gentle assertion highlights the importance of valuing foundational principles while remaining open to exceptional circumstances. It encourages us to approach decisions with patience and trust, understanding that if exceptions are truly needed, they will become evident in due time. Striving to seek a higher, holier path rather than hastily seeking exceptions can help foster a spirit of humility in our approach to faithful decision-making. And most importantly, it allows God to prevail rather than ourselves. Indeed, this admonition is consistent with words from Sister Johnson herself. She said:

Establishing priorities is critical to success and happiness. Love of God and love of His children, first and second …When we prioritize the first and second commandments, we are letting God prevail. 

On the matter at hand, it’s important to note that Sister Johnson never claimed to be an exception in her professional life. Likewise, my husband and I never saw ourselves as exceptions that Sunday. The realities exist:  Sunday as our Sabbath truly is sacred and we have been directed by prophets throughout the ages to make keeping the Sabbath day holy a priority in our lives. Similarly, President Spencer W. Kimball really did say

I beg of you, you who could and should be bearing and rearing a family: wives, come home from the typewriter, the laundry, the nursing, come home from the factory, the café. No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother—cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children. Come home, wives, to your husbands. Make home a heaven for them. Come home, wives, to your children, born and unborn. Wrap the motherly cloak about you and, unembarrassed, help in a major role to create the bodies for the immortal souls who anxiously await. … When you have fully complemented your husband in home life and borne the children, growing up full of faith, integrity, responsibility, and goodness, then you have achieved your accomplishment supreme, without peer, and you will be the envy [of all] through time and eternity. 

This counsel was amplified by President Ezra Taft Benson as it was captured in a pamphlet titled “To the Mothers in Zion” and distributed to the members of the Church in 1987, emphasizing the crucial role of mothers and similarly counseling them to “come home.” President Gordon B. Hinckley later echoed these sentiments, affirming, “The greatest job that any woman will ever do will be in nurturing and teaching and living and encouraging and rearing her children in righteousness and truth. There is no other thing that will compare with that, regardless of what she does.” 

A modern mother prioritizes her children, engaging joyfully in play at home.
Rearing children in love and righteousness can bring lasting joy and fulfillment.

As I bring these words from the prophets to the forefront, my goal has been to be transparent. I am not going to shy away from the actual words of the prophets and try to comfort critics with false platitudes or half-truths. While sometimes taken out of the context of their entire message,  these were actual words from the prophets, and I remember them well; as a newly married woman, I experienced strong feelings about them. Against the backdrop of these teachings prevalent in the 80s and 90s, the decision to balance a career with raising children became increasingly complex for many. It wasn’t just within the confines of religion that traditional views on motherhood and homemaking were grappled with.

Motherhood has been touted as the most important thing we can do, but not the only thing.

The clash was magnified by the broader secular and cultural climate of the era. With the surge of feminist activism and the fervent pursuit of gender equality, age-old norms and societal expectations were radically reshaped. This shift had profound ramifications for women, families, and the fabric of society itself. These waves of feminism ushered in a premium focus on intersectionality, diversity, race, class, and sexuality. Perhaps these prophets who “see around corners” had a glimpse of a time when we would struggle to even define the word “woman.” Perhaps their foresight laid a foundation that would facilitate women of this time to claim precious feminine roles and desires.

As we look at the criticism that has been lodged at Sister Johnson for what appears to be skirting the admonitions of prophets, we might pause for a second to ponder if we are asking the right questions. Yes, as we have mentioned, previous and contemporary prophets have been explicit about the importance of the role of motherhood and what that may look like for women through different eras and seasons of life. I would posit, however, that it is not just about whether Sister Johnson worked or did not work outside the home. Everyone is subject to the individual context of their lives, and God is aware of those things, providing us with prophets, scriptures, and covenantal power as we strive for the ideal. What we can and should take note of is that she did prioritize being a mother. Not in just a biological sense, but in an involved, intentional, and spiritual capacity. Being a mother goes beyond whether or not a woman is quantitatively working in a career or being home full-time. It is about physical presence (i.e. actually being home), but it is also about mental and emotional presence. 

As President David O. McKay stated: 

The home is the first and most effective place to learn the lessons of life: truth, honor, virtue, self-control, the value of education, honest work, and the purpose and privilege of life. Nothing can take the place of home in rearing and teaching children, and no worldly success can compensate for failure in the home.

In this regard, motherhood has been touted as the most important thing we can do, but not the only thing we can do. Perhaps President Dallin H. Oaks was nodding to this when he weighed in on the controversy with this comment on Sister Johnson’s post:

“You are a wonderful role model of a lifelong commitment to prioritize your role as a mother and to continue to seek learning. Women have a unique opportunity to influence family members and society in countless ways.”

The prophet of our day, President Russell M. Nelson, has repeatedly championed women, calling us to lay claim to our critical role in these latter days. Consider just a few of his statements:

“The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God!”

“How much we need women who are anchored to the Savior, women who know how to make important things happen by their faith, and who are courageous defenders of morality and families in a sin-sick world. Women who know how to call upon the powers of heaven to protect and strengthen children and families; women who teach fearlessly.”

“We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. We simply cannot gather Israel without you.”

“Sisters, you are the essence of life, the crown of creation, and the torchbearers of the Lord’s light.”

These quotes reflect President Nelson’s deep appreciation for the role of women and the contributions they make to families, communities, and the world at large. Anyone trying to be fair cannot dismiss such a powerful admonition:

“My dear sisters, you have special spiritual gifts and propensities. Tonight, I urge you, with all the hope of my heart, to pray to understand your spiritual gifts—to cultivate, use, and expand them, even more than you ever have. You will change the world as you do so.”

When I listened to Sister Johnson’s talk, I heard a woman sharing her personal journey and the choices she made along the way. As she explained, the decision to work seemed almost inevitable in her circumstances. However, what truly stood out for me was her unconventional choice within that context – the conscious decision to be a mother and prioritize it as prophets counsel. Despite the current fascination with her career, what it seems we might be overlooking is this higher, holier choice to embrace motherhood. Instead of disregarding her story due to personal biases, possible resentment, or potentially myopic labels and definitions, it seems we can all benefit from an opportunity to learn from her insights and experiences. Personally, as a mother who also balances a career, I admire her obvious “covenant confidence.” In the end, it’s not about exceptions or justifications; it’s about embracing divinely ordained roles with unwavering commitment and conviction.

About the author

Carol Rice

Carol Rice is the president of Skyline Research Institute and the Director of Communications for Public Square Magazine, a joint project of the Elizabeth McCune and the John A. Widstoe Foundation. She earned a BA in marriage and family relations with an emphasis in family advocacy from BYU-I. Carol and her husband Scott live in Alpine, Utah.
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