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A photograph of the Salt Lake LDS Temple hangs alone on the white concrete wall of a South African shanty-town home. An embroidered expression, "Family is Forever," is passed down from mother to daughter. Slender female fingers display a favorite CTR ring. A hand-carved beehive graces a Mormon meetinghouse and sits atop a famed Utah hotel.
Like all faiths, Mormonism expresses itself in tangible materials that are constructed, displayed, shared and worn as reminders of spiritual notions. Such symbols communicate a depth of belief that requires no sermon or lengthy discourse, but rather acts in a visual and visceral way.
While Mormon men built monuments, temples and chapels, the women created a common world of quilts, textiles, aprons, fruit jars, knitted afghans, needlepoint sayings and yes, plastic grapes.
Next week's Sunstone Symposium, held for the first time in Ogden at Weber State University, will explore the theme, "Mormon Artifacts and Material Culture." Speakers will explore the contributions of both genders, but especially women.
Although LDS artifacts are part of many Mormons' lives, how often do members cogitate about their role in spiritual life? asks symposium organizer Mary Ellen Robertson. "We wanted to focus on some of these things that get taken for granted."
Holly Welker, a Utah writer and editor who is helping Robertson with the three-day conference, feels that such an exploration is a feminist exercise.
"I learned to knit in Primary as a Merry Miss," says Welker, referring to a church class, now renamed, for 11- to 12-year-old girls. "I also went to quilting bees at Relief Society [for adult women]."
These activities are "intrinsic to how Mormon women experience their religion," Welker says. "Such folk material creations functioned as professions of faith. Women created their testimonies rather than just saying them."
A family Bible, an heirloom recipe or a treasured quilt can "carry stories that can influence our way of being and thinking for generations," says Elizabeth Pinborough, who has a master's degree in religion and literature from Yale and who assembled a photography exhibit of Mormon women's contributions to display at the symposium.
"Material objects contain lessons about womanhoodinstantiations of how our mothers and grandmothers dressed, walked, and talked; how they married and had babies; how they pursued careers; and how they served their brothers and sisters through gifts of food, flowers, time and creativity," Pinborough writes in the exhibit's introduction. "Material objects such as these contain unwritten histories, an important fact to acknowledge when considering the histories of women, which often go unwritten because they are deemed less significant than the more ostensibly great events of history."
At the symposium's opening session Wednesday evening, Colleen McDannell, who teaches history and religious studies at the University of Utah, will broaden the discussion by describing how all religious communities build their world out of stuff.
"American Christians want to see, hear and touch God. It is not enough to go to church, lead a righteous life, and hope for an eventual place in heaven. People build religion into the landscape, they make and buy pious images for their homes and they wear special reminders of their faith near to their bodies," McDannell writes in the introduction to her 1995 book, Material Christianity. "Throughout American history, Christians have explored the meaning of the divine, the nature of death, the power of healing, and the experience of the body by interacting with a created world of images and shapes."
McDannell will return for the Saturday evening banquet to moderate a discussion of Mormonism's "missing, repudiated, rebuilt and museum-sequestered artifacts."
The group will discuss such Mormon items as the "gold plates," which church founder Joseph Smith said he unearthed from a hill and which he said contained the history of an ancient American civilization. Mormons believe that an angel showed the plates to several witnesses, but then removed them from the Earth.
Other artifact-related sessions at the symposium will discuss the LDS Church's architectural move from beautiful to functional and what Mormon board games say about church doctrine and culture.
Several other speeches and panels will explore issues surrounding Mormon women, including what it would take to "de-gender" hymns, a look at why Mormon women can believe in a Mother in Heaven but are not supposed to pray to her and a conversation with various bloggers about their individual efforts to honor and improve the roles of women in the Utah-based church.
Tamara Taysom, who leads Sunstone's student chapter at the University of Utah, will describe how Mormon architecture discriminates against women, due in part to the centrality of gyms.
"Gyms can and often do encourage fellowship, but are not necessary to religious experiences or the practice of worship," Taysom says. "They are rarely if ever used on Sundays and yet they take up more space in LDS buildings than any other single room except the chapel itself."
The reality, she says, is that gyms are sometimes used by women and girls, but overwhelmingly by men and boys.
Plus, Taysom says, male leaders enjoy elegantly furnished offices, while female leaders have none. These leaders could "carry out their duties more effectively," she says, "if they could counsel church members in a private setting."
In addition to these sessions, the conference will feature discussions of LDS history and belief, including a session with Mormon "millennials," or those born after 1981, and why so many of their peers have drifted away from the faith of their parents.
There are the ever-popular standbys: "Why We Stay" and "Pillars of My Faith," in which participants explain why they maintain Mormon belief and practice.
The symposium would not be complete, however, without a couple of sessions examining Mormonism's hot topics. This year, it's the Romney-Huntsman presidential battle; polygamy; the church and homosexuality; sex education for Latter-day Saints; Broadway's "The Book of Mormon" musical; and how to check the breadth, accuracy, balance and authorship of Mormon content on Wikipedia.
But Sunstone's emphasis on women's contributions to Mormon material culture, organizer Robertson says, is an important addition to traditional LDS Church history.
She's experienced it personally, through her grandmother's kitchen tools and wedding ring, which she inherited.
"These things serve as tangible reminders of loved ones and what they valued," Robertson says. "It connects the generations better than almost anything could."
When • August 3-6
Where • Weber State University, 3848 Harrison Blvd. in Ogden. Sessions are scheduled in the Shepherd Union Building.
More information • http://www.sunstonemagazine.com/symposium