Review: A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


It is daunting presuming to review the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, a Harvard professor, and, perhaps most enduringly, the one who wrote:

“Well-behaved women seldom make history…”

In A House Full of Females, Professor Ulrich for the first time puts forward a scholarly book that addresses Mormon history.

I first heard of this years ago, when a friend with a sister in Professor Ulrich’s Boston congregation told me Professor Ulrich was writing “the definitive” book about Joseph Smith. As I had by that time completed my Faithful Joseph series of blog posts, I reached out to Professor Ulrich.

I wrote: “My friend’s sister, your friend, mentioned you have just submitted the manuscript for a book on Joseph Smith and polygamy, the definitive book, she asserted. I don’t know much more than an assertion that there was a lot less sex than most people assume and that none of the children are Joseph’s.”

Professor Ulrich graciously replied, but informed me someone must have misunderstood:

“I do think it significant that there were so few births to plural wives before Joseph’s death, but my book does not offer any new information on Joseph, Eliza, or John C. Bennett.”

The Book of Woodruff

The extensive diaries of Wilford Woodruff form the spine of this work. Professor Ulrich explores his journey from new convert to new husband, then through the years as Wilford and his beloved Phebe live their lives against the backdrop of Mormon history. I have studied Wilford to some degree in my own research, but this book brings Wilford and Phebe to life in tender detail. Of all the Mormon Apostles who followed Brigham Young to the west, Wilford Woodruff was the one who was most moderate in his embrace of plural marriage. It becomes clear how it was that he could eventually be the one to transform the doctrine of Celestial marriage from a social construct obsessed with a plurality of wives to the eternal doctrine intended to bind the family of mankind together.

One of the best parts of this focus on Wilford is to see the women of the early Mormon movement in England. We learn of women who were having dreams that suggested the ability to perform proxy ordinances on behalf of deceased loved ones, months before Joseph Smith preached the sermon at Seymour Brunson’s funeral, where he proclaimed the doctrine of performing proxy ordinances on behalf of the dead.

William Clayton

I am so jealous, as it appears that Professor Ulrich was able to access the William Clayton journals in their entirety, rather than being limited to the partial subset of journal entries available to most researchers.

Perhaps the one sentence that best captures Professor Ulrich’s thoughts on William Clayton regarded a time when Wilford Woodruff met with William Clayton: “Wilford gave none of these details in his diary, although he did mention having “an interview” with William Clayton, perhaps a foolhardy thing to do with a man disposed to write everything down.”

While the William Clayton we see through Professor Ulrich’s eyes is more human than we may have seen before, he becomes a real person, with strengths and weaknesses as we all have strengths and weaknesses.

The Relief Societies

We have just celebrated the 175th anniversary of the formation of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, which we take as the initial predecessor of the vast network of congregational Relief Societies moderns know. Professor Ulrich shows us how Relief Society was abruptly terminated by Brigham Young in Nauvoo. In a later passage, we see how Brigham Young “edited” the Minute Book from Nauvoo to align to Young’s ideas of male patriarchy. We see the women who had been Joseph’s covenant wives in Nauvoo continue the traditions of service that had been set in Nauvoo, with Brigham and others seeming to take credit for re-organizing that which the women had already been doing. Though it may be irritating to modern sensibilities to see the male leadership behave so, we also see that in this manner the women’s activities were validated rather than crushed, as could so easily have occurred had Brigham not commanded the women to do what they were already about.

Regarding the edits to the Relief Society minutes and Brigham’s lack of regard for preserving them, Professor Ulrich does not perceive that there was an illicit intercourse heresy or how Joseph’s teachings to the Relief Society both betrayed aspects of that heresy and truths that later were part of the temple ordinances. Where Professor Ulrich sees imposition of male patriarchy, I see a Brigham attempting to redact sensitive information that he desperately wished hadn’t been recorded. This is consistent with his advice to William Clayton to burn the minutes of the Council of Fifty. In the case of the Relief Society minutes, it appears Brigham felt the edits would suffice, perhaps hoping the original minutes would disappear the way so many other paper documents have disappeared over time.

The 1850s

The bulk of this book (~230 pages of 387 pages) deals with the few years between when the Mormons left Nauvoo (1846) and the resolution of the Utah War (1858). Professor Ulrich provides us an intimate view of how men and women loved and lost one another, in all the ways families were formed and ruptured. We get insight into the missions to India and Hong Kong, which at the time were seen as failures. This is ironic, since Joseph Smith had specifically discussed the idea of embracing a plurality of wives to accommodate the marriage practices of eastern cultures. We see the (monogamous) Tait family from India torn apart, when the wife’s father refused to let her depart. Brother Tait and his young son traveled to Utah via California. Sister Tait, once allowed to depart, traveled to Utah via the Atlantic Ocean, ending up stranded at Devil’s Gate in the fall of 1856 with the Willie Company. She did survive.

Given my laser focus on instances of illicit intercourse and incorrect use of marriage in those early days, I was intrigued by the mention of Thomas W. Treat, who confessed to seducing women in England in 1852 and was excommunicated. 1 Professor Ulrich also covers the travels and travails of Henry Jacobs.  2 But these mentions might not pique the notice of other readers.

I came away from this segment of the book with a much greater appreciation for the difficulties associated with the flight from Nauvoo and the early Mormon settlement of the west. These are not the stories that one hears in Sunday School. But they are, perhaps, the stories that might be of better use to those who find it hard to live up to the faith of the Colesville Saints or the missionary successes of Wilford Woodruff in England. They are also stories that might cause us to reflect on how we treat our spouses and close relations, even though relatively few of us have to deal with other (presumably former) spouses of our beloved on a daily basis.

Summary

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in either LDS history or women’s history. However I was disappointed that Professor Ulrich does not attempt to say anything new about Joseph, Eliza, and John Bennett.

Professor Ulrich does suggest that sexual activity was far less prevalent than is typically presumed. She also gives us information that is wholly consistent with the hypothesis of an illicit intercourse heresy.

But all too often she repeats the standard scholarly viewpoint that Joseph Smith was responsible for the rumors of inappropriate behavior, or that his rejection of spiritual wifery and illicit intercourse was not genuine.

P.S. or TLDR (too long, didn’t read)

Professor Ulrich makes it abundantly clear that key Mormon leaders, such as Eliza Snow and Wilford Woodruff, saw the doctrine of Celestial marriage as a means to unite loved ones despite death (seen in Eliza’s exquisite paper hearts with the arrow and key and in Wilford Woodruff’s drawings of interlinked hearts and keys). Whether Professor Ulrich was aware of my work or not, she often emphasizes points that I have attempted to make, such as the likelihood that many in the 1800s limited married sexual intercourse to production of children.

Yet the presumption that Joseph was lying distorts Professor Ulrich’s otherwise careful scholarship.

Failure to see the illicit intercourse heresy as separate from Joseph’s teachings. Professor Ulrich fails to explore how it was that the Nauvoo City Council came to warn the ladies of Relief Society against “unprincipled men” who might try to deceive them. “We do not mention their names, not knowing but what there may be some among you who are not sufficiently skill’d in Masonry as to keep a secret.” If men attempted to teach the women things “contrary to the old established morals & virtues & scriptural laws,” the women were advised to dismiss them as “liars & base impostors…whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators; Patriarchs, twelve Apostles, Elders, Priests, Mayors, Generals, City Councillors, Aldermen, Marshalls, Police, Lord Mayors or the Devil.” (p. 66) As men who could be described by these categories were called out by the women who would confess to the Nauvoo High Council in May 1842, and other categories align with the rumor being spread by Martha Brotherton which was refuted in April 1842, it seems to me insufficient for Professor Ulrich to simply suggest this furor was about Joseph’s activities.

Omission of the March conspiracy against Joseph, as reported by Dennison Harris. By comparing Wilford Woodruff’s journal with the account of Dennison Harris, it is possible to determine that the initial meeting of the Nauvoo conspirators in the home of William Law occurred on March 17, 1844. Professor Ulrich was apparently not aware of this. Therefore her analysis of events in the last months of 1844 suggests Joseph was lying or exaggerating.

Professor Ulrich describes Joseph confronting Sarah Foster around March 23. As William Clayton recorded, “’President Joseph asked Sister Foster if she ever in her life knew him guilty of an immoral or indecent act. She answered no.’ Had she ever heard him preach the spiritual-wife doctrine? Had he ever proposed to have illicit relations with her? Each time she answered no.” Professor Ulrich doesn’t mention the report of Dennison Harris regarding the meeting of the Nauvoo conspirators, where un-named women reported to the hundreds of men regarding how they’d been propositioned by Joseph Smith. It would seem from Clayton’s record that Joseph had reason to believe Sarah Foster was one of those women.

Ignoring the difference between illicit relations/spiritual wifery and plural marriage, Professor Ulrich suggests that the “more Joseph insisted on his innocence, the less credible he seemed to those who had heard of his still-secret revelation or who knew of his puzzling assignations.” She persists in the common error of presuming that immoral acts and spiritual wifery were synonymous with the plural marriage permitted within the Celestial marriage construct. This is particularly puzzling given Professor Ulrich’s acknowledgement that plural marriage rarely resulted in children during Joseph’s lifetime.

Elsewhere Professor Ulrich describes Emma’s rejection of immorality before the Relief Society on March 9th and 16th. “For two successive weeks in March, [Emma] held morning and afternoon sessions of the Relief Society, so that every sister [of the 1300 members] who wished could hear Phelps’s essay read aloud.” Phelp’s essay defended the virtue of Nauvoo women against the claim that a man could offer any one of them a half bushel of meal in exchange for sex. The slander and sexual misbehavior were then compared to the hellish mobbings in Missouri. 3 Those women who had attended the four Relief Society sessions had been unanimous in rejecting the slander and thanking Joseph Smith for defending them.

Professor Ulrich fails to connect Emma’s actions with the Nauvoo conspiracy, which held its first meeting on March 17, the day following the second of Emma’s attempts to defend the virtue of the women of Nauvoo.

Rather than seeing the high stakes interplay, Professor Ulrich writes “Joseph was certainly exaggerating when he claimed, ‘I never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses.'”

Odd errors. There were a couple of other instances where Professor Ulrich asserted as fact things I don’t believe are correct. They are likely not important to Professor Ulrich’s narrative, but I found it odd that she, for example, asserted that Jane Manning arrived in Nauvoo in 1840, when all evidence suggests Jane Manning and her family members did not arrive in Nauvoo until the winter of 1843/1844.

Strange narration. I’m not sure who did the audio narration of the book, but they clearly had no knowledge of Mormon-specific names. Perhaps the most grating because of frequency was how the narrator persisted in referring to Zina as “Xena.” Once, when referring to the Relief Society minute book, the narrator referred to it as Eliza’s “minoot” or tiny book. The segment where the lack of familiarity with Mormon names became most obvious was a letter Wilford wrote to his family, with the bulk of the letter consisting of names of individual family members. The narrator butchered all the names derived from the Book of Mormon, including reading “Lehi” as “Leah.” Beyond these odd pronunciation errors, the narrator’s cadence was mechanical, prompting my husband to ask if this was computer-generated narration. On the other hand, the narration allowed me to do chores while taking in the content of the book, which was worth the few additional dollars I paid when I purchased the kindle version.

Notes:

  1. Treat, born 1802, had been married to Mary Lawyer/Sawyer in Nauvoo, but was a widower when he joined the Mormon Battalion in 1846. We see Treat in the 1850 census in Davis County as the husband of Lucinda, another native of New York, who was newly delivered of a son they named Hyrum. It is unclear what happened to Lucinda and Hyrum before Thomas Treat went to be a missionary in England. After being excommunicated, Treat returned to Utah in 1856 and married again.
  2. Jacobs was excommunicated for performing marriages in England without authorization.
  3. Nauvoo Neighbor, March 20, 1844, page 2, column b-d, online 9 Apr 2017 at http://boap.org/LDS/Nauvoo-Neighbor/1844/3-20-1844.pdf.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

2 thoughts on “Review: A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  1. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “A House Full of Females” is the best book written on early Mormonism bar none. If you read one book on the early Saints, then read this one.

    Ulrich set out to write a book on early Mormon feminism but ended up with one far more rich and nuanced. It is the story of men and women willing to do the unimaginable and who survived the unthinkable for their God and religious convictions.

    These characters are foreign. In my deepest recesses of my soul, I do not think I could find the zeal for anything that is omnipresent in the lives of these early Saints.

    The title of the book belies its contents. Laurel resists the urge of so many authors to pull polygamy out of its context. This was just one of many trials the Saints endured. Ulrich herself argues it may not have been their greatest, either.

    Two of the most compelling stories shared are those of Hosea Stout and Vienna Jacques. Step into their skin for fifty pages, and you will never look at those early days of the church in the same way again.

    The book starts out slowly, so hang in there. After chapter three, you will be hooked.

  2. The book is excellent. The nits I mentioned are irritating precisely because the vast majority of the book is so amazing.

    I didn’t mention the funny item during the discussion of the original Relief Society. Professor Ulrich discusses the way the fiber arts are mentioned in Eliza’s Relief Society minutes, commenting that “Her minutes show that at least some women in this burgeoning river town still knew how to spin and weave.” Had I been reading that aloud with my daughter, there would have been howling of outrage. The vast majority of women in Nauvoo would have known how to wash fiber, spin it into thread or yarn, and make it into cloth by weaving, knitting, or other means. Though fine fabric was imported from England, every woman was trained from an early age in the various methods of transforming fiber into clothing and other useful items. But that item is something we know in my family because we are obsessed with fiber. Even though my daughter has now moved her four spinning wheels, two looms, myriad drop spindles, drum carder, etc. to her own home, I still have a great wheel in my front room. It used to take ten spinners for each weaver and ten carders for each spinner. And it similarly took several people to create the washed and prepared fiber for each carder. It was a massive effort, suggesting that if there was any woven cloth of local production (as we know there was), there was a vast community of fiber “artists” in that community.

    I could wish Professor Ulrich had included Jonathan Holmes’s Mormon Battalion journal. It’s a rather boring document, but it illustrated the way Joseph’s wives reached out to their loved ones to urge righteousness (specifically Elvira urged Jonathan to practice the tenets of the Word of Wisdom). Also, it shows Jonathan becoming unaccountably ill on a day he would only later learn was the day his infant daughter had died. The only other instance of illness mentioned was the time Jonathan was thrown from an animal and landed on his head, which would make anyone “ill.” It would have tied into the rest of the narrative, as Jonathan was another man married the day Wilford Woodruff married Phebe Carter. And Milton Holmes, who introduce Phebe Carter to Wilford Woodruff, was Jonathan’s brother. But Jonathan didn’t make the cut, only seen in this narrative by those who are so familiar with his story that they can see him in the events described even though rarely named by most historians.

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