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A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870

A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


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From the author of A Midwife's Tale, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize for History, and The Age of Homespun—a revelatory, nuanced, and deeply intimate look at the world of early Mormon women whose seemingly ordinary lives belied an astonishingly revolutionary spirit, drive, and determination.

A stunning and sure-to-be controversial book that pieces together, through more than two dozen nineteenth-century diaries, letters, albums, minute-books, and quilts left by first-generation Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, the never-before-told story of the earliest days of the women of Mormon "plural marriage," whose right to vote in the state of Utah was given to them by a Mormon-dominated legislature as an outgrowth of polygamy in 1870, fifty years ahead of the vote nationally ratified by Congress, and who became political actors in spite of, or because of, their marital arrangements. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, writing of this small group of Mormon women who've previously been seen as mere names and dates, has brilliantly reconstructed these textured, complex lives to give us a fulsome portrait of who these women were and of their "sex radicalism"—the idea that a woman should choose when and with whom to bear children.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307742124
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 585,292
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH was born in Sugar City, Idaho. She holds degrees from the University of New Hampshire, University of Utah, and Simmons College. She is 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and past president of the American Historical Association. As a MacArthur Fellow, Ulrich worked on the PBS documentary based on A Midwife's Tale. Her work is also featured on an award-winning website called She is immediate past president of the Mormon History Association. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

“Wonder on wonder strikes my sense”
Ohio, Connecticut, and Maine, 1836–1838

Walking toward Kirtland, Ohio, in late November 1836, Wilford Woodruff caught sight of the temple standing on a bluff above the flats. When he left Kirtland two years before, the temple had been only a dream. Now it rose before him, more magnificent, he thought, “than Kings ever saw or Princes ever Knew.” His excitement grew as he entered the village. In 1834, the little band of Latter-day Saints in Ohio had been poor and despised by their neighbors. Now there were signs of progress everywhere. He and his companion, a Kentuckian named Abraham Smoot, lost no time in touring the temple, from the light-filled assembly rooms on the lower levels to the offices in the attic, where Joseph Smith kept the Egyptian mummies and fragments of papyri that he said contained the writings of the Biblical Abraham. “Wonder on wonder strikes my sense to look into the Casket of the great work of Israels God in these last Days,” Wilford wrote.

For a newly settled town in Ohio’s Western Reserve, the building was indeed impressive. Sited on the highest point of land in the region, it had a soaring sanctuary on each of its main floors and a polychrome tower reaching to the sky. Some said that on a clear day visitors to the tower could see across Lake Erie to Canada. Color added to the building’s glory. The roof was a deep brick red, the exterior walls a glistening gray-blue created by grinding broken glass and cobalt-glazed ceramics into the stucco, then painting lines to simulate stonework. Two olive-green doors opened into the interior. A model of Yankee ingenuity and rural pretension, the temple had Greek pilasters and Gothic windows, ascending pulpits on both ends of the major rooms, movable seats in the pews, and adjustable curtains operated by pulleys to subdivide the spaces. Red velvet drapery ornamented the pulpits.

Latter-day Saints believed God, speaking through Joseph Smith, had commanded them to build the temple. Smith’s revelation called it a “house”—“a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God.” At its dedication in March 1836, some heard the sound of a mighty wind as a pillar of light descended. Others saw angels soaring through the windows to settle on the high pulpits. It was a house of glory built by common folk. Bolstered by contributions gathered by missionaries like Wilford, its construction provided work for common laborers as well as for skilled carpenters like Brigham Young. God may have prescribed the dimensions of the building, but human beings quarried the stone, planed the planks, stitched the draperies, and constructed the window mullions and sashes, using carpenters’ manuals and Smith’s visions for their guide.

On his first Sunday back in the town, Wilford stood in one of the pulpits and reported on his mission. He took as his text a passage in Isaiah about God’s power to graft into the House of Israel even “the son of the stranger.” Wilford was talking about the men and women he had baptized in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was also talking about himself. The scripture promised, “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.”

Like many New Englanders of his generation, Wilford had migrated west in search of new opportunities. Now, nearly thirty, he had neither a wife nor a home of his own, but in Kirtland he had a place of honor in God’s house. Soon, though he did not yet know it, he would find a wife—a resolute New Englander named Phebe Carter. Together they would begin a journey that would take them to their old homes in Connecticut and Maine and then to the Fox Islands, off the Atlantic coast, to gather others—relatives and strangers—into a faith that promised wonders on wonders.

“The First Book of Willford”

Born in Connecticut in 1807, Wilford was the youngest of Aphek and Beulah Woodruff’s three children, all boys. When he was just a year old, his mother died in the midst of a spotted-fever epidemic that also claimed his grandfather. When Wilford was not yet three, his father married Azubah Hart, who gave birth to six more children, five boys and a girl. Azubah’s boys were haunted by death. Julius died shortly after birth, Franklin at three months; Newton drowned at two. Sixteen-year-old Philo fell ill after dreaming that there would soon be a funeral in the family. His death provoked Wilford, who was then twenty, to consider his own spiritual state. He asked a local Baptist preacher to baptize him by immersion, but he did not join any church.

After a short stint at the Farmington Academy (his family could not afford more), he moved with his older brother Azmon to a farm in upstate New York. When Mormon missionaries came through in 1833, both accepted baptism. In 1834, Wilford, the more zealous convert, headed to Ohio to meet Joseph Smith. There he joined “Zion’s Camp,” a quasi-military expedition sent to relieve Mormon settlers in Jackson County, Missouri, who had been driven from their homes. From there, he accepted a call to serve as a missionary in Tennesee and Kentucky. During his two years in the backcountry, he supported himself by selling subscriptions to the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, performing day labor, and accepting food, lodging, and cash donations from church members and strangers.

One of Joseph Smith’s revelations assured newly called missionaries that “whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture.” Wilford took those words seriously. He learned to preach, and he learned to keep a diary, labeling his four-by-six leather-bound journal “The First Book of Willford.” At first, he wrote in a loose, almost unformed scrawl, taking rough notes that he later transcribed, first in cursive, then in a kind of Roman print that appeared to imitate type. To make it easier to find things, he began setting off certain entries with special symbols or borders, using the calligraphy skills he had acquired during his short time at school. Thanks to his end-of-year summaries, we know that during his two-year mission he traveled 6,557 miles, held 153 meetings, participated in four debates, baptized twenty-seven persons, blessed nineteen children, healed four persons, and escaped from three mobs. The mobs were an affirmation of his calling. Hadn’t the ancient apostles also suffered opposition?

At a place he called “Bloody [Creek?], Kentucky,” he gave a full page to a dream or vision of the sun going dark and the moon turned to blood and “the horizon covered with burning cities,” as prophesied in scripture. He then saw the resurrection of Jesus and witnessed the joy of members of the Church of the First Born clothed in white. Words were not enough to describe such an experience. He ornamented his page with tiny sketches of the things he had seen.

When he returned to Kirtland late in 1836, he expected even more powerful manifestations of God’s presence. He enrolled in something called the “School of the Prophets,” an adult-education program for Mormon preachers, where he learned a smattering of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Between January and May 1837, he attended evening meetings of the Quorum of Seventies, a group of men with special callings to preach. He participated in private “feasts,” during which food was distributed to the poor, and in “blessing meetings,” where Joseph Smith’s father, who had been called as church patriarch, laid his hands on the heads of members to offer consolation, affirmation of lineage in the House of Israel, and the promise of future redemption. When Father Smith blessed Abraham Smoot, Wilford served as scribe, taking down the blessing in his neat Roman hand.

For Wilford, the most important gatherings occurred within the temple. Here he could listen to Joseph Smith and the Apostles speak and participate in holy rituals. The Prophet had already adopted the Christian practice of washing feet, but in 1836 he reached backward to the book of Exodus, building on a passage that described Moses bringing Aaron and his sons “to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation” for a special washing and anointing that allowed them to minister as priests. On April 4, 1837, Wilford and twenty-two other men gathered at a private home and washed themselves “with clean watter & perfumes” before repairing to the temple for an anointing. Although the Old Testament recipe called for myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, and cassia, the Saints made do with cinnamon.

After the anointing, Wilford joined two other men in a veiled space in the temple. They knelt in prayer and, in Wilford’s words, vowed “that we would not give sleep to our eyes neither take food until we receieved a blessing from God by the outpourings of his spirit upon us if it was until the end of three days.” Alternately praying and contending with a fatigue they associated with Satan, they continued through the night. Then, having “gained a good degree of victory over the Devil,” they left the temple, to return that evening for another round. In contrast to the elaborate vision he had recorded in Kentucky, Wilford measured the success of this experience not by a visual manifestation, but by the peace he felt: “The spirit of God sat upon us & we were satisfied with our blessing.”

Years later, a church leader who had been in Kirtland said that, when Joseph Smith introduced the ritual of washing and anointing to male leaders, some women got “right huffy about it,” feeling that they had been left out. If so, they neglected to record their complaints. Their memoirs recall spiritual manifestations, such as an outpouring of glossolalia or “speaking in tongues.” Some heard an invisible choir during services in the temple. One young mother claimed that her six-month-old baby slept quietly through the seven-hour dedication ceremony, then joined the crowd in shouting “Hosanna!”

The completion of the temple nevertheless marked a subtle transition in Latter-day Saint worship, which had previously focused on small gatherings in homes. In Kirtland, Elizabeth Ann and Newel Whitney often hosted “Feasts for the Poor,” like the ones Wilford attended, occasions when guests fasted for two meals, then brought butter, bread, or other foods to share with the needy. When held in the temple, fast days like these took on a more formal quality. On March 23, 1837, Wilford arrived early and retired to a veiled area with several other elders for prayer. As the crowd gathered, he emerged into the main space, where, at the invitation of the Prophet’s father, he read a passage from the Book of Mormon while the congregation stood. Then the curtains dropped, dividing the room into four parts—“the females occupied two parts & the males the others.” Male leaders presided in each of the divisions as people engaged “in singing, exhortation, & prayer. Some had a tongue, others an interpretation, & all was in order.”

The reference to “order” is significant. Joseph Smith had been shocked when he first arrived in Kirtland by the extremes of “enthusiasm” that greeted him. The temple became a setting for encouraging and at the same time containing ecstatic expression. With the room divided, four times as many people had an opportunity to participate, but the presence of a member of the presidency in each group prevented things from getting out of hand. Wilford explained that, after the separate meetings, “the Veils were all rolled up together which brought the whole Congregation in full view of each other and while the presence of the Lord filled the house the congregation of the Saints fell upon their knees & all as one man vocally poured forth rejoicing, supplication & Prayer, before the God of Israel.” Presumably, the phrase “one man” included women, though we cannot be sure.

Movable seats in the pews allowed people to face pulpits on either the east or the west side, as required. The pulpits themselves ascended in four levels, with three stations in each. Those on the west held the presidencies of the Melchizedek or the “higher” priesthood; those on the east, the Aaronic, or “lesser.” With eight presidencies and twenty-four men involved, authority was both widely distributed and heirarchically ordered. Joseph Smith and his two counselors commanded the top tier in the Melchizedek pulpit.

While Wilford filled his diary with details about temple worship, something else was happening unnoticed. In early April, he set off a blank space with a distinct border and reported dryly, “My first acquaintance with miss Phebe W. Carter was on the evening of the 28th of Jan. 1837 at which time I was introduc’d to her at Elder Milliken’s by the politeness of Elder M. Holmes. After two & half months acquaintance we were joined in matrimony.” In the midst of religious ecstasy, he had found a wife.

“to leave my paternal roof”

Phebe Carter was born in Scarborough, Maine, a coastal town just south of Portland, on March 8, 1807. She was just seven days younger than Wilford and, at the age of thirty, a true peer, having embraced the Latter-day Saint gospel wholeheartedly and on her own. Unlike him, she had grown up in a house full of females. When Mormon missionaries came through Scarborough in 1834, Phebe’s younger sisters Rhoda, Shuah, and Mary, all in their twenties, were still at home, and the one married sister, Sarah Foss, lived nearby. In the minority were the three brothers, Ezra, Fabyan, and Ilus. Like many young women of her generation, Phebe worked off and on as a teacher and a dressmaker. In a period when an increasing number of women remained single, she must have wondered whether it would be her lot to live and die in the big house where she had been born.

Almost as soon as she was baptized, she contemplated moving to Kirtland. In Mormonism, the concept of “gathering” was central. Believing that the second coming of Jesus was imminent, missionaries taught that newly baptized members had a duty to migrate to the Mormon Zion to become “the first laborers in this last kingdom.” Although hundreds of New England women left home to work in nearby textile mills or teach in a rural school, very few set off alone to join a religious community seven hundred miles away. Phebe’s family opposed her plan, and when it came time to leave, she was too overcome with emotion to say goodbye in person. Instead, she composed a letter for them to read once she was out of sight.

That the letter survived suggests that her family cherished it. Written in a neat and legible hand on two long sheets of cream-colored paper, it displayed a better-than-average education, a mastery of religious rhetoric, and significantly less sentimentality than Wilford’s writing. “Beloved Parents,” she began, “I am now about to leave my parent paternal roof for a while but I know not how long—but not without grateful feelings for the kindness which I have receivd from my infancy until the present time.” There are no protestations of love in this opening, just a straightforward statement of the situation. She appreciated all her parents had done for her, but wanted them to know that it was time for them to part. Providence had willed it thus. That she changed “parental” to “paternal roof” surely reflects an inbred sense that houses belonged to fathers. It may also hint at her meticulousness and her bookishness. Although the phrase “paternal roof” was common in both fiction and poetry between 1800 and 1840, the term “parental roof” was seldom used before the twentieth century. To Phebe it probably didn’t have quite the right ring.

Table of Contents

Introduction: An Indignation Meeting: Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, 1870 xi

1 "Wonder on wonder strikes my sense": Ohio, Connecticut, and Maine, 1836-1838 3

2 "There was many Sick among the Saints": From the Half Breed Tract to the British Mission, 1839-1841 30

3 "I now turn the key to you": Nauvoo, Illinois, 1842 57

4 "a favor which I have long desired" :Nauvoo, Illinois, and a Journey East, 1843 84

5 "Menny feemales was recieved in to the Holy Order": Nauvoo and Beyond, 1844-1845 108

6 "Mud aplenty": Crossing Iowa, 1846 135

7 "Wrote some in my earley Biography": Camp of Israel, Winter Quarters, Omaha Nation, 1847-1848 159

8 "All are busy preparing to go either East or west": Mormon Trails, 1847-1850 184

9 "My pen is my only weapon": The Log Row, Salt Lake City, 1850-1851 211

10 "the revelation on plurality of wives was read": Salt Lake City, Hong Kong, Hindoostan, Liverpool, 1852 239

11 "Synopsis of my labors": Wilford Woodruff Household, 1853 264

12 "we now must look after the poor": Utah Territory, 1852-1855 288

13 "What a life of wandering": San Bernardino, California, 1856-1857 312

14 "The house was full of females": The Fourteenth Ward, 1857-1858 336

15 "The records of this House": Utah Territory, 1858-1872 361

Acknowledgments 389

Abbreviations Used in Notes 393

Notes 399

Index 465

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