by Rebecca Bartholomew
The Conversion Experience
[p.57]Mormon missionaries were unanimously male, but then ministers of nearly all the churches were men. Mission and conference leaders tended to be American men, married and mature, while travelling elders were young converts like Mariah Davis’s fiance—converted one week, made a priest the next, and soon called to travel with the full-time missionaries to bear testimony and sing.
Most missionaries were diplomatic, attempting to forestall antagonism by introducing themselves to town officials and even presenting a Book of Mormon to the Queen before beginning to proselyte in London. Others expected antagonism but went to work using any method that got results.
A typical tactic was to sell, door-to-door, copies of the Book of Mormon and other literature called tracts, hence the term tracting. George Cannon Lambert, whose parents accompanied him to the mission field, wrote that he spent most of his first month “walking about from one town or village to another, calling occasionally at the home of old church members.” Under this routine, he and his companion would tract, each on a different side of the street, knocking on doors and “getting into conversation as often as possible … We met with a little encouragement occasionally but generally only indifference.” This was in 1882 in Herefordshire, [p.58]scene of Wilford Woodruff’s baptisms-by-the-hundreds in the 1840s.1
If desperate in the early decades, when support from families in Utah was slim, elders asked for a meal and a bed. People willing to give an ear or comfort often proved receptive to the gospel message. Another common approach was to obtain a public hall, chapel, or private home, and advertise preaching through flyers, word of mouth, or the local newspaper.
If unsuccessful in these methods, elders would do as John Blythe in 1878 Scotland, who “Stood up on the north publick corner of the streets of Galston and Bare my testimony before the inhabitants.” This was the first outdoor meeting of his mission. He and his companion had previously used the branch president’s house for preaching. Public meetings occasionally turned into small riots, and young men must have felt like biblical prophets when forced from their podiums.2
Some young elders tried methods more imaginative than wise. James Kippen, a new convert turned missionary, “stood outside of the Kirks [church]” he had attended as a boy and bore testimony to the people leaving Sunday services. He was called “a Mormon delusion,” and his old minister became “rather ankshus for him to leave.”3
Overall, foot proselyting and preaching in advertised locations must have been successful, for many eventual converts encountered Mormonism through these elders traveling sometimes alone, often two by two, throughout Britain. Eliza Dorsey Ashworth was baptized in 1842 after a missionary (presumably Apostle Parley P. Pratt) came to her home. Felicia Astle “met the missionaries” in 1850 in Nottingham and was converted. In [p.59]1854 Charles Penrose preached and fourteen-year-old Mary Jane Ewer Palmer “heard and believed.” Sarah H. Wells “heard two missionaries preach shortly after her marriage” and was baptized. Sarah Isom, “with her parents, was converted to the Mormon religion by some of the early Mormon missionaries in England.” Alice Horrocks Wood’s descendants are told that “the LDS missionaries came into their [parents’] lives and they accepted the gospel.”
Mary Ann Chapple Warner wrote, “Our home was always open to the missionaries, and seven years after the church was organized [in Britain] my parents joined.” Mary Ann Weston Maughan, having learned of Mormonism through her employer, was alone the day Wilford Woodruff visited the Jenkins home and sang for her: “He looked peaceful and happy. I thought he was a good man and the Gospell he preached must be true.” Hannah King described one elder almost in adoration:
What were my first impressions with regard to him? I certainly felt directly that he meant to be kind to us. I next saw in his manner and something in his appearance that he bore a strong likeness to one in whom we had all been much interested, now gone to the spirit world, and he shone into my heart by reflection. Before two days he needed no borrowed pedestal to stand upon, for I found he had one of his own. Shall I attempt to describe him? I don’t know that I could–but this I do know, that I liked him, for he possessed what I consider essential in a man, viz, he was manly, gentlemanly, self possessed and dignified, modest and retiring in his manner, gentle and kind to all, humble and unassuming, yet ever maintaining self respect and his own position … We spent the greater part of a week together, and by that time I had settled in my own mind that he had become one of the planetary bodies of our social system in the shape of a “fixed” friend.
The portrayal of Mormon elders in these histories stands in pointed contrast to the media image of vengeful Danites, kidnappers, and con men. Elizabeth Lewis defended mission leader Dan Jones against this image in her Utah letters to Welsh friends:
Tell them and everyone who mentions Capt. Jones that he has [p.60]not been the evil man that they prophesied about him, rather until now his behavior has been the direct opposite. We all found him kind and benevolent, and his entire behavior is like a father toward his children … He has not received nor has he tried to get any of my money, and I have not heard that anyone of the company has been the loser of one penny because of him.
A story about eight-year-old Margaret R. Davies helps to explain converts’ perceptions of the missionaries as friends and advocates. During a visit to her family’s home, one of two missionaries asked her name. Confused, she answered, “Latter-day Saint.” Thinking she was being insolent, her mother slapped her, whereupon the missionary said, “Never mind; she is the only one in the family who will have the privilege of going to the temple and doing work for the dead.” Margaret McNeil Ballard was another girl who felt strong childhood loyalty to the missionaries: “Many times I went to bed hungry in order to give my meal to the visiting Elders.”
Some women were unimpressed, however. John Blythe’s niece wrote him a letter “Warming up my ears.” But he forgave her, thinking it only
“sho[w]s her warm impulsive nature.” In another instance, Blythe tried to heal his sister-in-law, Agnes. As it happened, her leg got worse.
While the majority of proselytes came into the fold through the missionaries, others learned of the faith through hearsay or reading material. Sometimes the initial brush came accidentally. Mary Nixon Bate Buckley went by chance into a small meetinghouse, heard the elders preach, and was converted. In 1851 “the father and mother of the girl that [John Davies] kept company with were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” so it was only through the happenstance of romance that John became a Mormon (Rachel Maria Davies). Priscilla Merriman (Evans) was incidentally invited to a “cottage meeting” at the home of a friend where she was “impressed” by the Mormon elder who spoke. Alice Maw Poulter’s father, not satisfied with his present religion, was on his way home from work one day when he noticed a large sign over the Temperance Hall. He went home, told his wife about it, attended the first meeting with her, afterwards investigated the church further, and was baptized.
[p.61]Hearsay traveled from relatives and friends and ministers of other faiths, and it was often negative. Fanny Stenhouse had apparently “heard stories against Mormonism” even before being warned against it by her sister and brother-in-law, who had disaffected from the St. Heliers branch. Priscilla Merriman Evans’s father told her, “I have heard of old Joe Smith and the golden Bible.” He must have formed the opinion that Smith’s followers were gullible, for he forbade his daughter going to their meetings by saying “the Mormons were too slow to associate with.”
In those areas where Mormon baptisms were abundant, opposition stories were plentiful. The Welsh Mormon newspaper Udgorn Seion (Zion’s Trumpet) alluded to a story that had “followed the Saints to every corner of the country ever since they first came to Wales, and before that in England, except that the name of the place is changed.” The story was about a Newport man who pretended to be dead so that two Mormon “prophets” could resurrect him. The Udgorn spouted, “If anyone can name these three tricksters … they shall have the pleasure of hearing us deliver them to Satan.”4
Few histories refer specifically to a printed work. Mary Nixon Bate Buckley’s autobiography mentions Pratt’s A Voice of Warning. About a meeting she had happened upon, she recorded:
one old gentleman Spoke about the voice of warning Said it made the Scriptures plain to his understanding and i was very much taken with that title and with many things that was Spoken of in that meeting … [After the meeting] i bought the Voice of warning and Read it and Attended all the meetings[,] bought the book of mormon Doctrine and Covenents and all the books they had for sale at that Branch[.] i Read them and the Bible and found it was just the Kind of Religion i wanted.
One or two other diaries mention Pratt’s book. But we know investigators must have been influenced by the Udgorn and its [p.62]predecessor, as well as the church periodical in England, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.
Another influence was correspondence from friends and relatives already baptized, such as letters from Elizabeth Lewis in Utah:
I believe it is my duty to my Good Lord and His cause to send my witness back, for the sake of those who have not had this experience as I have had, and so they can take heart also to come here.5
I promised to many of my dear friends, Saints and others, that I would write from here about the happenings and nature of the country, its inhabitants and the religion professed. Many promised to believe my testimony from here if I testified that Mormonism still seemed true.6
Of course there were anti-Mormon articles, books, and pamphlets to counteract the Mormon literature, but none are mentioned specifically in the women’s histories. This is remarkable considering the popularity of Mormon-oriented literature. Mary Nixon Bate did tell of being taunted with such things by her husband and former friends. And Dan Jones, the Saint Paul of the Welsh mission, referred to two newspapers whose editors had apparently taken a stance against Mormonism: “The Times are frightfully against us and the Stars within Gomer’s atmosphere foretell strange things about us.”7
Jones also alluded to a pamphlet that claimed Joseph Smith and Brigham Young practiced polygamy. It is curious that he, who had contact with Smith in Nauvoo, should deny the Mormon practice of polygamy:
There is some booklet called “Life in the Far West,” which gives a story of polygamy among the Saints in America, and that one of them has forty wives! This, of course, is as true as that “old Joe Smith” walked on the water, or that he was seen by a relative of [p.43]Job from Pantteg taking the form of a dove as big as a horse, to imitate the Holy Ghost descending on the baptized. What will be considered TOO untruthful for the publications and pulpits of our country?”8
Yet the revelation on “celestial marriage” was kept from the church at large and was not publicly proclaimed until 1852.
In 1840 it was still possible for Mary Ann Maughan, and the Jenkins family with whom she resided as a well-treated apprentice, not to have heard of Mormonism until Mr. Jenkins, on a visit to Herefordshire, was baptized by Wilford Woodruff. “He came home and told us about it. This was the first we had heard of it.” As the century progressed, Mary Ann’s countrywomen were less and less likely to have encountered little of Mormonism before learning of it first-hand.
Fanny Stenhouse was told by her sister and others about the Mormons, and her feelings were tempered by her belief that Mormonism had had a benign influence in her father’s house, evidenced by her sisters’ changed manner of life, and a “peace, love, kindness, and charity seldom seen in households of religious people.” But it was not until she heard “a certain young elder preach” that her antipathy melted and she was “converted.”
What did young Elder Stenhouse say that won Fanny’s mind and heart?
[She] was captivated by the picture which he drew of the marvellous latter-day work … The visions of by-gone ages were again vouchsafed to men; angels had visibly descended to earth; God had raised up in a mighty way a Prophet, as of old, to preach the dispensation of the last days; gifts of prophecy, healing, and the working of miracles were now, as in the days of the Apostles, witnesses to the power of God … All were freely invited to come and cast away their sins, ere it was too late.
A transcript of Dan Jones’s farewell address to the Welsh conference comes to us through the Udgorn. It is more elated in [p.64]tone than Stenhouse’s representation of an English sermon, possibly reflecting the more heated sectarian environment of south Wales and Ireland. Because there are elements in the speech which might be construed as paternalistic and condescending, but also because of its lyricism, it is cited at length, with paragraphing inserted where the theme shifts. This sermon was meant for standing members of the Welsh branches, people with whom Jones had worked for several years, but there would have been non-members and investigators in the audience as well:
Since we have come to know each other, the period now at the door is the most important and the most sorrowful and joyful which has happened to us, namely my departure from your midst to a far away country … The Heavens know, and my conscience knows … I have not ceased or tired of working, night and day, for four years … and until now the pleasure of my heart has been to serve you, and my joy in the Lord is that he gave me a part in the restorative dispensation of the fulness of times to you, and instructed me in those principles which will bring you joy and which, if you observe them, will lead you to a fulness of pure joy …
Great is your honor, yea, unspeakable is your own gift, dear Saints, in having been brought from the darkness of false traditions to the light of the gospel of the Son of God—in having grasped a religion with power in it and having become heirs of substance … Cling to this for your life—these things do continually; and thus I am assured that my labor will not be in vain in the Lord …
You have heard and read much about God’s deliverance of his children in Zion … and doubtless your longing for the deliverance of Zion will become much greater because of oppression and injustice, hunger and poverty in the coming years. But when God permits the doors of blight to open, the gates of hell to pour out their strongest armies to spill out their “vials” of destruction such as plagues, illnesses, and scourges to empty the kingdoms of the wicked who refuse the gospel of his Son, and who hate and persecute his children … at that time all will understand and confess the necessity for Zion as a place of deliverance for the Saints … [In the meantime] suffer all things patiently and … look forward to receiving your recompense …
[p.65]It may be that even from your own midst there will be some selfish, jealous persons, who have lost the Spirit, who will rise up and try to lead unstable souls after them; but be particularly cautious and oppose those who oppose the authority which was placed according to the will of God to lead you and to nourish you …
Until I come back, keep reading, search the Scriptures, treasure the Book of Mormon in your memory, inscribe the “Doctrine and Covenants” on the slates of your hearts; keep yourselves spotless according to all I published in your midst … I am not claiming perfection for any of my writings or most holy things; but rather, my failings and my weaknesses, as compared to what I wish to be, form the subject of a constant prayer for strength from on high. I do not wish you to think that I am suggesting that the one or the other or all of the aforementioned books constitute a sufficient rule for the behavior of the Saints or for the work of the ministry; rather it is “the letter which killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” The Spirit is the PRIESTHOOD, through which God works, which has the right and the wisdom to end every argument …
Therefore obey your pastors as you would the Lord—pray for them constantly—do what you can to supply their physical needs so that they may devote themselves more to your service in spiritual things. Let not the enemy deceive you into believing that God Almighty who established his Kingdom this last time on the earth will allow all the priesthood in his kingdom or in Wales either to go astray so that there is no one to lead you in the paths of the Lord … The hills may leap like lambs, and the wild hills of Wales may jump like rams, and after that the priesthood will still not be stirred from its place … .
Its original source is the “order of the Son of God” from before the foundation of the world; its origin has been through all his servants in all the dispensations since the beginning of time … it has visited our dear nation, and the dawning of the great Jubilee has shone on the borders of our country … and there are nearly four thousand of the children of Gomer rejoicing because of it already! …
The greatest commandment of all, the last and most urgent to which I shall call your attention, and it is not a new one either, rather it is to love one [p.66]another … Shun every occasion for contention … Be gracious, kind, gentle, and humble to one another as befitting the children of the same divine Father …
May your WALK preach to everyone that you are strangers and wanderers here, and may you prepare yourselves in everything for that day when your God will arrange your deliverance …
Dear brethren in the Priesthood … In love, patience, and gentleness, feed the dear flock …
You, Fathers—farewell to you. Love your wives, and keep an altar to God in your families …
You, dear Mothers … Obey your husbands as you obey the Lord …
You, the hopeful Youth … This is a time of harvest; shrink from serving the flesh and its lusts … instead of serving the Lord of this harvest …
And you, little Children … I expect you to obey your parents, and pray constantly for the Spirit of truth to lead you to usefulness.
May the grace of our Lord jesus Christ … be with you and remain with you all forever. Amen.9
How did women respond to this kind of preaching? Conversion images are few, which is puzzling considering how dramatic a step it was to join another church. This omission in the histories handicaps us in trying to understand what was operating in a woman’s heart and mind as she made this monumental decision to join a strange new sect. What kind of experience was religious conversion? Was it emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or all three and more? Was it traumatic or joyful, a quick or lengthy process? We will have to read between the lines, and the lines are meager.
One might expect an exchange of one’s religion to require time and adjustment. This proves to have been so for many women, although for others acceptance of Mormonism was almost imme-[p.67]diate. Some described the conversion experience as coming home. Fanny Stenhouse said of Elder Stenhouse’s preaching:
these [were] the self-same doctrines which my mother taught me, when I knelt beside her in childhood, and which I have so often heard—only in colder and less persuasive language—urged from the pulpits of those whom I have ever regarded in the light of true disciples of Jesus. Who can wonder that I listened with rapt attention, and that my heart was even then half won to the new faith?
Within two weeks Fanny was a Mormon. Mary Nixon Bate Buckley wrote: “I listened with great interest to the words that was spoken and they Sank deep into my Heart and I was satisfied in my own mind that it was from God … it seemed as though I had been acquainted with it before.” Priscilla M. Evans showed a seemingly inherent predisposition toward Mormon teachings, for upon first hearing them she was “very interested in all the meetings and teachings.” Hannah Settle Lapish at age seventeen heard the Mormon gospel and “I believed it implicitly.” Mary Ann W. Maughan was like those women satirized by Maria Ward and Robert Richards who believed the elders could do no wrong.
Even so, most women took some time after their first encounter to decide. The conversion usually lasted several weeks to several months. For Mary Buckley, it was only “after going to meetings and Reading the Books for about three weaks” that she began “feeling it was just the thing I had been desiring to find.” She then “went and gave my name in for Baptism and was Baptized on Sunday night … at Finsbury Branch London England.” Although there were instant and mass conversions such as those wrought by the apostles in Herefordshire in 1848, generally on-the-spot conversion was discouraged. Said Joseph Smith:
The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning the church of Christ to their understanding, previous to their partaking of the sacrament and being confirmed by the laying on of the hands of the elders, so that all things may be done in order.
And the members shall manifest before the church, and also before the elders, by a godly walk and conversation, that they [p.68]are worthy of it, that there may be works and faith agreeable to the holy scriptures—walking in holiness before the Lord (D&C 20:68-69).
This policy was meant to discourage high pressure or impulsiveness. Emily Hart and her husband took their time, for Hart’s “first reaction to Mormonism was opposition, but after much soul-searching and mature, prayerful contemplation, he was baptized in 1847.”
Hannah King became convinced over a period of a few weeks. She wrote in her diary for 18 October 1849:
My mind has been a good deal engrossed by what Miss Bailey has told me of the Latterday work—I asked her many questions and she was kind and gentle in telling me in what their principles consist. Certainly there is nothing in them but what I can test by the Bible, and I seem to gain strength from them—I feel to prove them all I can, for the Bible says, “Prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.”
This was almost all she wrote, all she revealed about her thoughts and feelings between 18 October and her baptism three weeks later.
The Murdoch family history suggests what the process was for John Murray Murdoch, husband of Ann Steel. Ann’s brother James had “received the gospel” from a friend, Elizabeth Wylie, while living in England. When James visited John’s home village in Scotland, he gave him “his first impressions” of it. Murdoch was initially indifferent but piqued enough that he debated doctrines with James, who “could easily overcome John’s arguments.” Ann and John were baptized in November 1850.
A son-in-law of John’s sister Mary Murdoch Main Todd McMillan described conversion as changing one’s viewpoint and added that Mary was “handicapped” by her husband, who could not “see” the truth. John’s mother, Wee Granny Murdoch, at the age of sixty-seven, “prayerfully investigated” until she was “convinced.”
In later years Fanny Stenhouse, still trying to understand how she could ever have believed in Mormonism, called it “a mystery.” [p.69]But she clearly remembered her “joyousness of heart” at the time of conversion and baptism and claimed “all proselytes have it.”
Anxiety is evident in Hannah King’s and Mary N. Buckley’s diaries. But far more than fear, despair, fanaticism, or religious melancholia, these women were looking for something, though there is not enough detail to reveal precisely what. Presumably they found it. We have to be satisfied with information peripheral to the moment of conversion, attributes these women possessed. We know that they tended to be solid personalities—they had to, to surmount the disapproval of friends and associates and stick to a wayward course, though they were conservative in values, tended to view contemporary society as modern Babylon, and were literal in their interpretation of Bible prophecies.
Into the Waters
Again considering what a cataclysmic event baptism into the Mormon church was to a nineteenth-century life, it is surprising that only four record-keepers wrote in any detail about their baptisms. We know little about even the physical accoutrements of the baptism. Perhaps only the unusual was mentioned, leaving us to wonder what the usual was.
The unusual circumstances were ponds, rivers, and thin ice. Mary Ann Maughan was baptized in a pond in the center of town (as opposed to a font in a friendly Protestant or rented church), and the ordinance was performed at night “to avoid mobs.” Some baptisms were at sea. While the ship Olympus floated between Liverpool and New Orleans in 1851, “50 persons were added to the church.”10 Mary Jane Ewer told her children that before she could be immersed, “thin ice had to be cut away.” John Howell Price, husband of Rachel Jones Price, was baptized at night to avoid hecklers in a canal normally used for coal transport because no other site in town could be rented or borrowed. On a Saturday afternoon Fanny Stenhouse and several others “repaired to a bath-house on the banks of the Southampton river. This place was [p.70]not perhaps the most convenient, and it certainly was devoid of the slightest tinge of romance; but it was the only one available to the saints at that time.”
Then there was the somewhat sensational baptism of Sister Cartwright, who was angered because her husband had ignored her and joined the Mormon church. She gave the Chester branch trouble, taunting one family with “Damn you, I’ll dip ye.” Someone advised her to keep her peace, for who knew but that she might have a change of heart someday and be baptized herself. “I hope to God, if ever I am such a damn fool that I’ll be drowned in the attempt,” she retorted. Later, through a dream, her attitude indeed changed, and sure enough at her baptism a bank gave way, her arm slipped from her husband’s grasp, and she drowned.11
Most baptisms were apparently done by day, often on Sunday, in borrowed baptismal fonts.12Nowhere in a diary or branch minutes between 1838 and 1888 is there record of a building fund for a local chapel. Meetings were held in rented halls, private homes, or the chapels of other sects.
Two aspects of Mormon baptisms were consistent: they were done by total immersion to symbolize rebirth, and the ceremony followed instructions given by Joseph Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 20:
The person who is called of God and has authority from Jesus Christ to baptize, shall go down into the water with the person who has presented himself or herself for baptism, and shall say, calling him or her by name: Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
[p.71]Then shall he immerse him or her in the water, and come forth again out of the water.
Virtually all Mormon proselytes considered their baptisms a transcendent moment, though they did not express this as feelingly as Hannah Tapfield King:
Nov. 4, 1850. I formally changed my religion and was baptized by Elder Joseph W. Johnson buried in the waters of baptism according to the orders and example of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and ever dear Georgiana at the same time. ‘Twas a most important and gran[d] epoch in our lives. Language is perfectly peurite [?] to describe my feelings but as I was buried in the womb of waters I felt this is Baptism! Oh! May this deed, this obeying literally the command of our Savior be registered in the records of heaven.
After baptism came confirmation. While Fanny Stenhouse was still investigating the church, she attended a Sunday afternoon meeting “held for the purpose of receiving the sacrament, and the confirmation of those who had been baptized during the week.” Non-members were excluded from sacrament meetings, she said, indicating that proselyting meetings for non-members were kept separate from branch functions. After a song and prayer, Stenhouse recalled, the presiding elder asked all who had been baptized during the week to advance to the front seats. “Several ladies and gentlemen came forward, and also three little children.” (Mormon children are baptized at age eight.) These people were “confirmed,” or given an individualized blessing bestowing the Holy Ghost. Three elders gave the following blessing to a sister this day:
Martha; by virtue of the authority vested in us, we confirm you a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and as you have been obedient to the teachings of the Elders, and have gone down into the waters of baptism for the remission of your sins, we confer upon you the Gift of the Holy Ghost, that it may abide with you for ever, and be a lamp unto your feet, and a light upon your pathway, leading and guiding you into all truth. This blessing we confirm upon your head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
[p.72]Stenhouse claimed that after one elder spoke these words, another proceeded to give a second blessing to the sister:
He spoke for some time with extreme earnestness, when suddenly he was seized with a nervous trembling which was quite perceptible, and which evidently betokened intense mental or physical excitement. He began to prophecy great things for this sister in the future, and in solemn and mysterious language proclaimed the wonders which God would perform for her sake.
Stenhouse would later decide it was no wonder a convert believed she had received the Holy Ghost, what with the “magnetic currents” and “pressure of half a dozen human hands upon her head.” By then Stenhouse could see nothing sacred about an ordinance which other converts considered a milestone in their lives.
The Aftermath of Baptism
The consequences of Mormon baptism were more than spiritual. I only partly quoted Mary N. Buckley on her baptism. To continue, “I was baptized in 1853 in Finsbury Branch London by John Mabien then the warfare commenced … ” (italics mine). Most of the remainder of her story tells of emotional siege by husband, friend, neighbor. Where the diaries are mostly silent on the mode and circumstances of baptism, they tell again and again of the hostility which conversion inspired from co-workers, employers, and former ministers.
Mary Bate suffered more than most. Even before baptism she found that when she told her friends about it, “They where [sic] ready to fight it on every side told me i had better keep away from there.” Her husband was “worse than the rest.” He first enlisted their clergyman, then ordered her confined in the house to prevent her from attending church meetings. He continually “raged” at her, warning the children that she would “drag them into Hell where She was taking herself.”
It is significant that in a day when wives had limited legal independence, and in spite of Mr. Bate’s opposition, Mary was “able to get all my children baptized.” Either she was wrong that he would stop at nothing to foil her or there were limits beyond which a righteously-indignant husband dared not go. In spite of [p.73]the disruption of her once apparently happy home, Mary was able to make her own choice.
Besides her husband, Mary claimed, her “most Intimate” friend began to “act strange.” One must consider the possibility that Mary tended to overstate things, for she and her husband continued connubial relations as evidenced by her becoming pregnant at this time. Or perhaps she had been accustomed to such harmony in her marriage and friendships that the disrupting influence of Mormonism seemed more severe. My own instinct is to take Mary at her word, to believe her when she says she wearied “after three years of this cruel treatment from my friends my life being threatend continualy … ”
It is unclear whether Mary independently determined to emigrate or whether she came to this decision primarily in response to counsel. Priesthood leaders may have merely validated her own desires. She wrote:
the president of our Branch told me i had better get some money out of the Bank and take my children and go to the vally[.] I invited Brother Dunbar with two Sisters to make me a visit[.] he my Husband came Home while they was there[,] a little conversation passed between them but not much[.] he my Husband acted very shy, when Brother Dunbar was about to leave i got up to accompany him to the door[.] when we got into the Hall i asked Brother dunbar what do you think of him[.] he Replied i would not baptize him nor council an Elder to do it[.] get your Famly to the Vally as soon as you can.
Richard Bate’s attitude eventually softened so much so that, surprisingly, he emigrated with his family.
Mary Ann Maughan was not as fortunate as Bates. She lived in Gloucester at a time when opposition to Mormonism was militant. She was baptized at night to avoid the interference from “the mob.”
this summer  I became Engaged to Mr John Davis … Dec 23d 1840 we were maried in Gloucester by a Clergyman of the Church of England[.] my husband had a home nicely furnished in Tirley and we went there to live imeaditialy. we both had good treads [trades] and pleasnty of work and were very happy. the [p.74]Elders soon called to see us. Brothers Willard Richards and Leivi richards, Woodruff, Rushton and others that I do not remember their names. there was no Saints in that place so Brother Richards counciled us to open our house for Meetings[.] we did so and [at] the first held in our house a lot of Roughs led by a Apostate Methodist came and made a disturbance [and] they threatened the Preacher with violence. but we surounded him [the preacher] and sliped him through a door upstairs[.] when the Preacher was gone the Mob dispersd, and we were left alone. notice was given for a Meeting in two weeks and the Mob came again. but we succeeded in hiding the Preacher and one of the Brethren took him away. the Mob then turned on my husband. knocked him down and kicked him. he was brused, Internaly and was never well afterwards.
After a later fall, John began to bleed at the lungs, consumption set in, and he “gradually failed from this time.”
Throughout their four-month marriage “per[se]cutiors” would watch the Davis house, informing John’s mother if the elders arrived so that she could disrupt any conversations between her son and the Mormons. “There was no Saints with in miles of us. we were alone most of the time. and this we prefered as it was better than having those who were not of our faith and would ridicule our Religion.” By that winter John died and Mary Ann emigrated.
These two cases of antagonism pertain to women of lower-to-middle-class background. Mary Bate had property and some savings but a lack of schooling. Mary Ann Maughan’s father was a farmer and orchard owner, and her husband owned a house. But she too enjoyed primarily a practical rather than liberal education, and she was associated with Methodists and the working class. One wonders if women of higher station experienced milder reaction toward Mormonism. Of the forty-nine histories which mention this period in a woman’s life, eleven note hostility from family and associates, while seven women did not record it or actually reported the opposite. Of these seven, four came from circumstances of moderate or better education and financial stability. (The other thirty-one histories do not mention this topic, although they do cover this period in the women’s lives.)
[p.75]Yet hostility experienced by working-class women can be characterized more often as intolerance than persecution. Sarah Jane Neat Ashley claimed that “due to religious persecution at the time, it was necessary for [her parents] to conduct their services in the home.” The only evidence of persecution in her history is an incident at the circuit school she attended where the traveling superintendent criticized Joseph Smith as a false prophet. Young Sarah Jane defended Smith aloud and was then less afraid of the minister than of her father who she thought might punish her for speaking disrespectfully to an adult. Her fears were unfounded, for neither the minister nor her father reprimanded her.
Rachel Price’s mother-in-law did not torment her son and his family but was embarrassed by their religious activities. When Rachel’s husband, as presiding elder over the Merthyr Tydfill Branch, preached in street meetings, his mother refused to recognize him, saying he was bringing shame on the family (Rachel Price Jones).
The sense of anti-Mormon feeling is stronger in some histories while still not approaching a perception of outright mistreatment. Felicia Astle’s history states that she and her family were “ridiculed and shunned by relatives and friends” in Nottingham. Susan Barker’s husband’s letters show that he was ostracized by his sisters, and that family division endured for many years. Margaret McNeil Ballard was not “permitted” to attend the local schools “because of being a Mormon,” but this may have been predictable in circuit schools taught by travelling ministers.
Priscilla Evans encountered resistance from her family, but they also defended her. Her father at first forbade her to attend Mormon meetings. When she did so anyway, he would steal any church literature she brought home and destroy it. Yet his opposition was not as vehement as it seemed. When he heard the Mormon elders criticized he would come to their defense.
The letters of Elizabeth Lewis allude only to dubiousness from associates. When she and her children emigrated, Anna Evans Jenkins left “many loyal friends” in Wales, one of whom later wrote asking for a few shillings. These women did not emigrate to escape vicious opposition.
Mariah Davies’s fiance described what was probably the most [p.76]common response to a Britisher’s joining the Mormons: “Monday morning I went to my work; and when I entered the work shop they all made fun of me. But I did not care for I knew that what I had done was right.” John’s job was not at risk nor his reputation but merely the good opinion of his co-workers. So even though there were victims such as Mary Williams Rees, who was disowned by her parents, persecution was not a norm for British converts. Most proselytes did not flee their homeland in desperate search of religious freedom.
Once realizing this, it is possible to appreciate the variations on the conversion experience. In the Winner family, British transplants to Illinois who joined the Reorganized LDS church, it was the wife, Isabella Burgess Winner, who opposed her husband when he “lost interest in the Reorganized Church and wanted to move to Utah.” He prevailed, for the family went to Zion where Isabella was eventually baptized and then sent back East by church leaders to study midwifery before establishing a long-lived practice on the Mormon frontier.
Rachel Killian’s parents were each secretly baptized out of fear of the other’s reaction. Hannah King expected a lecture when her sister visited, but the vacation proved friendly and restrained. Caroline Lloyd Corbett was the only member of her family to join the Mormon church, but her mother and most of her family emigrated with her to Pennsylvania. Later, when she prepared to continue west, her mother threatened to disown her but instead sewed twenty pieces of gold in a skirt for Caroline to wear to Utah. Elizabeth Steadman had a mostly fortunate experience. She, her family, and “many of our dear friends & neighbors” were converted together.
Many of the hardships attendant to Mormon affiliation were imposed by the organization itself. John, husband of Ruth Price, joined in September 1847 and in 1850 was serving a mission. He was unable to obtain work because of hostility from local people toward Mormon elders. He wrote: “They kept us so poor we were nearly starved for the want of food, living on a small piece of barley bread a day without anything with it except water. We lived in this way for many months and in this time my wife was with child.” [p.77]Finally he approached the district president for permission to leave off missionarying for about a month “to work in the hay.” The president
promised to put my case before the Council and told a couple of the brethren to take their hats around the assembly and gather me a little means, so that I may be enabled to stop at home and not go away. The brethren gathered 1s 6 p [1 shilling sixpence] for me … . There were about sixty of the brethren present and not one of them asked me to come with them to sleep or offered me food to eat. It was 11:00 o’clock when the meeting was over and I had 22 miles to walk home.
Fortunately Price encountered a female member who kindly gave him “supper and a bed” and the next morning sent him on his way with another sixpence in his pocket. After an all-day trek he found his wife going into labor
and no person with her except two little girls, and with nothing to eat but a little barley bread. Brother Isaac Evans came into the house and saw her and gave her two shillings and sixpence for pity sake, so by this time we had 5 shillings in all. This baby, Mary, was born 19 June, 1850. I went to Felintawa Mill to get flour and sister Jones gave me 17 pounds of flour without pay so I bought a little tea and sugar and butter and took it home and there was great rejocing [sic] with my dear wife and little children and myself.
Ellen Ellingham Hart’s is another family whose suffering was due to church responsibilities rather than outside opposition. She accompanied her husband during much of his seven-year mission to France but occasionally tried to catch her breath at home. During one such reprieve in 1854:
Emily was very poorly. I told her I thought she had better not go. She was tolerably well enroute. I got her into the house and asked if she would excuse my absence for half an hour … On my return … I was met by [Elder Lamoreaux] and informed that during my absence my Beloved Wife had had a miscarriage. I waited with her for a few minutes and a doctor came who had been sent for … I shall not forget the sensation which came over me when I saw dear Emily suffering on the sofa where we formerly lived. I nearly fainted but by going into the air I recovered … I have expected this from the time I returned home, and consider it but a natural consequence of the worry, trouble, and excitement to which Emily has been subject.
After conversion and baptism, some women had doubts or even regrets. Hannah Job, of Abergwilly, Carmarthen, Wales, was one. She, her mother, and sister were persuaded by her husband Thomas whose uncle was Welsh mission president. Reports were coming back from Welsh emigrants that the streets in Salt Lake City were 130 feet wide and laborers there were earning three shillings a day, masons twelve shillings sixpence. “This is a better place for workers than Merthyr Tydfil is,” wrote one laborer.
Hannah’s father told other stories about Mormons in America and tried to prevent his wife from attending meetings. She remained firm, but Hannah and her sister wavered. Hannah “wondered if the stories were true.” Although only eighteen and under pressure from her thirty-five-year-old husband, she would later decide not to emigrate with him.
For most people the elders were their first encounter with the new church, which may be one reason for outside resentment toward missionaries and development of their image as skillful deceptors. The majority of the members in the little Mormon branches loved the elders to the point of adoration, another possible inspiration for the stereotype. The woman whose diary reveals the most obsessiveness with missionaries, however, was not a poor shop girl or an illiterate, though she could have inspired Maria Ward’s stereotype of the well-kept wife who leaves a prosperous and devoted family behind in joining the Mormons. But there is little evidence of an elder taking advantage of the Kings or other converts while proselyting. Many elders were local converts whose friends and families knew their characters well.
Not much is said in the histories about the women’s conversions. Those who did refer to it often described it as something like coming home. It was what they had been looking for. Others, [p.79]however, reveal being initially repulsed by Mormon preaching and only gradually persuaded through intellectual study, soul-searching, and prayer.
Baptisms took place anywhere a body of water could be found, in daylight on weekdays or Sundays if necessary, and by immersion. The aftermath of baptism was, in many cases, trouble with family and associates. Persecution may have been more pronounced in the lower classes. But the persecution motif has also been overdone in pro-Mormon history, perhaps in retrospect as converts, relocated in Utah, came to see it as an initiation rite. Persecution does not seem to have been the motivation for most converts to leave Britain. The women in our histories were not religious refugees.
When opposition did occur, it was usually not in the form of physical abuse or the loss of a proselyte’s job or housing (except possibly in Ireland). More often it came in the form of strained family relations, comments from co-workers, or ostracism from friends and family members. In fact, there seems to have been no predictable pattern. Converts expected more trouble than they actually faced. There was a lot of talk against Mormonism, but it remained mostly talk.
Missionaries were more on the battlefront than other members, along with their wives and families. But there is evidence that they suffered from organizational lethargy as much as from outside opposition.
One might theorize that conversion alienated Mormon proselytes from their cultures, but the histories do not show this. Mary Ann Maughan and Mary Nixon Bate are exceptions against surprisingly few others. And even Mary Ann Maughan hints at a different motivation for emigrating: “My relatives did not obey the Gospell (but they did not oppose me) and this made me sorrowfull and lonely. I attended all the meetings I could often walking many miles alone … One ship load of Saints has gone to Nauvoo from Gloucester and another will go soon.” While she believed passionately in Mormonism, her friends and loved ones could not see it. She was alone among company and longed to find kindred souls.
1. Journal of George Cannon Lambert in Kate B. Carter, ed., Our Pioneer Heritage (Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1965), 9:269.
4. Frontispiece of first issue (Jan. 1849). See the facsimile and translated facsimile in honor of the 140th anniversary of the January 1849 issue, prepared by Ronald D. Dennis, copy in my possession.
11. British Mission Manuscript History, 2 Jan. 1844, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. Thomas Cartwright was tried for manslaughter in the accidental drowning of his wife during her baptism. He, Jonathan Pugmire, Sr., and Thomas Cargith were held in custody until the coroner’s inquest, then acquitted.
12. Probably most evangelical sects, like Mormonism, baptized by immersion. Most, however, did not take Bible literalism so far as to reinstitute the Old Testament patriarchal tradition of taking plural wives.