by Rebecca Bartholomew
[p.81]Baptized in 1850, Ann Jones Rosser was a stalwart in three Mormon branches during her life: Llandysfod, Newport, and Bristol. In one day she personally distributed fifty tracts and seven copies of the Book of Mormon, an effort which reportedly led to twelve baptisms. Over the years she assisted scores of converts in emigrating to Utah. Yet she herself never followed them, fortunately for the several hundred church dignitaries and missionaries housed and fed in her home over a period of sixty-six years.1
It was of no apparent concern to Ann Rosser that her contributions remained unacknowledged except as she became a legend in the hearts of local members. Yet one wonders why she was eighty-two before someone thought to honor her with a short biography in the Millennial Star.
Perhaps the tardiness was due not so much to a lack of appreciation for women’s work as to the simple failure of clerks to report much of what went on in the branches. History was not of the [p.82]people, female or male, but about people of note—apostles, mission leaders, prominent elders, sometimes branch officers. Taken for granted was the quiet life well-lived.
Still one must ask why spiritual achievement should remain uncelebrated in a church which set itself apart from the world as accessible to all regardless of rank. In this regard at least—status accorded women—Mormons were like their contemporaries. It should be admitted that women themselves colluded in this negligence. Like Ann Rosser, most sisters did not leave records of their lives or works. Their own histories slight their youths, conversions, and branch experiences in their homeland. Were it not for reports to the Women’s Exponent, we would know nothing about the Whitechapel Relief Society, one of the earliest and the longest-lived of women’s organizations in the early British church.
Ironically then it is to clerks we turn for details about the British sisters: sporadic references in branch, conference and mission histories supplemented by obituaries in the Millennial Star and the sometimes-richly-detailed journals of male missionaries.
1838-58: Individual Initiative
In the early decades women’s contributions were usually private and ad hoc. In the first quarter-century, wherever the church was small and more personal than institutional, individual initiative seems to have been the pattern of female activity.
A woman was frequently the first in a town to listen to the Mormon message. In important locales, according to early journals, a woman, often a widow, housed and fed the missionaries. Other women were cash subsidizers of the elders and generous donors to mission funds. Women not only succored but sometimes married the elders. It was women as often as not who maintained the meeting houses and furnished wine for the sacrament.2 They orchestrated the “tea parties” (socials) which followed mission conferences. They helped one another by nursing and, in two documented cases, anointing with oil during illness. There are two [p.83]instances of women proselytizing. Others set examples of Christian character, especially of faith to be healed. Finally, women were spiritual leaders and prophetesses, occasionally showing more enthusiasm than mission leaders thought appropriate.
Notice that all but two of the gifts seem on the surface to be supportive rather than inventive. That Ann Rosser’s tracting was exceptional, even unorthodox, may give a clue as to why her recognition was so belated. Perhaps at eighty-two she posed no menace to masculine ego. Young Priscilla Evans (Merriman), converted in the 1840s in Wales, also “would go around and help the elders sing,” but she did not go by her own initiative and she did not proselyte. Generally, the women’s role was to help the effort indirectly by helping the men.
There is another outstanding exception. We are not told the age of Mary Powel, an early member of the Manchester Branch who took it upon herself to journey “to Burslem on a mission.” According to Alfred Cordon, her preaching drew enough attention that the Aitkenites (a group related to the United Brethren) formally denounced her as “a deluded woman” so as to warn off any who might be influenced by her. Cordon himself was one. After hearing her, he walked to Manchester where he was baptized by David Wilding.3
But if the sisters’ work was ancillary, it should not be underrated. Joseph Fielding’s journal provides examples of notable sacrifices by female converts. Elizabeth Cottam and her husband, of “Burly” (Burleigh), vacated their own house so that a group of missionaries could use it for a two-day conference.1 And it was Cottam’s mother, Ann Dawson of Preston, who figures most enduringly as an early nurturer. “Sister Dawson, a Widow in whose House we are lodging, is exceedingly attentive and kind to us. A very diligent woman,” Fielding first wrote in 1837. When Fielding married a year after arriving in the mission, Dawson [p.84]housed the couple, along with Willard Richards and wife, charging them less than she should and throwing in her family’s support of the local branch in the bargain. A full three years later, upon returning to Preston, Fielding found missionaries still boarding at “Sister Dawson’s, our old Mother.”5 Things did not always go smoothly between Mother Dawson and her dependents, as we will show later, but her support was steady and sustained during a time of fragile success for the church in England.
In Greenland, Scotland, it was a wealthy widow who first stepped forward to offer herself for baptism despite “much opposition to the truth in this part” and “many false tales against the Saints.”6 In Blackburn it was again a woman who told Fielding “she would be baptized if any others would.” Fielding added that “since then there has been preaching there regularly.”7
Judging by the limited records, women joined the Mormon church in greater numbers than men. An example is the Liverpool Branch, which at the end of 1840 had 150 members. Of sixty-eight listed by name in the branch minutes for this period, forty were women. (Interestingly, only eight of the forty had husbands also mentioned.8 In 1846 the ruling elder of Vinehill Branch, Dean Forest Conference, had to make do with one elder and two priests among thirty members. He told superiors that “The members in this branch were mostly females, but good Saints, and almost wished that they were males, that they might go and preach the word of the Lord.”9 In 1881 in “Herts and Beds” (Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire) “the whole district [had] only fifty members, mostly females.”10 Statistics from Glasgow show a few more women than men were baptized in 1840.11
[p.85]Despite their predominance, women were neglected in early statistical reports. While priesthood enrollment (tallied by office) was faithfully compiled for every quarterly conference, women were lumped with total branch membership. Except for the fact that this practice continues today, one might assume it to have been less sexist than elitist, for neither were children and non-priesthood males separately monitored at a time when Mormon men were not routinely ordained as they are today.
Women influenced the church not only through numbers but through force of character. Wilford Woodruff’s London journal bequeaths us images of two colorful personalities. In the fall of 1840 Woodruff was a tired laborer. He had spent “23 days in the great Babylon of modern times, and … found it harder to establish the Church there than in any other place we had ever been.”12
But then Susannah Albion and Ellen Balfour Redman swept into his life. First Susannah, daughter of an Independent minister, was baptized, drawing her mother, sister, and father into the church as well. And two days after Woodruff’s dejected diary note, Ellen Redman made a dramatic entrance as the tiny London branch took sacrament. Woodruff knew her from the New York City branch, having met her briefly before sailing to England, and he now recounted her story:
There is something singular about her coming to London. She was taken sick nigh unto death, and counseled to take a sea voyage for her health. [She was anointed and] carried on board of a ship to come to London, and a ship was never known to … live through such a rough passage, 35 days and only 12 hours of fair weather. They were driven to the Cape of Good Hope … under bare poles, constant thunder & lightening, for 16 nights in succession. The cook jumped overboard because he said the ship was covered with devils. But Sister Redman arrived safe in London Dock and has spent a fortnight in this city trying to find us. She found me yesterday by a dream that she had Saturday nite and we were happy to meet … She .. thinks the Lord has sent her here to do good.13
Woodruff accepted the Widow Redman’s self-characterization as a woman of connections. She claimed to have made acquaintances through tutoring gentlemen’s children in languages, and Woodruff thought she could thus be of great help in winning respectability for Mormonism. And indeed Redman and the Albions fulfilled his hopes by brightening the elders’ spirits, providing companionship, and enlarging the fledgling London congregation so that within two weeks Woodruff was writing, “The Lord is beginning to bless us here in London. We have baptized 16 … Our little room is almost getting full of Saints.”14 Yet the lively Sister Redman, whose flair for the dramatic promises an interesting story, fades from the record. Only once or twice more does Woodruff mention her in letters and journal, and no record of her or her children can be surely identified in branch or mission books.
Given Reuben Hedlock’s later reputation for womanizing (which may or may not have been warranted), one does not know whether to take at face value his depiction of yet another lady, one of “a respectable Yorkshire family soon a going to remove to France,” who relieved him from the Woodruff-like doldrums. He reported to mission leaders that, upon being baptized, the woman had invited him to her vacation home in Bologna from which he hoped to begin proselyting in France.15
Whatever infatuation occasionally existed between missionaries and female converts, it was spiritual longing that proved lasting. There is an account of a seventy-year-old Welsh woman who walked forty-two miles to attend a church conference in Merthyr Tydfill. With such devotion, the meeting was “the best Conference held in South Wales; it lasted two days, and truly it was a time of rejoicing.”16
Women gave economic as well as moral support to missionaries. Fielding and Richards received such generous donations from a Sister Chandler that they “rather checked her, but she said the Lord always makes it up to her and more, whatever [p.87]she gives us.”17 Elder Lyon, working in one of the Scottish branches and unable to repay money loaned him by Lucy Martin, repaid her in verse: “I your brother, thanks expressing,/ ought [sic] can give you, but his blessing.”18
Interestingly, two women worked outside the home to underwrite their husbands’ missions. Elder and Sister Henry Cuerden arrived in Bradford in April 1842 without a sixpence between them. While walking through town their first evening, they came upon a mill where she obtained employment to support her husband for the next year.19 Hannah Greenwood, Joseph Fielding’s English bride, supported herself and husband so as not to depend on donations, although within a few weeks pregnancy forced her to quit factory work.20 Repeatedly, improvisation characterized the early Mormon work in Britain, and traditional gender roles were set aside when the cause required it.
Missionaries were not the only beneficiaries of women’s generosity. Upon receiving an inheritance, Caroline Rogers Taylor bought not only her own family’s passage to America but “assisted 124 persons who could not emigrate without assistance, many of whom are now in [Utah’s] valleys, with good and comfortable homes.”21
An Interval of Female Organization
For a brief period in the British church women had their own organization. But like the fate of women’s groups in the Utah [p.88]church, although instigated, developed, and managed by women, they would eventually be appropriated by male priesthood organizations at which time women would become excluded from most planning and decision-making.
Inspiration for the Nauvoo Temple Fund of the 1840s is not known, though women’s contributions to the funds are legendary. It is known that the Penny Fund in England was inspired by sisters who had emigrated to Nauvoo, where they joined the Female Relief Society managed by Emma Smith. Just before the martyrdom of Emma’s husband Joseph the Millennial Star published a letter from the former Britons:
To the Sisters … in England: Greeting:
Dear Sisters—This is to inform you that we have here entered into a small weekly subscription for the benefit of the Temple Funds. One thousand have already joined it, while many more are expected, by which we trust to help forward the great work very much. The amount is only one cent or a halfpenny per week. As brother Amos Fielding is waiting for this, I cannot enlarge more than to say that myself and sister Thompson are engaged in collecting the same.
We remain your affectionate sisters in Christ,
Mary [Fielding] Smith.
M[ercy]. R. Thompson22
Mission leaders endorsed the proposal and added a request that “strictest accuracy” be respected in collecting the Temple Fund by preserving the name of each donor and the amount. “The sisters or others who may collect the subscriptions, will please be very particular on this point.” 23
A year later Apostle Woodruff was still promoting the temple subscription, but in a letter to brethren throughout the missions he wrote:
I wish the Female Society, in all the branches, to continue their [p.89]subscriptions for the temple until it is finished; let their money and means be brought together the same as all other tithes and offerings, that, when the temple is finished, the whole amount they have paid may stand opposite their names in the Book of the Law of the Lord, that it may be known who are the owners of the house.24
Without making too much of a slight change in tone, Woodruff assumed closer direction of the fund while at the same time noting the existence of a Female Society previously unrecognized in Great Britain. Woodruff followed his statement with a comment on the prophet’s last speech to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, acknowledging that the Nauvoo Temple Fund was a program of the Relief Society.
Little mention of female societies appears in Britain apart from the Temple Fund. And from the beginning men were active in the fund drive, as in London where President Hedlock “urged Brethren to introduce the Female subscription for the Nauvoo Temple,” and Brother Cope was appointed collector for the same.25 This was quickly amended by the branch council, who voted that a treasurer, secretary, and four female collectors be appointed for the fund.26 A year later Woodruff was particular on the point that all donations to the temple, “whether from churches, individuals, or the Female Society,” be sent to Liverpool, “that it may go through the proper channel.” This implies both that female societies were distinct from branch and individual efforts and that they were kept under the priesthood wing.27
This female subscription of 1844-45 became a broad effort. Hiram Clark, proselyting near the Staffordshire Potteries, wrote, “I have organized the sisters in Hanley, Bruslem and Lane Ends [sic], so that they are contributing their penny a week towards the Temple.”28 By December 1845, 220 pounds had been donated by [p.90]the women of those areas.29 The Newcastle-on-Tyne Branch collected 14 pounds 8 schillings by January.30 All these temple contributions were in addition to tithes and emigration donations.
There is other evidence of organized, officially-sanctioned activity by women during these early decades. The poor of the entire mission were helped at the anniversary of the prophet’s martyrdom when the British sisters fasted as a group then contributed their savings to the needy.31 Men called for the fast, but women were solicited as a group. As another instance, on the birth of Joseph and Hannah Fielding’s daughter when two women “who regularly wait on the Sisters in such Cases” happened upon the Fielding household, they promptly gathered up the laundry to bring it back clean along with a meal.32
The Temple Fund shows that, if self-motivation characterized women’s church efforts, the sisters did not act autonomously. This is illustrated in the case of Ann Dawson, Joseph Fielding’s “Old Mother” of Preston:
Sunday December 16, 1838 – Offended Sister [Ann] Dawson by refusing to give her my blessing, she had a pain in her Head and wished to receive a Blessing to go to anoint a Sister that was sick. She had spoken some things about us and given way to a bad Spirit and I told her I could not do it. This was a new thing for she had always received blessings from us for asking … She endeavoured to make it out that I had refused to pray for it but I told her I would do that readily, she said she would be well without it, and said it was so, this was Sunday. She went to Meeting in the Evening and was too ill to abide in and almost too ill [to] get out, but afterwards went and anointed the sick sister who was much better … 33
Fielding’s words suggests that Dawson was accustomed to receiv-[p.91]ing two kinds of blessings: healing blessings for herself and authority to anoint other women. In acknowledging that Dawson’s blessing was effectual even while she was at odds with her priesthood superior, Fielding indicates respect for her power. The incident further demonstrates the improvisational nature of early Mormonism. That Dawson was permitted to exercise a priesthood gift later restricted to men hints at a relative freedom enjoyed by the Saints under Joseph Smith’s administration.
Besides pointing up discords which so often erupted in the branches, the Dawson incident reveals the high spiritual standing of women in the early mission. British sisters were frequent recipients of healing miracles. “A woman at Water,” wrote Fielding, “thought we were men of God and if she could touch us she would be better.” Upon shaking hands with the elders “she was instantly better” and, as Fielding characteristically thought to add, her doctor testified she stayed better.34
Another sister, Harriet Beresford, told the Millennial Star that after enduring a tumor five years she was directed by “a glorified messenger” how to regain her health. She received a healing blessing “by oil and prayer of the elders.”35 A blind Welsh Sister Evans, too weak to get out of bed and pronounced incurable by her doctors, was also healed through a blessing from the missionaries, as was Margaret Jenkins, cured “almost instantly” from her deathbed.36
Female spirituality was not just a passive manifestation of faith. Early elders greatly trusted the dreams and intuitions of Katharine Bates, whom they called the Prophetess of Manchester. In October 1840 she prophesied that America would rise up against the Mormons and drive them from Illinois. Wilford Woodruff
had a long conversation with Catharine the Prophetess upon these things …. She spoke of many things past and to come, and among the many things she says Brother Joseph Smith jr with his [p.92]Councillors are on their way to England will be here soon. She says my family suffer the most for clothing of any thing at present. She says my wife has many sorrowful hours and sighs much in my absens.37
Woodruff believed these pronouncements enough to become “depressed in spirits over the trials soon to come to the saints in Europe and America.” (The prediction that the prophet was coming to England was partially fulfilled when several of the apostles arrived later in 1840.)
Other women reported dreams and visions. Within a few days after Sister How of the Cardiff Branch prophesied “that a great many accidents should take place shortly … 13 accidental deaths were recorded.”38 Sister Bates of London saw in vision the spirit of a recently-deceased woman with whom the elders had first found a home in the city.39 This seems to have assured her mourners that she was in a gentler world, important in this case because officials arraigned her husband for not calling in a physician during the woman’s illness.
Respect for women’s spiritual identity underlay these reports. It was when they created disunity in the branches or trespassed too far into priesthood domain that disapproval emerged. A tantalizing hint of such tension appeared in a letter from Reuben Hedlock: “I do not hear much of late of the prophetesses in the Isle of Man; however, there are some difficulties among them. I shall visit … as soon as possible.”40
Joseph Fielding also mentioned trouble between women of the Preston Branch caused by what he determined to be overzealous spiritualism. Returning there, he found “a group of Prophetesses having visions” through which they learned “who is going to die and who a female is going to become an elder’s wife instead and who will be companions in the next world and who will not.” He told them that God’s will was that “all should stand” and warned [p.93]them against considering themselves “a select little Company … better than the rest.”41
In a farewell address at the end of his second mission, Wilford Woodruff warned the membership generally about spiritualism: “Let them take heed then that they be not ensnared; or because some women had got a peep stone, and was picturing some great wonders, or maybe a priest had healed one that was sick here and another there. [They] must seek to be fed through the head and not through the feet.”42 Six years later, while preaching in Bromley Branch, President Eli Kelsey chastised “an old sister” who had “jumped upon her feet, thrown herself into a theatrical attitude, and broke forth in tongues”:
I immediately rebuked her and commanded her to sit down. I found that the young Elder in charge of the branch had, in his inexperience, suffered such things, feeling a great delicacy in checking the gifts in the branch. If a bombshell had fallen, it could not have caused a greater surprise among some of the young members than did the sudden and peremptory check being put to such a glorious manifestation of the power of God. I was soon enabled to show them the impropriety of such conduct and I feel sure they will be more careful in the future.43
Because charismatic gifts were most often displayed by women, and the pruning was usually done by men, one wonders if spiritualism was a masked attempt at influence, identity, perhaps self-esteem. Studies of other cultures and times suggest that ecstatic religion is the property of the disinherited, “a struggle against some illness in the larger society.”44 Most of the women were part of an oppressed working class and further rejected by English society as members of an unpopular sect. In their own subculture they were continually advised to yield to males. Perhaps some women found refuge in spiritual outlets, in the hope of worth and status in another world.
[p.94]Religious groups besides Mormons evinced such spiritual outpourings. Mid-century Britain saw several waves of revivals which originated among evangelical sects and dismayed high-church exemplars. One such Irish revival caught the attention of an Archdeacon Stopford and the editors of the Millennial Star who cited his report at length. It begins with realistic detail which began many an eye-witness narrative about Mormons:
One hundred and fifty [Methodists] were present in the schoolroom. All were invited to declare what the Lord had done for their souls. Many did so, some with feeling. A young girl, evidently still in the state of excitement which follows the actual prostration, rose up and spoke at much greater length than the others. Her whole demeanor in that trying ordeal was the perfection of modesty, humility, and gracefulness.
But Archdeacon Stopford was a conformist, and he worried about the girl’s mixed calm and fervor, thinking that her excitement must be diseased in nature. “Deeply grieved and sad” were his feelings “when a gross specimen of self-glorification was then set before that young creature as a pattern of what she might hope to attain to.”45
Women seem to have been particularly prominent in these revivals. At another meeting, this time Presbyterian, Deacon Stopford’s attention was again drawn to a female member of the choir: “[She] was the very type of all that was impressionable in woman …. I marked her slight figure, the hollow cheeks, the muddy colour under a clear skin, the intelligent face, the unnatural calm of the brilliant eyes under the dark lashes of singular length, and the fearful energy with which she sang.” This girl was typical of “hundreds of mill girls in Belfast [who] have prayed and are praying to be ‘struck.'” Stopford thought the situation “notorious.”
Of interest is what Mormon women, reading their own newspaper, might have thought of Stopford’s report. One can only speculate on the editors’ intention in reprinting it. Primitive Methodism and evangelical Presbyterianism competed actively [p.95]against Mormonism. But the Star may have wanted to make a point among its own women. Mission leaders were apparently as discomfited as Stopford by the “groans, cries, and amens” of those who were “struck” by the Spirit. They publicly denounced such excessive spirituality and now backed their position editorially.
Equal Partners in Mischief
Spiritualism was only one point of tension in the branches. It is surprising to discover a good deal of open squabbling among members evidenced in the frequency of excommunications, disfellowships, and complaints by missionaries about disunity. Contentions steeped and stewed, and women as often as men stirred the kettles.
Consider Mother Dawson, of whom Fielding spoke so highly. In December 1838 he confided to his journal: “Things look very dark. Have been at Sister Dawson’s in Preston, but it appears that Satan [is] getting Advantage of her and her Family. She is thinking of taking a less House, we suppose to get rid of us … “46 Apparently the difficulty was not so much nursing the ailing Richardses as concern for one of her daughters (not Elizabeth Cottam) who had been accused of some offense: “Sister … Dawson said at Brother Burrow’s a short time ago that if we did not place her Daughter Jane in the Church she herself would transgress on purpose to be cut off, and then she would tell some thing as that we should not like to be told, in a very threatening tone.”47
Dawson was not the only temperamental sister. Elder James Whitehead’s wife tore up his preaching papers and threatened to report him for abandonment if he went missionarying again. Fielding and Richards “therefore advised him to submit and remain as he is.”48 Elder Sloan wrote from Ireland that he and his wife were doing all they could to further the truth—but when might they go home, as his wife “would rather be in Nauvoo.”49 [p.96]In 1842 Sister Parr and her husband were charged with “returning from America in defiance of the Lord, speaking evil, giving false report of the Church at Nauvoo, giving heed to statements of enemies, [and] not conferring with members of the Church.”50
Similarly, in London, Susannah Albion and her mother left the church when her father was disfellowshipped for harassing the Booths.51 Matilda Redmund was cut off for “absenting herself from the church without cause.”52 Harriet Heath, cut off from the Bristol Branch for “contempt,” was rebaptized a year later, and Hannah Heath, probably a relation, was cut off “for cursing and swearing.” An unidentified Sister Redman (not Ellen Balfour?) was disfellowshipped by the London Branch “for stealing and failing to acknowledge her fault as agreed upon.” Other sisters were disciplined for failing to attend meetings, neglecting their duty, and making threats against mission leaders.53
During the 1840s and 1850s excommunications became so frequent that two mission presidents chastised the elders for overzealousness. Reuben Hedlock complained that “In London people were cut off for trifling offenses,” some merely because “they would not come before the Church and confess that the Elders were right in cutting their husbands off.”54 A decade later James Marsden advised branch councils “not to excommunicate people for not attending meetings.”55
Ironically, both Hedlock and Marsden were themselves disciplined. Two years after Hedlock’s plea for restraint, Apostle Orson Hyde accused Hedlock of “fleeing at our approach,” leaving debts unpaid, and “finally living incognito in London with a vile woman.” Hyde opined that Woodruff, “while a good man … erred [p.97]in appointing Hedlock, in whose heart the spirit of God did not dwell.”56 Three months after urging others to be slower to discipline, Marsden was excommunicated for “not emigrating by Brigham Young’s counsel and general apostacy.”57
No wonder Joseph Fielding and later elders sometimes became discouraged. “We are endeavouring to [make] the Church pure and in order, but it is difficult. We have diversity [of] Spirits to deal with.”58 Yet both Fielding and Richards were criticized for marrying (both to first wives) while on their missions and burdening the branch members who supported them. Perhaps it was the stress of close living quarters that resulted in Richards blaming Fielding’s wife for her husband’s preaching schedule. Later Richards, weary from criticism and in poor health, accused Sister Walmsley of saying “hard things” against his own wife. Asked to referee, Fielding declined, saying that “none are perfect” and that perhaps Richards was trying to get even. Walmsley sometimes let her tongue go at random, Fielding confided to his journal, and perhaps she was unused to polite company, but she was not one to bear grudges and possessed “a certain honesty” along with so much commitment that “she could not be whipt out of the Kingdom.”59
What can be said about the disputes among these early Mormons is that, although not the happiest of proofs, they reveal that women were more than passive members of the church. They were an integral part of its progress and problems.
Hard Times or Sublimated Anger?
One approach to understanding dissension is to speculate on the origins of contention generally. One could argue that contention is normal, that had there been none we would be surprised. But disturbed feelings have causes. One can surmise several sources of tension in the British branches.
[p.98]There was the obvious stress of belonging to an unpopular sect. Fielding voiced this frustration:
The Church is at this time in a State of depression almost throughout … [There is] no lack of lies emigrating from America. Besides many native ones, they are all over the Country in the 43 NewsPapers etc. The Priests every where are fortifying their hearers against us. A strong tide of Prejudice is flowing. Which ever way I go, trouble in the Church meets me.60
Doctrinal strain was another source of tension. Elders defused suspicions of polygamy by members and outsiders. Reuben Hedlock, for instance, apologized to Richards for having to mention that “delicate matter”:
I have much trouble with the spiritual wife system, as it is termed here. It has caused much confusion among some of the branches and I have opposed it with all my power, and it is thrown in my face both by Saints and worldly people, that we do actually uphold such things, because they say Brother Hiram Clarke has made free with some of the sisters, so much so that in Macclesfield it is currently reported that he used, when there, to sleep with a certain sister, and also in Manchester … 61
Spiritual wifery was a contributing issue in the Preston spiritualist episodes, for Fielding found along with too many visions “too great familiarity between the Brethren and Sisters in this Land.” One elder was said to be assuring Preston sisters that bedding together was no evil unless they actually fornicated. The trouble was that occasionally he and a sister would be “overcome” and now one woman was pregnant.62
An organizational difficulty in the church itself was the scattered condition of the branches. Many drew membership from areas 900 miles square. Urban mill workers had an easier time [p.99]getting to meetings than rural members, since missionaries tended to work the towns where public halls were available, but neither workers nor farmers nor miners could be easily reached when needed. The most common disappointment among missionaries was poor attendance, and logistics were more the culprit than apathy.
Primitive transportation and communication, and a sense of isolation and neglect, led to the disintegration of The Potteries branches in Staffordshire. Initially a strong conversion center, the area declined after 1844 when elders began to report increased apathy in attending meetings. The problems in Staffordshire were similar to those plaguing branches throughout the mission.63
The cyclical flowering and waning of numbers and activity was also influenced by events in the American church. During up times, such as the Reformation of 1856 or whenever members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles could be dispatched, the British branches flourished. During hard times, such as the late 1850s when Utah was preoccupied with famine and invasion by federal troops, attendance and activism in the British branches flagged. An example is the London conference of early 1857 at the height of the Mormon Reformation in Britain when the Saints were paying tithing, saving their emigration money, distributing tracts, preaching out of doors, and accepting rebaptism as a sign of their recommitment to the church.64 On the other hand, much lower activity is evident for 1858, 1859, and 1860, years of the lag effect of the Utah War.
Yet an American event which might have created chaos and did not was the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. Elders and leaders unanimously reported renewal. Liverpool Saints draped the chapel podium in black and, for some time after news of the assassination reached Britain, enjoyed very large congregations65 [p.100]The 116 Saints of Chalford “generally manifested an increase of faith in the work.”66 When the news was announced in Birmingham, there followed
an universal burst of tears and four sisters fainted away. It has produced a great change in the feelings of the Saints. It seems to have settled many petty disputes. I have heard it remarked by some that the Church in Britain never was in so flourishing a condition before. It would do you good to hear the English sisters talk of fighting the mob.67
Some periods of reduced activity had another cause entirely. Almost everyone had emigrated. Emigration was a prime motivator and chief exhaustor of the branches. It was the goal of nearly every dedicated Mormon and the bane of mission leaders who wrote after one wave of depletion: “We have lately made what provisions we can to supply the lack of offices in different branches, caused by emigration, and shall continue to do our utmost to keep all things in order.”68 Those left were stretched to carry full work loads with fewer and untrained people. Consider the Brierleyhill Branch, which by 1841-42 had only of forty-three members: the Thomas Bullock family, his in-laws, a few single members, and three other families trying to staff an entire branch.
Emigration was costly in pounds as well as leadership. Even temple funds were sometimes diverted to helping the poor with sea passage. Year-end reports give examples of branches of 150 or 200 members which saw sixty baptisms in a year offset by seventy emigrations and three or four excommunications. Rarely did baptisms keep pace with emigration, and branches continually sent away their most devoted supporters.
Perhaps I have sidestepped the issue of female discontent. Not until the 1860s did anyone address the problem of female subordination (much less insubordination) openly through letters to the Millennial Star. These letters intimated for the first time resentment [p.101]over women’s restricted role in the kingdom, as discussed in greater detail in the next chapter.
For the first quarter-century of the British Mission, women’s relationship to the church could best be described in terms of their relationship to local elders. Missionaries were the church during this period, and members related less to an institution than to their personal ministers of the gospel. The quality of that relationship may well have determined the loyalty of many female converts.
Elder John Lyon was a Scottish convert and missionary to Glasgow when he published his 1852 volume of poems. These tell more in verse than could several historians writing in prose about women’s relationships with leaders in the little British churches. One poem in particular testifies to the affection that existed between missionary and convert, elder and sister. The poem reminds the hindsight-observer to expand her focus beyond the little troubles in the branches. Good will and common purpose overrode many a difference, so that members’ faults became “a’ virtues.”
Furthermore, the poem confirms the independence of at least some Victorian women. Old Mrs. Beard, probably a widow with autonomy over her household and finances, could lodge and feed the elders without fee “nor tell it to others.” Here is Lyon’s tribute to “Auld Mrs. Beard”:
There’s auld Mrs. Beard who lives at Shrubhill,
I’ve lived wi’ her lang, and had her good will,
Yet she never grew tired, nor lost her regard;
A kind-hearted Saint was auld Mrs. Beard!
Auld Mrs. Beard, auld Mrs. Beard,
May thy fortune be great, and thy life be long spared,
Till thy children, thou seest them all paired
To raise up a kingdom for Mrs. Beard.
Sometimes she was cruse [cross], sometimes she was shy,
Sometimes she was douce [sweet], sometimes she was dry;
But her faults were a’ virtues, with others compared,
For a thrifty guid wife was auld Mrs. Beard.
Auld Mrs. Beard &c.
When the Elders came roun’, none more friendly could be;
She lodged them, and fed them, and welcomed them free;
In health or in sickness, her fortune she shared!
Nor told it to others, did auld Mrs. Beard.
Auld Mrs. Beard &c.
O had I the power to reward her past toil,
I’d make her my lady, tho’ lord o’ an isle,
But my proffers are vain, wi’ a guid wife I’m saired,
To speak sic-like nonsense to auld Mrs. Beard.
Auld Mrs. Beard &c.69
Thanks be for the missionary writings which reveal like no other source the spirit of these early Mormon women’s lives. No wonder Fanny Stenhouse, even deep into her career as an anti-Mormon, retained that sense of nostalgia toward her early years in the British church.
1. Report by Elmer Edwards of Bristol Branch, Millennial Star 78 (1916): 278. Born in Monmouthshire in 1834, Ann Sophia Jones Rosser was baptized at age seventeen in South Wales. At nineteen she married Charles Rosser, who died in 1909. According to Edwards, she related that in 1857, while living in Newport, only one of 350 members died during the cholera plague there.
18. John Lyon, Harp of Zion (Glasgow, 1852), 133. In 1991 I found a copy of this volume of poems lying on the ground of the Sanpete County Landfill. It was missing the title page, but I first surmised the author from a short biography in Edward W. Tullidge’s History of Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City, 1886). Tullidge dedicated page 806 to a John Lyon, “veteran poet” of Scotland, who “came into the Mormon Church as an author.” According to Tullidge, Lyon’s best writings were his Scottish stories and depictions of Scottish scenery. See also Ted Lyon, “John Lyon, Early Mormon Poet,” in Latter-day Digest 2 (Nov. 1993), 7:48.
22. Mary Fielding Smith was sister to Joseph Fielding and a convert originally from the Preston Branch. Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 1 June 1844, as cited in British Mission Manuscript History, 1 June 1844.
61. Hedlock’s letter indicates that the secret practice by some Mormon leaders of spiritual wifery was common knowledge in at least some of the British branches by roughly the time of Hedlock’s letter (i.e., mid-1844).
69. Harp of Zion, 182 (see n16). Some of these poems were previously published in the Millennial Star. Lyon, whom Edward Tullidge says became a poet in the 1820s, joined the church in Scotland in the 1840s and knew the Stenhouses, incorporating one of Fanny’s poems in this volume.