by Rebecca Bartholomew
[p.103]Victorian women were oppressed. They shared the official status of the insane and mentally deficient. Upon marriage they relinquished property rights to their husbands, and divorce laws were so punitive as to make prisoners of women in abusive marriages. Only in a few towns and an American state or two did businesswomen enjoy citizenship rights. Enfranchisement of the common man was a recent innovation. The idea of females deserving equal rights was counter to biblical law in the minds of most church and civil leaders.
Mormon women enjoyed this sub-status plus additional insults reserved for members of their religion. Certainly polygamy implied subjection of women. Moreover, church offered faithful female members few official outlets for their energies during the first quarter-century. Yet there is considerable evidence that Mormon women insisted on a good deal of latitude of action in personal and many church arenas. Their histories prove that some women enjoyed considerable autonomy in their economic lives. Family bonds and social attitudes worked against legalities to enable many a convert to do just as she wished (though sometimes with battle) even to the point of abandoning a spouse and taking his children to America.
Within the church sisters counseled and argued with elders, [p.104]anointed each other in sickness, and financed proselyting endeavors (surely she who held the purse strings held sway over some decisions). A number of sisters married elders, putting themselves in the better position to give counsel. Many prophesied and spiritually advised both men and women, and all looked forward to the time when they could meet in Zion’s temple, where women were ordained and officiated in ordinances.
What British sisters could not do was perform non-temple ordinances such as administering the sacrament, baptizing, confirming, blessing infants, and anointing men in illness. They also could not serve in higher offices, be ordained missionaries or mission leaders, be counted by priesthood office in church meetings, or act as the designated decision-makers in two-parent families (even many single women relied on “the elders” to make family decisions for them). They could proselyte as unordained missionaries, but those who assumed this duty apparently confined themselves to handing out tracts to neighbors and associates. It is not clear from the histories and minutes whether women helped to “sustain” branch, mission, and church appointees through consensus vote or if this was reserved for men.
Yet most sisters do not appear to have chafed unduly in the shadow of the elders. This may well have been because Mormon men took the brunt of the social disapproval gratuitously offered by British society. It was not a coveted status having doors slammed at your nose, enduring criticism from pulpit and editorial, being expelled backside first from a neighborhood, or, in a few cases, being tarred and feathered or arraigned before a magistrate.
There was a balancing ethic that discouraged oppressive male authority. Elders were expected to lead in tactful, even democratic tones. When they did not, it was attributed to a lapse in character. Early in her church career Hannah Tapfield King was irritated at her son-in-law Elder Claudius V. Spencer’s dictatorial behavior. She wrote drolly, “He seemed to have made up his mind and when that is the case, ‘It is no compulsion—but you must!!!’ So we arose with all obedience …” Only much later, while crossing the plains, did her feelings strain towards him, and then not because of his [p.105]overbearing manner but because of his coolness toward her. The issue for her was courtesy and love.
Intimations of Raised Consciousness
The mid-nineteenth century saw the beginnings of the Woman Suffrage movement in Great Britain, with considerable discussion of women’s rights by social reformers. There was new militancy by a few and a new awareness by many on both sides of the Atlantic that women continued to lag in the progress toward popular rights. Perhaps younger British sisters caught this perception, or perhaps it was the now-unavoidable fact of Mormon plural marriage that set wives to self-examination, leading to a new, philosophical discontent.
In 1859 the Millennial Star published its first comment on “Woman’s Sphere and Duties” in an editorial by Emily Teasdale. Although woman’s focus should be on “the rising generation,” this British woman wrote, with love and intelligence she could enlarge her scope to include the sick and afflicted outside her walls. And, she tactfully added, while feminine influence presently flowed only as an undercurrent, “its influence will be felt, and in the kingdom of God appreciated and ultimately placed in its proper position.”1
It was three years before another letter to the Millennial Star ever-so-gently expanded the theme. Elicia Grist, a Liverpool convert of six years, wanted British sisters to exert “more lively interest in each other’s society.” “Some feel,” the young matron wrote with contempt, “that women shouldn’t interfere in the least in the Kingdom of God” and that women, being the weaker vessels, “cannot carry the higher responsibility as oracles of God.” She urged women to step forward and “perform acts … nearly allied to the brethren.” Women were not vocal enough in the branches. They should at least bear testimony in “fellowship meetings” to help listeners “reflect more deeply and closely on what has been said.”
She next proposed an Ann Rosser-like model of feminine action: Those who could not meet with the Saints could individu-[p.106]ally encourage family and friends, converse on gospel principles with neighbors, disseminate literature, invite others to meeting, and cherish “a loving, kindred spirit to each other.”2 Her letter ended with an idea of how to fund the emigration. Mothers could teach their children to save pennies in a box, remembering that every penny would bring them three miles closer to Salt Lake City. Elicia herself, with her husband and daughters, emigrated two years later, costing the mission another female activist.
The Era of the Auxiliaries
The action now changes under the sway of two developments: normalization of Utah Mormonism so that by 1860 it could afford more consistent support of its foreign missions, and growing social consciousness expressed in auxiliary organizations such as the Young Ladies Improvement Association, the children’s Primary, and the women’s movement of the 1870s.
If the 1850s were a time of continued upheaval in the Utah church, the 1860s were relatively stable. Settlers had time to put down roots, build more permanent homes, and establish productive farms, towns, and trades. The Utah church entered a phase of discretionary energy. As early as 1854 attempts were made to reinvent the Nauvoo Female Relief Society as well as the Salt Lake Thirteenth Ward Indian Relief Society. The latter was organized to manufacture clothing for Native Americans, make rag carpets for the new Tabernacle, and monitor the needs of the poor for Bishop Edwin Woolley.3
This society dissolved in 1858 during the Utah War and temporary abandonment of Salt Lake City, but the following decade saw the permanent reestablishment of female Relief Societies throughout the territory. In the 1870s feminine collaboration flowered. A magazine founded in 1872, with women as editors and correspondents, promoted the cultural, political, and economic advancement of Mormon sisters. Utah women became involved in the suffrage movement, sending delegates to the [p.107]newly-emboldened suffrage conventions in the East and Europe.
All of these events affected the British mission. During the three-year retreat of 1856-59, when the church was preoccupied with troubles at home, the mission fell into a state of neglect. When sent there in 1860, Jacob Gates was surprised to find Preston members of twenty-plus years standing with no plans to emigrate.4 In the mining district of Newcastle, branches had dissipated never to regroup as miners moved to new areas.5 In 1860 John Cook noticed a “coolness among the Saints in London unlike any other conference.”6 Another elder wrote that, while he had located isolated Saints on the Isle of Man, they “didn’t know whether they were in the Church or not.”7 Everywhere branches were still small and members so sparsely strewn that it was hard to gather many together at any one place. A scarcity of officers meant that “the meetings [were] not as interesting and efficient as we would wish.”8
This new corps or elders attacked the perceived lethargy with enthusiasm. Gates became a popular elder, addressing mixed congregations as “Brothers and Sisters” rather than just “Brethren.” Thomas Wallace steadily organized and reorganized branches in Newcastle to align with relocations of members. He reported few baptisms but said the people had “a fresh start” and was soon reassured by a new “liberality” among members there. And the missionary to the Isle of Man decided that the poor Saints there were, after all, “glad to be collected to hear the word of life.”
Once again they stressed emigration. The Millennial Star reprinted Eliza R. Snow’s rhymed address to the young sisters of the church, the closing lines of which read: “That scatter’d sisters may be gather’d home/ To Zion, where the best from worlds will come.”9 Elsewhere people were told, “This work, this king-[p.108]dom is not represented here, or in Liverpool … but in the Mountains.” Members could not expect the church to blossom in Britain but should look for its maturing power “in the west.”10
These entreaties proved effective. While little activity was reported in the London Conference for the late 1850s, by 1861 eighty-one members had emigrated, delinquent members were “rallying,” and the halls were “replenished.”11In May 1862 the Liverpool Conference reported that one-fourth of its members had emigrated already that year with others to follow, while many additions had been received through baptism.12
In 1864 George Reynolds noted in his journal, “Last season [saw a] remarkably large emigration” of 160 members.13 In 1866 Birmingham branches emigrated sixty-five members, the next year 134 out of a total membership of 848. (Uncharacteristically, 137 were baptized, more than replacing those who emigrated.14 In 1862 the Preston and Liverpool conferences together emigrated 150 and baptized 249. These are high numbers when one considers that during the previous three years a total of only 1,074 emigrated from all of Great Britain.15
The Utah Connection
It was ten years into the second quarter of the mission when by both design and circumstance Eliza R. Snow, churchwide president of the Relief Society and editor of Woman’s Exponent, became a motivating force for the advancement of British Mormon women. Her world tour of 1872-73 was largely personal, but during stopovers in Liverpool and London she made quasi-official ventures into British conferences. One aspect of this tour indicates that Snow had adopted American middle-class condescension [p.109]toward the Old World with her concern for the condition of women there. In November 1872, during her nine-day stopover in London, she used a day in “making calls among the Saints.” Because she had asked to be shown “the poorest Saints in London,” the conference president obliged, although he advised her that the even-more destitute might be found outside the city. Snow found the members to be “cheerful and happy,” although one family was living in a one-room flat reached by “a narrow, winding stairway.” This mother and two daughters earned their living with seasonal employment, making Christmas baskets out of trimmings and ribbons provided by a London merchant who “paid them at a very low figure for their work.”16
On her return from Palestine Snow visited the London Conference again. Although she had little to say about this second stopover, the president of the mission said that the congregation that Sunday contained “the best numbers [he] had ever seen.”17
Both visits inspired the Manchester Saints. A. J. Scofield subsequently wrote to the Woman’s Exponent:
I was one of the few to whom was granted the pleasure of an introduction to our mutual sister, Miss Eliza R. Snow. It was a privilege that I greatly appreciate, and though I only saw her during her short visit in Liverpool, I should, did I never see her again, always remember her with love and veneration. I went with President Carrington and a few others to the station, and when I saw her and party leave en route to London, I felt as lonely as if I had known her for years.18
This visit had the effect of kindling the first full-fledged Relief Society in Great Britain. Although never mentioned in the Woman’s Exponent, which identified the Whitechapel Relief Society organized a year later as the first women’s auxiliary in the British mission, the Manuscript History for the Nottingham Branch states: “There was a Relief Society in existence in Nottingham as early as January 1873, which had a continued existence until October, [p.110]1875.”19 The timing—a month after Snow’s visit—suggests a connection.
It is puzzling that the Nottingham sisters did not publicize their accomplishment. Curiously, their only communication to the Woman’s Exponent was through a Utah missionary, George L. Farrell, stationed in the city. While his intent was merely to report on life in England, we learn something about the Nottingham Branch sisters from his May 1875 letter. The missionary worried about 120,000 habitual criminals and 33,000 drunkards among London’s four million people. London’s liquor houses, “if their fronts were placed side by side, [would] reach from Charing Cross to Portsmouth,” and “above a million people [who were] practically heathen, wholly neglecting their religion,” he wrote.20 Farrell’s perspective was not feminist. He was not anxious for the sisters to unify or enlarge their scope of influence, merely for them to “break off from their old habits of drinking beer, tea, coffee, etc.” and put their means into the Perpetual Emigration Fund.
Another visitor, Elizabeth H. Goddard, was proof that a woman from Utah could exert very little influence if she put her mind to it. Her 1879 extended stay in her birthland had no discernible effect on the branches she attended. Granted, the purpose of her tour was truly private—to escort her son to the mission field and visit relatives in Leicester—and she did not enjoy the prestigious reception given Eliza Snow, Brigham Young’s polygamous wife. But Goddard’s letters to the Woman’s Exponent were not marked by curiosity, enthusiasm, or awareness of a cause— simply by homesickness: “My brother has a beautiful home and lovely surroundings, with every comfort, but I would not exchange for my dear home in Utah … there is something wanting, that is only to be found in the society of the Saints of God, of which there are but few in Leicester, and those few most of them are intending to emigrate this Fall.”21 It was some time, she complained, before her son could locate an LDS branch at all, and when he did it consisted [p.111]of seven members who met only on Sunday afternoons to take the sacrament and bear testimony. “They did not have any singing because it annoyed their neighbors.” Her son was finding it impossible to attract audiences to indoor meetings so had resorted to outdoor preaching “which … was rather tough on him at first.” Her conclusion: the work in Britain was “like the gathering of grapes when the vintage is over.”
To Goddard’s credit, she did visit isolated sisters in the Leicester Branch and also attended meetings in Nottingham, Lincoln, and Derby, although she “did not stay long to visit the Saints in those places.” In one town she found sixty-two Saints meeting “in a small house on a quiet street.” The work there, too, she said, was “at low ebb.”22
Perhaps this is harsh commentary when Goddard’s frank impressions tell at least the extent to which one British emigrant had transferred her loyalties to her new home. And her insight may have been valid that “the gathering” was waning in Britain, or at least that the British Mission was fading as the once-foremost vineyard. Dwindling numbers of baptisms and emigrations from the late 1860s on confirm Goddard’s impression.
A year later Georgine Bird was on the Tyne River on a protracted visit and did not find a Relief Society in Newcastle, although the branch there had had a society for a brief while in 1877. If she was concerned at this lack, however, Bird’s long letter published in the Woman’s Exponent voiced a call to wagons, not to arms. Think, she pleaded, of “the hundreds of anxious hearts and ears that are waiting to hear a word from the mountains.
Remember the condition of the honest poor woman in this part of England? The pitman’s wife is a drudge; the agriculturist’s a slave. Do they know that women still work in brickyards, bind the wheat, pitch and stack the hay, drive farm-carts, fill the carts and spread manure on the land, and that in a wet, cold climate? 23
Without a chance to emigrate, girls would “naturally drift into [p.112]marriage, at best, and thus become fettered to a man who knows not the way of the Lord.” Utah sisters should think of assistance “not as a donation, but as a duty to anxious ones who have been born in the Church.”
This is further indication that British sisters who were concerned about women’s advancement saw the doctrine of gathering as a means to this end. Bird was an activist for her sex, but she, like Snow, Grist, and others, either subordinated the immediate cause to The Gathering or— as is more likely—equated the two.
Prodding from Men
Through the impetus of a few local sisters, and with a further boost from these Utah women, the British church began to show an interest in organizing. Apparently another ingredient was needed to turn interest to action. Not enough information exists on how each of the branch Relief Societies was formed, but the few facts that have survived reveal a pattern of male initiative and patronage to bring this change about. The most dedicated to the creation of women’s societies in the mission seems to have been young Utah elders who had seen their mothers involved in the society back home and were convinced of the good it could do.
The first British Relief Society to announce itself to Utah and thereby put itself into mission consciousness was in the Whitechapel Branch of east London. A good deal of information exists about this society because its officers bothered to report their activities to the Woman’s Exponent.24 By 1871 the Whitechapel Branch was described by missionaries as friendly and protecting its members from city lures through social concerts.25 Yet Eliza Snow’s 1872 and 1873 appearances did not spark an immediate response as in Nottingham. It was over a year later, in March 1874, that an organizational meeting was held, dominated by men:
This branch [society] was organized by Pres. R. T. Burton of the London Conference, assisted by the branch Pres. Peter Romerell and others of the Priesthood. The nominations were carried by [p.113]all the members present at the meeting.
Elder Romerell encouraged the sisters to faithfully carry out the duties connected with the Society and a great amount of good would be the result. Elder R. T. Burton followed with good instructions and an interesting account of the Relief Society in his ward at home in Zion. The teachers received by donations, the amount of six shillings and sixpence at the close of the meeting. Adjourned to next Wednesday evening. Benediction by Elder R. T. Burton.
H. H. Edenboroungh, Sec’y26 The Whitechapel Relief Society would offset its initial sluggishness by lasting more than a decade, an apparent record.
By 1875 a second Relief Society was operating in the conference in north London. It was organized in February 1875 among an “energetic and liberal” membership of ten ladies led by the Cross family. They outdid the east branch in charity collections and disbursements. In 1877 a third conference society, attached to the London-Lambeth Branch, was organized along with a Sunday school. With the Whitechapel society, these organizations were later reported to be “in good condition and doing much good.”27
At church headquarters in Liverpool one might expect to find evidence of a thriving women’s organization, but this was not so. A society was not organized until 1878, five years after Nottingham. An organizational meeting attended by “a number of sisters” was held at the home of branch president Scott Anderson apparently at the initiative of conference president James L. Bunting:
President Bunting opened the meeting with prayer, after which President [of the European Mission William] Budge delivered a very interesting and instructive address, fully explaining the work done by Relief Societies in Zion, and their incalculable value as an auxiliary agency in advancing the work of God.
Elder Bunting said he would be delighted if the sisters could see their way to form such a society; after which, on the motion of Elder Anderson, the Society was duly formed.28
[p.114]A presidency was then appointed and resolutions passed to hold weekly meetings and begin at once a campaign to visit every sister in the branch.
At the end of a year the Liverpool society reported to the Woman’s Exponent that they had added five members to their original eight but lost five to emigration, relocation, and apostasy. “Most of the members have pressing household duties to perform,” and members had encountered “many difficulties” during the year. Still, they had been able to afford “some little relief” to the poor.
The second year of the Liverpool Relief Society went more smoothly. Beginning with nine members, the society gained four while emigrating four, but twenty-one meetings were held during the year with “good attendance indeed,” and 134 visits were made to branch members. Only 4 pounds 9 shillings 2 pence was collected, but “even with this small sum every pressing need [was] relieved.” Again, mention is made of an elder (C. W. Stayner and wife) who attended meetings regularly and supported the society “with loving words and wise counsels.”29
All told, between 1873 and 1881 at least fifteen societies were founded in the mission, some tenuously, as in the Newcastle-on-Tyne Branch on the northeast coast of England. In 1877, at the conclusion of a Wednesday evening meeting, a women’s presidency was appointed who were to call a meeting of the sisters and appoint a secretary. A few months afterward, at another branch meeting, “it was moved, seconded and carried that the Relief Society be disorganized.” There is no record of its reorganization in the nineteenth century, although a Mutual Improvement Society and a Tract Society operated in Newcastle in 1880 and were supported by women as well as men.30
The Flavor of a Victorian Relief Society
The Glasgow-Parkhead society of Scotland was one of the more successful. In the minutes collection of the Glasgow Branch [p.115]is the only British Relief Society minute book to survive in LDS church archives. Supplementing this record with details from other branches, we discover the flavor of a British Relief Society—its purpose, structure, problems, significance in the lives of branch sisters, and influence in the mission.
Using Utah societies as a pattern, the purpose of a British Relief Society was to relieve the poor and ill and “do much good.” Between 1881 and 1887 the Glasgow Relief Society held monthly meetings. Its agenda usually included a prayer followed by a hymn (often the same one from month to month), a reading of the previous month’s minutes, and reports by the society’s six or seven visiting teachers who made housecalls to branch women. In one early meeting, responding to a teacher’s report, the sisters agreed to give three shillings to Sister Neilson “in poor circumstances.” At another meeting, when Brother Cooper of Tollcross was reported in poor circumstances, President Flora Crawford moved, her counselor seconded, and the members unanimously approved a loan of ten shillings to the branch president for the benefit of the ailing brother.31
Records of other societies show that they too assisted the needy and sent out teachers to “visit every sister in the branch.” Virtually all charitable donations came from the sisters themselves. The Liverpool society used 2 of 6 pounds collected to purchase tracts which were then “carefully distributed from house to house.”
In April of the first year of the Glasgow society there was an attempt, perhaps inspired by Brother Burt, the presiding elder of the area, to meet weekly and expand the society into an educational forum. At one of the new meetings President Crawford and her counselor read from the Woman’s Exponent discourses by Parley P. Pratt and Eliza R. Snow. But weekly meetings apparently proved unfeasible, for in May the sisters resumed a monthly schedule.
[p.116]The Liverpool society succeeded in holding twenty-one weekly meetings during its second year, and Whitechapel sisters consistently met bi-weekly during the 1880s, no doubt helped by the circumstance of all living within relatively convenient distance to the meeting house. When conditions dictated monthly gatherings, meetings were taken up largely with business, reports of visits, and occasional “loving words and wise counsels” from branch leaders and missionaries. Instead of lessons, sisters were invited to bear testimony, something many were reluctant to do in the Sunday sacrament meetings dominated by brethren.
The little Relief Societies encountered “many difficulties,” some unnamed. Not the least problem was instability as women relocated to Utah. Most societies were founded by fewer than ten women, and attendance seldom exceeded this. It appears that younger women were less enthusiastic than mature sisters, for a July 1887 entry in the Glasgow minutes reports that the president would be “glad to see the young sisters turn out as well as they could for there were places for them all.” She proposed asking some younger women to sing for the group “to make the meetings interesting.”
Few of the British societies lasted six years. Most seem to have met the fate of the Bradford Branch in Leeds District. It was organized in October 1881 but not mentioned again in the branch records. By 1885 the entire branch was in arrears on chapel rent, a dilemma which someone tried to remedy by renting another room in nearby Clayton and entrusting branch benches, hymnbooks, manuals, and records to a sister there. But the sister was planning to emigrate, and, besides, the members in Bradford demanded that the items be returned. So someone paid the shipping fee and the belongings were sent back to Bradford. In 1887-88 no activities were reported for the branch. How could a women’s auxiliary function when the main body was dying?32
The limited appeal and short lives of the fifteen original British Relief Societies lead one to ask how significant they were. Charitable talents varied greatly from group to group, but during one [p.117]year four of the societies collected a total of 52 pounds and disbursed over 43 pounds to the poor. These are worthy sums considering that a worker’s annual income seldom exceeded 15 pounds. And the Liverpool society, which apologized for doing so little, one year visited a total of 134 homes, meaning at least two visits per sister, and claimed that it had alleviated “every pressing need.” Such efforts relieved the branch president of much of the burden of assisting members in misfortune.
While the 1870s and 1880s began a golden era of women’s activities in Utah, in Britain the auxiliary had rough going. Women were increasingly requested to serve in other areas of church organizations. In 1916 the Leeds Branch Young Men‘s Mutual Improvement Association had a male president with two female counselors. Women served as Sunday school teachers. The Leeds Branch went without male priesthood leadership in 1892 and then ceased entirely for the decade because its most active members had all gone to Utah. Not until 1916 would the branch reawaken and a Relief Society again be established.33
When Romania Penrose accompanied her mission president-husband to England in 1907, she found female Relief Societies functioning only in Leicester, Norwich, and Liverpool. In one year she reorganized thirty-six societies, followed by another fourteen by the time she left in 1911. But less than five years later Ida Smith arrived to find that “the splendid work done by Dr. Penrose had fallen off materially for lack of a directing head.” Within a year of her own arrival Sister Smith had forty-two societies again functioning. It seems clear that organized female effort seldom survived unless sustained by a Utah leader.34
British women proved themselves able to fill nearly every role performed by men, including ordained leadership and tracting, though they served primarily in supporting and nurturing roles. They did not form the separate subculture observed elsewhere, [p.118]perhaps due to the more personal character of the church in England which created less distinction between men’s and women’s efforts and had a more restricted goal. In this mission men and women worked shoulder to shoulder.
It is a credit to the early participants that the Relief Societies succeeded as well as they did, but circumstances were not right. Under conditions of isolation, with their membership always in flux, British women had other preoccupations. In American, they were told, they would enjoy equality, or constructive co-existence, with their Mormon brothers, according to female church leaders in columns of the Woman’s Exponent. Perhaps they left their records incomplete because they were hurrying to emigrate.
1. Millennial Star 21:2-7.
31. Glasgow Branch, Scottish Conference, Relief Society Minute Book, 1881-87; entries for 1 Feb., 13 Mar., and 11 Apr. 1881, LDS archives. That the society “loaned” the funds to the branch president indicates the society’s degree of financial independence.