Audacious Women
by Rebecca Bartholomew

Chapter 6.
Plural Marriage

[p.119]”In 1856,” wrote Priscilla Merriman Evans, “plurality of wives was preached to the world.” She is wrong about the date. Public acknowledgment was made from Great Salt Lake City during a special August 1852 church conference and published in the British Millennial Star that same year. But Evans’s testimony may indicate that mission leaders procrastinated announcement from the pulpit, especially in the hinterland.1 If incorrect about the year, Evans nonetheless vividly remembered the emotional impact among British Mormons:

It caused quite a commotion in our branch. There was one girl there who came to me with tears in her eyes and said, “Is it true that Brigham Young has ninety wives? Oh, I can’t stand that!” I told her that it had not been long since I heard her testify that she knew the Church was true and if it was then, it was true now. She was getting ready to be married and go to Zion. I told her I did not see anything to cry about. So after I encouraged her she dried her tears and when we were ready to emigrate she came with us.

[p.120]In spite of this professed composure, Priscilla and her husband never embraced the doctrine. One wonders if the other woman eventually did.

The other woman’s reaction is a common one in the histories: initial aversion followed by conviction followed sometimes but not usually by participation in “celestial marriage” (the order of heaven). Far more frequent is silence. Polygamy is glaringly ignored by seven out of ten of our women who kept journals or penned reminiscences.

Public Denial, 1838-52

Between 1838 and 1852 polygamy was not taught officially to British Saints. During this fifteen-year period, leaders denied the practice publicly both in America and in foreign missions. If British converts of the 1840s knew the truth, they could only have learned it through word of mouth. Polygamy may have been the subject of Mother Dawson’s cryptic threat to Joseph Fielding that she would “tell some thing as that we should not like to be told.” Even some missionaries—those of local origin—were probably not privy to the truth. During this early period rumors about Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s wives must have seemed to new converts just another slander from the anti-Mormon propaganda.

Indeed, until 1852 monogamy was preached as the law of the gospel. An “Article of Marriage” prescribing one wife per husband comprised the 101st section of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon made it clear that a man’s hunkering after more than one woman was an abomination and that exclusive faithfulness to wives and families was God’s mandate (see Jacob 2:24-27, 30, 35). These teachings thus contradicted not only what was being secretly practiced in Nauvoo but what Mormon converts read (and some believed) about patriarchal practices in the Old Testament.

A study of one polygamous family is instructive of how an early British convert might have come to espouse polygamy.

Ellen Wilding, daughter of a wealthy Lancashire Englishman was one of Heber C. Kimball’s earliest converts made while he preached in the old “Cockpit”, a rented hall, in Preston. She was the only member of her family to convert. In 1841 she emigrated [p.121]to Nauvoo, where she became a servant in the household of Edwin D. Woolley, prosperous merchant, friend of Joseph Smith, and later business manager to Brigham Young.2

In October 1843 Edwin and Mary Wickersham Woolley (both Pennsylvania Quakers converted in the 1830s) were secretly taught about celestial marriage by Hyrum Smith. No doubt Ellen Wilding was present as well as others. Edwin’s younger brother Samuel lay sick upstairs but later claimed to have overheard the proceedings. In a miraculous manner, he wrote, he felt himself in the parlor downstairs, saw Hyrum take out a paper, and heard him read the revelation. “There was a sister present by the name of German who, when he read to a certain point, went to the southwest window, raised the curtain, looked out, then turned around and said, `Brother Hyrum, don’t read any more, I am full up to here’ drawing her hand across her throat.”

At that time Edwin and Mary Woolley had five children. Their middle child, seven-year-old Rachel, would remember “many more visits” from the brethren at night, after “we children were sent to bed.” Unfortunately, she heard only voices, not words. But Samuel Woolley indicated the tenor of what was said. From that day in his sickbed, he was convinced “the revelation was of God, and that no man could or would receive a fulness of Celestial Glory and Eternal Life, except he obeyed that law, and had more than one living wife at the same time.”

In her later recollections, Rachel treated with ambivalence her parents’ experience with polygamy. To a Mormon public she would say, “Strange as it may seem, mother was the first to receive and accept it [the principle of celestial marriage]”. This may well have been Mary’s initial reaction, but privately Rachel confessed that “There would be days together that [Mother] would not leave her room. Often I have gone there and found her crying as though her heart would break.”

Mary temporarily overcame her feelings, for Edwin took as his [p.122]first plural wife a twenty-three-year-old mother of two. Louisa Chapin Rising, whom he had converted while on a mission to Connecticut was civilly only separated from her first husband. Louisa bore Edwin a son nineteen months after their marriage. But her relationship with the Woolley family and Mormonism proved troubled, and when the Woolleys migrated west three years later she did not go with them. She died in Illinois in 1849.

On 28 December 1843, at or near the time Edwin married Louisa, he also married the British convert Ellen Wilding. Ellen’s first child was not born until December 1847, suggesting that connubial relations did not begin immediately. She would bear Edwin five children in all, the last in 1858.

Indications are that communion between the wives was not smooth, and family tradition is that the tensions centered around Louisa. Perhaps first wife Mary’s presence made consummation of the plural marriages awkward. Perhaps, too, Ellen needed a period of adjustment from servanthood to wifehood. For whatever reasons, within four months of Edwin’s marriage to Louisa, Mary took her new baby and left Nauvoo as well as “Husband and Children and everything that is dear to me, to satisfy others” and returned to her mother’s home in eastern Ohio.

Before Mary left, Edwin instructed her to write to him all her feelings, which she did from a lonely hotel room in Wellsville, Ohio, in a pitiable letter dated 24 April 1843:

I have just gone up stairs to bed where I am locked up in a room by my self with the exception of a little sick baby and while I am watching her I thot I would write a few more lines to thee, I have just been pouring out my soul to my God for consolation in my afflictions, for I have no husband to comfort me, I am deprived of his society whom I delight in, and for why? This I will not answer, let them answer that know better than I but Oh Edwin while thee is enjoying the society of thy children and friends and … don’t I pray thee forget me for a moment for thee doesn’t know all the trials I have passed thru since I left home. This night is recorded in the heavens above and time will come when thee may gaze upon the scenery thyself and realize my own situation and as I am at this time, but there are those I make no doubt that are happy at this time. I ask my God why it is that [p.123]one part of his family should suffer so much more than others, the time will come when we must give account of the deeds done in the body, and needs be the offences come but know not by whom they cometh.

This is the woman of whom a descendant told me privately she was ashamed because of Mary’s intractability. After all, didn’t Mary Woolley have the benefit of direct counsel from Eliza R. Snow—plural wife to Joseph Smith, later wife-in-name-only to Brigham Young, and second general president of the women’s Relief Society—to “yield to the lord whom you obey”?3

Yet for my part it is difficult to condemn the author of such a letter. Moreover, if the purpose of plural marriage was, as stated in the Book of Mormon, for the Old Testament patriarchs to raise up children unto the Lord, surely this purpose was fulfilled by Mary Woolley and her husband—whose family would ultimately comprise five wives and twenty-six children.

The relevance of this story to our British women is how in several ways Ellen Wilding’s introduction to polygamy reflected a pattern. Like others converted in the British mission, she appears to have had no knowledge of the doctrine until arriving in Zion. Once exposed, she came to accept it as direct revelation from God. And any initial aversion or difficulties were surmounted to the degree that family normalcy was eventually achieved.

Most of the histories left the initiation to polygamy unsaid. Even Henrietta Bullock’s husband Thomas, later scribe to Brigham Young, scarcely mentioned polygamy in his immigration diary except to say that Brigham referred to “the objections of some men to plurality of wives.” Bullock quoted Young as saying “the Elders would marry wives of every tribe” until the Lamanites (American Indians) would become a “white and delightsome people.” The dearth of references to polygamy in the diaries is suggestive. The trouble is, suggestive of what? It may be that by the time a woman [p.124]sat down to her diary, she found the confirmation of persistent rumors not worth belaboring. Or perhaps polygamy was too dangerous a subject to include in a written record. Another possibility is that a woman’s feelings about polygamy were too strong or too ambivalent to contain in mere words. Finally, the women may simply not have been aware of the practice.

Yet, although British woman would have known little beyond rumor in the 1840s, by the end of the 1850s most if not all were apprised. Letters from Utah friends and family, a new flurry of newspaper reports and books on Mormons, and private talks with missionaries spread the word to some degree even before the bombshell in the Millennial Star. Reuben Hedlock’s letter referring to the “spiritual wife system” had been written in 1844, long before the doctrine became explicit knowledge in the British church.

But the letters and private talks must have carried the tenor of Mary Ann Maughan’s remonstration to the horrified young Welsh sister: if it was God’s church before a woman discovered this unpleasant fact, it was His afterward. If a woman wanted to be counted as one of His daughters, she would have to accept this test of faith. The doctrine may have served to glean the staunch from the less committed. In other words, polygamy may have been one of the dividers between the 50 percent of Mormon converts who gathered to Zion and those who did not.

The New Teachings and the Reaction of British Sisters

When Apostle Orson Pratt (who had once left the church out of aversion to polygamy) tendered the first public apologia for celestial marriage in 1852, his proclamation superseded Book of Commandments 101 and the Book of Mormon and created a rationale for the doctrine. Pratt cited Old Testament precedent and gave sociological “evidence” that monogamy was rare and unnatural among world civilizations. Later that day Joseph Smith’s 1838 revelation on celestial marriage was read publicly for the first time, “to the great joy of the saints who have looked forward … for the time to come when we could publickly declare the … greatest principles of our holy religion.”4

[p.125]The immediate reaction in Britain, as noted in the women’s histories, was shock followed by apostasy by some of the women’s relatives.

Possibly the proclamation led to new doctrinal and organizational tensions among members, although evidence of this is not plentiful. In fact, there is no more mention of the troubles over “spiritual wifery” that had occurred in the 1840s. In later decades the very hint of unrighteous collusion between missionary and sister was nipped by strict mission policy laid down by Amasa Lyman, who:

instructed the Elders not to escort the young women to and from the meetings. He said he did not wish to have the brethren feel that they were never to allow a sister to take them by the arm, but let it be the aged and infirm who need assistance and not as he generally found it the case, the blooming 17-year-old girl …

One of the few women who wrote directly about this tumultuous time was Hannah Tapfield King, the Cambridge landowner’s wife. In a letter to her non-member brother dated 30 December 1852, she confessed her feelings following the semi-annual meeting of the Norwich Conference at which polygamy was introduced: “Well now a few words on the events of Sunday last. It was a day never to be forgotten by me! The meeting was held in the splendid Freemason’s Hall which was a perfect cram to overflowing. Georgy and I were favored with chairs on the platform. In the afternoon the revelation was read which will I expect, set the world in a blaze.”

Unfortunately, Hannah did not give even a summary of the speeches. However, if they resembled a discourse by Franklin D. Richards which Hannah wrote about two years earlier, they were Old Testament in flavor. The “pith” of that discourse was that:

All things would be restored even the sacrifice[.] that in the old laws a child would be destroyed even to sacrifice. That in the old laws a child would be destroyed for being undutiful to his parents, or calling them names—That the adulterer would have his life taken from the earth, and all the laws of Moses would be [p.126]restored as he had said they should be till iniquity was put away from the earth. And that there was not a government upon the earth this day where they could be carried out but among the Latter-Day Saints. Oh! Let us be faithful—let us remember that we are a peculiar people …

These are bold sentiments. The rest of the letter and later diary entries make it clear that the preaching Hannah heard that day did not set easily with her but caused her intense distress. She continued to her brother:

—Oh!—Brother, I shall never forget my feelings!!! It had an extraordinary effect upon me, for though I had known for a year that such a principle existed in the church, when I heard it read, and some things in it which I did not know, I confess to you I became sceptical and my heart questioned with tears of agony, “did this come from God?” I could not speak or shed a tear at first. I felt overpowered, stunned as it were!

Hannah’s daughter Georgiana was engaged to missionary Claudius V. Spenser, son of conference president Daniel Spenser, and would marry him before leaving England later that year. Hannah, Georgiana, Claudius and D[aniel] Spenser left the meeting together in a cab:

Claudius seeing my state of mind got up as he sat opposite to me, and kissed me affectionately and asked me how I felt. That was sufficient. The flood gates of my heart were opened and I wept like a child. He soothed me, and but for the kiss and the kindness, God knows how long the evil one would have held my spirit in bondage. My eyes seemed to rain tears.

Getting out of the cab, Hannah walked up and down the square with Claudius’s father, whom she asked “if he knew that the revelation was from God.”

He, also, was very kind and said everything to comfort and console me, and build up my trembling faith ’till I became calmer—I then went to my lodging close by as I felt too unnerved to go to Mrs. Bray’s with him where all our associates were. And there I wept unrestrainedly ’till the agony of my feelings subsided. And after awhile I was ready to go with them all in the [p.127]evening. Were it not for the righteous men in this church who stand to me as God, I never could stand through these trials.

Hannah’s letters and diary entries, profuse as they are, do not tell the whole story. According to the genealogical record, Claudius Spenser—Georgiana’s fiance—had previously married. His first wife was Antonette Maria Spenser, to whom he was sealed in the Nauvoo temple. There is no death date for Antonette in the records, which do however note that she and Claudius had “no issue.” Had she passed away during the exodus, at Winter Quarters, while crossing the Plains, or in Utah before Claudius’s mission to England?

If so, then who is the “she” mentioned later in Hannah’s journal who welcomed the family to the Spenser home in Salt Lake City (Hannah does not specify which Spenser’s home, although at least later it was Claudius’s). Was “she” Mrs. Daniel Spenser, Claudius’s mother, or Antonette Spenser, his living wife? And if the latter, did Claudius and his father withhold mention of this woman during Claudius’ courtship of Georgiana? Surely Hannah and especially Thomas King—that proper, upper-class, non-Mormon Britisher—would not have knowingly countenanced his daughter’s marriage to a married man. Yet by the time of the family’s emigration it will be evident that Hannah King not only expected, but approved of, plural marriage (see the chapter on the plains crossing).

In Hannah’s eyes, the kindness and piety of the Mormon elders enabled her to overcome her natural feelings against polygamy. Even if the doctrine applied to her daughter, she became able to accept it. People without Hannah’s trust, and perhaps without her childhood attachment to a loving, sympathetic father, might have been slower to reconcile their feelings. Hannah concluded, “This will indeed prove a ‘sieve’, a ‘mill’, a tester to see who is pure and who is righteous, and who is not … ”

Polygamy Here and There

As Brigham Young and other leaders became more open about polygamy, the doctrine became more entrenched by the decade. In a later speech Brigham Young said, “If any of you [priesthood [p.128]leaders] deny the plurality of wives and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned.”5 Young’s first counselor, Heber C. Kimball, used a psychological tack to persuade members to compliance: “I have noticed that a man who has but one wife and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young, and sprightly.” As tempted as one is to interpret Kimball’s comments as humor, over time a new mentality developed that espoused “enlarged” ideas of masculinity, sexuality and virtue among those considered “the very elect.” Yet the British-born sisters seem to have only half-embraced these ideas, for the majority remained monogamous even after emigrating to Utah.

Despite the emphasis in Utah on “the principle” as a prerequisite for heaven, polygamy in the mission fields was uncommon. Fanny Stenhouse said Apostle Orson Pratt took a plural wife in Liverpool “by special dispensation from Brigham Young.” Her wording implies that such marriages were exceptional.

Yet if there was little marrying by married missionaries in Britain, there was plenty of courting. When Elder Milford Shipp fell ill, he was cared for by the Hilstead family, and when he returned to Utah at the end of his mission the Hilstead family accompanied him. Eighteen-year-old Mary Elizabeth Hilstead became Shipp’s third wife. Virtue Leah Crompton Blackburn became the fifth and last wife of Elias Blackburn, bishop of Provo, when he returned from a Scottish mission and she simultaneously immigrated from Scotland. Virtue bore him nine children.

Ann Faulkner Taylor’s husband John Possels Taylor married Ann’s sister in 1860, three years after leaving England and soon after the family arrived in Utah. Although it is possible polygamy was not their intent until they arrived in Utah and a church leader suggested the idea to Taylor, they may very well have decided on polygamy while still in England.

That missionaries formed emotional, even romantic attach[p.129]ments to women is not surprising. Many served long missions—three years was standard, four to five not uncommon—and these lengthy separations from their wives necessitated other social attachments, some of which were bound to be with women. However, the subject of extended sexual abstinence of healthy young husbands is not broached by the women in their histories. After all, they lived in an era whose very name came to mean prudishness about such topics.

As a contrary example, the case of Sarah Elizabeth Smyth Ross affirms that exclusiveness could be maintained between a missionary and his wife during long separations. Sarah married James Darling Ross in 1857. He served two missions while they still lived in England. They emigrated in 1860, and soon after arrival in Utah he was assigned yet a third mission which parted them seven years. This separation must have affected Sarah and James, but it did not result in his taking plural wives. Why not? Was he kept from access to the temple for such—and so many—prolonged periods that the opportunity did not present itself? Did economic recuperation after each mission discourage taking on additional responsibilities? Did he and Sarah feel that adding polygamy to their already-considerable sacrifices for the gospel’s sake would have been too much? Most likely it was a matter of personal preference. It shows that, while Mormon men were pressured to obey the principle of celestial marriage, they could decline without disaffiliation.

How did a missionary pick out a new wife? Most often it was done for him by happenstance. Only occasionally did a man go shopping like the American Priddy Meeks, who with his first wife determined he should marry in polygamy. She picked out “a handcart girl” because the girl had no family—as though, besides being a religious sacrament, plural marriage was a social duty, a charity. Priddy didn’t marry his wife’s choice but found another woman. Whether or not his wife approved his choice is unstated, but it is likely the new wife was an immigrant and in as much economic need as the handcart girl.6

[p.130]There is no instance in the histories of an elder beguiling a young shopgirl into marriage through deception (unless we learn that Claudius Spenser hid the fact of a wife at home). Even Fanny Stenhouse did not accuse the missionaries of using seductive words and looks. These were Victorians, proper and reserved about romance. Understandings were made in seemly ways, the women party to the understandings. Stenhouse questioned men’s motives and women’s intelligence, and she came to see polygamy as infidelity, a product of superstition, but she did not impute Mormon polygamous men with outright lechery.


If critics needed fodder, Mormon prophets gave it through early dissemblance of the truth about plural marriage. From the 1830s to 1852 they denied both the doctrine and their practice of it, not only to the public but to members of the church seen as too weak for gospel “meat”. Many new converts like Ellen Wilding Woolley may well have emigrated to Nauvoo and Utah ignorant of the matter.

But of the two out of our 100 British women’s histories to mention this aspect of plural marriage, both hint that they knew about it before it was announced “to the world.” Both also show the difficulty women initially had in accepting the revelation. In one case it was the writer herself who wept and argued before regaining her religious composure. Polygamy did not make the immediate sense to their minds that other Mormon teachings had. Yet both histories show these women were not deceived by Mormon elders and that any compulsion to accept the doctrine came from within their own hearts and minds, not from coercion by church minions.

After the official announcement and initial fallout, affairs in the mission returned more or less to normal. Polygamy was not openly practiced in Britain, nor were any more than an exceptional polygamous marriage performed. This is not to say, [p.131]however, that there was no courting in Britain. For many elders the mission became something of a marketplace for wives. But it was in Zion that these romances would be consummated, not in England, Scotland, or Wales.
1. Hannah Tapfield King, living in Cambridgeshire, wrote to her brother that “the revelation” was read at meeting the Sunday prior to her 20 December 1852 letter.

2. Ellen Wilding Woolley’s and Woolley family’s history are taken from Leonard J. Arrington, From Quaker to Latter-day Saint: Bishop Edwin D. Woolley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986), 110 and following.

3. Sister Snow’s advice was penned in Mary Woolley’s autograph book, a photocopy of which I was permitted to see in the Woolley collection at archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

4. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool, Eng.: Latter-day Saints Booksellers’ Depot, 1854-86), 1:53-66.

5. Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 155.

6. Cecil B. Alter, ed., “Journal of Priddy Meeks,” Utah Historical Quarterly 10:145, cited by Kathryn Daynes in a presentation to the Sunstone Symposium, 8 Aug. 1991.