Hannah Tapfield King, Gendered History, and Class

By May 21, 2014

This image, from British Chartist George Cruikshank in 1840, raises a provocative question: when tracing the origins of Mormon symbology, why not look at the British political debates over class--an atmosphere most of the Q12 experienced in formative years?

This image, from British Chartist George Cruikshank in 1840, raises a provocative question: when tracing the origins of Mormon symbology, why not look at the British political debates over class–an atmosphere most of the Q12 experienced in formative years?

For a historiographical tradition birthed from the New Social History movement, New Mormon History has certainly lacked attention toward the potent topic of class. Sure, it pops up every once and a while—most expectedly from the economic work of Leonard Arrinton, and perhaps least expectedly in Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow’s biography of Parley Pratt—but historians of Mormonism in general have neglected class tensions as the dominant lens through which to view the LDS tradition. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including the lack of theoretical sophistication in most works on Mormon history, the assumption that Mormonism’s emphasis on communalism has shaped our understanding of distinct social classes, the LDS tradition’s emphasis on the equality of the gospel, most participants’ adherence to economic free markets, and perhaps the expectation that few Mormon historians would employ the tools of Marxist criticism.[1] This lack of focus should give us pause, because of at least three general points. First, Mormonism’s message had significant consequences for the temporal realities of its converts. Second, the LDS Church’s constant migration forced particants to create anew social networks and circumstances in several new contexts. And third, as confirmed through political debates year in and year out, notions of class and societal power have a real impact on how individuals live, work, and socialize, a phenomenon that is especially acute for communities that place religious significance on their cultural surroundings. Religious historiography of recent decades has digested these facts, and it is left for historians of Mormonism to catch up.[2]

So what would a historical project on Mormonism that uses class as its primary mode of interpretation look like? To be honest, if we were to take the field’s general trajectory, it would probably look quite male. Men have often been the primary subjects when historians attempt new and innovative methodologies, whether a novel focus on magic, economics, law, etc.; men are the primary vessels of Mormon historical consciousness, after all. This has typically left Mormon women to be pigeon-holed into tight and systematic categories that compliment the institutional framework that dominates the field. Most recently, the most trendy tool for female packaging has been “agency”—we take for granted that women work within preconditioned boundaries, and it is the scholar’s duty to understand how they navigated within those borders.

But what happens if we use a woman as the primary instigator for understanding society developments within Mormonism? In this post, I’ll give just brief musings on what such a narrative might look like. As my case study, I’ll draw from the private writings of Hannah Tapfield King, someone I have written about before. (Go ahead and read the earlier post so you know her background; I’ll be here when you get back.) In traditional gendered frameworks, Hannah Tapfield King is often depicted as another Mormon woman working within the confines of LDS patriarchy,  rather than the embodiment of social elite tensions and the growing literary royal class. But what if we placed the former tension as subservient to, and merely an extension of, the latter?

Unlike most British converts during the Victorian period, King never lacked economic stability. Descended from money and married into more money, she embodied the upper-middle-class English lady with social status, refined sensibilities, and a respected education. In striking contrast to the typical narrative of the Mormon woman frantically working within a patriarchal structure and seeking any space for personal agency, King emphasized advancement and independence throughout her life. “I write as a bird sings,” she once wrote, “free as the air and untrammelled.” Even King’s conversion to Mormonism challenges the typical gendered stereotype of women passively receiving the teaching of men and then converting based on an emotional response to religious feeling. Rather, her nearly-two year long conversion process took place in conversations with other women as they discussed Mormonism’s claims, dissected the writings of Orson Spencer and the Pratt brothers, and came to a reasonable conclusion based on a rational method. Indeed, her conversion narrative, just like her later writings, displays an intellectual genealogy that stems from Enlightenment critiques more than Romantic sentimentality.

King used this theological reasoning in interesting ways. Acknowledging the tenuous basis of her salvation while married to a husband who took decades to convert and then, once baptized, never received temple ordinances, she reasoned, “I must make my calling and Election Sure” by having “the sealing ordinance abiding upon me.” (This quotation, as well as those that follow, come from her multivolume diaries.) But more than the theological basis for her marital angst, King was acutely aware of the danger to her social status for not being part of the Mormon hierarchy. She thus orchestrated a sealing to Brigham Young that assured eternal salvation as well as cultural privilege. In short, she was proactive in enabling her own mobility and establishing an elite social circle in which many of Mormonism’s leading figures participated.

If there is one dominant thread throughout her private and published writings, it’s not gendered frustration, but social angst. Accustomed to the status associated with her familial wealth, King displayed a deep anxiety over her position as an elite aristocrat more than an LDS woman. It should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric that, thirty years after her conversion, she described the animosity she received from her peers for her baptism as her own social “suicide.” To her family, friends, and colleagues, she had transgressed against her class; she recounted her mother telling her, “had I become a roman Catholic she could have forgiven me—but these low people?” Even decades after the event, her loss of a privileged class status burned, even as she tried to replicate that same structure within Utah intellectual circles. She often recompensed this tension by reaffirming her own social level over those “lower” inhabitants of Deseret, and she bemoaned the “shoddy aristocracy” that she believed resulted when so many “poor” and “ignorant” people gained quick money on the frontier. Consider one episode from her diary where she chastised two wives of Mormon apostles:

April 22nd [1857] Spent the afternoon at Sister Orson Spencers’—met there, Sisters Benson and Sarah Pratt…but did not like the feeling of these Women—they want to be something—if they would be content to be what they are, or might be, they might be intelligent agreeable Women—They seem to hate the English but I felt, I was a check upon them—they dared not come out on that strain before me—so they Kept hinting—and dabbling—Silly Women they only exposed their ignorance, and ill-manners—and what do they Know of the English—or English society—One has never been in England—and the other—from her very position as a Mormon Elder’s wife could not move in that society that develops the National character—and the mass of the English that come here do not represent the Nation—they feel I am different and are rather in awe of me.

Now, there are loads of tensions to unpack in this passage pregnant with meaning, but what I am especially interested in dissecting at this point is the class conflict King’s diary entry invoked. Her major fear was not the gendered constraints placed upon her as a woman, but the social instability found in Utah’s tenuous class relations.

As a result of these tensions, King worked hard to establish an elite social class that privileged wealthy and educated people like herself, which in turn reaffirmed her position within Mormon culture. Her writings, her participation in clubs, and her correspondence and relationships with other leading figures reassured her own position and crystalized an elite culture that shaped how Mormons in the territorial period understood their own class and experience. By transplanting a British upper-class society into Deseret territory, King helped craft the culture that shaped Mormonism’s leaders.

While gender certainly played a central role in King’s experience, traditional gendered boundaries should not be the only determinative framework for her life. When examined solely within the confines of an LDS woman, with the concomitant expectations and standards for success or failure, King can be seen as typical in her achievements: she remained faithful through trials, supported ecclesiastical leadership, and defended orthodoxy. Yet when divorced from that framing, a new portrait is discovered: someone who cultivated radical theologies, struggled with economic possibilities, and orchestrated social strata. Indeed, those last two points seem the most important, as they have been sacrificed in order to appease gendered historiographical expectations: women were to be subservient to the social class established by patriarchs, and elite society was reserved for the “all-boys” club of Salt Lake City. King is a direct challenge to these traditional narratives, and thus a look at territorial class conflict and social angst through the lens of the aspiring aristocrat woman presents a new and important corrective to the development of Mormon culture.

This post is, obviously, more provocative than substantial; I have yet to perform a committed study of King and territorial Utah’s social tensions. (Though I hope to do so in the future.) My point is primarily to raise questions concerning how we frame our historical actors, especially when we study Mormon women. Class, just like any other interpretive frame, can certainly become too one-dimensional and dominant. But it can also be revealing, when used right. I hope we see more experimentation to that effect.


[1] I should note that there have been a number of works that give peripheral attention to class, and a handful that have made it a primary study. But these, excluding work in the 1960s that (influenced by academic interests in the day) actually did focus on class dynamics, can be categorized into limited categories: 1) works focused on the practice of consecration, 2) projects examining the experience of African Americans, and 3) the debates over whether Mormon converts were lower-class or not (especially in Britain).

[2] Christine Talbot’s recent Foreign Kingdom is an example of using sophisticated theoretical arguments concerning class to butress cultural interpretation. Another example of a historian using class to make important points concerning social history is Kathryn Daynes’s More Wives than One.

Article filed under Biography Cultural History Gender Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues Women's History


  1. This post is indeed provocative. Hopefully it gets the people going!

    I’m embroiled in a project examining the social/spiritual elite in Nauvoo currently, and I’m blown away by how many connections individuals have to each other. Polygamy, with its requisite financial responsibilities, presents an interesting way to examine class. I’ll have to think on this more. Thanks for the post!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 21, 2014 @ 9:03 am

  2. This is great, Ben. I’ve notice important differences in liturgy between rural and urban Utah, but haven’t spent the time to think through it much. With urban Utah being wealthier, perhaps this is a matter of class.

    The beehive is also very cool.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 21, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

  3. Important thoughts, Ben. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 21, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  4. Some great insights, Ben.

    Comment by Ryan T. — May 22, 2014 @ 8:59 am

  5. I can’t argue with any of this – it’s so well constructed, but – just wanted to reiterate that attention to class is highly resisted not only in Mormon historiography but in mainstream understandings of American history more generally. I see this strongly in my survey teaching, where both students and intro textbooks often strain to avoid discussions of social class altogether. The myth of an American classless society runs deep, and American myths always get wrapped into Mormon history in complicated ways. The British dimension of this becomes more important, because social class always operated more overtly in the British context & also British historiography (correct me if I’m wrong) is more comfortable with Marxism and social theory; it’s less politicized on that score, right?

    I’m hoping this is the nugget of a future article? It needs to be.

    Comment by Tona H — May 22, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

  6. Thanks, Ben, for some great thoughts to get us all started in this direction. For a while, I’ve thought about class as an important and untapped lens for examining Mormon experience, especially women, as you have suggested here. Historians could explore so many worn-out narratives with new life and energy, if we were willing to employ the lens of class: education, overland migration (ie.: tensions within companies; handcart companies vs. traditional wagon travel), Mormon architecture, Relief Society suffrage activism and organization, both among the Salt Lake crowd, down to local Relief Societies throughout the corridor. Even in my own research on Mormon birthday party celebrations, I definitely see a thread of class associations in the elaborateness of the types of parties held, obvious displays of conspicuous consumption, the exclusive guests lists, and public representations (invitations, announcements, printed programs) of individual and family status.

    So, a few questions for you.

    1. Are you defining ‘class’ strictly from an economic lens, or do you see class boundaries established through other factors? Obviously, the familial-leadership strata that existed among the highest male and female leadership of the church intersected with the wealth that ran through those circles, but not exclusively. So what else defined class, both for the Mormon hierarchy, as well as new converts/immigrants like Hannah?

    2. Just out of curiosity, who specifically did Hannah consider to be her appropriate or acceptable associations?

    3. Considering Hannah’s very enlightened, rational approach to embracing and internalizing the gospel, how did she reconcile her upper-class standards of sex, marriage, propriety, etc., with her gradual acceptance of plural marriage?


    Comment by Andrea R-M — May 23, 2014 @ 12:14 am

  7. […] Andrea R-M: Hannah Tapfield King, Gendered […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Women Project — May 23, 2014 @ 11:50 am


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