[If Elder Holland was correct in his General Conference talk from saturday that we are never too far along the path of sin to repent and return to God’s fold, then I hope I can make amends for not participating in March’s Women’s History Month by reproducing a revealing document written by one of my female idols.]
Hannah Tapfield King (1807-1886) was a fascinating woman. Born in Cambridge, England, to Peter Tapfield, a land steward and second son of the 5th Duke of Leeds, and Mary Lawson, daughter of one of the most respected families of Yorkshire, she was married at a young age to Thomas Owen King–an arrangement between the King and Tapfield families that set Hannah for a life of wealth and comfort. While living in Cambridge shortly after her fortieth birthday, she was introduced to the Mormon message and went through a long, complicated, and intense investigation period. (Probably worth its own post.) Finally, on April 17th, 1851, she was “buried in the liquid grave and raised up out of it in the likeness of the burial and resurrection of our Saviour.” Her baptism brought a lot of trouble: it was in the midst of a debate concerning Mormonism in the Cambridge area, and Hannah, before a highly respected member of the community, received much condemnation from her peers. Even worse, her parents strongly disapproved of her decision, and were almost apoplectic when she announced she would be immigrating to Utah. Fortunately, her husband, though he never joined the LDS church, was supportive and even agreed to move with her to the American west two years later.
But prior to the big immigration, Hannah was rocked by the same news that rocked all British Mormons in 1852 and 1853: the announcement of polygamy. For Hannah, who had heard rumors the previous year (though never recorded them), she learned of plural marriage the same way many Saints in southern England did: at a regional conference with Apostle Orson Spencer in December 1852. Unprepared, Hannah took a train down to London with her daughter, Georgiana (“Georgey”), son-in-law Claudius, and Claudius’s father, Daniel Spencer (“Mr. Spencer”). A week after the meeting, she wrote the following in a letter to fellow convert and close friend Elijah Larkin:
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[.] Georgey 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 – Oh! Brother I shall never forget my feelings! it had an extraordinary effect upon me! for tho’ 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! – We had a Cab home Mr Spencer, Claudius, Georgey, and I in it -Claudius seing 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 floodgates of my heart were burst open & I wept like a child – he soothed me – and but for the Kiss & the Kindess God Knows how long the Evil One would have held my spirit in bondage – my Eyes seemed to rain tears – when we got out of the Cab – I asked Mr Spencer Senr if I might speak to him – he Kindly walked up and down the square with me while I asked him if he Knew that the revelation was from God! he was very Kind – and said every thing to Comfort and Console me, and build up my trembling faith, till I became calmer – I then went to my Lodging close by…and there I wept unrestrainedly till the agony of my feelings subsided.
It is impossible not to be struck by the amount of emotion Hannah records: her immediate response was shock and skepticism, she bursts into tears as soon as they are on the car ride home, she has an emotional walk with Daniel Spencer (an elderly leader in the Church who had just returned from a mission), and then wept again bitterly in the privacy of her own home. While she was not at immediate risk of having a second wife thrust into her family due to her husband’s apathy to the gospel, she had attended this conference with her daughter who was married to a priesthood-holding, respectable Mormon man who might be–and later, was–expected to marry more wives. Less poignant but still important must have been the sting of knowing that the church he had defended to her Cambridge community, which involved often denying accusations of moral infidelity supposedly taking place in Utah, was indeed associated with a practice she found repulsive. Her pleas to Mr. Spencer must have been fraught with despair, as even recording them days later she felt the need to highlight her insistance on whether the priesthood leader knew that the doctrine was from God; the letter was a way to both purge and relive that harrowing drive home.
As soon as polygamy was publicly known, the LDS Church launched an expansive defense in print. New newspapers were formed to publish editorials and articles explaining and justifying the practice. Orson Pratt’s The Seer, published in Washington D.C., was probably the best-known, and Pratt’s articles were republished through other Mormon periodicals–including the British paper Millennial Star. One week after Hannah found out about plural marriage, the first of many defenses of polygamy appeared in the same paper that also published her poetry. These defenses were based in literal Bible readings, radical (and controversial) philosophical theories, and even caricatured (and often misrepresented) demographic and ethnic understandings. When Daniel Spencer sought to comfort Hannah that winter night, he likely shared the same calm, cool, logic-based reasoning for the doctrine; Mormon polygamy was meant to be understood in a serious, highly-Biblical, and dispassionate framework that dismissed accusations of passion and eschewed insinuations that it was based on emotion.
Hannah, though, didn’t share that gendered space of dispassionate logic and ecclesiastical apologetics that took place in the public sphere, and couldn’t help but react in a more emotional way: in response to the announcing discourse, she held back tears and shock; when asked how she felt, she desired a shoulder to cry on; when offered calm reasoning and a long walk, she composed her long enough to get home and weep. In the coming weeks and months, she eventually came to terms with the doctrine through commiserating with other female (and sometimes male) members, both in person and through correspondence, as well as prolonged moments of recluse where she wrote and cried. Though Mormonism offered scriptural defense and calming apologetics, Hannah embraced her own gendered space of the private home and the privacy of the pen.
All documents quoted from and referenced are found in Hannah Tapfield King, “Autobiography,” Church History Library. (Her baptism quote also comes from this document.) King’s “Autobiography” is fascinating in itself: throughout her life she kept volumous journals of up to 40 volumes, which she later condensed into a 7-volume memoir.