JI Summer Book Club 2017, II: A House Full of Females, Chapter 1

By May 14, 2017

Though it’s not in this chapter, If I were to pull a sentence from Ulrich’s book that I feel summarizes her project, it’s this: “Well before plural marriage became a recognized practice in the Church, these women had learned to value bonds of faith over biological or regional connections.” (xv)

When Phebe Carter Woodruff sent her husband Wilford off to serve a mission in the British Isles, she secured a small poem in his luggage. “While onward he his footsteps bend / May he find Mothers, and kind friends,” the lines ran. (38) The first chapter of Ulrich’s book explores how that statement became actuality, how Mormonism—particularly for its women—dissolved old communal, social, and cultural bonds and forged instead new ones. Both Phebe and Wilford’s paths took them from their families, but brought them to each other, and enmeshed them in new webs of sociality. After all, Ulrich points out, it is enormously unlikely that these two children of New England – born of Maine and Connecticut, respectively – would have met and married without their common faith.

Of course, polygamy has been traditionally labeled the primary vehicle behind the erection of a new Mormon sociality, but Ulrich points out that the processes of separation and reaffiliation began far earlier. Phebe Carter, aged 27, left her family in Scarborough, Maine to join with the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, quite soon after her baptism, and Ulrich lingers over a letter she wrote to her family justifying her choice: she crossed out her original word “parent[al]” and replaced it with “paternal,” describing her childhood home as her father’s and in the next paragraph her experience of divine revelation as her own. (12) Already Phebe was re-writing her sense of community, of whom she belonged to, in the ink of her new faith. When she arrived in Kirtland she met and married Wilford, having not long with him before she sent him on to New England.

Similarly, Wilford’s mission to New England gave him the chance to buttress his dissolving family with those same strong bonds of faith. His brother and sister in law denied him a bed; his half-sister welcomed him but took him to see his parents’ now-empty home—“as silent as death,” Wilford described it. Finally, he managed to baptize his uncle, aunt, and cousin, taking them to the water at 2:00 AM after a long night talking religion.

The couple reconnected in Connecticut, planning to travel back to Kirtland with as many new Latter-day Saints as they could muster. On in particular brought them joy – a daughter, Sarah Emma, born July 14, 1838. The birth strained and strengthened bonds old and new. Phebe’s family wanted the couple and the newborn to remain in New England, but the two refused, taking the child to be “an extensive traveler,” as Wilford put it. (26) The birth signaled to them the importance of reuniting with their spiritual family. They carried with them apple seeds from Phebe’s home as they departed, hoping, in some sense, to unite their old world to their new.

As the story of Phebe and Wilford indicates, Ulrich’s book is far more than a study of simply polygamy, or women’s rights; it takes the often undertold story of Mormon women like Phebe, and Mormon marriages like hers and Wilford’s, and uses them as microscopes into the life details, the emotional history, and the raw experience of being an early Mormon. Their story is all of our stories, because the details of life and how it’s lived Ulrich retells are those important to each of us. Though the stories it tells are fifteen decades gone by, this book plunges us deeper into what it was—and is—like to be a Mormon better than any other I can recall.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Summer Book Club


Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Matt. I think you struck at what I found to be central in the book’s first few chapters: the role of religion in realigning relationships. If Mormonism’s goal was to upend the world, then that also implied reorienting society. That’s a very personal mission with deep familial implications that took root even before Joseph Smith took his first plural wife.

    Comment by Ben P — May 15, 2017 @ 10:59 am

  2. Phebe’s letter to her parents is amazing. No doubt that Ulrich is trying to show that faith came before polygamy for women. Although, this book is about women, polygamy, and politics it is so much more. I find it interesting that Ulrich uses Wilford Woodruff’s diary as a backbone to her story about women. I assume that focusing on Woodruff’s diaries throughout the book was a symbolic choice as one who represents the trajectory of the church; Wilford was hesitant to accept polygamy, then later embraced it, and finally was the Church President who slowed polygamy with the manifesto. Thanks for a great review, Matt.

    Comment by Erik F — May 15, 2017 @ 1:29 pm


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