JI Summer Book Club 2017, II: A House Full of Females, Chapter 3

By June 18, 2017

Having set the stage of the nature of early Mormon sociality in the first two chapters, in chapter three Ulrich first broaches the topic of plural marriage. But as the title of the chapter suggests, “I now turn the key to you,” the focus of the chapter is the founding of the Relief Society.

With her imposed stricture of not to “merge” reminiscences with diaries, (xx) Ulrich sets up a number of challenges, most notably the fact that very few contemporary early Mormon journals mention it. The focus of the chapter, Eliza R. Snow, said nothing about it in her Nauvoo journal and Ulrich turns to Snow’s much later affidavit to determine that Snow married Smith on June 29, 1842. Ulrich states this fact on page 61, the book’s first mention of plural marriage after the introduction. On that date, Snow wrote, “This is a day of peculiar interest to my feelings” (71).

Ulrich turns to Snow’s poetry and Relief Society minutes to explore how the rumors of Smith’s plural marriages may have affected the Mormon women in Nauvoo. In doing so, Ulrich largely sets aside the question of Smith’s motives behind the practice. “Some biographers assume that Joseph invented the doctrine of plural marriage to justify illicit relations with vulnerable young women. There is some evidence to support that assumption” (66). After making this statement, Ulrich simply moves back to the topic of early Mormon women, saying of those who married Smith, “The one thing that all these women had in common was intense religiosity” (67).

With her intention to focus on contemporary sources, Ulrich spends the bulk of the chapter discussing the Relief Society’s response to John C. Bennet’s seductions of Nauvoo women and the controversy that caused. Ulrich occasionally sprinkles in data from later reminiscences to give insights on Smith, at one point declaring, “The astonishing thing about these records is not that people were gossiping about the sex lives of important men, or that some women and men took advantage of salacious rumors to justify their own behavior, but that, in the midst of public turmoil, Smith continued to expand the practice of plural marriage” (80).

Ultimately, because of Ulrich’s attempt not to mix contemporary sources with later reminiscences, Chapter Three makes for peculiar reading, highlighted by Snow’s own experience. We need her later statement to know why June 29, 1842 was such a big deal. And that certainly applied to many more women who kept these details quiet.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Steve! Very helpful and articulate.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 19, 2017 @ 8:17 am

  2. Thanks, Steve. This is a useful critique of LTU’s use of sources in the chapter.

    Comment by David G. — June 19, 2017 @ 9:09 am

  3. Nice discussion of this difficult problem, Steve. Polygamy origins are a tough nut to crack with contemporary sources.

    Comment by wvs — June 25, 2017 @ 10:50 pm

  4. Yes, it’s an interesting move. As Ben notes in the next post, getting the real time reactions allows for greater emotion.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 26, 2017 @ 10:10 am


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