The Apostolic Authority of the Nineteenth Century Mormon Woman

By May 13, 2009

Here’s another post authored by occasional guest blogger and friend to JI, Bored in Vernal. Enjoy!

I’ve been enthralled by the portrait of Mormon women painted by Edward W. Tullidge in his 1877 book The Women of Mormondom. He called them women of a new age, of new types of character, religious empire-founders, and even bestowed upon Mormon women the title “apostles.” Of course, the term “apostle” when associated with the female sex was not, in the late 1800’s, fraught with as much tension as it is today. Yet I was still interested to investigate the impulse which led Tullidge to employ this word when speaking of our nineteenth-century sisters.

First, Tullidge invoked the ancestral bloodlines of the Mormon pioneers to account for their apostolic status:

Their ancestors were among the very earliest settlers of the English colonies. There is good reason, indeed, to believe that on board the Mayflower was some of the blood that has been infused into the Mormon Church. This genealogical record, upon which the Mormon people pride themselves, has a vast meaning, not only in accounting for their empire-founding genius and religious career, but also for their Hebraic types of character and themes of faith. Their genius is in their very blood. They are, as observed, a latter-day Israel,–born inheritors of the promise,–predestined apostles, both men and women, of the greater mission of this nation,–the elect of the new covenant of God, which America is destined to unfold to “every nation, kindred, tongue and people.”

Next, Tullidge spoke of distinct spiritual gifts possessed by women which qualified them as apostles.

Joseph Smith opened to America a great spiritual dispensation. It was such the Mormon sisterhood received. A latter-day prophet! A gospel of miracles! Angels visiting the earth again! Pentecosts in the nineteenth century! This was Mormonism. These themes were peculiarly fascinating to those earnest apostolic women whom we shall introduce to the reader. Ever must such themes be potent with woman. She has a divine mission always, both to manifest spiritual gifts and to perpetuate spiritual dispensations. Woman is child of faith. Indeed she is faith. Man is reason. His mood is skepticism. Left alone to his apostleship, spiritual missions die, though revealed by a cohort of archangels. Men are too apt to lock again the heavens which the angels have opened, and convert priesthood into priestcraft. It is woman who is the chief architect of a spiritual church.

Along with women’s apostolic prerogative by spiritual inclination, Tullidge compared women’s and apostles’ abilities to receive angelic administration. He even contended that females were better suited to this spiritual commission.

This gospel of a new dispensation came to America by the administration of angels. But let it not be thought that Joseph Smith alone saw angels. Multitudes received angelic administrations in the early days of the Church; thousands spoke in tongues and prophesied; and visions, dreams and miracles were daily manifestations among the disciples. The sisters were quite as familiar with angelic visitors as the apostles. They were in fact the best “mediums” of this spiritual work. They were the “cloud of witnesses.” Their Pentecosts of spiritual gifts were of frequent occurrence.

Yet another way that women were described as apostles by Edward Tullidge was in their “blessed office of motherhood.” This was seen as part of her divine ministry:

The chief faith of the Mormon women concerning themselves is that they are called with a holy calling to raise up a righteous seed unto the Lord–a holy nation–a people zealous of good works. The Mormon women have a great truth here. Woman must regenerate the race by endowing it with more of her own nature. She must bring forth a better type of man, to work out with her a better civilization. Woman shall leaven the earth with her own nature. She shall leaven it in her great office of maternity, and in her apostolic mission.

Finally, Tullidge wrote of the ordination of nineteenth-century Mormon women to a form of priesthood authority, connecting them in this way with apostleship.

The sisters were also apostolic in a priestly sense. They partook of the priesthood equally with the men… the “Church” herself acknowledged woman’s key. There was no Mormon St. Peter in this new dispensation to arrogate supremacy over woman, on his solitary pontifical throne. The “Order of Celestial Marriage,” not of celestial celibacy, was about to be revealed to the Church. Woman also soon became high priestess and prophetess. She was this officially. The constitution of the Church acknowledged her divine mission to administer for the regeneration of the race. The genius of a patriarchal priesthood naturally made her the apostolic help-meet for man.

In Tullidge’s estimation, Mormon women were “apostolic mediums of
a new revelation.” He taught that these women were oracles of a new dispensation and a new civilization. In the society in which Tullidge brought forth his writings, the woman who dared to play the oracle was accounted a witch, a medium, or a fortune teller. But with the advent of Mormonism and temple ordinances she began to fill a sacred and a sublime role which he elevated in his book as prophetess, high-priestess, and even legitimate “apostleship.”

Edward Tullidge and perhaps other LDS writers of the nineteenth century saw the “apostleship” of the Mormon female as including, but not limited to an endowment of priesthood held jointly with her husband. It extended to the influence she held in her family, the Church, society, and the nation. The apostleship of women, he noted, had not been fairly granted to women before the Restoration. Paul, “in the egotism of man’s apostleship,” commanded the woman to be silent in the church, yet the prophet Joseph corrected Paul. The Latter-day Prophet “made woman a voice in the church, and endowed her with an apostolic ministry.” We see in _The Women of Mormondom_ the injunction to use her influence to gain suffrage and to claim the privilege of plural marriage. The writer passionately concludes, “With the scepter of woman’s rights, they will go down as apostles to evangelize the nation!”

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very cool! Thanks.

    Comment by Edje — May 13, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  2. The problem, of course, is when we transfer modern ideas and definitions onto such historical pieces. As to the priesthood, I’m not convinced that Tullidge (who has a fairly complicated history, himself) employed the terms “apostle” and “apostolic” in a manner to connote priesthood authority. Instead apostle is commonly used to denote the capacity of one who is sent forth, or of a pioneer. Of course there are religious connotations, and one finds similar phraseology in the missionary efforts of other faiths during the same period. An interesting contrast is the more official Church discourse describing Seventies as apostles.

    The priestly function of the temple, with its robes of the holy priesthood, fullness of the priesthood, and colloquially described high priestess is perhaps the murkiest waters to navigate. Modern readers are generally so invested in modern concepts that they fail to see how Joseph Smith often used the same words to mean different things. Women, without question receive liturgical authority in and out of the temple. The scope of that authority is dynamic with time. But to employ the modern vernacular, is generally very unhelpful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 13, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  3. As to the priesthood, I’m not convinced that Tullidge (who has a fairly complicated history, himself) employed the terms “apostle” and “apostolic” in a manner to connote priesthood authority.

    Right, J. The point of this post was to explore the different ways that Tullidge used “apostolic” to describe women. I have purposely avoided comparison to the modern vernacular, choosing to highlight how the word “apostle” was used in several different ways in which it is not used today. (I must, however, admit an interest in the apostolic priestly authority he connects with women and plural marriage.)

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 13, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  4. I am not sure, J, that Tullich did not mean the priesthood when he referred to the apostolic role of women. He must have been familiar with the priesthood office of Apostle as it was practiced by the Brighamites.

    It also seems to me that Joseph Smith, Jr. might have been unhappy if anyone had described his revelations as murky. After all, he saw himself as the restorer of “plain and precious truths.”

    In fact, until the seventies we used to feel superior to other faiths for the simplicity of Mormon doctrine. It seems to me that the demise of the gospel’s simplicity remains the legacy of New Mormon History to Mormon theology.

    Today, the reconciliation of religious claims with empirical fact is anything but simple. In the 1880s things were more, not less, straightforward than today.

    Nonetheless, you may well be right that Tullich used the term apostolic differently. You might be able to persuade me with a reasonable alternative reading.

    In the absence of an alternative interpretation, however, your claim remains somewhat of a leap. Without an alternative reading and textual evidence, it is even possible that your claim is a greater anachronism than a literal reading of Tullich’s text.

    Comment by Hellmut — May 13, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

  5. It may be useful to read Tullidge’s description of Mormon women to a non-Mormon audience as an intentional juxtaposition of the ecclesiastical lives of Mormon women with those of mainstream Christian women in Victorian America.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 13, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

  6. Yeah, they probably felt that they were APOSTLES of monogamy to the heathen, barbarians, and Mormons…

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 13, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  7. Hellmut, I don’t think I understand what you are arguing; but it appears to have a standard DAMUesque edge to it. Who cares if Joseph Smith would be unhappy about modern descriptions of his religion making? The reality is that his Nauvoo theology is murky for a number of very good reasons. I suspect he would agree in retrospect, but I am not certain.

    Your assertion that things were more clear in the 1880’s betray a lack of context on your part.

    As to the term “apostle,” I do suggest, as Taysom and BiV note, a “literal reading.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 14, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  8. Also, for those interested, Kris and I are close to being done with our mss on female ritual healing and it should be published within the year. Sam and I are also working on a new history of ritual adoption. Both of these papers will treat the whole priesthood/temple/women thing.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 14, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  9. This is really interesting stuff, BiV. Thanks for contributing it here.

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  10. I think Bored in Vernal got it absolutely right, by responding to the emotional content of Tullidge’s words, for Tullidge was a self-professed radical thinker who questioned the temporal authority of the church while at the same time professing his great love of the Mormon people, and there should be no mistaking why Tullidge wrote this book, or his intended purpose, even if his conclusions about the practice of polygamy were a copout by saying that it was an issue that Mormon women had to decide for themselves. This is a man who championed the Mormon cause back in England, believed fervently in their mission, and accepted unequivocably that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Tullidge’s issue was with the temporal control of Brigham Young and the Priesthood over the every day lives of the Saints. Polygamy was a practice that was forced upon many of the converts, in fact, Tullidge’s own sister Jane Tullidge was denied admittance to the Temple until she agreed to become another wife to Alexander Cruikshank Pyper. Keep in mind too that from his earliest days, Tullidge really, and I mean really, admired women and thought of them as his equal, and I believe that in the Women of Mormondom, as far as he could, he was advocating women’s rights and equality in the church. Tullidge surely had great admiration for his mother, but he revered his sister Mary Elizabeth Tullidge, and he truly believed that Eliza Snow was one of the most remarkable human beings he had ever met. She was in every way his intellectual match, and it was her idea that he write the book.

    Now on the other hand, and this suits Tullidge’s eqivocating nature perfectly, you have other women, like Fanny Stenhouse, who was writing exposes about polygamy and how it was destroying the fabric of society. I found nothing directly anti-Mormon about the book, even though Tullidge felt strongly that Joseph Smith’s mother and brother made a mistake in not making the journey out west to lay claim as the rightful leaders of the LDS Church, just subtle musings about the difference between gentile and Mormon women, and not judging at all, but obviously trying to communicate to the Mormon Elders that these women were not merely subserviant wives to do their bidding, but rather STRONG women who could think for themselves, and rather than standing idly by while their “better halves” ruled over them, they took charge of their lives and fully participated in the Mormon mission and vision. What Tullidge is saying is, hey, there is a hidden potential here that if unleashed, is going to transform society, not just gentile society, but Mormon society as well. And he saw this as the answer to the Mormon question, the question the editors in the eastern magazines wanted Tullidge to write about. Tullidge is saying that Mormon women themselves will decide their own destiny, and that may not seem very profound, but it is rather all the things he says about Mormon women leading up to his conclusion that is of real import here, and why there have been so many reprints of the book, and why it remains relevant today. In a sense, Tullidge captured the popular imagination, because some of the issues are still cogent today, and his viewpoints fascinate both Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

    So, Tullidge was, in my opinion, a very early champion of women’s rights, without being overtly political about it (he was mindful of his audience), and this was a very gutsy stance to take in the midst of an entrenched patriarchal society. Sure, at times, especially in the early days, Tullidge was an unabashed Mormon propagandist and religious zealot. His prose was full of exalted and melodramatic hyperbole that make much of his writing unpalatable, but he was at his best as a social commentator and chronicler of the times, and he saw history in the making. He wanted to see Mormon society in “accord with the rest of the nation”, and this was common theme in all of his work. More than any of his other books, Tullidge struck an admirable tone here, and established himself once and for all as a devout feminist. I believe that when he uses the term “apostolic” in regards to women, he is saying, hey, look at what the Catholics and the Prostestants did to women-they sidelined them. We Mormons aren’t bound by old paternalistic ideaologies, we can be part of the movement to free women from their bonds, and let them realize their potential as advocates of the Mormon gospel… let them baptize too and spread the word of God, in the sense that when Jesus died, Mary Magdalene was herself a disciple, even though the later Christian church repudiated her. You see, Tullidge always saw Mormonism as a chance to get it right… to found an empire in the West with universal utopian ideals, that would be a shining example, a beacon of light to the rest of world. This was the promise, as his younger brother John Tullidge Jr., said, that was made to him back in England by the Mormon missionaires. The moment of apostasy for Edward came while he was working in the Church Historian’s Office, and he read some of the journals of the Apostle of Twelve about the heavenly intecession that ordained Brigham Young as the leader of the Church. He wasn’t buying it, and he believed that some bore false testimony, and Woodruff’s account even corroborated this. It shook his faith. He involved himself in the Godbeite protest, became involved in the Reformed LDS church, traded barbs with the Priesthood that brought about his eventual ruin, succumbed to bouts of madness and alcoholism, and died in obscurity, his own history of Salt Lake City eclisped by Orson F. Whitney’s.

    But what a legacy Tullidge left behind! Plays, magazines, histories of the theatre, and mining, and of the Apostles, Brigham Young, his contribution to early Mormon history, and to the development of Utah and the West, is incalculable! Tullidge remains today controversial, especially among Mormons, but one of the most widely quoted historians in early Mormon affairs. A Google on his name will return over ten thousands hits. His brother John knew someday that Tullidge’s sacrifice and toil would pay off. He was a force, as was the entire Tullidge family. Today the hymns of Edward Tullidge’s father, John Elliott Tullidge, are still being sung in the Temples; his brother’s paintings adorn the walls of Utah Museums, and even have graced the offices of the Treasury of the United States. I’d say they’ve endured… and despite the stygma of Godbeism and the backlash of standing up to Brigham Young’s authoritarian rule, and seeing their friends excommunicated, their artistic achievements and contributions still resound today. As was noted in this blog, the LDS Church has disavowed many of the controversial early Church doctrines as espoused by Brigham Young and some of his followers,and Mormonism is now mainstream. So we can discuss the past without rancor, and respect the views of others regarding a very fascinating period of American history.

    Comment by Richard Scott — May 26, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

  11. […] you know your way around the Bloggernacle, you’ve probably encountered J. Stapley’s comments about the research he and Kristine Wright were conducting on the subject of early Mormon women’s […]

    Pingback by Women and Priesthood: A Blending of Stapley and Wright | Wheat and Tares — March 28, 2011 @ 4:01 pm


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