In the spirit of intellectual debate and friendship, we offered Connell the opportunity to read and respond to Jonathan’s letter before we published it at Juvenile Instructor. Connell happily accepted the invitation. What follows his response:
I deeply appreciate this opportunity to reflect further on Augusta Adams Cobb Young’s beliefs as stated in the two documents referred to, and their historical impact and importance. I highly value academic debate and am neither afraid to admit when I have erred in judgment, nor to agree to disagree with a colleague, as the case may be.
I want to begin with some background. Some five years ago, I first became acquainted with Augusta through my lengthy research project on early Boston Mormons, now nearly 700 pages long (see connellodonovan.com/boston_mormons.html). She was among the first 10 converts to Mormonism in the Boston area in 1832 made by Orson Hyde and Joseph Smith’s younger brother, Samuel H. Smith. The great majority of the early Boston Mormons were women and she became one of the great matriarchs of the Boston church, along with Vienna Jacques, Mary Ann Brannan Badlam, Sabre Granger, Mary Bailey, Fanny Brewer, Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, Mary “Polly” Vose, and Mercy Buffum Alley. By contrast, only two men were consistently involved in the earliest Boston church: Alexander Badlam, and the African American elder, Joseph T. Ball, who spent much of the 1830s and early 1840s away from Boston on missions with companions such as Wilford Woodruff, Phinehas Richards, Samuel Brannan, and William Smith.
My Boston project involves finding every known Mormon (and anti-Mormon) who lived in the Boston area and create brief to mid-length biographies of each. When my research on Augusta uncovered the existence of several hundred of her letters at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, I was elated. I ordered a microfilm copy of all her correspondence available from that archive, and upon reading a handful, realized what a treasure trove they are. It was immediately clear to me that Augusta’s relationship with her husband Brigham Young became quite acrimonious and she had no fear whatsoever in expressing her displeasure to the great Mormon leader. As the antipathy grew in later years, Brigham expelled her from both the Lion House-Beehive House compound and from his heart. Thus Augusta paradoxically came to occupy both a central and peripheral position within Mormonism. Central in that she was a wife of the Mormon president and prophet, yet peripheral in that she had to cajole – even harass – him at times to get his attention. Augusta lived on State Street, less than a block from his home and office, yet scores of letters to him flowed from her pen, both because she found it easier to write than to speak, and because she frequently felt so unwelcome to see her husband in person.
The documents I am citing, however, come from a different period in Augusta’s life. in the early years of their marriage in Nauvoo and then Winter Quarters, Augusta enjoyed Brigham’s full attention. It is during this time that she wrote these two documents. Yes, these documents are anomalous, but so was she – a powerful and important wife of the church’s leader who also wrote voluminously and preserved the correspondence as a future testimony to her life. For one example, what might such extensive correspondence (or journals) from Brigham’s civil wife, Mary Ann Angell Young, reveal? Unfortunately we are unlikely to know, since precious little of her writing is extent.
As Jonathan correctly noted, neither of the documents directly relates to female healing rituals in Mormonism. I wrote the tangential response simply because, as I read the brilliant and comprehensive treatment of healing rituals by Stapley and Wright, I thought of Augusta’s training as a healer and her early belief that she held and could use priesthood. I had informed Lavina Fielding Anderson of the documents and she strongly encouraged me to write something up about them for the Journal of Mormon History; this seemed a great opportunity to join in the dialogue, even if a bit excursive or parenthetical to the Stapley-Wright article.
I would like to point out that the second document in question, although labeled Augusta’s “Last Will and Testament,” is not even vaguely a legal probate document. One thing I dearly love about Augusta is her sarcastic sense of humor. Although not obvious here, I do believe she wrote the will in that spirit; it was “her will” that she be sealed to Jesus or Joseph, so she wrote the request as though it were a will. Ardis Parshall rightly questions whether Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards, who signed the document, actually read it. This I do not know, but strongly believe they did. It is quite brief so I would hope they would take the time to read something that they signed. And then they both were actively involved in the cancelation of her eternal (but not mortal) sealing to Brigham Young, and her eternal sealing to Joseph Smith. Her will to be sealed to Jesus or Joseph is dated February 21, 1848. Some three weeks later, on April 13, 1848, Augusta wrote another letter to Young, in which she told him that she had rethought “the matter in question” (i.e. her sealing to Jesus or Joseph), and, comparing herself to a woman in labor who must give birth, insisted that “the matter presses itself upon me and there is no other way but to go straight ahead and trust in the God of Jacob.” She therefore demanded that Young, along with Kimball and Richards (her two signatories), come to her abode in Winter Quarters the following night at 7:00 p.m. in order to perform the requested rituals. The “will” of February 21, 1848 contains on the verso the record of the ritual, in which Young promised “to give up Augusta Adams to Joseph Smith in the morn of the first resurrection”. One of the will’s signatories, Heber C. Kimball, officiated in the ritual sealing, and the other signatory, Willard Richards, witnessed the ritual, along with Thomas Bullock, who also was the clerk who wrote the record of the sealing on the back of the “will” on April 14, 1848.
I do admit that I over-extended my interpretation by claiming that because Kimball and Richards signed the “will”, they too “actively believed that Augusta Adams Cobb held priesthood in 1848.” I should have stated that was merely a conjecture on my part, which I do not feel is too far off base, regardless.
I also thank Jonathan for reminding me that the early Mormon use of Lobelia inflata was done so under the care of trained professionals and therefore technically irrelevant to the Word of Wisdom. I should not have included that tangent within my tangent.
Perhaps most controversial of all is my closing paragraph, regarding “women’s full right to hold and use LDS priesthood.” In fact, I do find history to be prescriptive. And proscriptive. I passionately love history because I actually do try to learn valuable lessons from the historical past and implement them into my life. The historical past is not dead to me but a constant, present reminder of what it means to be human. In a more metaphysical strain, I feel Augusta very present in my life. I just moved to Salt Lake from Santa Cruz and immensely value being able to visit Augusta’s grave in the Salt Lake City cemetery almost weekly. I go there to talk to her, report on how my book project on her is going, and I entreat her to enlighten me about her and her enigmatic life. Not exactly standard or accepted academic procedure, but I do find it useful for me emotionally and spiritually. And anecdotally my graveside conversations with dearly departed Augusta seem to significantly increase illuminating moments of “serendipity,” as “research methodology” advocated so engagingly by Bill Mackinnon in his MHA presidential address, which was serendipitously published in the same issue of the Journal of Mormon History as my letter to the editor.
Yes, my academic, religious, and political discursive modes have been conflated, because I am academic, religious, and political, and I embody that triad (and so much more; as Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes”). Although I am no longer LDS, priesthood continues to be relevant to me. I am a liberal, progressive Christian, and a member of the liberal, progressive United Church of Christ (UCC). That informs me and my agenda on every level I can think of. The UCC teaches (and I sincerely believe) that everyone holds God’s priesthood, including people of all colors, all ages, all abilities, all genders, and all sexual orientations; priesthood is as ubiquitous as God’s infinite grace (and perhaps they are combined). Still, acting with an office in the priesthood (i.e. a pastor) does require ordination by the laying on of hands. This significantly differs from the LDS worldview. The UCC congregation in Santa Cruz recently called a Lesbian from Salt Lake to move there to be our secondary pastor. All people were invited to attend and participate in Cordelia’s ordination. When the moment of ordination came, the hundred or so people in attendance gathered around her in concentric circles, the inner-circle directly laying hands upon her, and outer circles laying hands on the people directly in front of them. All participated in Cordelia’s ordination to the office of pastor – including the very young, as well as her agnostic, non-member partner. It was a profoundly moving and spiritual experience for me and I strongly felt God’s presence, affirming and sanctifying our communal, sacerdotal act. Because of my religious beliefs, I fully support anything that recognizes, supports, or advances the idea that LDS women hold priesthood authority. This belief is exactly why I wrote the letter in the first place, straight from the heart.
Salt Lake City, UT