Women’s History Month at JI: Kristine Wright, “Finding Christiana Pyper: Some Thoughts on Changing Paradigms”

By March 25, 2011

I live a little over 4000 km from Jonathan Stapley which brings some unique challenges to researching and writing together. Once we had compiled hundreds of healing accounts, they were arranged in a document chronologically. We read through them separately, made notes and then had a couple of marathon phone calls to discuss our findings. During one phone conversation, we discovered multiple appearances of two healers who seemed to work together. Several references to a Sister Piper/Pyper and a Brother Patison/Patterson piqued our interest and led to deeper research into their stories. No familial connection was obvious; Christiana was married to Alexander Pyper and the mother of George D. Pyper who among other things managed the Salt Lake Theatre, was the leading tenor in the Salt Lake Opera Company and the editor of The Juvenile Instructor. Alvus Patterson had four wives, however he did have a daughter named Christiana. They received their patriarchal blessings from the same patriarch on the same day in February 1888.

We were excited to discover that Christiana had a diary that was listed in the register of the George D. Pyper manuscript collection at the University of Utah, but then disappointed that the diary couldn’t be found and the general consensus was that the old inventory was incorrect. A diary was reviewed and it was determined to be George D. Pyper’s. On a research trip to Salt Lake City, I spent some time in the Special Collections section of the Marriott Library and decided to read through George Pyper’s diary to see if I could glean any insights into his mother. It seemed that George was also a healer and that he sometimes administered with Brother Patterson as well. He recorded the completion of temple work for female relatives which in retrospect should have seemed odd, but as I knew this was a man’s diary, I chalked it up to having submitted names to be completed by female ordinance workers. The item that jolted me out of framing these events through the eyes of George Pyper was an entry deep in the diary about receiving a dress as a birthday gift. I checked the date and went to Family Search and entered the name Christiana Dollinger Pyper. Sure enough. the dates matched. The diarist was Christiana Pyper! Re-reading the entries a second time “knowing the true author and looking at the document through a different “lens” changed my perspective. It also corroborated other diarists’ accounts, happily revealed a full listing of her administrations to the sick in 1888 and 1891 and provided many insights into the culture of collaborative healing. (1)

Finding Christiana Pyper’s diary underscored the idea of the paradigm shift. As I have written elsewhere, when I began the study of women’s history, the idea of “separate spheres” or a separate women’s culture was the dominant paradigm of historical interpretation. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s groundbreaking article, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” as well as Barbara Welter’s work on the “Cult of True Womanhood” and the feminization of religion set the tone for a generation of historians who focused upon the unique bonds between women and the distinctive world they created and inhabited. Studying the participation of men and women together in healing rituals seemed to subvert the idea of separate spheres (see here) and I wondered about a new framework for interpreting women’s history. Rachel Cope’s excellent dissertation underscores this point. She states:

Although women and men both had spiritual experiences and became engaged in the conversion process, important aspects of the revival story are distinctly female, not because nineteenth century-religion was feminized, but because religious experiences thrust women into a world where they could escape the expectations of “true womanhood,” “separate spheres,” “feminization” and “sentimentality.” (2)

While part of the work of Mormon women’s history is simply unearthing untold stories, it is clear that a new interpretive framework needs to be developed. Scholars of American women’s religious history have already begun this work, but the study of Mormon women– who Cope points out were religious “outsiders” – will also require its own unique reading while being grounded in American history. A distinctive system of marriage, ritual participation and theology shaped Mormon women in the past. By placing their voices in the centre, instead of on the margins of history, new interpretations of the past will be developed and shed new light on the whole, just as the diary of Christiana Pyper did.

Kris Wright has a M.A. in History from The University of Western Ontario. She has co-authored three articles with Jonathan Stapley on Mormon healing rituals. The most recent, an article on female ritual healing, is available online.


  1. Christiana D. Pyper, Accounts of Administration to the Sick, 1888 and 1891, manuscript, George D. Pyper Papers, MS 1, Bx 2, Fd 19, Special Collections, Marriott Library; Christiana D. Pyper, Diary, 1886-1889, November 9 and 10, 1888, George D. Pyper Papers, MS 1 Bx 6, Fd 1, Special Collections, Marriott Library
  2. Cope, Rachel, “In Some Places a Few Drops and Other Places a Plentiful Shower’: The Religious Impact of Revivalism on Early-Nineteenth-Century New York Women,” (Doctoral Dissertation, Syracuse University, 2009), p. 12-13.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Awesome stuff, Kris, and a fascinating story to go along with it. I’m excited and encouraged by the recent work in Mormon history (including yours and J’s) that pays women and gender the attention each surely deserves.

    Comment by Christopher — March 25, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  2. This really is a well crafted piece, Kristine, and insightful.

    Also, the Marriott Library should give you a special award for redeeming that gem from the purgatory of miscataloging.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 25, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  3. Love this, Kris! What an incredible story!

    I also love the analysis, that it isn’t all about separate spheres. In reading that, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. She married relatively late for the era (1970’s), and had a nice career going before she married. But all the time I’ve known her she was a SAHM. As a child, I was always fascinated by observing her in her church service, because it was a whole different side of her from how she was at home. She was a leader, a businesswoman, a delegator, a relentless organizer. I have so many memories of peering around doorframes to watch her on an important phone call in our home’s office, or peeking around from behind the piano in the RS room to watch her conducting a meeting.

    These memories have always been very hard for me to place in so much of the discourse about gender in the church. At least from my perspective as a child, church was a venue for my mother’s empowerment and stepping up to “male-like” roles, not the place where she was most kept down.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — March 25, 2011 @ 11:29 am

  4. Excellent work, Kris. What a revelation that must have been for you when you initially began to realize you were dealing with a woman’s diary!

    I look forward to your ongoing research.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 25, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  5. This is really cool, Kris. And thanks for bringing a historiographical and theoretical angle to the post. You mention a few general ideas for the direction Mormon women’s history should go–recognition of their “outsider” status and the role of a “distinctive system of marriage, ritual participation and theology” in making the Mormon female experience unique–but I’m curious about specific ideas for projects you’d like to see appear in the next few years? (Rachel or anyone else with expertise in this area–please answer this question as well)

    Comment by David G. — March 25, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  6. Outstanding.

    Comment by smb — March 25, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  7. Kristine, did you jump up and shout “Eureka!” when you realized that George’s diary was really Christiana’s? Those special collection reading rooms must be awfully full of repressed expressions of triumph when something like this is discovered. I remember exactly how I felt when I finally found the particular Brigham Young quote I had been searching for at the CHL. The public reading room is quiet enough, the closed stacks reading room is almost like the temple in that I can hardly bring myself to speak above a whisper. I think I actually slapped my hand on the table, then ducked my head, hoping no one would notice.

    Comment by kevinf — March 25, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  8. You know what a curmudgeon I am about noise in the library, kevinf? When I hear somebody squeal, “There she is! there she is!” even I grin.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 25, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

  9. As a side note, I just checked and the online register for the Pyper collection still doesn’t indicate that these documents are by Christiana.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 25, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

  10. David,

    I keep coming back to this issue but as most of my research has been looking at documents through a “healing lens” for the past couple of years, I think I need to start looking with different eyes. Rachel Cope lays out the foundation in very succinct terms in the first chapter of her dissertation and has a great historiographical discussion of some of the major forces in American women’s religious history. She points to Ann Braude’s groundbreaking essay ?Women?s History Is American Religious History? in which Braude states that women should be the central focus in the narrative of American religious history. I think this is particularly challenging in Mormon history as so much of the central narrative has been shaped by men – male prophets and quorums shape doctrine and theology. How can historians recast this narrative with women at the centre? Cope then cites Elizabeth Fox Genovese as pointing out that ?the principal frameworks that have shaped women’s history have not adequately explained the complex relationship between women and evangelical religion?. In some ways, these complications are not new to scholars of Mormonism who for instance can see the liberating/crushing effects of polygamy ? some women were free to pursue education while others lived in poverty and loneliness. I think that Braude, Fox-Genovese and Catherine Brekus raise some important questions for Mormon historians to consider and some consideration of intersection of religion and class might also provide some new ideas in creating different frameworks. Christiana Pyper?s diary also provides details of her challenges with poverty and the financial difficulties she faced as a widow.

    In addition to Rachel?s dissertation, I am excited about the work that Kathleen Flake and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich are doing and I think we?re going to see some great ideas emerge there.

    kevinf – I was pretty restrained verbally in the library, but did send Stapley an all-caps email.

    Comment by kris — March 25, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

  11. Kristine, I love this! Thanks for sharing.

    I really like your point about a different lens–while “separate spheres” is outmoded, I’m not sure we have moved past that particular framework (at least not enough) in Mormon history. Here is a passage from my 2010 MHA presentation that addresses just that (as well as David’s question):

    Perhaps historians of Mormonism should spend more time exploring family life as a driving force behind the social/historical/cultural and theological dimensions of church members. For example, too really look at the history of the family?to explore the household and how religiosity impacts the daily lives of believers?is to show that men and women worked together and that separate spheres is not the LDS reality. I wonder if we can expand our vision of Mormonism by turning to the homes. How does redefining power, or valuing the contributions of those who do not hold positions of institutional leadership, change and expand our understanding? How have women as well as men created change? In other words, how might women be connected to agency and causation in Mormon history?

    By continuing to suggest that men and women lived and worked and developed in separate spheres, historians of Mormonism, even if unwittingly, also suggest female subordination and perpetuate conceptions of inequality. Differences, in many cases, denote superiority and inferiority: one side is better?more powerful, more important, more capable?than the other. If we wear lenses that enable us to see complexity rather than separation, we can move past the limiting perceptions of victimization. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, an early historian of women, described a conclusion she had reached: by emphasizing male oppression of women, she had in fact become an ?historian of men,? when she actually wanted to be an ?historian of women.? By focusing on women?s victimization she has actually heightened the sense of female inferiority; she was trapped by a thought that has been expressed by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosv ?it is possible that there is no memory expect the memory of wounds.? By recognizing her own myopia, Smith-Rosenberg was able to change how she approached her subject?she began to write a history rather than a grievance.

    In what ways can scholars of Mormonism apply Smith-Rosenberg?s insight to our own commitment to separate spheres ideology and our strong awareness of victimization (meaning Mormons as a people who have been persecuted and women as a group who have been overlooked)? Are we allowing ourselves to the tell the history of Mormonism, or, are we still so entangled in our past oppressions, that we are continuing to place too much emphasis on our victimhood? And, how might we transcend the near-sightedness we impose upon ourselves? Can our historiography eventually move past what has been describe as the ?outworn dichotomies? of oppression and empowerment, subordination and equality, domestication or freedom?

    Might we escape a sense of victimization by moving away from separate spheres, and explore what we are instead of what we?re not; can we examine contributions rather than limitations? How might considering theology as well as the religious underpinnings of the female experience ?refine and even radically revise? the picture of Mormonism? How has Mormonism been lived?internalized?remembered by women? Can we, like Scott Stephan, examine the everyday lives of converted women, specifically within their households, and consider how wives and mothers sought to redeem their loved ones for Christ? Can we look at the interconnectedness between women?s personal, family and public piety. Rather than seeing women as oppressed or resigned to particular positions in a patriarchal world, can we show how agency was made available to women who have recognized and exercised moral authority in private and in public? And, what might women?s religiosity tell us about what made Mormon theology and practices meaningful; what do their stories reveal about their views of God as well as their conceptions of themselves and the world around them? In what ways did conversion experiences, prayer, fasting, church attendance and service opportunities affect personal and communal spirituality and foster a sense of endurance, redemption and healing in female lives? In essence, how should the telling of Mormon women?s history, and thus Mormon history, improve as we wear our new eyes?

    (As usual, I am better at posing questions that providing answers).

    Comment by Rachel — March 27, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  12. By the way, I happened to be looking at the most recent Evangelical Studies Bulletin this weekend, and Candy Gunther Brown’s latest book, Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healings should be out shortly. I love her work on conversion/sanctification and Evangelical print culture, so I am sure it will be a great contribution.

    Also, for anyone who is unaware, a copy of the minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo have been posted on the Joseph Smith Papers website as of Friday evening (thank you, Jill).

    Comment by Rachel — March 27, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  13. Probably my greatest regret about my book is that I was not able to both make the conceptual reinterpretation of theology/experience and make female voices more central to the overall narrative. I am hoping in future work to do a better job. I am limited by time constraints from doing much of the actual archival digging on which this project will depend and am deeply grateful to those of you who are finding these voices like Nabokov with his butterfly nets. May God bless this whole enterprise and all its participants.

    Comment by smb — March 27, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

  14. […] interesting is the parenthetical mention Wright made in a recent blog post of an outline from which the authors worked. I live a little over 4000 km from Jonathan Stapley […]

    Pingback by Women and Priesthood: A Blending of Stapley and Wright | Wheat and Tares — March 28, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

  15. […] W. contributed to our Women’s History at JI series last month, and we liked her post so well we asked her to be a permanent contributor. As stated on the other post, Kris has a M.A. in […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The JI Welcomes Kris W. as a Permablogger — April 7, 2011 @ 8:38 am


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