From the Archives: An Abortion Court

By October 13, 2008

I reckon I better start earning my keep around these parts and post more often. James G. Duffin presided over the Southwestern States (later Central States) Mission in the first years of the twentieth century. Below I?ve reproduced his diary entries dealing with an abortion case brought before a church court.

Since it?s a sensitive topic, I?ve omitted the names. President Duffin?s diary is available in its entirety at BYU?s ?Mormon Missionary Diaries? website.

December 11, 1904: ?Today I arranged to hear the appeal of Bro. and Sister [C] accused of the crime of abortion – committed, or permitted to be committed by doctors upon Sister [C]. The first hearing was held before the President of the conference and Elder [AES]. and they were disfellowshipped by them. The time of the hearing was set for to-morrow at two o’clock p.m.

December 12, 1904: To day at two o’clock the hearing of Bro. and Sister [C] on appeal was heard. I appointed Elders [WWM] and [JHG] to sit on the case with me. The witnesses were Dr. [A]. Sister [L], Sister [Y], Sister [P], Elder. [JHM] and Bro. and Sister [C] also gave testimony. We did not complete the hearing, but requested Bro. and Sister [C] to meet us to-morrow morning at eight o’clock. ?At the hearing of Bro. & Sister [C] it was proven and they admitted that the abortion was committed, but they attempted to prove that it was necessary to save her life, because she had severe vomiting.

December 13, 1904: This morning Bro. & Sister [C] met us at Bro. [Y?s] but they did not get there until 845 and we had to leave for [E] to take train at nine o’clock, so had no further time for hearing the case. I talked to them for a short time, told them we considered them under responsibility for the abortion, but the degree of responsibility we had not yet determined. We were unanimous at this point. Returned to Kansas City to day, and attended to business at the office.

January 07, 1905: This evening Elder [WWM], Bro. [JHG] and myself went to the [J] branch of the Church, [EK] conference, to continue the hearing of the case of abortion, against Brother and Sister [C]. …Brother [HCB] and [HMC], missionaries, who were at [J] at the time of the abortion, have been notified to be present as witnesses.

January 09, 1905: To-day at 10 a.m. the case of Brother and Sister [C] came up for hearing. Every opportunity was given them to present their case, but it became very clear to the minds of the court of the priesthood that they were guilty of wrong doing and the following decision was rendered: In the hearing, on appeal, from the decision of the Presidency of the [EK] Conference, of the case of Brother [JC] and his wife, [SC], accused of the offense of abortion, before Elder James G. Duffin, President of the Central States Mission assisted by Elders [WWM] and [JHG]. After carefully weighing the evidence both for and against our accused brother and sister, and seeking our Heavenly Father to direct us in rendering a righteous judgement, it is our unanimous decision that Brother and Sister [C] appear before the [J] Branch of the Central States Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at one of the public meetings, and make confession of the wrong they have done and ask forgiveness for the same; and that this decision is to be complied with on or before the first Sunday of February, of this year.
Dated Jan. 9, 1905
James G. Duffin
Walter W. Morrison
James H. Grant, Jr.

February 12, 1905: Yesterday and to-day the [EK] Conference has been in session…. Saturday afternoon of the conference, Brother and Sister [C] came before the Elders and saints and positively refused to comply with the decision of the priesthood, and were excommunicated from the church. During their speaking they accused the members of the church and the priesthood of persecuting them, and Bro. [C] prayed that the judgements of the Lord should be poured out upon the saints of [J]. In their speaking they manifested a very bad spirit.

July 08, 1905: …A letter was received from the Presidency of the church requesting that the evidence in the [C] case be forwarded to them, which was accordingly done.

Firstly, let me say how glad I am that ?Conference Presidents??roughly (very roughly) equivalent to present-day Zone Leaders?are no longer routinely called upon to hear cases of church discipline. (Though in my South American mission ten years ago, men of comparable age and experience did serve in non-mission positions pronouncing judgment. I presume this is still the case.)

Secondly, abortion isn?t anywhere on my radar as a Mormon concern before the latter half of the twentieth century. Is there any literature tracing Mormon thoughts on abortion in the nineteenth century? (I intentionally haven?t looked anything up because that would make it harder to get a post up and might rule out its utility all together.)

Note to visitors: I am interested in the processes and concerns illuminated by these diary entries. That is, how and why did the church work in the way it did in the areas and times supervised by President Duffin. I am not interested in discussing whether the church should or should not treat abortion as a discipline-worthy offense or whether justice was done in this particular case.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’ve seen some references to “foeticide” in 19th century sources, but only in a general condemnatory way, not with reference to any specific case. It’s one of the things Brigham Young railed against, for instance, when he listed the crimes of the Gentile world that was condemning Mormon plural marriage.

    Very interesting discovery, Edje.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 13, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  2. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Edje — October 13, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  3. Interesting stuff, Edje. I’m not aware of anything treating Mormon thoughts on abortion in the 19th century (though it looks like Ardis’s comment points the interested researcher in the right direction).

    Comment by Christopher — October 13, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  4. Having been aptly pointed, I easily find a few of the general denunciations that Ardis describes. For example, from “Reply to a Reverend Calumniator” (The Millennial Star 45, no. 37 (10 Sep 1883): 577-581):

    How do the ?fruits of the tree? of ?Mormonism? compare with the ?fruits of the tree? of Christian civilization as it exists in England to-day? If we walk your streets we see want, beggary, destitution and distress. We hear oaths, imprecations, blasphemies, invectives, expletives and blackguardism. The blighting, withering curse of prostitution, foeticide and infanticide, is very prevalent; and there are houses of assignation, gambling hells, harlotries, drunkenness, debauchery, pauperism, theft and idleness, all and every one of which damning institutions and crimes were unknown in Salt Lake City until men of the cloth and character of the Rev. Morrison came there. ?By their fruits ye shall know them.?

    Comment by Edje — October 13, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  5. I realize that you are not interested in the justice of the case (delete my comment if you must), but if this woman really had hyperemesis gravidarum and not just a severe case of morning sickness, at this time in history it could very well have been fatal.

    Out of hundreds of women I’ve known, two have had HG, and that matches the statistics on the condition that I just saw. It is a fairly rare condition.

    Comment by Researcher — October 13, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  6. Lester Bush 1976 article on birth control Dialogue features some quotes by church leaders regarding abortion.

    Comment by Justin — October 13, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  7. Bush’s 1985 Dialogue article on ethical issues in reproductive also briefly notes nineteenth-century Mormon positions on abortion, including Utah law (p. 48).

    Comment by Justin — October 13, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  8. Researcher (5): Your comment is quite welcome, as would be similar comments exploring possibilities why, with knowledge and worldviews available in 1905, the Cs thought an abortion appropriate and the Elders disagreed after so many meetings.

    Justin (6, 7): Thanks. I suspected Bush would have had something to say.

    Comment by Edje — October 13, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  9. What?s interesting to me is that restitution required full public confession before a branch or ward.
    Was it common in that era to have transgressors go before congregations, confess their sins, and return to the fold forgiven?

    Comment by PJD — October 14, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  10. PJD, one of my favorite examples of this involved a Bishop in Cache valley who liked the whiskey a bit too much and he confessed to the congregation and was forgiven and persisted in his office. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to stay away from it for very long and was later released.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 14, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

  11. PJD: If I understand correctly, not only was public confession common, it was not peculiar to that era. Until relatively recently public confession was a routine part of formal discipline. (I’m going off recollection; I think the change was in the late 1970s or early 1980s and I think the requirement was fairly general for most of prior church history. A quick google didn’t point me to any obvious source.)

    Comment by Edje — October 14, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  12. A great aunt of mine was seduced as a teenager by a much older married man in the ward in 1930, give or take a year. She (but not the man) was required to confess in a general church meeting; my grandmother kept my mother and her siblings home from church that day. That was only whispered about in the family in my lifetime, but always with the sense that Aunt X was something of a heroine, because her church membership meant that much to her to comply with the requirement. *I* think the penalty was unfair and one-sided, but then I don’t know the whole story; no sense of unfairness was passed down in the family.

    Not very relevant to the original post, but a confirmation of the practice of public confession.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 14, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

  13. If I remember correctly, Edje, the last vestiges of public confession ended in the late seventies. I believe Lester Bush went over this in his Dialogue article…one sec…”Excommunication and Church Courts: A Note from The General Handbook of Instructions,” Dialogue 14 (Summer 1981): 74-98.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 14, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  14. Thanks, Ardis and J. (Y’know, I actually went to Dialogue; I just used the wrong search terms.)

    Comment by Edje — October 14, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  15. Sorry for the deviation, but are Dialogue transcripts available on-line?

    Comment by PJD — October 14, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

  16. PJD: Yes, Dialogue back issues through 2003 are available and searchable through the University of Utah’s J Willard Marriott Library.

    Comment by Edje — October 15, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  17. Thanks Edje for the link.

    Ok, you guys have thrown me for a loop. I’ve been an active LDS member all my life and never recall any podium confessions from members in the 60’s or 70’s. What I do remember is that they would occasionally announce names of members involved in disciplinary action (always in priesthood meeting).
    Were podium confessionals really taking place in the 70’s?

    Comment by PJD — October 15, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  18. PJD: You don’t recall confessions because you live in more righteous wards. 😉

    My memories of the seventies include some funky carpet, an ugly couch, and a few other things within three feet of the floor, so I can only comment on what I’ve heard and read about discipline. I have heard a man (baptized in the mid-70s) describe a dishonorably-released missionary asking forgiveness in an elders quorum meeting.

    Based on Bush’s article, I think I overstated the case when I said “public confession was a routine part of formal discipline.” I think a more judicious description would be that public confession was “within the range of possibilities” for formal discipline up until the 1970s.

    Comment by Edje — October 15, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  19. […] From The Archives: An Abortion Court […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, September-October 2008 — July 4, 2009 @ 9:01 am


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