JI Summer Book Club 2017, II: A House Full of Females, Chapter 2

By June 11, 2017

Emma Smith, The Elect Lady by Theodore S. Gorka


?Women?s voices trouble the old stories.?

The line lingered with me for weeks.

Then at the Mormon History Association?s annual conference LDS Church historian and recorder Elder Steven E. Snow emphasized the need for the troubling saying, ?For too long Mormon women?s voices have been ignored. We, as a people, have suffered because of it.?[1]

Chapter two of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?s A House Full of Females is a gorgeous example of how incorporating women?s accounts provides a more complete view of all of the colors and textures and corners of the tapestry of early LDS history, but also frays the neatly finished edges in troublesome ways. After the Missouri expulsion, dual male narratives act in concert–miraculous healing and distinct but likewise miraculous missionary work. Joseph Smith offered physical salvation through healing. Healing enabled male apostles to work to offer spiritual salvation to others. In a tidy reciprocal narrative structure, Latter-day Saints are provided with examples of both ?what God can do for us and what we can do for God.? In both narratives, men endowed with priesthood power accomplished much.

In the standard narrative, women are ?shadowy figures??the tidiness of the story obscures the complicated details of both religious and mundane lived experience. Ulrich observes, ?the hunger for miracles makes it almost impossible to see? the women. She loses the clean and compact narrative as she agitates it with a litany of sources.

This project began as a work on Mormon diaries and autobiographies and, without surprise, Ulrich?s award winning innovative work with contemporary personal writings is here on full display. In a short and concise chapter, she focused on how women?s accounts change the LDS narrative and clearly lays out how much we miss when we limit our source material. Paying attention to Ulrich?s careful analysis to a multiplicity of personal writings offers a master class in deeply mining personal writings and the hazards of giving late accounts the same weight as contemporary ones.

As detailed by Wilford Woodruff and others, Joseph Smith arose from his own sick bed to minister to the sick and the dying of malaria among a saturated swamp in late summer. Ulrich notes that 20 years later this story incorporated a handkerchief that Joseph offered to Woodruff to expand the miraculous healings to those he could not reach.[2] The healing begins and the apostles triumphantly leave for the mission to the British Isles.

While women?s historians have worked for decades to illuminate women?s experience, too often their accounts remain isolated in their own biographical ghetto. Ulrich completes and complicates the triumphal narrative with the raw and brutal experiences of women trying to subsist without the aid of their husbands. Husbands trusted in the fellowship of the church to provide for their loved ones, however, succor was not always forthcoming. Finding sufficient aid for their wants and needs was supremely difficult for desperate refugees plagued by sickness.

Women likewise complicate the triumphal narrative of the apostolic mission to Great Britain. A majority of the thousands of converts over the year mission were female. Rather than male apostles reaping a harvest through sheer force, Ulrich highlights the effect of female experience on the apostles. Phebe Woodruff sent off her husband hoping that there would be those who would ?mother? him and they did. His success was not his own?he was sustained and bolstered by the small temporal efforts of female converts. Moreover, women?s influence went beyond physical needs. Woodruff, as well as other missionary apostles, relied on gifts of the Spirit offered by recent female converts. Though fellow missionary Parley Pratt would limit women?s authority to ?control? the elders, the missionaries would simultaneously rely on these female convert?s gifts?particularly prophecy and dreams.

The practical reality of lived religious life was messy?even the miraculous. Formation of new family groups did not always mean success nor did it always mean replacement. When Phebe Woodruff?s newly constituted church family was unable to meet her needs, her own extended family stepped in and gave her a much-needed respite. Wilford?s will to proselytizing success was expanded and emboldened by female charismatic experiences.

In my building on BYU-Idaho?s campus hangs an oversized painting by Theodore S. Gorka entitled ?Emma Smith, The Elect Lady.? The 1996 painting, available in the LDS Media Library, centers on a young Emma with a handkerchief in hand administering to one of the afflicted?Joseph is in the upper left corner of the painting carrying a young boy. In a retelling of this same narrative, Emma becomes the central agent of the miraculous. Gorka?s painting is emblematic of that work to move women away from the periphery of the historical narrative and to the center. However, the rough and rawness of a refugee camp are smoothed by brilliant saturated colors. Emma?s placid countenance masks worry, desperation, and frustration. As Ulrich agitates the old narratives she crafts complex intersections of experience broadening our understanding of the miraculous as well as the trouble.

[1] This might be a bit of my own paraphrase.

[2] The example is still used without any critical engagement on lds.history.org.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, JJ.

    Comment by David G. — June 13, 2017 @ 6:27 am


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