JI Summer Book Club: A House Full of Females, Chapter 10

By August 6, 2017

This is the tenth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women?s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week?s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.

Saskia pointed out that in chapter 9, Brigham Young had re-framed gendered duty: “building the Kingdom of God required men who were willing to leave their wives for missions and settlements, and women who were willing to be left behind and make do as best they could.” Chapter 10 follows the divergent experiences suffered by the households of three families separated by mens’ mission calls from three to seven years long.

It opens in August 1852. Joseph Smith?s 1843 revelation on plural marriage (now Doctrine and Covenants Section 132) was read and preached on publicly for the first time, and one hundred Mormon men were called on foreign missions. Eighty-four men departed for Britain or its colonies, seven to continental Europe, and nine to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). While today the majority of Mormon missionaries are young and single, these were ?mature men? whose absence for three to seven years fractured households, interrupted marriages, and removed fathers from their children?s lives. The chapter follows three diarists as they traveled to their assignments and began the daunting task of converting people to a faith that had just openly jettisoned monogamy as a pillar of Christianity and civilization. Starting in 1852, Mormonism entered an era of open acknowledgement and defense of plural marriage and expanded its practice, opening its people to mounting opposition on religious, moral, political and legal grounds.

Hosea Stout went to Hong Kong by way of San Francisco. His mission truly and swiftly changed his life, and not for the better. His only wife Louisa died soon after giving birth to their fourth child. With very little success in preaching the gospel in Hong Kong, he returned home in December 1853 to find his home occupied by strangers and his three older children living elsewhere with relatives. He hastily remarried, but the new marriage ended just as hastily in divorce.

Perrigrine Sessions (son of Patty Sessions, whom we have met in earlier chapters) went to England while his three wives Lucina, Mary and 14-year old Fanny carried on raising his four children among them. Ulrich notes the joys of deciphering his mission diary, jotted by someone ?indifferent to spelling and entirely unaware of punctuation? (251). Sessions landed among Manchester and Liverpool?s pitiable, cholera-ridden working-class, rife with drunkenness and domestic violence. He returned in 1854, having converted but few.

Samuel Woolley, the youngest of the three?not yet 30?had one wife, Catherine, and three children under five. Called to India (Hindoostan), Woolley took six months to arrive in Calcutta (86 days at sea!), where he suffered the notable ironies of preaching polygamy in India to British colonialists. He then sailed to Boston in 1855, scrounging from relatives to get home. Instead he ended up staying, became the president of the Delaware Conference, and spent a couple more years helping settle English converts in jobs so they could raise capital to go to Utah.

These three men, whose stories stand in for their fellow hundred, extended Mormon peregrinations, sufferings, and worldwide ambitions far beyond the rough, raw Great Basin settlements with their new-hewn log cabins and adobe homes. It?s a good reminder that nearly everything taken for granted about Mormon missionizing had to be invented, often on the fly by people without detailed instructions or clear assignments, who might sick, fail to persuade, run out of money, and come home to changed and often diminished circumstances.

Ulrich?s account of these missions illustrates that despite their fortress kingdom far away in the west, in the mid-1850s Mormons were still a people widely dispersed across the maps of the known world. And they were poised for a massive ingathering of newcomers who would soon arrive by the tens of thousands without memories of Kirtland, Far West, Nauvoo, Winter Quarters?or Joseph Smith.

Finally, the cosmopolitan wanderings of Mormon missionaries testifies that the Church?s cultural and geographic isolation was never as complete as we might think; Mormons were still fully knotted into the American tapestry? but by 1856, trouble was ahead on that front, too.

At first glance, this chapter feels out of place in the book, as it implies female-centered households left behind but instead follows husbands to their distant fields of labor and offers little about how the wives and families left behind coped for years apart. Yet key parts of the Mormon story in the 1850s were a bold, sometimes reckless pursuit of converts in every corner of the globe, unveiling the radical doctrine of polygamy before a skeptical/horrified world, and keeping meticulous, quotidian personal records. So these likewise become part of the book?s meandering tale of how Mormon gendered political culture developed?haphazardly, contingently, and in disparate locales. As Ulrich said in her introduction, ?diarists did not know how things would turn out? (xx). A House Full of Females doesn?t present a grand overarching argument and has few authorial intrusions into its exquisite storytelling; as in this chapter, her work often showcases Ulrich?s characteristic zeal for following faint paper trails wherever they happen to lead and then crafting narratives that seem effortless, as if they grew organically out of the sources themselves. Sometimes her best art lies in obscuring the artfulness of her writerly technique.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Polygamy Women's History


  1. Thanks for your post Tona. One thing I wondered as I read this chapter was why missionaries did not try harder to learn the local languages so they could access the mass population like other Protestant missionaries of the time? Why was the focus on the (much smaller) British colonial population both in India and in Hong Kong?

    Comment by Hannah — August 12, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

  2. Good Q, Hannah & I don’t know the answer, but I’d surmise 1) the ability to study Indian or Chinese languages was limited in the 1840s/1850s and 2) issues–whether conscious or not–about race, skin color, and assimilability. While neither South Asians nor Chinese were restricted from immigrating to the US yet, they weren’t seen as desirable either. It would be interesting to contrast Mormon missionary practices, language efforts and colonialist racial assumptions with those of the early American foreign mission and tract societies of the various Protestant denominations, many of which began in the 1810s and 1820s and could have provided a model (or an anti-model?).

    Comment by Tona H — August 14, 2017 @ 7:12 am


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