On writing Mormon women’s history

By July 24, 2009

So in my ever-stewing never-ending revisions of my work on Mormonism in the Philadelphia area, I’ve decided that I need to say more about women. This is a challenge since my sources are overwhelmingly written by men. I do have some detailed journals that I can mine better than I have though.

Anyway, up at the archives the other day and I came across another letter from a woman in the area (making a total of 5 letters by women in all). However, when I started reading it, I didn’t know it was written by a woman (the name is listed as M A Jeffries) until the end. By that time, I had skipped over copying a number of lines that didn’t interest me, but when I realized the letter was written by a woman I copied the whole thing. It sort of hit on the problem I’ve had in attempting to write about women; that is, what they did in the area (that is recorded) often seemed mundane. Accompanying, mending clothing, giving hair cuts, giving moral support, as opposed the the traveling and preaching that the men did. Yet in taking another look at the stuff I originally passed over, it’s actually got a lot of fun stuff.

So here’s my first pass, followed by the second:

Letter of M A Jeffries to Heber C. Kimball 8 April 1845, Brigham Young Collection

First I skipped some stuff about how she wanted Heber to write and then copied,

“We have had a great deal of trouble in Philadelphia Mr Winchester has done all he could to injure Brother Smith and the cause, he has even tried to get him in Prison but has failed thank God I am as firm as ever and nothing can change me, we have had some strong preaching here against us but it has been of no avail.”

Pretty interesting, I thought. Benjamin Winchester and William Smith were in this big fight. Smith had accused Winchester of being a party to Joseph Smith’s death and Winchester sued William for slander and almost got him thrown in jail (that Jeffries refers to).
Then I skipped some more stuff and then wrote,

“Sister Haines still remains firm in the faith I have kept her up despite old Mrs Bezonet who had done her best to change her by telling outrageous falsehoods, she is an aiddecamp of old Winchester it keeps us all busy to keep things straight [skipped a line] I should like to know concerning brother Adams we have heard some unpleasant new[s] here concerning him it is reported he has turned traitor and joined the Rigdonites also Sister Emma please let us know the particulars”

Again, interesting stuff. I don’t know anything about the Haines or Bezonet she mentions but am interested in the wrangling going on. The Adams mentioned was George J.

Skipped some more stuff, then

“I have not seen Mr Jeffies for 4 month we have sepperated and I dont wish to live with him again he interferes with my religion” At this point, I’ve figured out that this is a woman. Also this is the only case I’ve found of anybody splitting up over Mormonism (before moving to Utah). “I am poor but perfectly happy and the thoughts of my church braces me up and gives me almost supernatural strength to bare my difficulties [skip a few lines] my best love to yourself and family and remain you affectionate sister.”

I went home that night and realized that I needed to go back and fill in the gaps. The material before I started writing was this:

“As brother Smith leaves tomorrow I embrace the favorable opportunity to address you, I have been very anxious to hear from you Sister McMinn also and think it strange you have not written, sister McMinn and Isabella have intended going out but were fearful of starting without hearing from you as we heard you were coming on to the East, we wish to know particularly whether you are or not.”

In the next gap
“it is impossible to express how anxious I am to see you, and hope you continue in the same mind you were when I last saw you, give my best love to your beloved wife and tell her I should be pleased to have a few lines from her and when either of you write let me know what she stands most in need of and I will send by the earliest opportunity, let me know the sized shoes what number she takes and I will send some on,”

I then missed the line I put in brackets above (I’ll come back to that later). In the next gap,
“it will be a satisfaction when you write please let me know everything concerning Nauvoo and what you think of my going out I have an idea of going to St. Louis and going in business what ever you think best I will do:”

And in the last bracket “Sister McMinn wishes to know why you have,nt answered her letter, I have many things to say but must conclude as time press.”

Again, on my second pass, I find this very interesting. What sort of relationship did she have with Heber? All I have is that he and Lyman White passed through the area in June of 1844. What does she mean by “hope you continue in the same mind you were when I last saw you” followed by offering his wife shoes? Not only her but sister McMinn really want to see Heber.

Anyway, I realized that I had missed one last line. Very mundane for a Mormon man to say, but for a woman, shocking!
“I don’t know but what I shall go out preaching soon.”

I have never heard of a early Mormon woman ever saying such a thing. Does anyone have any information?

Article filed under From the Archives Gender Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Ah, the riches of the Church Archives. The longer I’m away from Utah, the more I realize we have an embarassment of riches up there. Thanks for walking us through this, Steve.

    As to your larger point, I’ve never seen anything about Mormon women preaching. How common was this in antebellum America at large? I imagine Quaker women preached. Did Methodists, Chris?

    Comment by David G. — July 24, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  2. This is really interesting stuff, Steve. Thanks for sharing it here. I have never seen a similar statement from another early LDS woman, but am curious about whatever you can find (or anyone else can share).

    I’m especially interested in the language used. “go out preaching soon” seems to imply traveling to me. Is that how you read it, Steve?

    David, some Methodist women preached, yes, though most only as “exhorters” within a given class. Very few ever assumed any sort of status as a traveling preacher (though some did accompany their husbands on their circuits and would exhort at gatherings). Phoebe Palmer is probably the most famous Methodist female preacher in antebellum America. Female exhorters and preachers were a source of contention within the MEC, though. There also are some notable black female preachers in 19th century Methodism (i.e. Jarena Lee).

    There were a few independent female preachers that I’m aware of. Nancy Towles comes to mind, for example (though I think she was affiliated with the Baptists).

    Comment by Christopher — July 24, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  3. Early converts, including women very often went out preaching — really, door-to-door tracting and testifying. Johanna Tippett Porter and her mother Mary Ann did it; so did Elizabeth Jefford Drake — those women were in England. Polly Aird, ?Without Purse or Scrip in Scotland,? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39:2 (Summer 2006), 46-69, reports on male converts in Scotland who did that kind of work. I have a letter from 1854 showing that Henri Edouard Desaules was doing the same thing in Switzerland.

    I haven’t noticed an example of a woman in the U.S. doing it, or anybody at all doing it quite this early, and am very happy to read of this instance. I suspect it was not uncommon, but that we don’t know about it other than in diaries and letters because these were all unofficial missionaries, out warning their neighbors as the scriptures said, but not filing reports with a mission president.

    Nice find!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  4. Towles’ memoir is very useful. she calls herself non-denominational but is clearly mostly an Independent Baptist. She has wonderful adventures where she meets other female itinerants and reflects on what it means to be a female preacher. she also gets in fights with Presbygationalist ministers and even wins some over. I agree with Chris that female preachers are occasionally found outside orthodoxy but generally not within. Douglas’s Feminization of America is a standard treatment of ways women worked to shape power within evangelicalism. I know i’ve seen a secondary treatment of female preaching in the nineteenth century but can’t remember details. I have a memory that Lorenzo Dow sponsored various female itinerants (though this may be merely my inference from Towle’s memoir).

    For the LDS, I would recommend looking over material from the greats like ERS, Zina Diantha, Emmeline BW, and others. Whitney was characterized as having great power in glossolalia, which was a form of preaching then. Might be worth scanning glossolalia material.

    Prof. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is the contemporary master of inference from womens’ diaries–I would recommend her oeuvre for orientation in the techniques.

    I also am trying to do a better job of including female voices in my work. Takes a lot more energy though–the lazy approach is the male-dominated one.

    You might also check on the work of Susanna Morrill or Rachel Cope, both young PhDs who have done excellent work on female religious experience in the period (Mormon and evangelical respectively).

    Comment by smb — July 24, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  5. I don’t think anything else will turn up (in the Delaware Valley, that’s all I’m doing). I’ve been at this for a long time (10 years!). I can’t believe that she meant that she was going to go traveling, I would find that inconceivable. She has to mean doing something local in Philadelphia (where she lived.)

    No doubt this was rare if not singular, the fact that she had ditched her unbelieving husband before gathering (also very rare) may give us some insights. No one filled any reports to mission presidents at this time in this area, and I’ve been through all the journals and letters.

    This is what I’ve written about women’s roles in the 1850s in the area. For this period I’m able to use Samuel Woolley’s journal which as very detailed.

    Shortly after his arrival in Delaware, Samuel Woolley ?went to a quaker [sic] meeting with Aunt Sarah, had a short discourse from a woman first, & then from a man, as they think it is as much the right of a woman to preach as a man.? Though Woolley indicates in this passage that he considered such peculiar?despite his own Quaker background?women frequently spoke in the local Mormon meetings. Woolley described the first meeting at Centerville as follows: ?The most of the members of the Church met here in the capacity of a communion meeting, I spoke some time to them, Bro Forman make some very fine remarks, Sister McCullah prayed, Sister Margaret Carpenter spoke, Sister Sarah Mariah Mousley sang a hymn, so all done as St Paul said ?if any have the spirit of exhortation, let them exhort, & if any have a Psalm (Hymn) let sing it.?? Women continued to speak in the meetings throughout Woolley?s stay. Yet Woolley seemed to draw a distinction between speaking and preaching. Women never spoke at the Sunday evening proselytizing meetings and Woolley instructed the Mormons in Centerville to ?Give all a chance to speak, pray, or sing, as the spirit may dictate,? at their communion meetings, but ?if unbelievers come in to hear? the males leaders were to preach to them. Thus while men acted in all official capacities in Mormon worship, women could play a charismatic role if so moved by the spirit.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 24, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  6. Nancy Towle had, in turn, been inspired by Freewill Baptist evangelist Clarissa H. Danforth. Another example was Susan Humes, mentioned by David Marks in conjunction with Danforth and itinerant preacher Abel Thornton. And Lorenzo Dow’s wife Peggy, though not a preacher, traveled with Lorenzo faithfully under sometimes arduous circumstances. When teen-aged David Marks, something of a Dow “groupie,” followed Lorenzo to Tully, New York, he found a dinner place set for him at the local tavern between Lorenzo and Peggy.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — July 24, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  7. amazing the kind of things you can find. I love it when you find intriguing nuggets of information. You start to really wonder what on earth was really being said.

    Comment by JonW — July 24, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

  8. Great post, Steve. I don’t have anything to add, but I’m glad to see that women are getting a closer look.

    Comment by Jared T — July 24, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

  9. If you’re interested in looking at the context of female preaching outside the LDS tradtition, perhaps the most prominent authority is Catherine Brekus at U of Chicago. See her Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). She also edited an important volume recently entitled The Religious History of American Women (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), which contains an essay on theology in Mormon women’s literature by Susanna Morrill. Brekus will be the keynote at MHA next year…I’m looking forward to what she has to say about Mormon women.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 26, 2009 @ 1:36 am

  10. Just as a follow up, I did some digging around yesterday. The letter was written by Mary Ann Jeffries. Also there were two Sister McMinns in Philadelphia (a mother and daughter) and HCK married the daughter (Margaret) in 1846. She did not go to Utah though. Heber also married a Mary Ann Shefflin from Speedwell, New Jersey (in the Philadelphia area) that may have been this woman. In 1854, Kimball wrote to a son that ?Mary Ann Kimball has taken upon her her original name, Mary Ann Shefflin, as she could not endure any longer without having a man to herself, there were no tears on the subject; but the matter took its natural course.? Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 310, 313.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 26, 2009 @ 10:53 am


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