Responding to O’Donovan on Augusta Adams Cobb Young and priesthood

By April 12, 2012

This post is in response to Connell O’Donovan’s letter to the editor (available here) in the most recent Journal of Mormon History [1] in response to the article “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism” co-authored by Kris Wright and myself [2]. Instead of waiting six months or so to possibly respond in print, I appreciate being able to respond here. Please note that my comments reflect my opinions only, and are not intended as statement from my co-author.

A number of weeks ago, I visited the LDS Church History Library and was pleased to meet Connell O’Donovan, who happened to be researching there at the time. He is a gifted researcher and I am very excited about his volume of Augusta Adams Cobb Young’s life writings forthcoming with the University of Utah Press. While chatting, O’Donovan indicated that he had submitted a letter to the editor in response to the female ritual healing article highlighting several documents from his work on Young. He shared these fascinating documents with me, for which I was grateful and we had a productive discussion regarding them. When the JMH arrived this week, I read his letter with interest.

First, I think that it is important that none of the material from which O’Donovan quotes directly relates to the performance of healing rituals. Consequently I do not believe that his letter raises any issues that complicate the analyses presented in the female healing article. However, he does quote from two documents in which Young makes pronouncements by “virtue” of the “priesthood vested in me.” One of these pronouncements is a blessing, the other a will. By invoking “priesthood” with which she is vested, Young was claiming a particular authority. As liturgical authority is a key concept in the female healing paper, these documents do relate to that broader framework. We must now consider what these statements may mean.

Ardis Parshall has already taken issue with some of the conclusions drawn in O’Donovan’s letter. The following are some additional thoughts in response. Of the thousands of accounts of rituals and blessings (mostly for healing) performed by women which I have read, these invocations of priesthood are completely anomalous. When O’Donovan first indicated that these documents existed, however, my first thought was that they were likely created in the years bracketing the Nauvoo Temple’s utility, roughly 1844-1848. I happened to have been correct. This period is one where the temple’s cosmology was paramount and discourses were saturated with priesthood language in relation to virtually all aspects of Latter-day Saint life. While this is not the place for a complete discussion of the historical relationship between conceptions of priesthood and women, I have used the term “cosmological priesthood” [3] to describe this cosmology, in which men and women form a part of the eternal network that is at once family, salvation, government, and priesthood.

Within this framework Patriarch John Smith commonly blessed women, announcing that they were “heirs of the priesthood.” Occasionally, similar statements were in proximity to statements regarding blessing the sick. For example, Smith blessed Delilah Allen in 1847: “I also seal the holy Priesthood upon thee in common with thy companion. Thou shall have faith to heal the sick. You shall have wisdom to instruct thy sisters in the principles of salvation.” [4] Statements such as these are completely comprehensible within the framework of the cosmological priesthood, but collapsing the three sentences into one breaks that same framework. How Mormons have used the term “priesthood” has shifted over time. For example, Mormons no longer give as the reason we seal children to parents in the temple that they need to do so in order to become heirs of the priesthood. There is the temptation for many to strip early references of their context or never recognize it in the first place.

My sense is that like other similar invocations, it is within the context of the cosmological priesthood that Young’s statements are comprehensible. For example, compare the blessing text in O’Donovan’s letter to that of John Young in footnote 9 in the adoptive sealing paper. However, even if I am mistaken and this context is not the most applicable, we are still left with the sheer aberrancy of Young’s statements. Augusta Adams Cobb Young is the single most anomalous individual of whom I have seen documentation in relation to the temple liturgy. She rivals and perhaps surpasses John D. Lee’s appetite for placement in the cosmological hierarchy. I certainly look forward to O’Donovan’s forthcoming book for a broader treatment of these issues. However, I raise the issue of Young’s anomaly not to dismiss her documents. Scientists spend billions of dollars in the hope to find even the slightest bit of evidence that standard models are incomplete. But using Young’s statements to elucidate the mechanics of mid-nineteenth century lived religion is a different project than what I read O’Donovan calling for in his letter.

O’Donovan closes his letter with the statement:

In future academic research and thoughtful debate on the issue of female sacerdotal and spiritual authority in Mormonism, Augusta Adams Cobb’s two statements must now be included, weighing heavily on the side of women ‘s full right to hold and use LDS priesthood.

This statement seems to be a non sequitur: the concluding phrase seems disconnected with the opening clause. I imagine that O’Donovan would not advocate for history being prescriptive, but in conflating various academic, religious, and political discursive modes, he advocates for precisely that.

I think another aspect of O’Donovan’s letter is indicative of this approach to the material. In presenting Young’s interesting participation in relation to the Thomsonian medical therapies so popular among Mormons and other evangelical populists in the early nineteenth century, [5] O’Donovan briefly describes the use of Lobelia:

Note that Lobelia inflata is extremely high in nicotine and has psychoactive properties, making it widely used by early New England Indians as an entheogen-a drug that induces a “high” and frequently leads to encounters with “the God within.” These properties would clearly make it against the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom.

Lobelia was perhaps the most common herb used by Thomosonian physicians as it induced vomiting and was used to purge perceived noxious elements from the body. [6] Whereas Native Americans sometimes smoked the plant, it was not smoked as part of the Thomsonian system. Moreover, while the plant has a high concentration of the alkaloid lobeline, [7] it does not contain nicotine. I fail to see how its properties or use as a medical treatment has any relevance to the modern Latter-day Saint interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. Pharmaco-active compounds of all sorts that might be otherwise proscribed to Latter-day Saints are used under the direction of medical professionals. But even this is something of a distraction. That early conceptions of the Word of Wisdom were different than modern conceptions is fairly broadly understood. A more interesting question (and one potentially related to the issue of liturgical authority) might be how lobelia fit into those early conceptions.

Augusta Adams Cobb Young is important to Mormon history. The documents O’Donovan has shared in his letter are important to the study of that history. Whatever our personal beliefs, preferences and political positions are, however, it is important that these documents be used to make for more robust explanations and analyses. It will be in doing so that we take them as well as the broader history seriously.


  1. Connell O’Donovan, “Augusta Adams Cobb Young: Priesthood Holder [Letter to the Editor],” Journal of Mormon History 38 (Spring 2012): vii-ix.
  2. Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Winter 2011): 1-86.
  3. While the linked article is helpful excerpt, I recommend the full article, or at least the first half?including the notes?for a better context. Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Summer 2011): 53-117.
  4. John Smith, Patriarchal blessing to Delilah Allen, January 31, 1847 in Martha Bagley Halverson, A Lasting Legacy: The Bagley Family History Since 1628 (Salt Lake City: Heritage Associates, Inc., 1997), 81.
  5. Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Summer 2009): 70-71. The issue of JMH in which this letter appeared also has a nice article by Devery Anderson on apostle Willard Richard’s experience and a Thomsonian Physician and Mormon Convert. And the most recent issue of BYU Studies Quarterly has an article on counselor to Joseph Smith Frederick G. William’s Thomsonian medical practice.
  6. Brigham Young once stated that “Thompsonian system was as much better than the old system of doctoring, than [as] the Gospel was better than Sectarianism, and lobelia was better than Calomel.” Fred C. Collier, ed., The Office Journal of President Brigham Young, 1858-1863, Book D (Hannah: Collier’s Publishing Co., 2006), 366.
  7. I’m not up on the literature, but lobeline has apparently been investigated as a nicotine receptor ligand.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Well said, J. I look forward to connell’s response.

    I love it when we get high-quality historical dialogue like this.

    Comment by Ben P — April 12, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

  2. As a newcomer to this discussion, about what time did the priesthood acquire the meaning that it has today and when do references to what we now call the cosmological priesthood disappear? Did this mostly happen during the codification that took place post polygamy or did it start some time before that?

    Comment by JohnE — April 12, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Thanks Ben.

    JohnE, while I think it would be great if my arguments surrounding the “cosmological priesthood” caught on, I don’t know that they have gotten so well integrated that we could say “what we now call…” Though I certainly appreciate the confidence! There was an initial fury of priesthood related discourse that I mention in the post, which seems to attenuate after a couple of years. Priesthood is still commonly discussed, but those years surrounding the Nauvoo are something else, I think.

    I think there is a shift when all the folks that lived in Nauvoo died. But even throughout all of nineteenth century Utah, there seems to be a gradual decline. Certainly, by the 1970s when the new reasons for sealing children to parents with the language we now see commonly what we observe today had all but arrived. Really it is a good question, with really complicated answers, and which I don’t think I have yet to fully grasp. Lots of work to be done here.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 12, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  4. …I should also say that many ideas associated with the cosmological priesthood endured very well, though they are commonly discussed without priesthood-related language.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 12, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

  5. Interesting perspective. Thank you.

    Comment by ricke — April 12, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

  6. Good stuff, J., and I’m glad JI could provide a forum for which to further discuss these issues. Like Ben, I look forward to Connell’s response.

    Comment by Christopher — April 13, 2012 @ 7:14 am

  7. Thanks for posting, J. Keep up the fascinating work!

    Comment by Jared T — April 13, 2012 @ 8:55 am

  8. Agreed that we don’t much talk that way today, but Ezra Taft Benson’s not-so-long-ago talk on the temple came to mind: “Adam and his descendants entered into the priesthood order of God. Today we would say they went to the House of the Lord and received their blessings.”

    Comment by John Mansfield — April 13, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  9. Thinking on it a little more, that Benson quote agrees a lot with Stapley. We used to speak of temple blessings as entering into the priesthood order of God; today our language is different.

    Comment by John Mansfield — April 13, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  10. That is a really great example, John. Thanks for sharing it here!

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 13, 2012 @ 9:32 am

  11. This has been a great exchange. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 15, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

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