Sewing Machine as Religious Technology?

By January 29, 2014

Recently, while listening to a podcast of the CBC?s Spark, a radio program that explores the intersection of technology and popular culture I was introduced to the work of Jeremy Stolow.  Stolow is a media historian in the Communication Studies Department at Concordia University.  His principal interest is in religion and media and his research investigates the ?sometimes counter-intuitive and often paradoxical ways (ancient, modern, and contemporary) religions relate to processes, practices and technologies of mediated communication.?  Most recently, Stolow has edited the book Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology and The Things In Between. This volume seeks to challenge the idea that ?religion and technology exist as two ontologically distinct arenas of experience, knowledge and action?.(1)  In other words, religion and technology have often been seen as binaries that oppose each other — think of the dual categories of faith and reason or magic and science.  This book seeks to find god in the machine and explores the technological materialities of religion. In the CBC interview, Jeremy Stolow affirms that religion is inherently technological as it depends on instruments, tools and materials in order for it to happen in the world, including the turning of raw materials into finished goods as well as the ways that religious actors perform their work.  Stolow describes the relationship between ritual and technology:

... We need architecture [which] is at the heart of churches and temples and mosques and places of worship.  We need ritual tools that are constructed and manufactured and made use of.  Religious knowledge depends on writing systems and storage methods.  The history of the printed book is quite central to the history of the communication of religious knowledge. Even ? the most immaterial forms of religious activities such as prayer or meditation ? they involve remarkable histories of disciplining of the body through gesture and through concerted attention that we might think of ? turn our own bodies and our own human activities into kinds of technologies.(2)

All of this got me thinking about the intersection of gender, material religion and technology particularly within the realm of ritual performance and temple building.  Traditional histories that generally only focus on male artisans as temple builders might describe Mormon temples as structures of stone and wood.  However, I would argue that they are also made of textiles.  A more gender inclusive definition of temple building recognizes the role of women in creating altar cloths, ritual clothing, carpets, curtains and veils.  Once textiles are moved into the realm of temple-building, we can think of sewing machines as a ritual tool which had a significant impact on temple building and the performance of Mormon rituals.

Audrey Godfrey notes that a few sewing machines came with pioneer companies across the plains however widespread use of the sewing machine did not occur in Utah until after the arrival of the railroad in 1869.  Notably, one of the first sewing machines brought to Utah by rail was purchased in 1870 by Katherine Irvine who used it to sew burial clothing for a local undertaker. (3) Tracing the history of the sewing machine in Utah provides a fascinating window into the transformation of women?s work, communal perceptions of seamstresses as well as economic and social changes that occur within a religious community. In 1867, Brigham Young expressed concern about the move away from hand sewing and the impact that buying sewing machines might have on the Mormon economy as well as social cohesion and unity among the Saints. (4) He was still concerned in 1875 declaring the use of sewing machine to be a waste of time.  However, it seems that Mormon women purchased sewing machines in growing numbers during the last quarter of the 19th century.

The creation of ritual textiles would have been a primarily handmade enterprise from Kirtland to the Endowment House. However, by 1877 when the St. George Temple was dedicated (and certainly for temples after that) the sewing machine could have been used as a religious technology. By broadening the  definition of what constitutes temple building or ritual participation and by including the technologies that were used by women in these endeavours, historians can develop a richer concept of how believers mediated their relationship between technology and ritual.  In my own work on gender and material religion, Stolow’s insights prove useful and point to some interesting direction for future study.  What other  religious technologies might be worthy of study for Mormon historians?


(1) Stolow, Jeremy, ed.  Deus In Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013, 2.

(2) 229: Link Rot. Image vs. Reality. Payphone Resurgence. Virtual Economies. God and Tech. Spark, CBC, October 25, 2013. Radio.

(3) Godfrey, Audrey M. “The Queen of Inventions?: The Sewing Machine Comes to Utah”, Journal of Mormon History, Volume 32, No. 3, 2006, 82-103.

(4)  Brigham Young, April 6, 1867, Journal of  Discourses, 11:350-351.  Also see Brigham Young, August 31, 1875, Journal of Discourses, 18:75.  Apparently, sewing machines not only caused societal but also domestic conflict for Brigham Young.  According to Ann ElizaYoung in her 1876 biography Wife No. 19, he bought a sewing machine for his ?favourite? wife, Amelia Folsom Young. In this historically accurate(?) account Ann Eliza Young states: ?On one occasion he sent her a sewing-machine, thinking to please her; it did not happen to be the kind of a one which she wanted; so she kicked it down stairs, saying, “What did you get this old thing for?  You knew I wanted a ‘Singer'”.  She had a Singer at once.?

Young, Ann Eliza, Wife No. 19, or the story of a life in bondage.  Being a complete expose of Mormonism, and revealing the sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings of women in polygamy.  Hartford, Ct: Dustin, Gilmanand Co., 1876.p. 499


Article filed under Material Culture Miscellaneous Ritual Women's History


  1. Nice. I like the idea of the interaction of technology and religion. A most recent example might be the installation of wireless access in church buildings. At first, every stake could define their own policy and passwords. In my stake, the stake clerk was pretty good at giving people who asked access to the passwords for wireless access. Family members in other stakes were told that access was not allowed except for stake officers and bishoprics. Now, we have wireless routers hardcoded in Salt Lake City and sent out with a uniform station ID and password. As I have traveled about recently, it’s gratifying to see that my tablet and phone will immediately authenticate to the router in any building that I walk into.

    Also within the last couple of years, one of our high counselors consistently urged folks to still use their hard copies of the scriptures, and not to rely on the electronic versions. Then he bought an iPad, and now he’s fully converted.

    Comment by kevinf — January 29, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

  2. When Kris speaks, a lot of thinking has been done.

    Thanks for these provocative questions.

    Comment by Ben P — January 29, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

  3. And Mormonism has been a big one for using technology to move the work forward. Brigham Young halted work on the SLC temple, and sent the men to help finish the railroad, which he saw would greatly speed up the building. Then a rail line was built to help deliver stone, etc., to the temple site.
    The Church has long been a huge user of computers and other technology, especially in genealogy work.
    I can readily see sewing machines being used as part of the effort to hasten the work.

    Comment by Gerald Smith — January 29, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

  4. Kris, this is really great. I’m positively giddy to have you blogging again. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by Christopher — January 29, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

  5. Wow. This reminds me of when I first read from The Virgin and the Dynamo. I’m not sure what objects beyond sewing machines could be used, perhaps food preparation materials from the trek west?

    At any rate, thanks for the post!

    Comment by J Stuart — January 29, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

  6. Wonderful. The first thing I thought of were the men and women playing and recording the score to the recently released films, which made me think of Tona’s work on radio evangelism.

    After thinking about these sewing machines, what I most wonder about (and this ties into your work on the Lord’s Supper, I think) is the transition to religious work. That is, not every time that the individual baked bread was she participating in the liturgy, and not every time she pressed the peddle to sew was she materializing the sacred. How did people negotiate that shift?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 29, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

  7. Wonderful post. I wonder how our perceptions of temple building would change if we also saw artistry or murals as a religious expression of temple work, and sought to understand how the artist’s rendition of creation have impacted our perceptions of that monumental event. Thanks again, Kris.

    Comment by Ignacio — January 29, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

  8. Wonderful!

    I’m glancing through the St. George Temple sources in regards to sewing technologies. At least one diarist repeatedly mentions cleaning the temple but she didn’t mention furnishing or decorating the temple.

    A thesis on the temple (Curtis, 1964) mentions local silk being used for fringe for the altars and pulpits in the temple, and attributes that detail to Juanita Brooks.

    The 1878 probate proceedings for a Bavarian widow lists a sewing machine as part of her estate. As involved as she was in the St. George community and in temple worship, I can’t imagine that she didn’t help sew for the temple.

    The Washington County DUP has four textile items in their collection connected to the temple. They also have half a dozen sewing machines, but no dates are given in the catalog.

    The Relief Society Minutes mostly skip over the temple building period. Aha. In 1876, the women were donating a lot of rags to the Relief Society, and both the Curtis thesis and the recent Yorgason/Schmutz/Alder book note that the women made the rag carpets for the temple hallways. Hopefully they had some good carpet-making technologies available for doing that, including a number of sewing machines.

    So, there was at least one known sewing machine in the area shortly after the temple was finished, and from sources including the notes in the Relief Society Minutes, the women definitely saw their work, whether it was the silk industry, hat making, or cleaning the temple, as religious activities.

    Comment by Amy T — January 29, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

  9. This was really good. Do you know who used to be responsible for the gardens surrounding (some of) the temples? Because I can imagine the tools used for that as part of religious technology, as well. Would women have participated in that?

    Comment by Saskia — January 29, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

  10. Thanks, all.

    A couple of things – I think Ignacio raises a good point, but would also say that art does get some recognition in temple buildin. However, we could do better. For instance, Minerva Teichert’s murals in the Manti Temple would be recognized, or the sculpture of Avard Fairbanks, but there are probably a lot of relatively unknown artists as well.

    Jonathan, that is really the question. Also, one thing Stolow points out, that I thought might be interesting to you is that the history of the word “technology” has a broader range of possibilities that include the word technique (think: french la technique) and includes gestures and how bodily movements are organized which could be thought of as techniques. So gesturing and reciting (performance of various rituals, even healing rituals) can be thought of techniques and belong in the larger family of technology.

    Amy, thanks for all of those great references from St. George.

    Saskia, good question. Unfortunately, I know nothing about the horticultural history of temple grounds.

    Comment by Kris — January 29, 2014 @ 8:59 pm

  11. I love the emerging emphasis on material history and micro-history (textiles, sewing machines) and how much awesomeness it is adding to gender studies! There are a lot of great things going on in this post.

    Comment by Brian Whitney — January 30, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

  12. […] ? I thought of my mom, an inveterate sewer (and knitter and embroiderer) when I saw this post at the Mormon history blog Juvenile Instructor, on the sewing machine as “religious technology.” […]

    Pingback by That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman — February 1, 2014 @ 9:12 am


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