The Public/Private World of Mormon Dances and Courtship

By February 14, 2013

In February of 1892, Twenty-two year old Amelia Cannon mentioned the upcoming Valentine?s Day in her journal: ?Valentine?s Eve. I expect none of the fruits of this holiday. Two years ago this winter was the last time I was the recipient of a love token on Valentine?s Day.?[1]  It was not that Amelia was lacking in male attention?as her schedule was full of social engagements with various young men?yet her mentioning of the holiday references the weight that Valentine?s Day, a holiday centered upon romantic love aAntique_Valentine_1909_01nd courtship, carried and still carries. Of course, Valentine?s Day seems no better time to ponder how the actual practice of courtship (and later dating) has changed in the United States. As a historian of American gender history, I have spent a lot of time reading and reviewing Beth L. Bailey?s aptly titled 1988 monograph From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America.  Bailey surmises that due to changes in consumption, the economy, and gender roles between men and women courtship began to occur more in public places instead of the ?sheltering and controlling contexts of home and local community.? [2] Socializing in public spaces afforded courting couples more anonymity and privacy then they previously held. As I have delved further and further into my research, I have wondered how the example of Mormon courtship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century fit with other trends which affected the way men and women courted? Did Mormon courtship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries evolve into a private practice in a public world?

The function of dances within Mormon courtship practices reveals how unmarried LDS couples did not necessarily follow more mainstream patterns and trends. A church dance fit within the social spaces of a local/private community and the realm of a more public world surrounded by people. For a Mormon couple in a smaller community, it was nearly impossible for courtship to remain anonymous and separate from church activities.  Church officials used activities like dances as a space for adolescent Mormon men and women to socialize with each other in a controlled setting monitored by adults.  In many instances, the church would only condone dances if those attending abided by a curfew and there were strict admittance rules that often barred non-Mormons from attending.[3] Despite the stringent rules surrounding church dances, they became a constant and popular event for church youth. In fact, attending numerous dances could be tiring for young women and men. In 1892, Amelia Cannon noted in her diary that she would ?heartily welcome a rest? from dances and parties. As a single twenty-two year old woman of well-known family in Salt Lake City, she was regularly invited to attend dances in various wards throughout the city and in Provo. She also wrote in her diary: ?I used to long intensely for cavaliers. Now that I have an abundance, I don?t appreciate them.?[4] She even insisted that she was done with dances for the season only to be back at them a few days later.

As Amelia Cannon?s words indicate courtship could be a busy and exhausting task for young Mormon women in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Earlier courtships between polygamous men and women had to be private affairs out of necessity to avoid legal prosecution. Even though scholars estimate that a smaller percentage of Mormons, between twenty to thirty percent, engaged in polygamist marriages, the practice arguably offered a unique dynamic centered on secrecy that affected how both monogamists and polygamists approached courtship and potential marriage.[5] Ever since the first Manifesto calling for the end of plural marriage was released in 1890, church leadership feared that without the avenue of polygamy finding a suitable husband and eternal partner would become trickier for young women.[6]

The relationship between Mormonism, dancing, and the social event of a church dance was already fraught with tension before the end of polygamy. Many Mormons looked to dancing as both a viable form of exercise and enjoyment. According to his daughter Susa Young Gates, Brigham Young hosted communal dancing parties and even encouraged some of his children to take dance lessons in addition to gymnastics as part of their ?physical culture regime.?[7] However, Young also held an uneasy attitude toward the role of dance and often offered conflicting edicts on the appropriate time for the activity to occur.[8] Specific styles of dance also caused issues for Mormon leaders.  Amelia Cannon?s father George  Q. Cannon, influential magazine publisher and member of the LDS Church?s first presidency, claimed that round dancing was not good for one?s health in 1876.[9] Discussions over the impropriety of round dancing continued well into the twentieth century and was prominently featured in the Young Woman?s Journal, edited by Susa Young Gates, and Young Ladies? Mutual Improvement Association guidebooks.

Juanita Brooks? account of her younger life in Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier offers a lively picture of how the social world of a rural Mormon town was ordered by church dances.  The rural setting of Brooks? hometown Bunkerville, Nevada was markedly different from the more cosmopolitan world of Salt Lake City. Brooks who was born in 1898 describes the typical dance in Bunkerville as a central space for married couples to enjoy a night out, women to notice new fashions and catch up on gossip, and church members to discover a possible romance between younger unmarried church members. Church dances were ultimately intended to serve as sites of wholesome recreation for church members only. In early twentieth-century Bunkerville, there was an incident in which non-Mormon traveling salesmen snuck into a dance. The next day during church, a leader claimed ?there is one thing which I would like to call your attention, and that is how our young girls take up with these strange drummers who come here, men of the world who would only lead them astray.?[10]  Anxiety about outsiders was directly tied to fears young women would be motivated to marry non-Mormon men, leaving the future of the religion in jeopardy.

Even though strict supervision at Mormon dances did not always offer couples a chance at privacy, many Mormon couples were able to seek out other avenues of privacy for courtship. A teenager in 1880s Salt Lake City Minerva Richards wrote as an older woman in her life sketch that ?although only fifteen years of age my mother permitted Maille and myself to have the use of the parlor and to receive callers.?[11] On one New Years Day, when she and her sister received callers, she had an opportunity to meet Dick W. Young, a grandson of Brigham Young. Later when Minerva and Dick were left unattended she sang for him, an action that she credited as being ?largely responsible for the eventual winning of my husband.?[12]  Amelia Cannon recorded in her journal one evening  that she and her sister made a promise to each other to ?conduct themselves with proper decorum? if they did receive any callers.[13] These two anecdotes reveal that some parents allowed their daughters some semblance of privacy and minimal supervision while receiving male callers and fit in with the courtship patterns of other non-Mormon couples in the late nineteenth century.[14] Additionally, both anecdotes suggest that the young women?s parents trusted their individual daughter?s taste and approved of their (assumed) Mormon suitors.

This brief treatment of Mormon courtship leaves a lot to consider and  even more questions than conclusions at this point in my research:

  • How did the legacy of polygamy?taking into consideration the amount of Mormons who actually engaged in the marital practice?affect how Mormon courtship developed after the first Manifesto?
  • Was Mormon courtship markedly different than that of other couples, religiously affiliated or not?
  • How do we treat social functions like Mormon dances that held characteristics of both public and private spaces?


The public/private framework for courtship is helpful for understanding several elements about the history of courtship and the LDS Church. First, it illuminates how the church helped create private worlds for couples within seemingly public settings. Brooks recounts how one couples would steal away a few seconds during sacrament meeting to decide where and how to meet up privately later in the day.[15]  Secondly, ?public? and ?private? lacked fixed meanings within the context of church events and activities. All at once, the church attempted to create an event public to its members but private to the outside world. Third and finally, my reading of secondary literature sheds light on the lack of scholarly attention paid toward how one?s religious identity affected their courtship behavior. The Mormon example provides a fruitful context of how one religious group, including the leadership and membership, envisioned the expectations and practice of courtship within the wake of transformative cultural, regional, and national change.


[1] Amelia T. Cannon, Journal (1891-2). Leonard Arrington Collection. LJ AHA MSS 1. Box 5, Folder 9. Special Collection and Archive, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.

[2] Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 3.

[3] Bitton Davis, ?These Licentious Days: Dancing Among the Mormons? Sunstone 2 (Spring 1977): 16.

[4] Amelia T. Cannon, Journal (1891-2). Leonard Arrington Collection. LJ AHA MSS 1. Box 5, Folder 9. Special Collection and Archive, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.

[5] I rely upon Kathryn Daynes? figure from her monograph, see Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 91 -115.
Calculating the exact number of polygamous marriages and families is a tricky and controversial subject. For more information see Ben Park’s 2011 JI post Quantifying Polygamy.

[6] For more information see chapter four in See Lisa Olsen Tait, ?The Young Woman’s Journal and Its Stories: Gender and Generations in 1890s Mormondom? (Ph. D. diss., University of Houston, 2010), 140 -199.

[7] Susa Young Gates, ?How Brigham Young Brought Up His Fifty-Six Children? Physical Culture (February 1925). Copy ascertained from Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City.

[8] Davis, 18

[9] George Q. Cannon, ?Editorial Thoughts? Juvenile Instructor 11 4 (15 February 1876): 42.

[10]  Juanita Brooks, Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier. (Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1982), 113.

[11] Minerva Richards Young, ?Reminiscences: Autobiographical Vignettes of Minerva Richards Young. Richard Whitehead Collection. MSS 104. Box 4, Folder 2. Special Collections, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[12] Minerva Richards Young, ?Reminiscences: Autobiographical Vignettes of Minerva Richards Young. Richard Whitehead Collection. MSS 104. Box 4, Folder 2. Special Collections, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[13] Amelia T. Cannon, Journal (1891-2). Leonard Arrington Collection. LJ AHA MSS 1. Box 5, Folder 9. Special Collection and Archive, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.

[14] Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 165.

[15] Brooks, 140-141.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. It looks like Wallace Stegner was on to something starting his Mormon Country with the narrative of a young couple spending an evening together at the ward meetinghouse.

    Comment by John Mansfield — February 14, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

  2. Great post, Natalie! The only time I entered a Mormon Church as a high school student was during dances and funerals. I assumed that they were always community events and was surprised to learn from your post that non-Mormons weren’t always admitted. Do you know when this changed?

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 14, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

  3. Fantastic stuff, Natalie, and certainly timely!

    I still have plenty of memories of awkward church dances.

    Comment by Ben P — February 14, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  4. I will definitely have to revisit Stegner’s Mormon Country. It has been awhile.

    Amanda, I actually think it may have been a stake by stake scenario in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as far as who could be admitted to a dance. I also suspect it has a lot to do with rural v. urban contexts. I definitely want to find out more.

    And, now, I must admit I have never been to a church dance even though I had a chance in Provo this summer. I must rectify this!

    Comment by Natalie R — February 14, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

  5. In Las Vegas when I was a teen (early 80s), there was a youth dance every Saturday night in one of the stake centers. To be admitted, 1) girls had to be in dresses or skirts and boys had to wear a tie, and 2) each person had to have a dance card signed by an LDS bishop. Many non-LDS friends of LDS had dance cards. They got them from their friends’ bishops, who would have a little chat with them about the standards of conduct.

    The dances ended at 11, and soon after the three Macayo’s Mexican restaurants were packed with LDS youth till midnight or later. I usually went to the one in North Las Vegas on my side of town, but a couple times I went to the others and found the same crowd.

    Comment by John Mansfield — February 14, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  6. When those heathen drummers snuck into the dance, I’m hoping the men of the priesthood drug them out.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 14, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

  7. Natalie – Trust me, they weren’t that fantastic. The most exciting part was the one dance where my forced-to-be Mormon male friend and I hid out in a dark classroom with my friend Katie and then snuck off to a party afterwards in a box car.

    Comment by Amanda — February 14, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

  8. I tried putting up a memory of the public/private Mormon church dance world of my youth, but the site is either rejecting it or sequestering it.

    ADMIN: Sorry, somehow your comment was stuck in spam.

    Comment by John Mansfield — February 14, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

  9. Hell, we just keep on “snuck-ing.”

    Comment by Mark B. — February 14, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

  10. John, that is an interesting scenario as I suspect that similar scenarios were occurring int the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well.

    Amanda, I feel like I have to make it to one church dance and then call it good!

    Comment by Natalie R — February 14, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

  11. Bishop-endorsed dance cards are still de regueur in the Springville (Utah County) stakes. They expire annually like a temple recommend.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 15, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  12. Church dances may or may not still provide opportunities for courtship and “proper decorum.” Take it from… well, “Da Korum.”

    Comment by Syphax — February 15, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

  13. I am very curious about these Bishop-endorsed dance cards. Are they pretty usual across stakes or is this a stake by stake situation?

    Comment by NatalieR — February 16, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  14. Oh, I am on a plane without headphones so I will have to listen to the song a bit later!

    Comment by NatalieR — February 16, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

  15. NatalieR: It’s just a silly song by some LDS rappers about stake dances. Here are the lyrics of the second verse:

    “Show up with a crew of your closest friends
    And get ready for a night that never ends
    Groove to the beat and shake all around
    By the end of the night you’ll be the talk of the town
    Dance to the music like you just don’t care
    Even though you’re self-conscious and you’re really scared
    Thinking all of the people dancing all around you
    Are judging your skills and looking down on you
    Dance with a person you find mildly attractive
    But dance with a distance like they’re radioactive
    Now shake hands awkwardly and head to the hall
    And then go hide in a bathroom stall
    Pull out your phone and text your friends
    Asking them when this stupid dance ends
    Nervously shift from left to right
    And say ‘This dance is lame’ while you wait for your ride”

    Comment by Syphax — February 16, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

  16. […] Nineteenth century Mormon courtship. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio — February 17, 2013 @ 10:48 am


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