When Mormon Women Led Out For Peace

By March 20, 2012

David Pulsipher is a professor of history at Brigham Young University-Idaho.  David was a 2007-2008 Fulbright scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia (University), in New Delhi, India.  His research and scholarship focuses on peace and non-violence, and particularly how Mormons have appropriated and/or responded to these ideologies.  He has presented papers at the Mormon History Association, Claremont Graduate University, BYU Studies Symposium, and the Congress of the Asian Political and International Studies Association.  David is currently working on a volume of collected essays (co-edited with Patrick Mason and Richard Bushman) called War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives; and a second co-authored book with Patrick Mason exploring a distinctively Mormon theology and ethic of peace.  Please join us in giving David a warm and generous JI welcome.

In honor of women?s history month, we might remember an all-to-brief moment when Mormon women led in the public sphere and men followed—the ?Peace Meeting? movement. Given the prevalence of martial imagery and military heroes in contemporary Mormon culture, it is easy to forget that the Church officially endorsed and organized anti-war protests during the first decade of the twentieth century. These centrally directed and locally produced affairs were held annually—usually on or around May 18, to commemorate the first Hague Conference—and were no small productions. Meetinghouses were draped in international peace colors (gold, purple, and white). Ward choirs prepared and sang patriotic hymns and anti-war songs. Poems were specially composed and recited. Peace resolutions were adopted and signed. And ward leaders (male and female) disavowed war and called for international institutions for arbitration.

The peace meetings have attracted little historical attention. Leonard Arrington?s excellent overview (available here) is a rare exception but mostly limited to central institutional sources such as the Woman?s Exponent. My interest is decidedly more local. I have spent the last several months sifting through hundreds of ward Relief Society minutes (where official proceedings for these meetings were sometimes recorded) looking for clues as to how Mormon women (and men) responded to instructions from Salt Lake City and how they interpreted and articulated their own logic for peace.

Like most peace activists of the time, the Mormon women and men who attended these meetings placed great hope on international institutions, especially the new Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. This provides yet another example of how national and internationally minded many Mormons (especially women) were at this time, and how deeply engaged many were with a broader progressive world (as Amanda recently reminded us here). Consequently, general instructions for the peace meetings—coming first from the National Council of Women, then filtered through the central offices of the Relief Society and YLMIA—called for speeches supporting international arbitration efforts and for votes on ?peace resolutions.? The language from a 1906 resolution is typical:

Resolved that we members of this peace meeting?will support this movement, having for its aim universal peace, the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, and by our act emphasize the declaration of the heavenly hosts to the humble shepherd. ?Peace on earth and good will to men,? and voice the sentiments of the Prophet of older time in speeding the day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war any more? Then the brutal clash of arms, the useless shedding of blood, and the wanton destruction of human life will be averted, an international tribunal may be established before which all questions of contention may be brought for adjudication, and in witness of these sentiments we avow ourselves to be disciples of peace.[1]

While votes on such resolutions were almost always recorded as ?unanimous,? not everyone was fully supportive. Adreana Holley, a ward Relief Society president, introduced the 1908 meeting in Slaterville with the observation that she ?did not favor the meeting? but ?felt like obeying both the president of the United States and the president of the Church.?[2] The following year, another Slaterville resident, John C. Neal observed ?if all present expressed their opinion in the peace meetings it might lead to contention.?[3] Then, as now, ?peace? could be a surprisingly controversial topic.

Nevertheless, principles of peace and international arbitration seemed to carry the day (at least on an annual basis) in Mormon communities. In the same meeting where John C. Neal noted that open opinion might lead to contention, Mary O. Webb spoke ?very ably and forcibly? on the history of arbitration efforts, tracing its development from ancient times to the Hague conference, which she called ?the first great Parliament of Man.?[4] The next year, Bishop Slater stated that the peace meetings were ?doing much good in the world,? noting that ?a plan had been made that would establish peace, if rightly carried out,? and expressing his opinion that ?the czar of Russia [who initiated the first meeting] must have been inspired when he established the peace conferences.?[5]

These meetings were well attended by both women and men, with the latter constituting roughly a third of program participants and resolution signatures. But while men often played prominent roles on the programs (as keynote speakers, for example), the women were the undisputed leaders. Bishops were usually in attendance (and almost always speakers on the program), but the official minutes for the meetings usually designated the local Relief Society president as ?presiding? or, in some cases, as co-presiding with bishops. Speakers referred to ?the sisters taking [the] lead in the Peace Demonstrations,?[6] and the topics of their speeches often had a female slant (such as ?How can mothers best promote the cause of peace?).[7] Likewise, although resolutions were voted on and signed by the entire assembly, the language was often decidedly woman-centric, as in this resolution from 1907:

Resolved, That the American women assembled May 18, for the purpose of considering the fruits of war and the fruits of peace, do solemnly pledge themselves to meet annually to hold a demonstration in behalf of peace and arbitration. . . . They rejoice that women throughout the world are beginning to feel their responsibility for human conditions outside of the home, as well as within its sacred walls.  They ask all women everywhere to adopt as their own the task assumed by the International Council of Women, which is ?The application of the golden rule to society, custom and law.?[8]

Such hopes were ultimately betrayed by the horrors of First World War, and in its wake the Mormon Peace Meetings were never revived (although the Relief Society maintained a standing Peace Committee for many years). Still the efforts of these women provided a brief glimpse of a possibility for a formal, concerted, institutional effort for Mormon peace-building (a possibility I like to hope still persists). As a 1908 Peace Meeting speaker noted: ?Latter Day Saints would appreciate peace as much as any other class of people for they have had contentions to contend with and [consequently] they should be foremost in hastening the approach of peace.?[9]


[1] Relief Society Minutes, Baker Ward, Union Stake, 27 May 1906. This, and all subsequent references, are at the Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Relief Society Minutes, Slaterville Ward, North Weber Stake, 17 May 1908.

[3] Relief Society Minutes, Slaterville Ward, North Weber Stake, 16 May 1909.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Relief Society Minutes, Slaterville Ward, North Weber Stake, 15 May 1910.

[6] Relief Society Minutes, Circleville Ward, Panguitch Stake, 15 May 1902.

[7] Relief Society Minutes, Lewiston 1st Ward, Richmond Stake, 19 May 1907.

[8] Relief Society Minutes, Baker Ward, Union Stake, May 1907.

[9] Relief Society Minutes, Slaterville Ward, North Weber Stake, 17 May 1908.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, Prof. Pulsipher. Thanks for contributing this to JI’s Women’s History Month series. Do you have plans to turn this research into an article or a book?

    Comment by Christopher — March 20, 2012 @ 8:18 am

  2. I don’t really have anything to add; but I did find this to be a really interesting and important contribution. Like Christopher, I hope to see a broader treatment available.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 20, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  3. I love it when history is both fascinating and relevant. Thanks, Prof. Pulsipher.

    Comment by Ben P — March 20, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  4. Wonderful story. Thank you.

    Comment by Amy T — March 20, 2012 @ 10:21 am

  5. I’m generally familiar with LDS women’s involvement in the peace movement following WWI (as with Emma Ray Riggs McKay’s 1924 speech), but I had no idea either that this movement existed in an organized fashion so early or that LDS women were so heavily involved. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 20, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  6. As everyone else has said,this is absolutely wonderful. One of my friends is working on military chaplains and she has always emphasized that Christian peace movements continued throughout WWI and the interwar period but that most dissipated after Pearl Harbor and then re-emerged during Vietnam. Do you know if Mormon peace movements followed a similar trajectory?

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 20, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  7. This is brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing this history. I knew that there were some anti-war sentiments but had no idea it was an annual, organized tradition. It has completely sparked my curiosity. Can you point me towards further reading?

    I’m particularly interested in why the movement stopped. Did the World Wars change the overall dynamic of the concept of war and peace in general? Was growing American patriotism a factor that came in to play?

    Comment by Winterbuzz (Lindsay P) — March 20, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  8. This is really fascinating. I had no idea that there was an LDS peace movement during this time period. It seems in marked contrast to what occurred during the Vietnam War era (from my personal experience in the Church at that time). I look forward to Professor Pulsipher’s future publications.

    Comment by Catherine Wheelwright Ockey — March 20, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

  9. Oh, Oh, you’re asking for trouble here. The many Mormon warhawks will eat you up. But thank you for posting this.

    Comment by Aaron — March 20, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  10. David: Thank you for being willing to do this! What an auspicious beginning, and I’m so glad that this topic is getting the attention that it deserves. If everyone is interested in hearing more of David’s findings on Mormon women and the peace movement, including some fascinating correspondence between May Wright Sewall and Mormon women leaders, I would encourage you all to attend our MHA session in Calgary, entitled ?Peace, Parties, and Pieces: Memory and Activism in Mormon Women?s Circles.”

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 20, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  11. Thanks for this post.

    Andrea, I’ll look forward to that session.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 20, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

  12. I have never heard this before. I think we must start this in my home. May 18 is now marked. Why is so much amazing church history lost? When did we become so pro war ? I will have to research more specifics.

    Comment by Jessica — March 20, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  13. Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments. I can’t address every question, but I will try to speak to the subsequent history.

    The First World War, and the intense patriotism associated with it, did transform Mormon rhetoric (but that wasn’t any different than the rest of the country). The peace meetings were already dying out by 1910, so I don’t think we can simply blame the war. And Mormon pacifism did survive the world conflict. Individual expressions of and efforts at peace-building certainly continued well beyond (to the present day, of course), but nothing like the peace meetings, with their high level of institutional organization and support, has been seen since. One exception to this may be some fairly strong pacifist sentiments that were published in Church curriculum materials in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. But these declined significantly during the Cold War years, when Mormons became culturally hawkish and overwhelmingly supportive of military preparedness. I am still trying to understand the full trajectory of these changes, but William E. Berrett’s 1950 Book of Mormon Sunday School manual marks a significant turning point. It is hard to say whether his apologist approach to war is reflecting or affecting the larger Mormon culture (probably both), but it does document a militaristic emphasis that has only grown stronger over the last sixty years. So I see the Cold War (rather than the World Wars) as the crucial transition point.

    As Andrea already noted, for those who are interested, I will be a paper on the peace meetings at MHA in June. And all of this is part of a large project on a Mormon theology of peace that I am pursuing with Patrick Mason.

    Thank you again for your thoughts and suggestions.

    Comment by David Pulsipher — March 20, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  14. Dr. Pulsipher,

    As a former student, I would just like to let you know how much I enjoyed the post and your participation. I wonder if you see any connections between the Peace Movement and the fairly significant support in Utah after WWI for the League of Nations–especially by Heber J. Grant. I also wondered about the role of Fort Douglas as an economic force in Salt Lake City working against this pacifist ethos. I know that Fort Douglas served as an internment camp for German aliens during the war. I guess the real question that I am asking is about how you situate the LDS Peace Movement. Do you feel it was an extension of LDS women’s engagement with the larger Women’s Movement? I wonder how the rise and fall of the Peace Movement connects to Christopher Capozzola’s argument that the First World War I marked the turning point from a collective, community-based world view in the United States towards a greater reliance on the coercive power of the Nation State.

    Comment by Joel — March 21, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

  15. Joel,

    Great questions. My sense at this early stage of research is that the LDS Peace Movement did grow primarily from involvement with the National Council of Women. The impetus for the meetings came from NCW president May Wright Sewell, who was a prominent pacifist. That is not to say her sentiments and efforts didn’t resonate with LDS women, especially their leaders. Emmeline B. Wells, Emily S. Richards, Ruth May Fox, Maud May Babcock and other prominent Mormon women energetically lent their voices and efforts to the broader Peace Movement, both formally and informally. Its aims fit well within their sense of the woman’s movement as well as the Restored Gospel. (And it should be noted that the women’s LDS Peace Movement seems to have had no corresponding expression in the LDS men’s organizations.)

    As for Fort Douglas, you raise another fascinating issue. I need to learn more about how Fort Douglas fit within Mormon perceptions in the early twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, of course, the camp was primarily a symbol of federal government oppression and oversight. When and how that might have changed for Latter-day Saints would be an interesting story. Thank you, I will consider this question (as well as Capozzola’s research) as I move forward.

    Comment by DavidP — March 21, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

  16. I’ll just add my appreciation for this illuminating post. This is really interesting! I don’t study Mormon history, but I was under the impression that the Church’s stance on peace was largely taken from an isolationist perspective. I’m thinking specifically of J. Reuben Clark’s positions on WWII and Hiroshima (and I could very well be misinterpreting him). To see this earlier engagement with international pacifism is truly refreshing and inspiring! Thanks Dr. Pulsipher!

    Comment by Jack Ply — March 22, 2012 @ 11:10 am


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