Women, the Priesthood, and Augusta Adams Cobb: Connell O’Donovan’s response to Jonathan Stapley

By April 13, 2012

In the spirit of intellectual debate and friendship, we offered Connell the opportunity to read and respond to Jonathan’s letter before we published it at Juvenile Instructor.  Connell happily accepted the invitation.  What follows his response:

I deeply appreciate this opportunity to reflect further on Augusta Adams Cobb Young?s beliefs as stated in the two documents referred to, and their historical impact and importance. I highly value academic debate and am neither afraid to admit when I have erred in judgment, nor to agree to disagree with a colleague, as the case may be.

I want to begin with some background.  Some five years ago, I first became acquainted with Augusta through my lengthy research project on early Boston Mormons, now nearly 700 pages long (see connellodonovan.com/boston_mormons.html). She was among the first 10 converts to Mormonism in the Boston area in 1832 made by Orson Hyde and Joseph Smith?s younger brother, Samuel H. Smith. The great majority of the early Boston Mormons were women and she became one of the great matriarchs of the Boston church, along with Vienna Jacques, Mary Ann Brannan Badlam, Sabre Granger, Mary Bailey, Fanny Brewer, Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, Mary ?Polly? Vose, and Mercy Buffum Alley. By contrast, only two men were consistently involved in the earliest Boston church: Alexander Badlam, and the African American elder, Joseph T. Ball, who spent much of the 1830s and early 1840s away from Boston on missions with companions such as Wilford Woodruff, Phinehas Richards, Samuel Brannan, and William Smith.

My Boston project involves finding every known Mormon (and anti-Mormon) who lived in the Boston area and create brief to mid-length biographies of each. When my research on Augusta uncovered the existence of several hundred of her letters at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, I was elated. I ordered a microfilm copy of all her correspondence available from that archive, and upon reading a handful, realized what a treasure trove they are. It was immediately clear to me that Augusta?s relationship with her husband Brigham Young became quite acrimonious and she had no fear whatsoever in expressing her displeasure to the great Mormon leader. As the antipathy grew in later years, Brigham expelled her from both the Lion House-Beehive House compound and from his heart. Thus Augusta paradoxically came to occupy both a central and peripheral position within Mormonism. Central in that she was a wife of the Mormon president and prophet, yet peripheral in that she had to cajole ? even harass ? him at times to get his attention. Augusta lived on State Street, less than a block from his home and office, yet scores of letters to him flowed from her pen, both because she found it easier to write than to speak, and because she frequently felt so unwelcome to see her husband in person.

The documents I am citing, however, come from a different period in Augusta?s life.  in the early years of their marriage  in Nauvoo and then Winter Quarters, Augusta enjoyed Brigham?s full attention. It is during this time that she wrote these two documents. Yes, these documents are anomalous, but so was she ? a powerful and important wife of the church?s leader who also wrote voluminously and preserved the correspondence as a future testimony to her life. For one example, what might such extensive correspondence (or journals) from Brigham?s civil wife, Mary Ann Angell Young, reveal? Unfortunately we are unlikely to know, since precious little of her writing is extent.

As Jonathan correctly noted, neither of the documents directly relates to female healing rituals in Mormonism. I wrote the tangential response simply because, as I read the brilliant and comprehensive treatment of healing rituals by Stapley and Wright, I thought of Augusta?s training as a healer and her early belief that she held and could use priesthood. I had informed Lavina Fielding Anderson of the documents and she strongly encouraged me to write something up about them for the Journal of Mormon History; this seemed a great opportunity to join in the dialogue, even if a bit excursive or parenthetical to the Stapley-Wright article.

I would like to point out that the second document in question, although labeled Augusta?s ?Last Will and Testament,? is not even vaguely a legal probate document. One thing I dearly love about Augusta is her sarcastic sense of humor. Although not obvious here, I do believe she wrote the will in that spirit; it was ?her will? that she be sealed to Jesus or Joseph, so she wrote the request as though it were a will. Ardis Parshall rightly questions whether Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards, who signed the document, actually read it. This I do not know, but strongly believe they did. It is quite brief so I would hope they would take the time to read something that they signed. And then they both were actively involved in the cancelation of her eternal (but not mortal) sealing to Brigham Young, and her eternal sealing to Joseph Smith. Her will to be sealed to Jesus or Joseph is dated February 21, 1848. Some three weeks later, on April 13, 1848, Augusta wrote another letter to Young, in which she told him that she had rethought ?the matter in question? (i.e. her sealing to Jesus or Joseph), and, comparing herself to a woman in labor who must give birth, insisted that ?the matter presses itself upon me and there is no other way but to go straight ahead and trust in the God of Jacob.? She therefore demanded that Young, along with Kimball and Richards (her two signatories), come to her abode in Winter Quarters the following night at 7:00 p.m. in order to perform the requested rituals. The ?will? of February 21, 1848 contains on the verso the record of the ritual, in which Young promised ?to give up Augusta Adams to Joseph Smith in the morn of the first resurrection?. One of the will?s signatories, Heber C. Kimball, officiated in the ritual sealing, and the other signatory, Willard Richards, witnessed the ritual, along with Thomas Bullock, who also was the clerk who wrote the record of the sealing on the back of the ?will? on April 14, 1848.

I do admit that I over-extended my interpretation by claiming that because Kimball and Richards signed the ?will?, they too ?actively believed that Augusta Adams Cobb held priesthood in 1848.? I should have stated that was merely a conjecture on my part, which I do not feel is too far off base, regardless.

I also thank Jonathan for reminding me that the early Mormon use of Lobelia inflata was done so under the care of trained professionals and therefore technically irrelevant to the Word of Wisdom. I should not have included that tangent within my tangent.

Perhaps most controversial of all is my closing paragraph, regarding ?women?s full right to hold and use LDS priesthood.? In fact, I do find history to be prescriptive. And proscriptive. I passionately love history because I actually do try to learn valuable lessons from the historical past and implement them into my life. The historical past is not dead to me but a constant, present reminder of what it means to be human. In a more metaphysical strain, I feel Augusta very present in my life. I just moved to Salt Lake from Santa Cruz and immensely value being able to visit Augusta?s grave in the Salt Lake City cemetery almost weekly. I go there to talk to her, report on how my book project on her is going, and I entreat her to enlighten me about her and her enigmatic life.  Not exactly standard or accepted academic procedure, but I do find it useful for me emotionally and spiritually. And anecdotally my graveside conversations with dearly departed Augusta seem to significantly increase illuminating moments of ?serendipity,? as ?research methodology? advocated so engagingly by Bill Mackinnon in his MHA presidential address, which was serendipitously published in the same issue of the Journal of Mormon History as my letter to the editor.


Yes, my academic, religious, and political discursive modes have been conflated, because I am academic, religious, and political, and I embody that triad (and so much more; as Walt Whitman said, ?I contain multitudes?).  Although I am no longer LDS, priesthood continues to be relevant to me.  I am a liberal, progressive Christian, and a member of the liberal, progressive United Church of Christ (UCC). That informs me and my agenda on every level I can think of. The UCC teaches (and I sincerely believe) that everyone holds God?s priesthood, including people of all colors, all ages, all abilities, all genders, and all sexual orientations; priesthood is as ubiquitous as God?s infinite grace (and perhaps they are combined). Still, acting with an office in the priesthood (i.e. a pastor) does require ordination by the laying on of hands. This significantly differs from the LDS worldview. The UCC congregation in Santa Cruz recently called a Lesbian from Salt Lake to move there to be our secondary pastor. All people were invited to attend and participate in Cordelia?s ordination. When the moment of ordination came, the hundred or so people in attendance gathered around her in concentric circles, the inner-circle directly laying hands upon her, and outer circles laying hands on the people directly in front of them. All participated in Cordelia?s ordination to the office of pastor ? including the very young, as well as her agnostic, non-member partner. It was a profoundly moving and spiritual experience for me and I strongly felt God?s presence, affirming and sanctifying our communal, sacerdotal act.   Because of my religious beliefs, I fully support anything that recognizes, supports, or advances the idea that LDS women hold priesthood authority.  This belief is exactly why I wrote the letter in the first place, straight from the heart.

Connell O’Donovan

Salt Lake City, UT



Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Connell. The dialogue between you and J, here, has been provocative and pleasant.

    Comment by Ben P — April 13, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  2. Yes, thanks for your response, Connell. I’m excited to see this back and forth between two scholars taking place here.

    Comment by Christopher — April 13, 2012 @ 8:43 am

  3. Connell, thank you for your response, and particularly for sharing the personal side of your research. Glad to see this conversation occurring at the JI.

    Comment by Jared T — April 13, 2012 @ 8:56 am

  4. It’s been my pleasure! Even though Jonathan and I were only able to spend a brief amount of time together in person, I consider him a friend, and our conversations by email, in person, and in public have been extremely useful and enlightening for me, as I finish researching and writing my book on Augusta (to be titled The Lioness of the Lord, a phrase she herself advanced repeatedly in her letters to the Lion). We both find Augusta enigmatic and her various sealings, adoptions, and cancellations problematic. I’m not a formally trained academic researcher and writer (having only a high school degree and coming mainly from the field of genealogy), so I depend on friendly, honest debate/dialogue to help me learn the ropes, and to generate thereby a better quality synthesis in my writing.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — April 13, 2012 @ 8:57 am

  5. This is a really insightful letter, Connell. And I agree, I have very much enjoyed our interaction regarding Augusta and in general. And again, I really am looking forward to your book.

    One particular aspect of this letter that I appreciate is your willing to share deeply personal thoughts, and experiences. I too find my work in historical sources and writing to be deeply gratifying and in many ways fulfilling. I find that it informs many aspects of my life and thought.

    The difficulty of course, is that this is a completely subjective experience and we end out in something of a minefield when engaging topics that are viewed by many to be sacred, controversial, or relating to identity. Different people might read the various sources and come out advocating emphatically opposite prescriptive and proscriptive positions. Many of the ugliest (as well as the most beautiful) ideas can be argued from historical data. It is for this reason that I see fora like the JMH, which incorporates a very divers body of interested contributors and readers, best served when we limit conversations to exploring and elucidating history.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 13, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  6. Jonathan and Connell, Thanks very much for the exchange of views and understandings. Such civility and generosity stand at the very heart of the historical enterprise.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 13, 2012 @ 10:37 am

  7. I agree with Gary. This has been great!

    I am torn on where I stand in the discussion over whether or not our personal politics and experiences should find their way into our historical work. In many ways, of course, there is no way to avoid it. The question being asked is not over the subjectiveness of history but over whether or not we should let politics and experience directly inform our work. On the one hand, I agree with Jonathan that doing so creates a minefield and can impede rather than foster discourse. It also threatens to silence historical actors by flattening the difference between our experiences and theirs. On the other hand, including such experiences can deepen our understanding of the past and help us understand where we have come from. Perhaps a solution would be to make it clear where we are drawing from our personal experiences and where we aren’t. They are TWO different types of analysis and we should be clear when we are engaging in one or the other. Doing so can provide us with beautiful descriptions of the past and present like Connell describes, while preserving analysis that tries to engage with the past as it was without considering how we would want it be.

    Comment by Amanda — April 13, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  8. Great exchange, both of you. Especially interesting to consider the proscriptive/prescriptive uses of history, and how such intended uses effect the actual approach, questions, and thus products, of the writers of history.

    Comment by BHodges — April 13, 2012 @ 11:20 am

  9. Great to see such politeness in online interchanges. AACY sounds like a fascinating figure whose story deserves to be told. I agree with Jonathan that separating history from devotion (and/or activism) improves both of them. One of the beauties of Mormon Studies is that we have robust venues for both history and devotion across the spectrum of affiliation. Writing the devotion after the history allows people who don’t share your devotions to trust and engage the history without quibbling over devotional applications. The Boston project sounds like great fun.

    Comment by smb — April 13, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  10. Thanks Gary and all for the kind remarks. Amanda, there is indeed no way to avoid having our personal lives inform how we “do” history. But that is also a “minefield,” so I do try to minimize it. And I also try to be honest about my “agenda”. I’d much rather be open and be criticized for that, than be attacked (as I have also been, in other instances) for having a hidden agenda.

    Ah, growth and learning are wonderful!! : )

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — April 13, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  11. Connell, when I met you very briefly in Salt Lake that same weekend, I was not aware of your work. I look forward to seeing your book when it comes out. I too am an amateur learning how to do history, but when I read an exchange like this, I remember how much I love history, and the process of learning through it. Thanks for sharing your interesting personal experiences here, and I appreciate the civil tone both you and J have employed in this discussion. It is refreshing to see it in practice, when so much of our public discourse these days is anything but civil.

    Comment by kevinf — April 13, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  12. Really nice exchange. Thanks to J., Connell and JI.

    Comment by WVS — April 13, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  13. The reason that Augusta?s correspondence survives is because her son, James Thornton Cobb, became very interested in researching Mormon doctrine and his friendship with anti-Mormon writer, Theodore Schroeder. James joined Mormonism, but because a leading critic. It is the Schroedar Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society that contains much of Augusta?s correspondence. The New York Public Library also has a collection of James T. Cobb?s papers. James was in an interesting position. His mother Augusta was married to Brigham Young. His ex-wife, Mary Van Cott was married to Brigham Young and gave birth to Brigham ?s last child. Also James? daughter Luella was married to Brigham Young?s son, John W. Young.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — April 14, 2012 @ 12:03 am

  14. […] letter in the most recent Journal of Mormon History, followed by O’Donovan providing his rejoinder. Besides an important discussion of specific ideas, contexts, and facts, the dialogue was a […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Introducing a New Series: “Responses” — April 17, 2012 @ 5:25 am

  15. J wrote, “Different people might read the various sources and come out advocating emphatically opposite prescriptive and proscriptive positions. Many of the ugliest (as well as the most beautiful) ideas can be argued from historical data.”

    It’s true that prescriptive conclusions can differ, just as descriptive conclusions can differ. That is not, however, a reason to avoid either type of reasoning. Measured disagreement is part of the academic mandate. Similar comments could be made concerning the potential for “ugly” conclusions. Getting out of bed in the morning can lead to ugly conclusions, too, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it. 🙂 In scholarship as in life, ugliness is something we guard against not through avoiding all action, but through thinking deeply before we act.

    The key to prescriptive use of historical data, in my view, is sensitivity to one’s audience. The “is-ought” gap has to be bridged by certain ethical presuppositions; therefore the scholar who wants to do prescriptive work should start from presuppositions that are shared by his or her intended audience. For instance, most Westerners would agree that it would be a good thing to avoid a repeat of the Holocaust. So if I’m studying the factors that have led to genocide throughout history, most people are not going to object if I close with some policy precriptions for mitigating those factors. In other cases, my audience may have a range of different priorities (e.g. liberty vs. equality), so I might offer a range of prescriptions from which they can take their pick. Taylor Petrey’s recent Dialogue article employed this strategy by offering a number of theological possibilities ranging from somewhat conservative to more liberal.

    Personally, I am a historian because I believe in the prescriptive value of historical data. I believe that, used in conjunction with a set of goals or priorities, history can be a powerful tool for informing life. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — April 18, 2012 @ 12:53 am


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