Women’s History Month at JI: Janiece Johnson, “Rebecca Williams, Steadfast and Immovable: Part Deux”

By March 20, 2011

As part of our continuing series celebrating Women’s History month here at JI, Janiece Johnson, graduate student at the University of Utah, has contributed the following insightful look at one early Mormon woman’s religiosity.

This month I reportedly have an article published in the Ensign and the Liahona–I have yet to see it?”Rebecca Swain Williams: Steadfast and Immovable.” At least that’s where I think we ended up with the title.[1]

Rebecca married Frederick G. Williams, and interestingly was the first of the two to be converted and baptized. The Ensign article has more biographical information which helps us understand her letter more completely, but I think her June 1834, is much better than anything I could write about it.

I originally began my Ensign article:

In the new Church History Library in Salt Lake City there is a yellowed slightly torn page–the end of an 1834 letter written in an elegant hand with small flourishes. It is only the last page–just a few words–yet those words yield considerable insight into a woman of faith and testimony, Rebecca Swain Williams. Her few words yield a powerful example for believers of any time or circumstance.

Like many women’s histories, the record of Rebecca’s life is limited. Her story is often told through her husband: Frederick G. Williams. Though family historians have done an admirable job gathering information about Rebecca, we have little of Rebecca’s voice today. This portion of her 1834 letter to her father then becomes all the more valuable. Though the words are few, it offers us a powerful glimpse of her soul.

Such a beginning was considered too much like a history journal article, which demonstrates my complete lack of understanding as to what a general audience is, since I would never start a journal article in that manner or perhaps opens us up for a discussion of what the audience is or should be for the Ensign, but…yeah.

Comparable to Rebecca, for many early Mormon women a letter might be all we have, but even a single document–even just the final page of a letter–can yield much. Rebecca is writing to her father, Isaac Swain, who threatened to cut her off from the family after her baptism. Her patriarchal blessing promised her that her father would be converted through the efforts of her husband. That did not happen before his death, yet she consistently and faithfully worked to that end. I love the way she uses the Book of Mormon as a proof text for her father.  Resembling other early Mormon women, Rebecca finds validation in the Spirit and boldly declares her personal understanding of truth.

. . . he got on [h]is jo<ur>ney, I have been reading over your letter of May the 23 which I have read over again and again.[2] it gives me pain to here that your mind is so much disturbed about the Book of Mormon and the Star.[3] I feal <a>fraid my Father is in some degree gitting into the same Spirit you charge the Editor with, as it regaards to the origen of the Book of Mormon. their their is no disagreement in the Book betwin the Author and the witnesses.[4] the Book pla[i]n[l]y shoes for it self Pa 547 and 548 and unto three shall [page torn] be shone shown by the power of God.[5] there is no con[tra]diction. the plaits was found in the same manner that the Auther sayes they was in the town of Manchestor, Ontario County. I have heard the same storry from several of the family and from the three witnesses them Selves. I heard them declair in publick meeting that they saw an Holly Angel come down from heaven and brought the plaits and laid them before their eyes and told them that those was the plaits that Joseph Smith was translation the Book of Mormon from. they are men of good character and their word is belived ware they are acquainted in eny thing excep[t] when they declair to this unbeliveng Generation that they have seen an angel of God and conversed with him.

my Father, I hardly know what to say to you. did you and Mother know the Circumstances as we do in relation to this work, I am persuaded you would bele belive it. my heart morns for my relation acording to the flesh, but all I can do is to commend them to God praying that he would enliten your minds in the way of truth. there is one of our Breathern who expe[c]ts to go to Canada soon.[6] I have talked with him about going to see you, if he does I hope you will have aplesant visit with him as he is a man of information capable of teaching the Gosple as it is in Jesus.

my Dear Father do you belive that all the Churches are of the Lord? the Lord has said by the mouth of [h]is Serva<n>t Joseph that this is the only Church upon the face of the whole earth with which the Lord was well pleased with, speaking unto the Churches collectively and not individually. for I the Lord can not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. nevertheless he that repenteth and doeth the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven and he that repenteth not from him shall be taken even the light which h he hath received. for my Spirit shall not always strive with man saith the Lord of hosts.[7] as <so> than we see all that are pure in heart the Lord will bless.

I want my Brothers to write to me.[8] I pray the Lord to comfort you in your last day witth his holy Spirit and may they be your best days.[9] my Children join me in love to you. I must close my let- ter to ever remember the instruction matter <that> I have received from my beloved Father. yours <in love>, R. Williams

do write to us soon, I hope your mind will be composed concerning this work. be asureard that we feal firm in the cause knowing that the Lord is at the helm and will th turn and over turn tell all things shall be brought <to> pass and Iseral shall again rejoice in the Lord.

Kirtland Mills Jun 4

Rec’d June 12. 1834 Mr Isaac Swain, Youn[g]stown, New York Ni[agara] Co[10]

[1] Also this letter and biographical sketch was originally published in my thesis: “Give It All Up and Follow Your Lord”: Mormon Female Religiosity, 1831-1843 (Provo: BYU Press, 2008), 29-33. It includes photographs of the letter.

[2] The location of the 23 May letter is unknown, though its one time existence demonstrates that Issac’s threat to cut off Rebecca completely was not fully carried out.

[3] Most likely this is a reference to Ezra Booth’s nine letters that were published in the Ohio Star in 1832 and later in E. D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed in November of 1834. Although it is unknown how Rebecca’s father and brothers obtained the letters, several New York newspapers had reprinted the articles.

[4] In Booth’s third letter he refutes the testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. In Booth’s testimony he tells of a commandment (revelation) that he read while on a mission in Missouri which told the witnesses to “see and hear those things by faith, and then they should testify to the world as though they had seen and heard, as I see a man, and hear his voice.” The argument became whether the witnesses saw and heard what they testified to or if it was their imagination. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 186-187.

[5] Ether 2.

[6] As early as 1830 members were teaching their family members and friends in Upper Canada (Ontario). The Canadian mission opened in 1832. Since the Swains lived on the southern side of Lake Ontario, it would be uncomplicated for a missionary heading to Canada to stop off in Youngstown. Richard E. Bennett, “The Church in Canada,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:251; and Richard E. Bennett, “A Study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints in Upper Canada, 1830-1850” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1975).

[7] Doctrine and Covenants 1:30-31, 33. There exists a note associated with the revelation that Frederick was present when it was received, which demonstrates the particular access that Rebecca had to the revelation.

[8] William and George Swain, to whom the letter is addressed, were stepbrothers to Rebecca. Their mother was Patience Dune, her father’s second wife. Her older brother John was particularly close to Rebecca as a child.

[9] Isaac Swain lived another four years.

[10] Youngstown is thirteen miles north of Niagara Falls and thirty-one miles north of Buffalo, New York. Niagara County, New York, is bordered on the north by Lake Ontario.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Origins Gender Scholarship at Church


  1. […] A letter at Juvenile Instructor offers insight into intra-familial religious distress in early Mormonism and into the editing process at the Ensign. […]

    Pingback by The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 20, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime — March 21, 2011 @ 6:55 am

  2. This is quite remarkable, Janiece. You’re right that this provides some good material to see how Saints were using the BoM (written text) and the public testimony of the Witnesses (oral text). We’re so accustomed today to think of the written testimony of the witnesses, but this indicates that it was their testimony in a public setting that impacted Rebecca’s articulation of her testimony. I also find the reference to D&C 1 interesting. Do you have a sense as to whether Rebecca is quoting a manuscript of the “Lord’s Preface” or the BC?

    Comment by David G. — March 21, 2011 @ 7:37 am

  3. Great stuff, Janiece. Thanks for contributing it here.

    Comment by Christopher — March 21, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  4. The Ensign arrived here earlier today, and your article was the only one I managed to read from start to finish, so it was interesting to come here and read your additional notes. Thanks, and congrats on the Ensign article. That sure reaches a wider readership than your average history journal! : )

    Comment by Researcher — March 21, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  5. Thanks all.

    David- Good question. When I originally worked on the letter itself I didn’t have easy access to the manuscript revelation of section 1. Just checking this morning and it looks like she copied it straight from the manuscript version. The punctuation is a little different, but the words are exact even down to the h before she realizes it’s been corrected to read he.

    Comment by Janiece — March 22, 2011 @ 9:10 am

  6. That’s fascinating, Janiece. So even though the revelation had been published, she still preferred to use the manuscript.

    Comment by David G. — March 22, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  7. Wow. Thanks Janiece. I too think it’s remarkable the way she invokes the revelation. And her use of the manuscript form is fascinating; I always wonder what the access to the BoC was like and how widely the early published scripture was distributed and absorbed.

    Comment by Ryan T — March 23, 2011 @ 6:39 pm


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