“Huddling Together”: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on the History of Early Mormon Women

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, prominent Mormon scholar and professor of history at Harvard University, presented research on early Mormon women’s history from her latest book, A House Full of Females, at a recent lecture honoring Women’s History Month.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 14, 2017)—What is to be expected when a group of Mormon women is seen huddling together? Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of history at Harvard and renowned Mormon scholar, discussed the history of early Mormon women in the Church and how the group dynamics of early female saints “huddling together” influenced Mormon history.

“What do you think about when you think about ‘huddling’?” Ulrich began. “Maybe a football game, a competitive contest in which the leaders of one group will group in a secret huddle to plot strategy.”

“Or,” she continued, “maybe you think of the word as something very sad, like contemporary refugees taking shelter in a makeshift tent, huddling together for warmth to try to survive. You can imagine it as a very affirming, powerful act of unity or a kind of desperate act of paining together in difficult circumstances.”

To paint a picture of early Mormon women “huddling” together, Ulrich analyzed the cover art from her latest book, A House Full of Females, which boasts a painting by Danish Mormon artist C.C.A. Christensen, painted as a gift for his former mission companion Ferdinand Frederick Dorias.

The piece, entitled, “Weighing the Baby,” portrays Dorias’ wives huddling together in care of a mother and her newborn baby. Dorias is featured only halfway entering his home, the female figures creating a boundary between his world and theirs – a sacred space reserved for maternal gathering.

In her lecture, Ulrich stressed the importance of gathering and grouping together for early female saints, both in the informal sense, such as gathering for the birth of a child, and the formal sense, such as grouping together for the formation of the Relief Society.

The early history of the Relief Society was incredibly complex – especially in the context of competing authority among female leaders, such as Emma Smith, male leaders, and the building rumors surrounding polygamy.

Regarding Joseph Smith restoring the Relief Society and the minutes Eliza R. Snow took, Ulrich commented, “They’re talking about offices. They’re talking about authority. They’re talking about keys. And it was very exhilarating for the women of Nauvoo.”

Ulrich shared the account of the Relief Society grouping together to defend the Church against mounting rumors of polygamy when convert John C. Bennett decried Joseph Smith as a libertine in the summer of 1842, and even referred to the Relief Society as “Holy Joe’s harem.”

“Emma was outraged,” Ulrich said. “With other members of the society, including some who had by this time been sealed to Joseph Smith, she rose to the Church’s defense, a strategy that was surprisingly successful.”
“But by the summer of 1843, Emma was distraught by her husband’s apparent sealings to Emily and Eliza Partridge,” Ulrich said. “She threatened divorce, and when Joseph gave her a copy of a revelation claiming divine permission to espouse other women, she burned it.”

On the eve of Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Ulrich said that twenty men and as many as 76 women were involved with polygamy in some way. Ulrich said this is a small number in contrast to the 10,000 saints who were living in Nauvoo, but when Joseph Smith died and Brigham Young became the new president of the Church, polygamy flourished.

In the context of the devastating events of 1844, Ulrich asked “What happened to Emma and Relief Society?” She continued, “Brigham Young and Emma were very much at odds over the several months after Joseph’s death.” And, regarding the organization and authority Emma seemed to maintain through the Relief Society, Ulrich said Brigham Young was perhaps equally troubled.

Addressing the Quorum of the Seventy, Brigham Young lamented, “When I want the Sisters or the wives of the members of this church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home and if you see females huddling together veto the concern and if they say Joseph started it tell them it is a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it.”

Later, as Brigham led the movement westward, Ulrich reported that “about fifteen percent of those 1,300 members of the female Relief Society stayed behind and never went west.”

Though the Relief Society was ultimately banned in 1845 and not reinstated until about 1867, women in the west continued to “huddle together” multiple times a week in each other’s cabins.

“They began to call these meetings jokingly ‘organized parties,’” Ulrich laughed. “A meeting where women got together, prayed, blessed one another and shared revelations.” 

She concluded that at these meetings the women “had a good time,” a phrase meaning, “We felt the spirit of God in each other’s company. We were able to carry on because we were huddling together.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17) 

Sylvia Cutler cover events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photos courtesy of the women’s studies program.