“The Dignity of Our Calling,” chapter 25 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 25: “The Dignity of Our Calling”
On October 30, 1869, five days after meeting with the high council, Elias Harrison and William Godbe published statements in the Utah Magazine denying the apostasy charges against them. They accused Church leaders of tyranny and complained that the Saints were not free to think or act for themselves. Convinced that spirits had spoken to them in séances, both men believed they had been called to reform the Church. And they were determined to keep publishing their magazine and to rally the Saints to their cause.
“From out of our mountain valleys shall yet be borne a banner emblazoned with a wider creed, a nobler Christianity, a purer faith than earth has ever seen,” Elias promised.1
Though he cautioned the Saints against reading the Utah Magazine, Brigham Young made no effort to shut it down.2 During his nearly four decades in the Church, he had seen opposition movements come and go without lasting success. While Elias and William railed against him, he left Salt Lake City to tour settlements in Utah and Sanpete Valleys.
As he journeyed south, Brigham saw thriving towns where small forts and adobe shacks had once been. Some Saints operated workshops and factories to manufacture goods. Though no town was entirely self-sufficient, a few had cooperative stores up and running.3
Whenever Brigham visited a settlement, the Saints brought out their best for him, sometimes providing lavish feasts. He received these meals graciously, but he preferred simpler food that demanded less work from those who prepared it. Years earlier, while dining with Saints on his mission to England, Brigham had eaten with nothing more than a simple cup and a pocketknife, using a slice of bread for a plate. It had taken all of five minutes to clean up after the meal, giving the Saints more time to visit together.
As he traveled south through Utah, though, Brigham noticed that many women were missing Church meetings because they were busy preparing or cleaning up after elaborate meals.4 He also lamented that many well-to-do men and women in the Church had developed extravagant lifestyles, sometimes at the expense of their spiritual well-being. Brigham wanted all Saints, himself included, to retrench, or simplify their lifestyles.
“The idle habits, the wasteful extravagance of men, are ridiculous in our community,” he declared.
In the School of the Prophets, Brigham had counseled men not to follow the fashions of the world but to develop their own styles cut from fabric made in the territory. At other times, he encouraged women to refrain from making ornate dresses with expensive materials from the eastern states and to instead use cloth made in the territory. For him, extravagance often sparked competitiveness among the Saints and took time away from their spiritual development. He felt that it was a sign of worldliness, incompatible with the cooperative spirit of Zion.5
This concern was still on Brigham’s mind when his party arrived in Gunnison, a town at the south end of Sanpete Valley. There he spoke with Mary Isabella Horne, a Salt Lake City resident who was visiting her son in the town. Mary Isabella was known for being a determined and faithful leader of Latter-day Saint women. Like Brigham, she had been a member of the Church since the 1830s and had endured her share of privation for the gospel’s sake. Now she was the president of the Salt Lake City Fourteenth Ward Relief Society.6
“Sister Horne, I am going to give you a mission, to begin when you return to your home—the mission of teaching retrenchment among the wives and daughters of Israel,” Brigham said. “It is not right that they should spend so much time in the preparation of their food and the adornment of their bodies, and neglect their spiritual education.”
Mary Isabella was reluctant to take on the responsibility. Teaching retrenchment meant encouraging women to simplify their work and standard of living. Yet women often found purpose, satisfaction, and worth in preparing fine meals and making beautiful clothing for themselves and their families. By challenging them to simplify their work, Mary Isabella would be asking them to change how they saw themselves and their contributions to the community.7
Brigham urged her to accept the mission, however, believing it would give women more opportunities to grow spiritually. “Call the sisters of the Relief Society together and ask them to begin a reform in eating and housekeeping,” he said. “I wish to get up a society whose members would agree to have a light, nice breakfast in the morning, for themselves and their children, without cooking forty different kinds of food.”
Though still unsure how to undertake such a mission, Mary Isabella accepted the call.8
Around this time, James Crockett traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, with his cousin William Homer. James was not a Latter-day Saint, but William had just finished a mission to Europe and planned to visit the Saints’ former gathering place before returning home to Utah. Kirtland was less than one hundred miles from James’s house, and the cousins decided to make the journey together.
In Kirtland, William wanted to visit Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who now worked as the self-appointed caretaker of the Kirtland temple. Martin’s son had married William’s sister, and William hoped to persuade the old man to reunite with his family in Utah Territory.
Martin’s relationship to the Church was fraught, however. After the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society more than thirty years earlier, Martin had turned against Joseph Smith and drifted from one group of former Latter-day Saints to another. When his wife, Caroline, had emigrated with their children to Utah in the 1850s, he had refused to go with them.
After arriving in Kirtland, James and William called on Martin at his cottage. He was a small, poorly dressed man with a thin, leathery face and a discontented look in his eyes. William introduced himself as a missionary from Utah and the brother-in-law of Martin’s son.
“One of those Brighamite ‘Mormons,’ are you?” Martin groused.9
William tried to give Martin news about his family in Utah, but the old man did not seem to hear him. Instead, he said, “You want to see the temple, do you?”
“If we may,” said William.
Martin retrieved a key and led James and William to the temple. The outside of the building was in fair condition. The plaster on the outside walls was still intact, and the building had a new roof and some new windows. Inside, however, James saw that plaster was falling off the ceiling and walls, and some of the woodwork was stained and marred.
Walking from room to room, Martin testified of the sacred events that had occurred in the temple. But he grew tired after a while, and they stopped to rest.
“Do you still believe that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet?” William asked Martin.
The old man seemed to spring to life. “I saw the plates. I saw the angel. I heard the voice of God,” he declared, his voice throbbing with sincerity and conviction. “I might as well doubt my own existence as to doubt the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon or the divine calling of Joseph Smith.”
The testimony electrified the room. Though he came to Kirtland an unbeliever, James was thrilled by what he heard. In an instant, Martin seemed to change from a bitter old man to a man of noble convictions, inspired of God and endowed with knowledge.
William asked Martin how he could bear such a powerful testimony after leaving the Church.
“I never did leave the Church,” Martin said. “The Church left me.”
“Wouldn’t you like to see your family again?” William asked. “President Young would be only too glad to furnish means to convey you to Utah.”
Martin scoffed. “He would not do anything that was right.”
“Send him a message by me,” William said.
Martin considered the offer. “You call on Brigham Young,” he said. “Tell him I should like to visit Utah, my family, my children. I would be glad to accept help from the Church, but I want no personal favor.”
William agreed to deliver the message, and Martin said goodbye to his visitors. As the cousins stepped outside, James placed his hands on William’s shoulders and looked him squarely in the eye.
“There is something within me that tells me that the old man told the truth,” he said. “I know the Book of Mormon is true.”10
While William Homer returned to Utah Territory with Martin’s message, legislators in Washington, DC, were proposing new laws to strengthen the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. In December 1869, Senator Aaron Cragin proposed a bill that, among other things, would deny the Saints their right to a trial by jury in polygamy cases. Later that month, Representative Shelby Cullom introduced another bill that would fine, imprison, and deny citizenship to Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage.11
On January 6, 1870, three days after a copy of the Cullom Bill arrived in Utah Territory, Sarah Kimball and the women of the Salt Lake City Fifteenth Ward Relief Society met on the second floor of their Relief Society hall to plan a protest against the proposed legislation. They believed antipolygamy laws violated religious freedom, infringed on their consciences, and sought to demean the Saints.
“We would be unworthy of the names we bear and of the blood in our veins,” she said, “should we longer remain silent while such an infamous bill was before the House.”12
The women drafted resolutions to use their moral influence to stop the bills. They expressed their indignation against the men who introduced the legislation to Congress and resolved to petition the governor of Utah for the right of women to vote in the territory. They also resolved to send two female representatives to Washington, DC, to lobby on the Saints’ behalf.
An hour into the meeting, Eliza Snow arrived at the hall to lend her support. She believed Relief Society members owed it to themselves and their families to defend the Church and their way of life. Too often, critics of the Church used popular newspapers, political cartoons, novels, and speeches to portray the women of the Church as poor, oppressed victims of plural marriage. “We should rise up in the dignity of our calling and speak for ourselves,” she told the women.13
The weather was cold and snowy the following week, but more than three thousand women braved the elements on January 13 to gather in the old adobe tabernacle in Salt Lake City for a “Great Indignation Meeting” to protest the Cragin and Cullom Bills. Sarah Kimball presided at the meeting. Aside from a handful of reporters, no men were present.
After the meeting opened, Sarah approached the pulpit. Though women throughout the nation had often spoken publicly on political issues, especially women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, it could still be a controversial thing to do. Yet Sarah was determined to give Latter-day Saint women a public voice. “Have we transgressed any law of the United States?” she called out to the assembly.
“No!” the women shouted back.
“Then why are we here today?” asked Sarah. “We have been driven from place to place, and why? Simply for believing in and practicing the counsels of God as contained in the gospel of heaven.”14
A committee of several Relief Society presidents—including Mary Isabella Horne, Rachel Grant, and Margaret Smoot—presented a formal statement of protest against the antipolygamy bills. “We unitedly exercise every moral power and every right which we inherit as the daughters of American citizens,” they declared, “to prevent the passage of such bills, knowing that they would inevitably cast a stigma on our republican government by jeopardizing the liberty and lives of its most loyal and peaceable citizens.”15
Other women spoke forcefully at the meeting. Amanda Smith described how her husband and son had been killed and another son wounded at the Hawn’s Mill massacre three decades earlier. “Let us stand by the truth if we die for it!” she cried as the tabernacle erupted in applause.
Phebe Woodruff condemned the United States for denying religious freedom to the Saints. “If the rulers of our nation will so far depart from the spirit and the letter of our glorious Constitution as to deprive our prophets, apostles, and elders of citizenship and imprison them for obeying this law,” she declared, “let them grant us this our last request, to make their prisons large enough to hold their wives, for where they go we will go also.”
Eliza Snow spoke last. “My desire is that we may as mothers and sisters in Israel defend truth and righteousness and sustain those who preach it,” she said. “Let us be more energetic to improve our minds and develop that strength of moral character which cannot be surpassed on the face of the earth.”16
In the days that followed, newspapers across the nation published full reports of the Great Indignation Meeting.17 Soon after, the Deseret News reported speeches made at other indignation meetings in settlements throughout the territory. Since the Cragin and Cullom Bills characterized plural marriage as a kind of slavery, many women who spoke at these meetings emphasized their right to marry the man of their choice.18
In meetings of the territorial legislature, meanwhile, Joseph F. Smith and other members of Utah’s House of Representatives were considering the question of women’s voting rights in the territory.19 The United States was in the process of bestowing the vote on all male citizens, including formerly enslaved men. But in the entire country, only Wyoming Territory allowed women to vote, despite a growing national movement to give the vote to all citizens over the age of twenty-one.20
Several months earlier, some U.S. lawmakers had proposed granting voting rights to Utah’s women, certain they would vote to outlaw plural marriage. Many Saints in the territory, male and female, supported women’s suffrage, however, precisely because they trusted it would strengthen the Saints’ ability to make laws that preserved religious freedom in their own community.21
On January 29, 1870, Joseph attended a meeting of the Salt Lake City School of the Prophets at which Orson Pratt, his fellow apostle and a top leader in the territorial legislature, voiced his support for women’s suffrage. The legislature voted unanimously to pass the bill several days later. Joseph then sent an official copy of the bill to the acting governor, who signed it into law.22
While a new law granting voting rights to women was cause for celebration, it did little to ease the Saints’ anxieties about the antipolygamy bills under review in Washington, which Congress could pass whether Utah’s voters supported them or not.23
Adding to this anxiety was growing opposition to the Church from within the territory. Joseph’s cousins Alexander and David had left Utah a few months earlier, their mission less successful than they had hoped.24 But William Godbe and Elias Harrison had recently organized their followers into the “Church of Zion” and proclaimed themselves the forerunners of a “New Movement” to reform the Church and the priesthood.25 They also began a newspaper, the Mormon Tribune, and aligned with merchants in the city to form the “Liberal Party” to combat the Saints’ political dominance in the territory.26
Amid this resistance, Joseph and other apostles continued to sustain Brigham Young’s leadership. “If God has any revelation to give to man,” Wilford Woodruff testified to the School of the Prophets, “he will not give it to me, nor Billy Godbe, but it will come through President Young. He will speak through His mouthpiece.”27
A few men did resign their membership in the school to join the New Movement. And others, including the once-stalwart missionary T. B. H. Stenhouse, were beginning to waver.28
On March 23, the United States House of Representatives passed the Cullom Bill and sent it to the Senate for approval. Three days later, after the alarming news reached Salt Lake City, some men in the School of the Prophets feared that conflict with the United States was imminent.
George Q. Cannon urged them to be cautious. “The spirit of fighting seems to be easily brought out when circumstances call it forth,” he said. “Let us keep our tongues still and not implicate ourselves by unwise talking.”
Daniel Wells, a counselor in the First Presidency, believed that it was wise to prepare quietly for a fight. But he wondered aloud if the Saints had not brought this opposition upon themselves by failing to live the principles of cooperation. “How many of even this school are this day trading with and sustaining our open enemies in this city, instead of sustaining the servants of God in their counsels?” he asked. “Let us repent and do better.”29
Joseph F. Smith echoed these words in a letter to his sister Martha Ann. “I would have no trouble in my mind were it not for the fact that I do not believe as a people we have lived as near to God as we should have done,” he wrote. “It may be the Lord has a scourge prepared for us on this account.”30
When Mary Isabella Horne returned to Salt Lake City, she recruited Eliza Snow and Margaret Smoot to help with her new retrenchment mission. She invited about a dozen Relief Society presidents to her home and asked Eliza and Margaret to work with Sarah Kimball to draft guiding principles for the Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Society. As instructed, they would create a society to help the women in the Church simplify meals and fashions, which in turn would allow more time to focus on spiritual and intellectual growth.
Mary Isabella believed that retrenchment should place all women on equal social standing throughout the Church. Some women hesitated to make friends with their wealthier neighbors, feeling embarrassed that they did not serve elaborate dishes and food. Mary Isabella wanted the women to feel free to socialize with and learn from each other. She believed that any table spread neatly with wholesome food was respectable, no matter how plain and simple it appeared.31
As retrenchment took root among the women of the Church, Brigham Young’s fourteen-year-old daughter Susie Young noticed that her father’s wives were dressing more simply and preparing less elaborate meals. But she and her sisters loved to wear dresses trimmed with fancy store-bought ribbons, buttons, bows, and lace.32
One evening in May 1870, after family prayers, her father spoke to some of his daughters in the Lion House about starting a retrenchment association. “I should like you to get up your own fashions,” Brigham said. “Retrench in everything that is bad and worthless, and improve in everything that is good and beautiful. Not to be unhappy, but to live so that you may be truly happy in this life and in the life to come.”33
In the days that followed, Eliza instructed the young women in retrenchment principles and asked them to remove unnecessary ornaments from their clothes. The result was anything but stylish. Where ribbons and bows had once been were now spots of unfaded cloth. If retrenchment was supposed to make them appear different from the rest of the world, it was succeeding.34
Still, Susie and her sisters understood that retrenchment, like cooperation, was supposed to give the Saints a new pattern for living, untangling them from distracting fads and fashions so they were free to live the commandments with all their hearts.35
A few days after meeting with their father, some of Susie’s sisters organized the First Young Ladies’ Department of the Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Association. Welcoming young married women and single women alike, they resolved to dress modestly, support and sustain each other in good works, and be good examples to the world. Ella Empey, one of Susie’s married sisters, was selected as president, and Susie was presented the following day as the general reporter for the society.36
“Inasmuch as the Church of Jesus Christ is likened to a city set on a hill to be a beacon of light to all nations,” they resolved, “it is our duty to set examples for others, instead of seeking to pattern after them.”37