Church History
32 Stand Up and Take the Pelting

“Stand Up and Take the Pelting,” chapter 32 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 32: “Stand Up and Take the Pelting”

Chapter 32

Stand Up and Take the Pelting

Woman and man embracing after woman’s baptism

George Q. Cannon and his wife Elizabeth were in Washington, DC, at the start of 1880. A new session of Congress was beginning, and George was still serving as Utah’s territorial representative. This year, he and Elizabeth had brought their two young daughters with them. They hoped to give the nation’s politicians and newspaper editors a positive view of Latter-day Saint families.1

Many people knew, of course, that George and Elizabeth practiced plural marriage. In fact, George had four wives and twenty living children. Yet, as one reporter observed, the Cannons did not match popular caricatures of the Saints. “If the virtues of an institution are to be rated by their refining and intelligent results,” one reporter wrote, “there should be no prejudices against polygamy.”2

But prejudice against the Saints had only worsened since the United States Supreme Court’s decision a year earlier in the George Reynolds case. In his annual address to the nation, issued in December 1879, President Rutherford Hayes had condemned polygamy and urged law enforcement officials to uphold the Morrill antipolygamy act.3

The president’s message emboldened some congressmen to oppose plural marriage more aggressively. One legislator introduced a bill proposing a constitutional amendment outlawing polygamy. Another declared his intention to expel George Q. Cannon from Congress. Citizens from all over the country, meanwhile, began pressuring their representatives to do more to eradicate plural marriage.

“The clouds seem to be gathering thick and portentous around us,” George wrote to John Taylor on January 13. “If the Lord does not furnish lightning rods to draw off the electricity in some other direction, which I feel satisfied He will, I see no other way for us to do than to stand up and take the pelting.”4

One night, around this time, Desideria Quintanar de Yáñez had a dream in which she saw a book called Voz de amonestación being printed in Mexico City. When she woke up, she knew she had to find the book.5

Desideria, a descendant of the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, was well respected in Nopala, the town where she and her son José lived. Though most people in Mexico were Catholic, Desideria and José belonged to a local Protestant congregation.6

Desideria felt she needed to go to Mexico City to search for the mysterious book, but the city was about seventy-five miles away. A railroad line could carry her part of the way, but most of her traveling would be on foot along unpaved roads. Desideria was in her sixties and in no condition to make the arduous journey.7

Determined to find the book, she told her son about the dream. José believed her and soon left for Mexico City in search of the unknown book.8

When José returned, he shared his astonishing experience with Desideria. He found Mexico City teeming with hundreds of thousands of people, and his search for the book seemed hopeless. But one day, while walking through the city’s busy streets, he met Plotino Rhodakanaty, who told him about a book called Voz de amonestación.

Plotino sent José to a hotel to meet with missionary James Stewart. There José learned that Voz de amonestación was the Spanish translation of a book called Voice of Warning, which Latter-day Saint missionaries had been using for decades to introduce English-speaking people to their faith. It testified of the Restoration of the gospel of Christ and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, a sacred record of ancient inhabitants of the Americas.9

Voz de amonestación was not yet off the printing press, but James gave José religious tracts to take home with him. José brought the tracts to his mother, and she studied them carefully. Desideria then asked for missionaries to come to Nopala and baptize her.

Meliton Trejo came to town in April and, at their request, baptized Desideria, José, and José’s daughter Carmen. A few days later, José returned to Mexico City and received the Melchizedek Priesthood. When he came home, his arms were laden with tracts and books, including ten copies of the newly printed Voz de amonestación.10

Ida Hunt’s earliest memory was of her grandfather Addison Pratt bouncing her on his knee. At the time, Ida’s family lived on a farm near San Bernardino, California. Her parents, John and Lois Pratt Hunt, had settled there when Ida was about a year old. But a few years later, at the prodding of Ida’s grandmother Louisa Pratt, her family had moved to Beaver, a small town in southern Utah, where Louisa had been living since 1858.

Addison died in California in 1872. Though he and Louisa could never resolve their differences and lived apart for most of the last fifteen years of their marriage, they remained affectionate toward their daughters and grandchildren. Ida loved both of them dearly.11

Ida lived one block away from Louisa’s house, and she spent countless afternoons at her grandmother’s side, learning one lesson or another. In 1875, when Ida was seventeen, she and her family moved away from Beaver. Three years later, Church leaders called the family to move again, this time to the town of Snowflake in Arizona Territory. But rather than go with her family, Ida decided to return to Beaver to live with her grandmother for a while.

Back in Beaver, Ida was indispensable to her grandmother and two aunts, Ellen and Ann, who lived nearby. She assisted with chores and helped care for sick family members. Not all of Ida’s time was spent at home, however. Her evenings were often filled with dinners, parties, and concerts. She soon began keeping company with a young man named Johnny.

In the spring of 1880, Ida’s family and friends in Snowflake pleaded for her to come home, and Ida made the difficult decision to leave Beaver. Louisa could hardly speak as she said goodbye to her granddaughter and wished her a safe journey. Her only consolation was the thought that Ida’s relationship with Johnny might bring her back to Beaver.12

Ida traveled to Snowflake with the family of Jesse Smith, president of the Eastern Arizona Stake. Two of his wives, Emma and Augusta, had a sacred, unselfish quality about their relationship with one another that Ida admired. Her own parents did not practice plural marriage, so she had little experience observing how plural families worked. But the more time she spent with the Smiths, the more she considered practicing plural marriage herself.13

Doing so would set Ida apart from other Saints her age. Though most Saints accepted and defended plural marriage, the number of plural families in the Church was in decline. The practice was largely limited to Saints in the American West, and plural marriages between Church members were not performed in Europe, Hawaii, or other places throughout the world.

At the height of the practice in the late 1850s, about half of the people in Utah could expect to be part of a plural family during their lives. That number had since dropped to around twenty or thirty percent, and it continued to shrink.14 Since plural marriage was not required of Church members, Saints could remain in good standing with God and the Church if they chose not to practice it.15

Several months after Ida arrived in Snowflake, she received news that her grandmother had died. Overcome by grief, Ida regretted leaving Louisa. If she had stayed in Beaver, she told herself, she could have comforted her grandmother during the last months of her life.

Around this time, Ida also received a letter from Johnny. He wanted to come to Arizona and marry her. But by then she hoped to marry a man who was willing to practice plural marriage. Johnny lacked faith in the gospel, and Ida knew he was not the right person for her.16

In 1880, the Church celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Recalling that ancient Israel held a Jubilee celebration every fifty years to forgive debts and free people from bondage, President John Taylor canceled the debts of thousands of poor Saints who had gathered to Zion with money borrowed from the Perpetual Emigrating Fund. He asked Saints who owned banks and businesses to cancel some of the debts owed them, and he urged Church members to donate livestock to the needy.

He also asked Emmeline Wells, the president of the Relief Society’s grain committee, to loan bishops as much wheat from Relief Society granaries as they needed to feed the poor in their wards.17

In June, President Taylor attended a conference of the Salt Lake Stake Relief Society. The meeting included representatives from the Primary Association and Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (Y.L.M.I.A.), which were seen as auxiliaries to the Relief Society. During the proceedings, Eliza Snow nominated Louie Felt, a ward Primary president, to supervise the Primary for the entire Church. The congregation sustained Louie and also approved two women to serve as her counselors.

Later at the same meeting, President Taylor asked a secretary to read an account of the organization of the Nauvoo Relief Society in 1842. President Taylor had attended that first meeting at which Emma Smith had been elected president of the society. He had also given Emma’s counselors, Sarah Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney, authority to act in their calling.

After the secretary finished reading the account, President Taylor spoke on the powers and duties the Relief Society gave to women. Mary Isabella Horne then proposed that he appoint Eliza Snow as president of all Relief Societies in the Church. Eliza had served as secretary of the original Relief Society, and she had been advising all ward Relief Societies for more than a decade. But there had been no general president of the Relief Society since Emma Smith led the organization in the 1840s.

President Taylor nominated Eliza to be the Relief Society general president, and the congregation sustained her. Eliza then chose Zina Young and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as her counselors, Sarah Kimball as the secretary, and Mary Isabella Horne as the treasurer. Like Eliza, they had all been members of the Relief Society in Nauvoo and had served in the organization since its reestablishment in Utah.

Later that afternoon, at the final meeting of the conference, Eliza nominated Elmina Taylor, one of Mary Isabella Horne’s counselors in a stake Relief Society presidency, to serve as general president of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association. Elmina was sustained along with counselors, a secretary, and a treasurer.18

Women throughout the territory rejoiced in these new general presidencies.

“I am greatly pleased to see my sisters moving in such order,” Phebe Woodruff declared at a Relief Society meeting one month later. Belinda Pratt, a stake Relief Society president, wrote in her journal: “What an age we are living in! How great the responsibilities of the sisters of the Church. What a work they are accomplishing!”19

Other inspired changes occurred in the Church that year. Since the death of Brigham Young three years earlier, the Quorum of the Twelve had led the Church without a First Presidency. After discussing and praying about the matter, the quorum unitedly sustained John Taylor as president of the Church and George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith as his counselors. Later, in a crowded session of the October general conference, the Saints raised their hands to support the new presidency.20

Following the sustaining, George Q. Cannon arose and proposed that the Pearl of Great Price, a collection of some of Joseph Smith’s writings and inspired translations, be made a new standard work of the Church. Although missionaries had been using editions of the Pearl of Great Price since its publication in 1851, this was the first time Church members had been asked to accept it as a volume of scripture.

“It is gratifying to see the oneness of feeling and united sentiment which has been manifested in our votes,” President Taylor said afterward. “Now continue to be united in other things, as you have been in this, and God will stand by you henceforth.”21

Six months later, in the bustling waterfront town of Trondheim, Norway, Anna Widtsoe stepped out of an icy fjord as a newly baptized member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though her body was cold, she had the fire of the gospel burning inside her, and she was filled with love for the Saints who surrounded her.

Anna’s path to baptism had not been easy. Her husband had died unexpectedly three years earlier, leaving her and her two young sons, John and Osborne, alone. They now lived off a small pension and her income from sewing dresses. After her husband’s death, Anna had turned to God, and she wondered why He had taken her husband from her.

She had read the Bible since her childhood and knew its stories. Now she studied it for answers. As she did, she felt herself growing closer to God. But something in the doctrines of the church she attended felt incomplete and unsatisfying.

One day a cobbler named Olaus Johnsen returned a pair of shoes she had asked him to repair. Inside each shoe was a religious tract. She read the tract and was curious to learn more, so she brought another pair of shoes to the cobbler on a warm spring day a short time later. At the shop, though, she was reluctant to ask the shoemaker too many questions. Just as she was opening the door to leave, he called to her.

“I can give you something of more value than soles for your child’s shoes,” he said.

“What can you, a shoemaker, give me?” she asked.

“I can teach you how to find happiness in this life and to prepare for eternal joy in the life to come,” he said.

“Who are you?” Anna asked.

“I am a member of the Church of Christ,” Olaus said. “We are called Mormons. We have the truth of God.”

At that, Anna fled the shop. Latter-day Saints had a reputation in Norway for being fanatics. But the tract intrigued her, and soon she attended a meeting with the Trondheim Saints at the home of Olaus and his wife, Karen. Rigid class distinctions marked Norwegian society, and Anna was distracted by the Johnsens’ humble home and the impoverished people who worshipped there. When her husband was alive, she had belonged to a wealthier class, and she tended to look down on poor people.

Over the next two years, Anna met regularly with the missionaries, despite her reservations. One day at home, she felt the Spirit powerfully. Class distinctions meant nothing to the Lord, but her prejudice was strong as she thought about the unpopular Church, its members, and their poverty. “Must I step down to that?” she asked herself.

She then answered her own question: “Yes, if it is the truth, I must do so.”22

Meanwhile, in the United States, James Garfield succeeded Rutherford Hayes as the nation’s president. Like Hayes, he condemned the Church and charged Congress with putting an end to plural marriage once and for all. When a disgruntled man shot Garfield a few months into his term, there was some speculation that the gunman was a Latter-day Saint.23 But the accusation was false. John Taylor quickly condemned the attack, expressed sympathy for the ailing president, and refused to blame him for the political stance he had taken against the Church.

“He, like the rest of us, is a fallible being,” John told the Saints. “We are all fallible, and it is not every man who can resist the pressure which is brought to bear upon him.”24

President Garfield died of his wound a few months later. His successor, Chester Arthur, was no less determined to stop plural marriage.25 As Utah’s delegate to Congress, George Q. Cannon felt the pressure immediately. In December 1881, Senator George Edmunds introduced a bill in Congress that would make it easier to prosecute Saints for practicing plural marriage.

If the Edmunds Act passed, Saints could be imprisoned for “unlawful cohabitation,” which meant that courts no longer had to prove that a plural marriage had taken place. Any Church member who appeared to be practicing plural marriage could be prosecuted under the law. Plural couples who lived in the same house or were seen together in public would be at risk of arrest.

The law would also take away voting rights from men and women in plural marriages, subject them to fines and prison terms, and bar them from serving on juries and holding political office.26

Adding to George’s pressure was the fact that his wife Elizabeth was back in Utah, sick with pneumonia. He wanted to be with her. On January 24, 1882, however, George received a telegram with a message from Elizabeth. “Stand to your post,” she urged him. “God can raise me up in answer to your prayers there as well as here.”

Two days later, George received another telegram. It reported that Elizabeth had passed away. “The thought that we are separated for the remainder of this life and that I shall never behold her face again nor have the pleasure of her affectionate attentions and sweet society in the flesh almost stuns me,” George wrote in his journal.27

The Edmunds Act passed a short time later, disqualifying George from serving in Congress. On April 19, he addressed the House of Representatives for the last time. He felt calmer than usual, but he was outraged by his colleagues’ decision to pass the Edmunds Act. The Saints practiced plural marriage because God had commanded them to do so, he said. They had no desire to force their belief on anyone but merely wished to be granted the right to obey God as they saw fit.

“So far as the condemnation of the world is concerned, we are willing to be placed on the same plane with Abraham,” George added.

Afterward, a few congressmen complimented George on his speech. Other representatives confessed that they had felt pressure to oppose him. Most just seemed content that he was leaving.28

The Edmunds Act did not change Ida Hunt’s mind about plural marriage. In the fall of 1881, she had lived with Ella and David Udall in the town of St. Johns, Arizona, about forty-five miles from Snowflake. During that time, she had worked in the local cooperative store with David, who was the bishop in St. Johns, and had grown as close to Ella as a sister.29

Soon after David became a bishop, he and Ella had concluded that it was time for them to practice plural marriage. A short time later, David proposed marriage to Ida with Ella’s consent. Ida wanted to accept his proposal, but she could tell that Ella was still struggling with the idea of sharing her husband. So, instead of responding to David’s offer, Ida returned to Snowflake, her heart in turmoil.30

Later, Ida wrote a letter to learn Ella’s true feelings about the marriage proposal. “I cannot allow the matter to go farther without first having received some assurance of your willingness to such a step being taken,” she told her friend. “It is not only your right but your imperative duty to state plainly any objections you may have.”

“I promise you,” she assured Ella, “I shall not be offended.”31

Ella sent a short reply six weeks later. “The subject in question is one which has caused me a great amount of pain and sorrow, more perhaps than you would imagine,” she wrote, “yet I feel as I have done from the beginning, that if it is the will of the Lord I am perfectly willing to try to endure it and trust that it will be overruled for the best good of all.”32

On May 6, 1882, Ida left Snowflake on an eighteen-day journey to the St. George temple with David, Ella, and their little daughter, Pearl. As they rolled slowly across the desert, Ida could see that Ella was still unhappy about the marriage. Ida was careful with her words and actions, concerned that she might say or do something to cause Ella more pain. Together they read books aloud and played with Pearl to stave off uncomfortable silences.

One night, Ida spoke privately with David, worried about Ella’s unhappiness and afraid that she had made the wrong choice in accepting David’s proposal. His loving, encouraging words brought hope to her heart. She went to bed that night reassured that God would support them through their trials as they tried to be obedient.

Ida and David were sealed in the St. George temple on May 25. In the face of an uncertain future, Ida felt she could trust David to care for her, and she prayed that her love for him would only increase. Ella also seemed to find comfort in the words and counsel of the man who performed the ceremony.

That night, the family stayed at the home of one of Ella’s sisters. After everyone else went to bed, Ella slipped into Ida’s room, unable to sleep. For the first time, the two women talked face-to-face about their new relationship to each other—and their hopes and desires for the future.

Both women believed that Ida’s marriage to David was God’s will. But now that the Edmunds Act was in force, the events of the day had placed their family even more at odds with the government.

“Marriage under ordinary circumstances is a grave and important step,” Ida wrote that night in her journal, “but entering into plural marriage, in these perilous times, is doubly so.”33