Harvard professor tells of Mormon diaries during MU lecture

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:10 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 10, 2009

COLUMBIA — Bitterness describes more than just the cold weather experienced by a group of Mormons on their trek across the Midwest. Their attitudes, at times, also became bitter.

Monday at MU, Harvard University professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich introduced a chapter from her upcoming book, which will chronicle the lives of various 19th-century Mormons. In 1991, Ulrich won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812."

Her presentation, titled "Mud and Fire: Mormon Diarists Cross Iowa," was the first in the MU history department's new Lewis Atherton Lecture Series, which is named in memory of a former MU history professor. The purpose of the series is to provide biennial lectures on wide-ranging areas of American history, according to Jonathan Sperber, MU history department chairman.

"I am interested in how people keep history," Ulrich said in a nearly packed Keller Auditorium in the Geological Sciences Building. Much of her research involved sifting through about a dozen diaries kept by Mormon men and women during their trek from Nauvoo, Ill., to Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1846.

She described the diaries as "unremarkable in their tedium," but what attracted her to the mundane tasks contained in the documents was their depiction of life within the Mormon community during a difficult journey.

"Some things were worse than illness," Ulrich said in the gentle cadence of a seasoned storyteller. This group of more than 14,000 Mormons faced many travails during its 300-mile wagon trip. If it wasn't rain or blizzards, it was family discord that dampened their spirits, she said.

During the mid-1800s, plural marriage was in a state of flux, Ulrich said. Polygamy was transitioning from a secretive spiritual ritual to a more openly accepted concept within the Mormon community. She said 700 women in Nauvoo were a part of plural marriages before the group left for Iowa.

A newly developing concept, polygamy was "a strange system of marriage where one man became responsible for more than one woman," she said. At the time, women were working through this new ritual and often displayed remarkable honesty in their journal entries.

When asked by an audience member if polygamy led to a greater subjugation of women during the 19th century, she said there is "evidence that many women felt liberated" and that polygamy was almost always about fertility.

There was the thought that "every woman should have the chance to be a mother," she said. Although Ulrich didn't deny that misogyny existed within the community, she did point out that "very few men had lots of wives."

She told the story of Wilford Woodruff, who was pressured by Brigham Young to take on two young wives. Not initially inclined toward plural marriage, Woodruff eventually drafted a manifesto seeking to end Mormon polygamy.

The audience was full of attendees of all ages, some of whom were undergraduate students seeking extra credit for one of the lower-level history classes. MU history professor Michelle Morris, one of Ulrich's former graduate students, had some of her students in attendance.

MU pre-journalism student Chi Yao attended the lecture after reading about it in a mass e-mail from MU. Yao said she thought it was good to expose herself to as many different areas of learning as possible.

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Sean M November 10, 2009 | 10:33 a.m.

There is a TV Program here in Utah called "Polygamy: What Love Is This?" (KTMW TV20, Salt Lake City). Last week they had a program dealing with the journals and diaries of early polygamist women. All their episodes, including the latest one, are viewable online as streaming video on their website,

(Report Comment)
Courtney Shove November 10, 2009 | 9:03 p.m.

Thanks, Sean. I'll have to check it out.

(Report Comment)
mrk vslkv November 10, 2009 | 9:16 p.m.

indeed, there's nothing special about these mormons - just ordinary people, like the rest, except they have the restored gospel of christ and try to live it the best they can. no not all. but so what?

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