By Their Own Pens

Kate Holbrook, PhD specializes in women’s history at the Church History Department. She is coeditor of The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Church Historians Press, 2016) and Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (University of Utah Press, 2016).

I don’t always love to read history. Sometimes it is boring. My mom reminded me (in public!) recently that when I was eleven, at the end of a road trip to Southern Utah with her and my grandma, I complained “Does EVERY trip have to be about history?”

My first day on the job at the Church History Library, September 2012, I began working on a document introduction and annotations for the book just now being released as The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. I had never worked on a documentary history before and I worried that it would be highly dull. But then I read the documents.

I am a historian; I knew that nineteenth century Mormon women gave healing blessings, spoke in tongues, served the poor, lived in plural marriages, and were the first women in the country to vote. I had heard the history described, but I hadn’t heard it described by the ones who lived it.

For example, I had never read the response of Provo Relief Society president Lucy Meserve Smith to the evil spirit she felt trying to smother her in 1856: “Old fellow you can figure away, but you’ve got the wrong pig by the ear this time” (215). Nor her description of ministering to members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies later that year: “I never took more satisfaction and I might say pleasure in any labour I ever performed in my life, such a unimmity [unanimity] of feeling prevailed, I only had to go into a store and make my wants known, if it was cloth it was measured off without charge” (217–218).

The weight of sericulture work sank in when I saw how many entries it occupied in Jane Blood’s diary—buying the eggs, buying more eggs, the eggs hatching, the worms spinning, gathering mulberry leaves to feed the worms, “I have been every night for a week” (458), reeling and reeling and reeling the silk, spinning and spinning the reels, then sewing. Often she just wrote, “Working with the silk worms. . .” Then, in springtime, “My silkworms are all hatched” (461).

I am grateful to women who kept records. Emmeline Wells was a crucial record-keeper, both in the forty-six volumes of her personal diaries and in her Woman’s Exponent newspaper, which chronicled women’s opinions and endeavors for over forty years. Part of the credit goes to Eliza R. Snow who, when Brigham Young commissioned her to restart Relief Society in 1868, carried the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute book to individual Relief Societies throughout the church, showing members how to record the happenings of their organizations. Even before her visits, though, some of the few Relief Societies that existed kept minutes. In 1856, Ellen Lunt compiled the Cedar City minute book, pictured above, from donations of mismatched paper that she bound together and covered with wallpaper she had brought from England.

Then there were uncommon women, like Jane Blood, who took seriously the counsel to keep a journal, even though they weren’t doing higher-status work like serving missions or running congregations. Some women wrote reminiscences later in life. Emma Liljenquist, trained by a Mormon woman doctor and set apart by Apostles to be a midwife, recalled both the joys of her work and the challenges: “It made my heart ache when I had to leave my babies and very often I could hear them crying as I walked down the street, but I had to go with a smile on my face and bring happiness into the sick room for I have never refused anyone who needed my assistance” (534).

In the introduction to a forthcoming book, A House Full of Females: Mormon Diaries, 1835-1870, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich distinguishes between using diaries and reminiscences as sources, “Retrospective accounts are valuable, but they have to be understood in relation to the commemorations and conflicts that produced them. This is not to say that diaries are more truthful than memoirs, just better at conveying the uncertainty of events as they unfolded.” This analysis is important for all historians to keep in mind, as well as readers of The First Fifty Years. Reading the records in this book, and Ulrich’s clarification of the roles of diaries and memoirs, have also finally convinced me that I need to write in a journal more than twice a year. That way if I do join those women who write a small family memoir near the end of life, I will have a record of events unfolding to consider while writing it.

A photograph of the Provo Fourth Ward Relief Society bedecks the cover of the The First Fifty Years. Three of the four members, Mary M. Boyden, Margaret Watson, and Delia Booth, hold books to read. The fourth, Sara Eggertson Cluff, is putting a pen to paper. Let’s be like them. Thank you, friends, for writing things down.


  1. I do in fact feel renewed desire and commitment to journal. Job well done.

  2. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Well done–I have loved MOrmon history ever since Leonard Arrington introduced me!

  3. J. Stapley says:

    This the Lord’s work. Thanks, Kate.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Well said, Kate. Thanks.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Holbrook. Excellent work.

  6. Thanks, Kate.

  7. truly excited about and grateful for the work you are doing. Love this piece.