Sexual Violence in Church History

We’re pleased to feature this guest post from Kristine A., who blogs regularly at Wheat and Tares.

I attended the Church History Symposium in Utah co-hosted by BYU and the Church History Department last week. I live-tweeted quite a bit of the whole weekend using #LDSwomen and #CHsymposium. The most memorable session was Andrea Radke-Moss’ presentation on her paper “Beyond Petticoats and Poultices: Finding a Women’s History of the Mormon-Missouri War of 1838.” I overheard some Mormon historians mentioning that her presentation was likely the biggest reveal/discovery in Mormon history in at least the past 50 years.


The story of Amanda Smith’s miraculous poultice for her son and Emma hiding manuscripts in her petticoats ARE heroic and worth knowing. But they aren’t the full story – we need to expand the narrative of LDS women in Church History.

As she began she mentioned she would be talking about sexual violence, specifically rape (trigger warning). She then recounted some of the stories we’ve heard about people fearing Missouri mobs, but taken in context of the threat of sexual violence had new meaning. When Mary Isabella Horne experienced the terror of war in Far West “she said she would not humble herself to let them [the mob] see she was afraid.” For women the mobs always came with the threat of sexual violence; the mobs often bragged of their rapes and gangs of rapes against Mormon women. Such was the brutality of the sexual crimes, that one anonymous victim wasn’t able to recover to normal health over three months.

The first documented claim of rape was when LDS leaders went to authorities in an attempt to get redress from the crimes committed against them. Interestingly they never sought for redress for individuals, but for the group as a whole. In fact, the attacks of sexual violence were the main claims of injury the LDS leaders made about the treatment from their enemies. The witnesses on record were all male (e.g., Hyrum Smith and Parley P. Pratt), as rape was seen as a crime between men (one man had damaged the property of another man), and the burden of proof was on the victim to prove that it happened. Since the culture of the time saw rape victims as damaged in virtue and reputation, and every effort was made to conceal their identities to minimize this effect. Rape seems to have always been a crime that resulted in more shame than justice. Dr. Radke-Moss noted that Joseph Smith was actually very progressive in his views towards rape victims at this time and never treated them as less.



Back when Dr. Radke-Moss started researching sexual violence for her paper, she came into contact with Joseph Johnstun, a fellow researcher on early church history (particularly Missouri and Nauvoo). He’d come across rape accounts that matched with a story from family lore. He ended up finding several sources that that show Hannah Kinney Johnstun, the sister of his ancestor, an unwed woman who moved to Quincy from Missouri, gave birth and died shortly thereafter. Both she and her baby are buried underneath what is now a children’s playground there. Johnstun wrote and presented a paper on it at Mormon History Association in 2010. [1] He was more than generous in sharing this account and work with Dr. Radke-Moss and has been very supportive of her research.

Dr. Radke-Moss also revealed that she’d found evidence that Eliza R. Snow had been gang raped in Missouri. Since Thursday much has been said about the efficacy of the source, which is up for further discussion, I believe, after the paper is published. It is interesting to note that in the past few days we have seen readers and commenters sharing corroborative sources about Mormon women as rape victims in Missouri and Nauvoo – mostly from family histories, which is where Andrea suspects many of the stories are lurking. Dr. Radke-Moss mentioned there had been rumors of a possible rape and other historians had guessed that based on her poetry about her time in Missouri (it being rather dark and angry compared to her other works) she had suffered something like this but it had never been documented.  The highlighting of Eliza’s poetry was especially poigniant given Amy Easton-Flake’s presentation on Friday about the importance of poetry (especially from the Exponent) in the historical record. She said LDS women often regarded poetry as the best way to express their emotions about events in their life. Below is a slide with a selection of Eliza’s poetry as an example:

’Twas Autumn: Summer’s melting breath was gone,
And winter’s gelid blast was stealing on.
To meet its dread approach, with anxious care
The houseless Saints were struggling to prepare.

When round about a desp’rate mob arose,
Like tigers waking from a night’s repose —
They come like hordes from nether shades let loose —
Men without hearts — just made for Satan’s use!

With wild demoniac rage they sally forth,
Resolv’d to drive the Saints of God from Earth.



The spirit in the room was very somber, you could hear a pin drop. It felt like we were treading the sacred space of our foremothers. When telling the story of Eliza R. Snow’s rape, I believe it needs the context of all of the sexual violence against Mormon women during Mormon-Missouri war. This wasn’t an isolated incident, this is part of our heritage story. As we face the stories of our history of sexual violence, we can honor the nameless (and named) survivors as the heroines they truly were.

I also hope that our community can mature to the point that we can discuss the reality and consequences of sexual violence in our past and present; and that we can work to remove the scales of shame and secrecy that have so long silenced the survivors. For example, the Department of Education has on record that BYU-Idaho and Rexburg have 0 reported rapes and 2 cases of fondling from 2012-2014.  [2] Um, maybe on one Wednesday night? There’s a reason young Mormon women aren’t reporting their assaults. Talking about our past could be the first step to fixing the problem for our future.


P.S. Andrea Radke-Moss’ presentation only covered the first half of her paper and she’ll be presenting the second half at the Mormon History Association’s annual conference this June – to which I’m sure will be a standing-room-only crowd. Meanwhile, over at Juvenile Instructor, she addresses some of the questions that have arisen since her presentation.

[1] Emily Jensen’s report on Joseph Johnstun’s presentation at MHA in 2010

[2] Dept of Education statistics reported from BYU-Idaho and Rexburg (search for “Brigham Young University-Idaho here)


  1. “There’s a reason young Mormon women aren’t reporting their assaults. Talking about our past could be the first step to fixing the problem for our future.”

    I truly hope that something can help fix the problem. It is deeply rooted and reinforced by the local leaders in the community I grew up in. I have come to believe that it is an epidemic in the LDS church, and one that has to be culturally addressed.

  2. Disfellowshipped says:

    I think it’s important to note that there’s a reason that young Mormon women AND men aren’t reporting their assaults. I was sexually assaulted by my senior companion and was disfellowshipped because I didn’t know what happened to me. I confessed to sin because I didn’t realize that I could be raped. Maybe if my mission president, general membership, and I had known about sexual assault and that notable and great people in our history had been sexually assaulted, I wouldn’t have had to deal with the shame of being disfellowshipped for a sin that I didn’t commit. I’m so grateful that this information is finally out.

  3. Kristine A says:

    Yes, disfellowshipped, sexual assaults against Mormon men aren’t unheard of and need to be spoken of without shame as well. I do believe men were also victims of sexual assault during the Missouri war if I’m remembering correctly, but since the conference focused on untold women’s stories it wasn’t spoken of at length.

    I also attended Janiece Johnson’s presentation in the role of women in Mountain Meadows Massacre, and knowing the prevalence of rape in Missourri…..the perceived threat from the Arkansans (to Mormon women) was one reason the violence was perpetuated. Knowing the history of sexual violence puts so many other incidents in their proper context.

  4. Disfellowshipped says:

    Kristine A,

    I just realized that my reaction was not appropriate for the subject matter. I’m embarrassed about that and apologize. I’m still coming to terms with what happened to me, even though it’s been five years.

    I hope that Sis. Andrea’s work can continue to bring light to the ugly things that happened in our past so that we can deal with the same ugly things that happen today.

    Thank you for your post.

  5. Thanks. I highly recommend Andrea Radke-Moss’ comments over at Juvenile Instructor. (Apologies for violating cross-posting etiquette, but it’s in the P.S. anyway.) It’s a thoughtful response that well illustrates what I think “doing history” is about, and what it’s not.

  6. Kristine A says:

    Yes, I didn’t know both of our posts would go up the same day, but hers is a #mustread.

    I think to provide more context to the issues we face as a Mormon culture:

    Here is an article in the BYUI Scroll that quotes the Rexburg police captain saying that rapes are over-reported because the girls just feel guilty about having consensual sex.

    And another article here about the safety of BYUI & Rexburg where a student says, ““In my opinion, I feel safe here because we’re on a campus that is dedicated and protected by God,” said Katie Spjute, a freshman studying psychology.

    Every time local and university officials are quoted about sexual assaults it’s either to talk about how much better Rexburg is than everywhere else (nationwide average of 1/4 college females are victims of sexual assault) or they are baffled that *if* the assaults are actually happening why no one would report them at their Title IX office. Maybe we need to be training bishops to help victims report. They are in all likelihood the first place BYUI students would go, most likely because victims are left wondering what they said/did/wore – because they are taught boys will respect you if you dress/act like a woman of God, right? I’ve heard quite a few stories of bishops not believing the young women because they don’t have bruises that show they fought back.

  7. Last Lemming says:

    From the OP: For example, the Department of Education has on record that BYU-Idaho and Rexburg have 0 reported rapes…from 2012-2014.

    From Kristine A. at 12:01PM: Here is an article in the BYUI Scroll that quotes the Rexburg police captain saying that rapes are over-reported because the girls just feel guilty about having consensual sex.

    I was going ask if the police captain believes the correct number is actually negative, but then I encountered the very next quote in the Scroll article: “The vast majority of rapes in Rexburg are not consensual,” Harris said. “Consensual rape victims are seldom.”

    The mind reels.

  8. Jason K. says:

    Relevant to BYUI bishops not believing girls because they can’t show they fought back: Idaho law uses a forcible rape standard, not a consent standard (although it does define incapacity in terms of consent). That is, unless a woman can prove that she was unable to consent, getting a conviction requires proving that she fought back. In other words, absent such evidence, reporting isn’t going to do any good. (And apropos Disfellowshipped’s story, Idaho law explicitly defines rape as an act that men perpetrate against women, so his case wouldn’t be actionable as rape in that jurisdiction.)

    I don’t think that law can solve everything, especially not in the sexual arena, but the statutory situation does make a difference. Getting convictions under a consent standard (“No means no”) is still difficult (see, e.g., the St. Paul’s School case last year), but changing the standard might at minimum create an environment more conducive to a belief that reporting rape might make a difference. And the standard absolutely shouldn’t define rape in such clearly gendered terms. In my mind the cultural shift matters more than the legal one, but I think that a legal shift has to be part of of the overall picture.

  9. Jason K. says:

    LL: the mind does indeed reel.

  10. Last Lemming says:

    And can somebody please reassure Disfellowshipped that his reaction was not inappropriate. If this becomes one more place that male rape victims feel unsafe, the post will have failed.

  11. Jason K. says:

    I’ll go on record: Disfellowshipped, I salute your courage in sharing your experience in this venue. Nothing about it was inappropriate (except that the rape happened in the first place, which isn’t your fault). Speaking about experiences like yours can be of great help to other people, so thank you for raising your voice. I hope that you can find the healing you seek.

  12. Threadjack perhaps, but reading through the OP and comments (including but not limited to Disfellowshipped) I am left wondering whether there is a blindness to the possibility of a Mormon committing rape. Some kind of “can’t happen here.” A logic(?) being that “no sex outside of marriage” and lessons about staying far from the edge — meaning nothing like sex even with the clearest consent — should mean that nobody is supposed to get into the vicinity of non-consensual sex, i.e., rape. The Eliza Snow and other experiences described in the OP involve outsiders and the lessons I draw fall into the general category of victim shaming (which is a serious issue that we have to discuss and deal with). Rape committed by one of our own, by someone in the community–does it happen?, can it happen?, whom do we believe?, how does it get reported?–is a somewhat different and also serious category of issues.
    Perhaps even further afield, I wonder if rape by an insider is what D&C 42:24-26 is about? These verses stand out as different from the normal run of scriptures and teaching regarding repentance and forgiveness, i.e., “if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out.”

  13. Kristine A says:

    I 100% agree, there was absolutely nothing inappropriate about Disfellowshipped’s comment. I was left wondering why he thought so. Sexual violence tends to be discussed in gendered terms, as even I did in the OP, and that silences other victims; something I apologize for.

    As for legal standards that are all across the board in the nation/world – I suppose regardless of the standards we can try to hold our community to a higher one. Regardless whether legal convictions are possible, we need to be empowering victims/survivors with stories like Eliza’s. as a community we can’t solve the legal issues, but we can solve the silence and shame.

  14. Consensual rape. Who are these people?

  15. John Mansfield says:

    It doesn’t take much to turn a paper on a crime committed by anti-Mormons into an opening to discuss what’s wrong with the Mormons 180 years later.

  16. John Mansfield (2:01 pm): I read your comment and chuckled with self-recognition “yup”. But stopped myself with the realization that your comment is a form of victim shaming. An indirect way of saying “don’t talk about this stuff.” And then I don’t chuckle or agree.

  17. Disfellowshipped says:

    Thanks everyone of the support. I’ve only ever told my wife and the people to whom I “confessed,” about my experience, so I’m humbled by your kind words.

    After reading what I wrote, I felt it inappropriate because it seemed like (for lack of a better comparison) I was crying “ALL LIVES MATTER” when we were talking specifically about Black lives mattering. Yes, sexual assault and rape are wrong no matter the sex of the victim, and there needs to be greater visibility, but Kristine was specifically talking about the rape and sexual assault of women.

    And for the record, I don’t feel like I have been shamed or silenced in any way by this thread.

  18. Jason K., it’s probably worth pointing out that Idaho law includes “Male Rape” in its definition of rape, and the penalties for raping a male are nearly identical to the penalties for raping a female. I’m not a crim law guy, so I have no idea how common these bifurcated definitions are, and haven’t thought about the normative aspects of it, but in Idaho, even though the definition is gendered, it’s not limited to a crime of men against women.

  19. I am left wondering whether there is a blindness to the possibility of a Mormon committing rape. Some kind of “can’t happen here.”

    Oh, there absolutely is, but this is–as you allude to later–an in-group/out-group problem pretty much universal to human nature. It’s hard to not want to trust in the goodness of those you have chosen to include in your in-group. Unfortunately, whether you want to call them sociopaths or just plain evil, there are a lot of people who know this human tendency very well and take advantage of it at every turn. In communities characterized by notably high levels of in-group trust, these “wolves” have free reign–which is why Utah is the nation’s capital of “affinity fraud,” and why child molestation and rape are rampant among Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.

    The ultimate solution is to apply the same level of distrust to everyone, but this comes at a significant emotional and spiritual cost.

  20. There are at least two kinds of distrust that need to be considered. One is a distrust by in-group members of other in-group members, in the direction of avoiding high-risk situations in the same way as with out-group persons. The second is a distrust by leaders of in-group members, manifest by challenging assumptions and resisting the “can’t happen here” syndrome. “Wise as serpents” comes to mind, in both cases.

  21. I see several comments about how pervasive sexual assault is but other than disfellowshipped don’t see any description of how bad the problem is. I don’t live in a large Mormon community. How large is the problem? Clearly there are more rapes than BYUI reports but do we know how bad it might be?

  22. “Here is an article in the BYUI Scroll that quotes the Rexburg police captain saying that rapes are over-reported because the girls just feel guilty about having consensual sex.”

    I’m confused by this. Are you saying this doesn’t happen? Or that the captain is pooh-poohing actual rape unfairly? At first blush, this would seem to me to be a plausible statement. Maybe I’m missing something.

  23. Jason K. says:

    Sam: Good catch. I missed that. Still, by law, only a man can be a rapist.

    Which gets to jimbob’s question. One of the problems with the “affirmative consent” standards in place on many college campuses (although presumably not BYU-I, for a host of reasons) is the way that they can create cases where one partner (female) can claim after the fact that the sex was non-consensual, leading to school discipline of the other partner (male), who can then sue the school for Title IX discrimination, because it assumed that rapists are make. I’m aware of a pending case along these lines. Both parties were heavily intoxicated when they had sex and had exchanged text messages entertaining the possibility.

    So, the idea might not be ludicrous. OTOH, it points to a reason why law, however important, is inadequate to the situation. Not only can courts lack information required to adjudicate cases correctly, but allegations of rape can also be used as a form of violence.

    Ethically, we’re clearly obligated to side with the victims, but filling that obligation can be difficult in practice. In our society, the victims are more likely to be women and sexual minorities, because patriarchy, but we have to be wary of letting that probability blind us to the exceptions. I don’t envy the people who have to judge these matters.

  24. Jim Bob: estimates range from 20-25% of college age women will be assaulted
    only about 20-25% of those end up being reported
    and only about 2-8% of those reported end up being false

    I do believe BYUI would have a lower sexual assault rate than the general population
    I also believe we would have a much lower % of rapes reported
    We probably have a much lower false reporting rate, but since so few report the Rexburg Captain probably has a skewed view. Also he could have other biases at play.

    I suppose that we could approach this many ways, but comfort level in maturely discussion sexual assault would be the first. We first just need to break the ice. Acknowledge there are victims that shame and secrecy are silencing. Find out how we can do better. During freshman orientation can we have a 30 minute video on what consent and assault is and how to report? It doesn’t take much to start to change.

  25. Anonymous says:

    “Dr. Radke-Moss noted that Joseph Smith was actually very progressive in his views towards rape victims at this time and never treated them as less.”

    Thank you for this! After I was raped in my early twenties, it was a long struggle to get past the law-of-chastity-induced guilt, and it is somehow comforting to know that Joseph Smith was ahead of the trend on this issue.

    It seems pretty clear to me that we Mormons have an added set of issues to work through after surviving a rape. We have to push past the distrust and the fear and the violation, just like everybody else. But our religious background means that we also have to somehow reconcile our experience with the law of chastity and the plan of salvation, not to mention statements by past Church leaders that women should defend their virtue with their lives. And we have potential pluses too: religious practices (like priesthood blessings and prayer) and concepts (like feeling like God’s love). These distinctive experiences make it particularly important for Mormon rape victims to speak up — and to speak up as both a Mormon and as someone who has been through rape.

    And sorry! I couldn’t quite muster the gumption to use my name this time.

    One positive note: I was raped in Provo, and it was a Mormon police officer who first gave me hope that I had not somehow committed a horrible sin that was going to cut me off from God’s presence. He didn’t say anything profound or complicated, but I will never forget his kindness.

  26. Prosecutor says:

    Kristine A, I concur with your conclusion that the overall sexual assault rates at BYUI would be lower; however, I would attribute that almost solely to lower incidents of alcohol use among students. While I’m not naive enough to think that there is zero drinking among BYU students, I do think that the dynamics are different enough that your typical 20 year old sexual predator who uses alcohol to incapacitate victims will have a harder time among BYU system populations than among non-BYU system populations (Please note that I’m not categorically stating that Mormons are incapable of sexual assault – the first sexual assault case I ever handled was a Mormon perpetrator and a VERY evil man – just that certain common techniques of committing sexual assault are likely to have a lower effective rate among LDS populations).

    As background, I prosecuted sexual assaults for five years in the military, and the common thread among all of the peer-on-peer sexual assault cases I handled (and by peer-on-peer, I mean cases where the accused and victim were relatively close in age as opposed to child offenses or other cases of high power distance) was the use of alcohol. The vast majority of offenders and victims were between the ages of 18-25 so I would argue that my prosecution experiences are fairly in line with what is going on on your average non-BYU college campus.

    I’ve attended many, many sexual assault trainings, and the one thing I wish we could help everyone understand is how sexual predators use alcohol as a weapon against victims. Unfortunately, in my experience, this information is often taken out of context in two ways. First, some use it as an excuse to blame victims who do use alcohol. “If you had simply obeyed the Word of Wisdom, this wouldn’t have happened!” Unfortunately, I’ve seen that line of logic pointed at victims far too many times with devastating consequences.

    The second way is to conclude that any talk of alcohol use, including predator targeting of incapacitated victims, is simply victim blaming and is thus completely off-limits. With that premise, it’s easy to then conclude that there is nothing a potential victim, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can do to decrease the chances of being targeted. I believe this to be a false and dangerously misleading conclusion.

    Ultimately, I continue to pray that we’ll get to a place in both in the Church and society at large where we can talk and teach honestly about sexual assault in a way that both encourages people to reduce the ability of predators to target them and helps us to understand and support victims in the aftermath of a life-devastating event without judgement, scolding, or blame .

  27. Michael says:

    (Prosecutor) I concur with your conclusion that the overall sexual assault rates at BYUI would be lower; however, I would attribute that almost solely to lower incidents of alcohol use among students.

    There’s another factor at play here. BYU Idaho doesn’t have intercollegiate sports teams. In my experience at Idaho State – same area of the country, high-LDS population, a large percentage of the sexual assault/harassment crimes against students were committed by student athletes. I knew young women who had been attacked, but who knew that reporting the crime would be pointless and could lead to additional problems. These were girls guilty of nothing more than walking from the dorms to the LDS Institute for an evening class. A cartoon in the student paper at the time even alluded to this – a reporter asking the coach if he could comment on the team’s record, with the coach replying that all questions regarding criminal activity should be addressed to the team attorney.

    Now, I’d still guarantee that the actual rate of sexual violence in Rexburg is greater than reported, but it may not rise to the level of Pocatello, Salt Lake City, Provo, or Ole Miss.

  28. Not to take anything away from the post, Kristine, but the 1 in 5 number has not been without its critics. Here’s one example from a fairly centrist newspaper:

  29. Clark Goble says:

    Kristine, that’s very interesting. I didn’t know that was a context for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  30. Clark Goble says:

    Kristine, while I think it undeniable that there are more rapes than reported and we should do all we can to make victims feel comfortable coming forward, that 1 in 4 rape statistic is generally considered to be extremely dubious. At a minimum there’s a huge problem of definition since it includes unwanted touching in that figure. We can focus on the real problem and doing more without spreading falsehoods (that unfortunately let some to dismiss the problem). Note I assume you were well intentioned. A lot of people don’t realize how bad a lot of the statistics that get repeated are. Sadly accurate statistics are difficult, and perhaps impossible, to get.

    That doesn’t mean we should be complacent. Far from it. However bad statistics justified by good intentions make studying crime much more difficult and thereby more difficult to figure out the best approaches to solve the problems.

  31. Yes it seems I’ve committed an error myself – I was taking my stats from this report which itself was debunking the over-inflating of rape statistics. I thought I’d read that stat in the article and I was mistaken. The rest of the stats I listed are from there and are accurate, including the rates of false reports. As always, RAINN is usually my go to stats place.

  32. Susan Brownmiller’s book “Against our Will Men, Women and Rape” has about 2 pages on Mormon women being raped. It is the only place I have read anything about it. Other groups talk about the horror of slavery, Native American genocide or the Holocaust. I always wondered why this is not talked about as part of our history.

  33. In some cases, unwanted touching can be the best way to define rape – not all rape is defined by the use of a penis. There’s a significant argument to be made that forcible penetration with fingers or other objects is also rape.

    I have a friend who walked from an apartment to her car outside at about 10 pm in Provo. She was getting something out of the trunk, when a Jeep with four guys pulled up beside her car, cutting her off from the driver’s side. They were yelling at her and threatening to rape her, so she ran for it. When she reported the incident to the police, the officer told her that it was irresponsible of her to be out at night, and that the guys could probably see her butt while she was leaning into her trunk and that’s very alluring for guys.

    When the Provo police are blaming girls for getting something out of their trunk, 20 feet from their apartment, at 10 pm, instead of blaming the guys who are threatening and harassing them, I have a pretty easy time believing that their response to reports of rape wouldn’t be much better.

  34. Clark Goble says:

    Jaclyn, but that’s not the standard of those statistics. While unwanted groping is wrong and should be condemned it’s quite different from more aggressive rape.

    Regarding your friend, she should call the police department. There’s no way that is approved behavior by the police. Not all police are good. Unless the public makes a fuss about the bad ones they’ll never be stopped. That’s certainly not how the police I’ve dealt with would have responded.

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