Troubling the old stories with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich recently published one of the best books ever written about nineteenth-century Mormonism. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s called A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835 to 1870. The folks at Juvenile Instructor are hosting an online book club this summer; it begins later this week.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Ulrich on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, where I ask her about how she paints a fuller, richer, grittier and more complex portrait of the early church:

BHODGES: You introduce readers, Laurel, to the idea that Mormon history is awash with faith-promoting stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. And in chapter two, you relate stories about the miraculous healings that were reported in the earliest days of Nauvoo. This is a city that was founded on basically a malaria-ridden swamp land which they then turned into this beautiful city. Here’s a quote from you; you say, “The few women who appear in these [faith promoting stories] are shadowy figures. Adding women to the narrative allows us to see the courage, the piety, the generosity, and the foolhardiness of a people hungry for a witness of God’s power. Women’s voices trouble the old stories.”

Talk about that a little bit, “troubling the old stories.”

LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH: Well, they do trouble the old stories, because they take us behind the scenes [laughs], they take us backstage, so we don’t just see the pronouncements of Joseph Smith on the hill by Nauvoo. We see Zina Jacobs awake at night praying and trying to make decisions in her life. We don’t just see Brigham Young declaring “This is the place,” and going in and establishing a new religious community. We see women literally huddled together in leaking cabins in the dank spring trying to access a divine witness that they were where they should be and that they can find a way to endure it.

So we get to the daily challenge of discipleship, which isn’t usually about the grand revelatory moments, I think. I think it really is a lot about this slog.

Does this approach to LDS history interest you? Are you comfortable having the story “troubled” a bit more? Would this approach have appealed to you ten years ago, or even fifteen? Is there something about this present moment that makes a book like this more digestible for some active, believing church members?

Pick up a copy of the book here.

Listen to the MIPodcast interview here.

Read a transcript here.

Join the JI Summer Book Club here.

She’ll be at MHA this year, too. 


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great podcast, thank you both. (And I very much appreciate the transcript option.)

  2. It’s a wonderful book. It bears rereading. MI podcast is great stuff.

  3. Would you people stop writing and recommending great books. I don’t have enough time to read all them. (But I just couldn’t resist, I just added this one to my Kindle anyway.)

  4. Great quote and point. We want to see the testimony of the great sensational moments when usually it comes in the long slog. Enduring to the end is the hard part.

  5. Hunter says:

    To answer your question, Blair, yes, of course “troubling the water” of our history with new, refreshing stories is of interest. And I would bet it’s of interest to most BCC readers.

    I find that most Church members–conservative, progressive, whatever–appreciate hearing about the hardships of early Church members. Makes them more real. But, it’s all about the delivery, right?

  6. Martin says:

    Audible sells A House Full of Females. I’m only about 1/4 of the way through, and I think its fantastic.

  7. Cynthia H says:

    I’m at BYU today and bought the last copy off the shelf. I knew I had to read it after listening to the podcast.

  8. Sheldon says:

    I listened to the Audible version of A House Full of Females and liked it. I did have to try to get accustomed to the narrator’s non-Mormon pronunciation of some standard Mormon terms, e.g. Nefee.

  9. Cant wait to hear this podcast. Just finished Audible version! Most excellent! Best book in my opinion since RSR.

  10. N. W. Clerk says:

    I see 9 copies on the shelves at the BYU Store.

  11. BHodges says:

    NWC: Sounds like they received another shipment. It was interesting, when Laurel spoke at BYU in March the bookstore sold every copy they brought to the event, which was a first for an Institute event. The book is catching people’s attention.

  12. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    wonderful book, wonderful Laurel! Isn’t the Nauvoo swamp story a myth??

  13. Mary, do you mean a myth that it was a swamp, or a myth that Joseph healed a bunch of folks sick with cholera or malaria or something? I don’t know about the healings, but the place was undoubtedly a swamp when the Saints first arrived. The drainage system that dried up the flats is still extant, although the river has changed significantly since the construction of the Mississippi Lock and Dam system about 100 years ago. Even so, after the majority of the church members fled, it was the heights that stayed inhabited while the lower city was largely deserted as the years passed.

    I’ll echo Kevin in being thankful for the transcript. Podcasts aren’t always convenient, but I can generally get in a fast read. This is a very good one – thanks for your work. Another book on the list!

  14. JR Stuart says:

    Thanks for the JI shoutout, Blair! I agree, it’s a most remarkable book. Also, you are my favorite podcast host. May you do it forever.

  15. BHodges says:

    Thanks, Jr Stuart, my friend.

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