Meet Josephine Spencer: Mormon Writer, Editor, Teacher of Youth, and Communist

Faint and far in the night the wail of a child
Borne on heedful winds to a heedless ear;
Then, in the gray of a startled dawn, the wild,
Curdling cry of a million voices near. 
–Josephine Spencer, “Revolution”

You know from the book club that BCC Press will be publishing the unpublished work of Maurine Whipple next month. What you might not know is that we will also be publishing the first volume of the collected works of Josephine Spencer (1861-1928), edited by Ardis Parshall and Michael Austin. Spencer, we estimate, is the most important figure in Mormon literature that most people have never heard of.  

Spencer was born into the middle-ranks of the Mormon aristocracy. Her father. Daniel Spencer, had been the mayor of Nauvoo and a member of the Council of the Fifty before the migration. In Utah, he was the President of the Salt Lake City Stake from 1849 until his death in 1868, when Josephine was 7 years old. She attended the Brigham Young Academy and received a certificate in English before joining the staff of the Deseret News, where she worked for most of the year as the Society Editor. 

And she also wrote stuff. Lots of stuff. And she published it in almost every one of the Church’s periodicals during her lifetime. Her works appear in the Womens’ Exponent, the Contributor, the Juvenile Instructor, the Young Women’s Journal, the Relief Society Journal, and the Improvement Era. From 1890 through 1920, Spencer was one of, if not the most prolific writer in the Mormon world. 

She also published to national audiences in forms as varied as The Black Cat (a fantasy and horror magazine published in comic book format), The Youth’s Companion (a Boston-based newspaper that published heart-warming stories of family life), and The Coming Light (a socialist /humanist magazine based in San Francisco). The work in this latter magazine comes from Spencer’s main side-hustle, which was calling down the wrath of God on the overfed heads of an oppressive bourgeoisie.

OK, “communist” is probably the wrong term. Spencer was writing well before the Russian Revolution and the Cold War, so the revolutionary nature of her writing would not have had the same rhetorical force that it would have now. But she was a committed progressive, a member of the Populist Party, a firm labor advocate, and a believer in a society that shared its resources equitably among all of its people. 

Modern Latter-day Saints will probably be shocked at the way that Spencer’s fiction and poetry mix profound loyalty to Mormonism, uplifting morality tales for youth, and calls for the proletariat to rise up and throw off their chains. But this ideological combination was much easier to hold in balance during Spencer’s life, when many Latter-day Saints supported progressive movements.

In 1896, just one year after Spencer’s most political stories were published in a volume called The Senator from Utah, Utah voted in its first presidential election by giving William Jennings Bryan–the Democratic/Populist candidate who shared many of Spencer’s views–83% of its popular vote with only 17% for Republican William McKinley. It remains the most lopsided presidential contest in Utah’s history.

Nothing shows this side of Josephine Spencer better than the title story of her 1895 collection, The Senator from Utah, a story of murderous plots, labor strikes, capitalist treachery, and labor solidarity–nothing you couldn’t have found in the novels of Émile Zola and Upton Sinclair. But keep in mind that this story was originally published in a magazine aimed at LDS youth by a woman who would go on to write more literature for that audience than anyone in her generation.

The important fact is not that a prominant Mormon woman could write such a thing–it is that nobody at the time considered it a particularly strange thing that she did.

Comments

  1. I guess I don’t find the content of her writings to be too controversial when you take into account how much Brigham Young was all about not letting businesses from “the East” take take the Saints’ hard earned money and goods, and that the Saints were to make purchases locally, ideally from their local cooperative. Every little town was to create their own cooperative, and support it by selling and buying from it. It doesn’t take much to flip the words town and cooperative into a commune, and you can see what Karl Marx was going for.

  2. .

    I am 100% buying this book as soon as it drops.

  3. Andrew H. says:

    Really looking forward to this. See these great articles on Spencer and her stories:
    Kylie Nielson Turley, “‘Untrumpeted and Unseen’: Josephine Spencer, Mormon ‘Authoress'” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 127-164
    https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/mormonhistory/vol27/iss1/1/

    Kylie Nielson Turley. “Wrestling with LDS Motherhood: Evolving Feminism in Josephine Spencer’s “To Keep” and “Little Mother” Irreantum 9.2/10.1 (2007-2008).
    http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/aml-publications-documents/irreantum/irreantum-volume-9-no-2-fall-2007-volume-10-no-1-winter-2008/