A Visionary Welsh Woman and the Mormon Chain of Belonging

Tree of Life, by Isis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of her Mormon community, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has said, “We revere our sisters but don’t understand them.”[1] She has also astutely noted, “The past is a foreign country.”[2] In both statements, she has summed up well how I feel about my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Williams Perkins (1860-1943), an initially non-Mormon Welsh emigrant who, with her parents, followed her Mormon sister’s family to Cedar City in 1878. As I read over her life history, written by her granddaughter, Alberta O’Brien, I am repeatedly struck by an uncomfortable sense of unfamiliarity toward my own family and toward my own religion: open visions, plural marriage? If the past is a foreign country, I’m not sure this country is one I want to visit. Sill, my curiosity or compulsion has, in fact, spurred me on to a quest for the feminist Holy Grail, otherwise known as—my dissertation. (I am only in the beginning stages, so please allow me to “think aloud” with you; I welcome useful feedback that will sharpen my perceptions.)

As I begin to explore women’s popular theologies across religious traditions in the decades between the two world wars, I start with accounts of Sarah’s supernatural experiences from late in her life and provide some of them here. Based on accounts of her visions, recorded in her life history by her daughter, Gladys P. Lyman, I would argue that Sarah believed in direct content-laden revelation from God to women, which would come in response to the most troubling concerns of the soul. She did not receive lip service from God about women, but understanding. She would say that women are not far from the thoughts and intents of His heart.

In a fascinating portrayal of Mormon women’s popular theology from 1880 to 1920, Susanna Morrill argues that Mormon women were not focused on their declining influence in the institutional church but on advocating for the religious importance of the sacrifices they made to keep their families alive in a harsh desert environment. Mormon women “cobbled” together their own popular theology by adopting and adapting Victorian women’s use of flower imagery and imbuing it with religious significance:[3] they emphasized the importance of “women’s sphere” within Mormon theology by equating it with heaven, Eden, and the divine; the rebirth of the natural world each spring also served to relieve the deprivations of their lives by pointing toward a future resurrection. Morrill argues that “oftentimes” women “went beyond different but equal and clearly argued for different and better;”[4] she detects their undercurrents of anger at being overlooked and diminished in an androcentric religious tradition; still, they kept their discourse non-confrontational, allowing their popular theology to fill in the gender gaps in the official Mormon cosmology and anthropology.[5]

Though not included in Morrill’s analysis, Sarah Williams Perkins clearly is a Mormon woman of this pioneering generation. I’m trying to decide where my great-great-grandmother would fit in Morrill’s narrative, which ends in 1920. Since Sarah lived until 1943, I also see her as a bridge to understanding the subsequent generation of Mormon women who came of age in the 1920s. In fact, most of the documented accounts of Sarah’s supernatural experiences date to the final 20 years of her life in Salt Lake City. The rest of this post is my attempt to extrapolate what Sarah would answer if asked, “Why did you stay in a religion that encouraged you to marry your older sister’s husband and then asked you to raise a large family on your own in the isolated desert plateau region of southeastern Utah?” Unlike Sarah, I do not expect to hear a voice from the grave, so I will gladly settle for logical interpretation.

The Book of Mormon and Sarah’s Urim and Thummim

For Sarah, the Book of Mormon was a sacred text that, because of the brokenness of language, needed to be understood through the Spirit. Housebound due to age-related illness, Sarah kept the Book of Mormon by her bedside and read it often. “[Sarah] loved it, but she said it was hard for her to comprehend.”[6] After all, Sarah’s native language was Welsh, and the Early Modern English style of the Book of Mormon, along with its doctrinal concepts, were foreign to her. Still, Sarah persevered and prayed repeatedly for understanding. Sarah’s daughter recorded that she returned home from an errand to find her mother weeping.

She said she had been reading, but laid the book down to consider what she had read. Then she said, “As I lay there pondering the things I had been reading, I looked at the wall at the foot of my bed. There, in large bold type, was the page I had just read, and beside it another page with the interpretation plain and clear. One page followed another, and I kept thinking I must write this down so the girls can see it. And then it was gone, and I had written nothing, and I can’t recall it now.” I said, “But you saw it, mother, and you understood it.” “Yes, I saw it; it was clear and plain, and I know it is true,” she replied. Then I told her not to grieve, that the Lord had shown it to her for her comfort and cheer, and that when the rest of us were ready to receive it, the Lord could make it known to us if it were for our good.[7]

This account reminds me of Sam Brown’s argument for Joseph Smith’s glossolalic translation model. As opposed to the xenoglossic translation model, in which the English text is the miracle, in a glossolalic translation, “the ecstatic encounter is the miracle and the English text an admission of the limits of human language.” Therefore, such a translation “would be highly susceptible to revision. At the core of the glossolalic model is the recognition that human language is broken and can only approximate celestial truth.”[8] Further, even without a so-called language barrier, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery both mentioned that until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit, passages in the Bible had remained obscure to their understanding. Though native English speakers, they said they needed the aid of the Holy Spirit to recover the “true meaning and intention” behind the English translation of the Bible.[9] Sarah would agree with Joseph Smith that the ecstatic encounter was the miracle that enabled the revealed message to be adapted to the understanding of the individual, whether that individual was an early-American New Englander or a Welsh immigrant to a modernizing America.

The Tree of Life and the Central Problem of the Family’s Salvation

The accounts of Sarah’s visions reveal that she was preoccupied with her family’s eternal welfare. A vision of her father partaking of the fruit of the tree of life comforted Sarah concerning her father’s salvation. A widespread symbol in religious history, the tree of life serves as a metaphor in the Book of Mormon for the love of God, which is “most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:21-23): partaking of the fruit after a long and perilous journey symbolizes the reception of Christ’s salvation and of the accompanying joy. Gladys remembered that her mother had mentioned this vision to her when they had taken her home from the LDS Hospital:

One morning, as I entered her room, she said, “Come look at this beautiful sky. That is the color of Lehi’s robe.” “What do you mean? What do you know of Lehi’s robe?” I asked. She said, “Didn’t I tell you I saw him? Just when or how it was, I cannot tell. But some time ago I was thinking of my father and wondering about him in the spirit world. All at once, before my eyes was the tree of life. In the tree stood Lehi. Next to his body was the whitest, softest-looking robe, and over that was a robe that was the color of that sky. At the foot of the tree stood my father and mother…partaking of the fruit of the tree. And my heart was comforted, for I knew that my father had accepted the gospel.”[10]

In fact, we see a role reversal here: instead of Father Lehi seeing his sons’ heavenly futures through a metaphorical dream, Sarah was the “visionary [wo]man” who saw her parents’ future heavenly estate by means of the same dream. Indeed, by sharing in their vision, Sarah joined ranks with the ancient prophets.

I wonder if this prophetic insight provides a necessary tool for visionaries to cope with the inherent family tensions that accompany their controversial declarations. Sarah’s life reveals the conflict between what Sam Brown calls the “ecclesial family” and the “biological family.”[11] Brown explains that “In his complex negotiations between domestic unity and membership in the sacerdotal kindred, Smith confronted a tension present in Christianity since its origins. In the New Testament, Jesus instructed his followers to ‘hate’ their families in order to be worthy of discipleship.”[12] As an example, the “itinerants of the Second Great Awakening routinely eschewed domestic comforts to spread the good word of Christ. Mormonism forced the same trade-off,” Brown writes. Even as new religious movements rely on family networks for proselytizing efforts, they are as likely “to split as to unite any specific family group.” This was true for the early Mormons. “[The] church had been dealing with broken biological families from the beginning.”[13]

By being sealed as a plural wife to Benjamin Perkins in the St. George Temple in 1881, Sarah joined the Mormon “ecclesial family,” but lost her biological family. She became a queen, and a priestess, but was no longer considered Evan and Mary Williams’s daughter. Sarah and her parents experienced the sorrow prophesied by Jesus when Sarah participated in a controversial religious practice that her parents could not abide. That this loss deeply pained Sarah is evident by the fact that she was preoccupied with it near the end of her life, long after her father had died. She still stood looking out the window, pondering, praying, that the division from her father—who had sailed with her from Wales and traveled across a continent only to part ways while just a few miles down the road—was not permanent. Her vision provided her with a sense of resolution. The love of God provided the power to weld the biological family—divided by the ecclesial family—back together.

A Queen on Her Throne, Or “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match.”

What interests me most about the following account of Sarah’s view of marriage is that it is not laden with speculative, overwhelming images of a cosmic afterlife but rather is based on the dignity afforded to a married woman who has a home of her own. In 1939 Sarah’s daughter, Gladys, a widow, married her deceased sister’s husband, Albert Lyman. On her deathbed, Lell had urged the two of them to marry. Gladys recorded that her mother strongly objected to this arrangement.

It was Thanksgiving time. I prepared dinner, and had asked Mother, Elaine, Minerva and the girls up to eat with us, and I wondered if she [Mother] would come. She still was not happy over our marriage. I was thrilled when Elaine and Minerva arrived with Mother. I stood at the door to greet them. Mother hesitated as she stepped in the door. Then I took her arm, and said, “Come sit by the fire in this easy chair, Mother.” On the wall above the chair was a large picture of Albert, Lell, and their children. Mother stood by the chair, looking up at the picture for some time. Then she sat, and began to sob. When she had gained control of her emotions somewhat, she said “O, forgive me! I don’t know why I have acted as I have. As I stepped inside your door Lell was at my side. She walked with me to the chair. And as I stood looking at that picture of her, I saw her lips move, and heard her say, ‘Everything is all right, Mother. Just look at Gladys; she is like a queen on her throne,’ and then she was gone.” We had a delightful dinner with all the estrangement vanished.[14]

Significantly, Sarah saw Gladys’s newly revived regal status as associated with marriage in and of itself, not with motherhood. Gladys was already 51 by this time; she had already borne three children with her first husband, Philip. In this account, Lell’s gentle encouragement pointed out that Gladys no longer had to spend her life as a servant to her children, siblings, and their families. As “angelic” as such a generous status is in Joseph Smith’s revelations (see D&C 132:16-17), it is akin to the status of pious nuns who minister to others’ needs but do not know the joys and companionship of a non-ascetic family life. There was something better for Gladys in this life. This account provides Sarah’s explanation for how she came to terms with the idea of her daughters sharing a husband; even if this wasn’t a case of plural marriage that would be prosecuted by federal agents, in Sarah’s eternal worldview, remarriage after bereavement was a problem because it implied the plurality of marriage partners in the afterlife.[15]

And for those of us who are still hoping for a little bit of romance in the midst of all this heady talk of sovereignty, cooperation, and companionship, Gladys’s backstory can help. In 1938 Gladys was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple to Michael Philip Tomney, who had recently died. Although they had married civilly in 1912 and had three children together, they were not sealed to each other until October 1938. A little more than a month previously, Gladys and Philip had traveled to Salt Lake for two reasons: to get medical help for him and to be sealed in the temple. Unfortunately, Philip did not find the needed medical help, and he died on September 7th. On the day that Gladys was sealed to Philip, Sarah, infirm with age, reluctantly remained at home and then recounted the following to her daughter when she returned from the temple:

After you left me, I lay here thinking of you, and in my mind, going with you through the temple. Then somehow before me, I seemed to be looking at a most forbidding scene. It was a dark and dismal forest divided by a road running through it. On one side, I could see Philip stumbling along and going here and there, and I realized he was trying to find the road. My heart went out to him, and I wondered where you were. As I searched for you, I could see you on the other side, groping your way toward the road. I looked at the dismal scene and prayed that you would both find the road and each other. And as I watched and prayed, you did find it, and then hand in hand, you started up the road. But it was still dark and gruesome, rough and uninviting. As you trudged along, I could see that the road was becoming smoother, and that the darkness began to dispel. My anxiety left me; the road was becoming white and enticing. And as I gazed, I beheld in the distance a beautiful white mansion with steps leading up to it. I felt the beauty of it—white and magnificent—and watched you hand in hand climb the stairs. And then the door opened wide, and I awakened with a start. That is why I am weeping, weeping for joy.[16]

Conclusion

For Sarah Williams Perkins, the Christian soteriology of the Book of Mormon merged with her female perspective on the relationships between God, woman, and man. These three stories provoke questions concerning Sarah’s thoughts about direct revelation from God to women, the salvation of family members through Christ, and the ennobling of women. While these accounts do not directly refute more official interpretations of Mormon theology, they do soften the hard edges of men’s prescriptive sermons. Sarah’s own marriage was one of sacrifice and cooperation, not of romance. I can stomach that, I guess. But what has always made me want to run away screaming is the speculative theology espoused by Orson Pratt et al. about a dynastic, androcentric heaven. While the accounts of Sarah’s visions do not necessarily counter such a view, they do suggest that Sarah believed in a God who understood and responded to women’s most poignant petitions for the permanence and quality of biological family relationships, a God who reassured them that whatever the sacrifice of tending the tree of faith, they would reap the promised joy.

Notes

[1] See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book jacket review of Claudia L. Bushman and Caroline Kline, Eds., Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection (Draper, UT: Kofford, 2013).

[2] I recorded this statement when Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gave a guest lecture preview of her upcoming book at Claremont Graduate University on March 22, 2012, “Sentimentality and Plurality in Nineteenth Century Mormonism.”

[3] Susanna Morrill, White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Mormon Women’s Popular Theology, 1880-1920 (Routledge, 2006), 14.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Family copy of The Story of Sarah Williams Perkins, written by Alberta Lyman O’Brien, (Revised Edition, 1993), 89.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Samuel Morris Brown, “The Language of Heaven: Prolegomenon to the Study of Smithian Translation,” Journal of Mormon History, 38:3 (2012): 68-69.

[9] See Joseph Smith—History 1:73-74.

[10] The Story of Sarah Williams Perkins, 90.

[11] Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford, 2010), chapter 8.

[12] Ibid, 241.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Story of Sarah Williams Perkins, 90.

[15] For an interesting discussion of the religious implications of marriage after bereavement, see Sam Brown, In Heaven as It Is on Earth, 236-239.

[16] This was Gladys’s best recollection of the words her mother used to describe her vision. The Story of Sarah Williams Perkins, 89.

Comments

A Visionary Welsh Woman and the Mormon Chain of Belonging — 9 Comments

  1. Delightful, Liz! Your great-great grandmother was a fascinating woman who had some fascinating experiences! I especially liked the first one, about seeing the “clear and plain” interpretation of the Book of Mormon on her wall. Maybe President Monson should seek such a vision the next time the Church publishes a new edition. :)

    I think what was most striking to me about this post was the way it brings together the personal and the historical. This is a pretty distinctively Mormon way of doing history. Family history is a common entry point for Mormon historians, who often start out as geneaologists and then expand their efforts outward to larger issues. For so many of us non-Mormons, it’s the opposite. Our starting point is to historicize the beliefs of others, to assert power over our neighbors and environment by reducing them to mere contingent products of historical causes. Only gradually are we brought, kicking and screaming, to the admission that we too are merely contingent creatures with histories of our own.

    On a slightly different note, your dissertation topic sounds great!

  2. Chris, I have to laugh. I just realised that I opened my paper the other day with some of my family’s history, and there is more of it in a footnote. The thought never really occured to me before that this is a peculiarly Mormon way of doing things.

    Elizabeth, does Book of Mormon imagery frequently inform Sarah’s visions?

  3. Thanks, Chris. And might I say that I think all of us historians inevitably end up kicking and screaming about something!

    Allen, I’ll have to go back and look. There were approximately 9 of these stories included in the Appendix of Sarah’s life history. I shared four of them. I am struck by how important the Book of Mormon was to her, considering that Terryl Givens has written about the book’s reception history and concluded that the Book of Mormon wasn’t central to nineteenth-century Mormons’ theology. I also should go back and read what Givens says about this. Again, I wonder if an examination of women’s accounts will suggest that women valued the Book of Mormon more than male church authorities–wouldn’t that be provocative!

  4. And Chris, you make me laugh, too. I know that Helen Whitney, the filmmaker who made The Mormons documentary a few years ago, was frustrated that there were all these Mormon historians who had very specific expertise but who couldn’t speak to the broader problems in American religious history. I’m like Jack–Professor Fluhman got me here in a PhD program. My original interest dates back to my early days in college when I started reading stuff by Truman Madsen and Hugh Nibley, but I never wanted to be pigeon-holed, so I stayed away from an academic study of Mormon history, or Mormon views of history. Then Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens came on the scene, CGU’s program was established, and I took an American religious history course from Spencer Fluhman at BYU while I was studying mass communications–and I knew what I’d rather be studying. So here I am. I went back to my ancestors’ records because I am trying to find primary sources written by women that speak to these larger issues in American religious history.

  5. It has only been in the last couple years that I really began to see personal and family history as history. And this post demonstrates why we should.

    Thanks, Elizabeth. This was absolutely awesome.

  6. “Again, I wonder if an examination of women’s accounts will suggest that women valued the Book of Mormon more than male church authorities–wouldn’t that be provocative!”

    Elizabeth, that would be a fascinating study.

  7. My name is Marian Osher. Perhaps you are not aware that you are posting my copyrighted, registered original artwork of the Tree of Life without a credit or permission. My website is http://www.marianosher.com and you will find my “Tree of Life” artwork, created by me in 2001, in the printmaking portfolio: mandalas. Whatever source that you got it from was not authorized to use it either. Please contact me by email about written authorization and credits to post this artwork or else remove it. Thank you.