Custom «Female Life among the Mormons» Essay Paper Sample

Female Life among the Mormons

Primary sources are the priceless eyes and ears that our future descendants will have when they turn to consider our ways, our habits, and our deeds. When the twenty-second century rolls around, however, all that historians will have will be recorded conversations, pictures, photographs, memoranda, and other personal correspondence. When one considers conditions of the nineteenth century or before, one has even fewer primary sources on which to lean. Narrative accounts are often the only source of information for the historian, and so a crucial skill can be the interpretation, and deciphering, of the biases of the original writer.

The literature generated in nineteenth-century-America, there were, certainly, women writing in the intermountain West at the time, hundreds in effect, but of writers of legendary pieces there are few. Maria Ward's Female Life Among the Mormons: The Thrilling Narrative of Many Years' Personal Experience with Brigham Young and His Followers (1857) is a muckraking and rough account of the lives of women in the early Mormon community and of their responses to the women around them. At the level of historical analysis of group-attitudes, it is increasingly clear the in discussing such familiar topics as messianic zeal, ethnic prejudice, ideological suspicion, or persistent images of other countries and people, historians like David Brion Davis have benefited greatly from using (sometimes implicitly ) the concept of projection (p. 205-224).

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In an argument, David Brion Davis argued that the combination of rising immigration in the midcentury decades and the political disruption of the sectional crisis heightened concern for the republic's durability, especially in the North, and stirred persistent anti-Catholic sentiment into a demonstrative form.

In Ward's novel, the Mormon apostate accounts, like the Catholic apostate stories, were slackly connected accounts of one sensationalistic violent incident after another, containing many brusquely crafted metaphors of violence of the same kinds of sexual hints found in convent stories. As Davis argued, can anti-catholic sentiments best be analyzed as a psychological phantasmagoria of paranoid sexuality, reflecting the 'fears, prejudices, hopes, and perhaps even unconscious desires' of the people? Is it an attempt to resolve the 'increasing anxiety and uncertainty over sexual values and the proper role of woman' that supposedly characterized the nineteenth century? Are cultural and geographical variables at work? Can one distinguish between European and American anti-Catholicism by arguing that in Europe, popish subversion was taken to threaten the established order of monarchs and aristocrats, while in the United States it was taken to threaten the 'ideals or a way of life' of 'free Americans'?

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The violent behavior against Mormonism was fairly obvious in this novel. In Ward's account, for instance, a woman who had the courage to raise her voice in struggle against the hierarchy of Mormonism was 'gagged, carried a mile into the woods, stripped nude, tied to a tree, and scourged till the blood ran from her wounds to the ground' (Ward 1857, p. 429). This characteristically Gothic movement to expose secret evils was also at work in the reformist opposition to Mormonism, Masonry, and Catholicism. The literature of 'contersubversion' (so called by Davis because the reformers in question proclaimed their enemies to be fundamentally subversive of the American republic) represented these groups as dangerous secret societies established on mysterious rituals involving outrageously evil practices such as rape, murder, and incest. Davis argued that the fear of conspiracy was a paranoid reaction in defense of the 'dominant values' of 'Jacksonian democracy and the cult of the common man' (p. 208). The missionaries certainly saw the Catholic 'plot' as a threat to the American Republic, but they also believed that the unfettered individualism of the age made the nation, particularly the West, vulnerable to subversion.

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Those who saw America as a land of equal opportunity and a haven for oppressed people sympathized with the novices and looked forward to the day when immigrants would be assimilated and share in the benefits of American society. Dependency was thus a momentary and transitory phase requiring a combination of public and private aid to help unfortunate persons overcome their problems. Others like Davis, however, were far less sanguine and feared the threat posed to American institutions by non-Protestant groups. Dependency, they argued, reflected innate character deficiencies, which public welfare simply perpetuated. Between 1830 and 1860 the older tradition of anti-Catholicism merged with the general hostility toward destitute immigrant groups, thereby contributing to the strong nativist movement of the antebellum decades (p. 205). The representation of enticing captures was supplemented by the allegation that Mormons forcibly carried off women to fill their 'harems', and this particular allegation was one of the more scandalous themes in anti-Mormon agenda. The kidnapping allegation seemed of anti-Mormon tales, to reasonable and officially recognized physical annihilations of all Mormons.

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Right after the Civil War, Davis argued, anti-polygamy efforts grew significantly - as did in the number of anti-Catholic literature against Mormonism (p. 217). Davis termed it as "an ancient theme of anti-Catholic literature', which was often reprinted and imitated in America, that Catholic clergy were exceptionally sexually appealing and active, that they did not recognize Protestant marriages as legitimate, and they therefore were 'astonishingly successful at seducing supposedly virtuous wives'. Davis uses as an example of this genre Antonio Gavin.

This identifies polygamy as a dishonesty of the holiness of the familial space and, by extension, the civil society for which the home served as the establishment. As long as Davis article suggests, polygamy was considered as a menace both to nationwide harmony and to society itself. Davis established a new sense in his argument: to tolerate such a redefining 'home' meant perforce the undoing of the national polity', which meant that Mormon polygamists were inevitably shorn of any possible place in American nationalism.

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While analyzing anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Mormon literature, Davis played basically the same role that clerics played in anti-Catholic texts, an apostate Mormon female composed of similar internment narratives. However, here an intangible problem emerged: How could Davis make the case for a state of oppression in a situation where the so-called captive was in fact free to walk out at any time? Nunneries could be described as prisons, but Mormon women were noticeably not so limited. As a result, in addition to the deceived follower theme used to typify Catholic repression, one finds the very first hypothesis of 'hypnotic mind control' in the literature against Mormonism.

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