Carol Cornwall Madsen has beautifully crafted a revealing and deeply emotional book by allowing the women of Nauvoo to speak to us in their own words. A professor of history and a research historian at Brigham Young University, Sister Madsen has carefully selected each document for its different perspective and range of experience. The rhythm of Nauvoo’s private and public world echoes in the writings Madsen chose to include. They create a medley of voices that teach us of true faith in our religion. She writes, “The design that emerges is unique to each writer as she gives greater or lesser prominence to each thread of experience. Religion, however, is the current that runs through them all. To study their writings is to discover the meaning of religion and the power of faith in the lives of women.” Madsen plainly states, “Their writings are their testament.”
Although Madsen has no lineal connection to those who lived in Nauvoo, it is obvious that the faithful women who consecrated their lives to the building of the Kingdom of God have greatly impacted her life. She reflects, “I recognize them as spiritual kin and can claim my own place in the community of faith that nourished and guided them.” This belief gives strength to her work. The book seeps with devastation and suffering, heartache and joy, resolute confidence in God, peace that replaces fear, and even humor in the face of adversity. Women of every dispensation have felt these things or desire to feel these things and will connect strongly to the stories, the outpourings, and the need these early women had to leave a portion of themselves behind. Madsen states, “Perhaps they understood that women oftimes hear their own voices in the voices of other women…this volume is an attempt to…reaffirm the reality of our spiritual heritage.” Readers who accept this challenge are on the path to claiming this great legacy.
Madsen notes several reasons why the included texts differ from other autobiographical histories. “Their writings escape the narrow egocentricism of many personal narratives.” Readers will find this to be true. In the presence of great suffering, their accounts are remarkably free of self-pity or regret. This volume is a testament to the compelling power of faith and its ability to consecrate us to the Lord and His work. Madsen also suggests that it was not an easy thing for women to find the time or means with which to write. “Yet they wrote. The need to record their Nauvoo experience as they were living it drove women to become secret sharers,’ stealing minutes and private places to put their thoughts on paper.” Emmeline B. Wells once penned, “There always seems to be so much to write about…thoughts that come crowding up in throngs…we write to be quit of them, and not let the crowd increase.”
Madsen is quick to attest that there is no single image of Mormon womanhood, “no one woman’s view of Nauvoo.” With this in mind, she contends that having a female perspective in contrast to the more traditional male motif is unique and adds a “distinct female theme that weaves in and around the more familiar strain.” Their diaries address issues of temple worship, plural marriage, patriarchal blessings, and other aspects of Nauvoo life from the viewpoint of a woman.
The book is composed of three types of personal writings: diaries, letters and reminiscences or reflections written years after the events took place. The first section of Madsen’s book is taken from actual diaries kept by Nauvoo women. Their diaries were “instruments of self-realization.” Zina D. H. Young’s writings were very introspective, yet they were filled with people. She demonstrates a psalm-like praise in her writing, complete with poetic imagery. She wrote the following on the day of the martyrdom of the prophet and his brother. “O the ever to be r[em]embered awful day of the 27 of June 1844…How long must widdows mourn and orp[h]ans cry before thou wilt avenge the Earth and cause wickedness to seace [cease]?” On the first of July she tells of washing the blood-stained clothes of Joseph and Hyrum, “I washed, they Joseph and Hirams cloth[e]s.” This one line is all she wrote that day.
Eliza R. Snow’s diary, “Sketch of My Life” is one of the most read of all Mormon journals. Madsen utilizes it well, referring to Eliza as the “Mother of all mothers in Israel” despite the fact that she was childless. Her love for her brother Lorenzo, her marriage to the prophet Joseph Smith and her connection to the Heavens are among the most intriguing facets of her writings. It was Eliza who staked this claim, “The seven years spent in Nauvoo is a history that never will and never can repeat itself.”
Readers may find, however, that it is the less well-known women writers that move them the most. Unlike Eliza and Zina, Emmeline B. Harris Wells was virtually unknown in Nauvoo, but her time there was wrought with grief and loneliness. After the martyrdom, her family left the church and her husband abandoned her to become a seaman. She never saw him again. Her diary became her “secret friend” while the love for her husband and her preoccupation with his return, plagued her soul. Yet she went west with the Saints, the fire of the gospel moving her on. Emmeline’s writings are deft of punctuation. They are streams of tangled words pouring over themselves, opening the well-spring of her heart. “This day like all others is full of trouble sorrow and affliction are my attendants Oh that I had a mother or sister to advise me but I was cut short of all these blessings Though I should suffer, let it be for good.”
The second section of Madsen’s book is a series of letters from Nauvoo women to their families and loved ones. Madsen explains that each letter tells the tale of one writer, but together they create a story of Nauvoo that institutional records alone could not relate. For added flavor, Madsen includes a letter from a “Gentile” Nauvoo resident, Charlotte Haven. Charlotte’s letters offer the unique viewpoint of an “outsider” looking in, sometimes mocking, but largely admiring.
Statements from other women in their letters disclose the power that kept them hopeful in difficult times. Mary Fielding Smith, Hyrum’s wife and close friend of Emma Smith, wrote to her brother, “I feel little concerned about where I am, if I keep my mind staid upon God… I would not give up the latter-day glory for all that glitters in this world.”
Each letter tells one woman’s story, but resonates the hearts of many women who did not or could not write. As Madsen artfully weaves biographies, explanations of individuals, places, and situations with perfect historical facts and concise endnotes, we are drawn to conclude that the Lord needs valiant women now, just as He did then. Now is the time for faithful women to further the Lord’s work. In so doing, we may be largely unknown to the world, but we will be known unto the Lord.
The final segment of Madsen’s book is entitled, “Reminiscences” – writings of women who felt compelled to trace their experiences by recollection. Madsen describes it as “reality remembered, filtered through time, experience and self appraisal.” In some of these accounts, the humor of the daily routine in Nauvoo unfolds.
Margaret Gay Judd Clawson, who was only ten years old when her family moved to Nauvoo, recalls, “Mother made Riley and I do the weeding…We used to say if it was only shady, and we could sit down it wouldn’t be so hard, But to go right out in the hot sun, and stoop over to pull the weeds We thought it awful cruel of Mother to have us do it. She often used to show [us] how to do it. It seemed so easy for her. Why she could pull more weeds in five minutes than we could in half an hour, and still she insisted o[n] us doing it. Oh the hardships of childhood.”
In a recollection by Bathsheba Smith, we sense the forthright conviction Nauvoo women had as they were forced from their river-bend home. Upon leaving she wrote, “Now I was going into the wilderness…with the man I loved dearer than my life. I had my little children. I had heard a voice, so I stepped into the wagon with a certain degree of serenity.”
Madsen is right – the faith and power of such women are best expressed “in their own words.” Readers will be lifted as they pour over the expressions, dreams, disappointments and testimonies of each Nauvoo woman. Madsen’s book is well-organized, thought-provoking, and stirring in its content. Of these women of covenant, Madsen concludes, “Nauvoo was the crucible from which they emerged spiritually strengthened, energized and committed.” In Their Own Words should be an addition to any LDS library. It is a journey with the women of Nauvoo, “whose lives were chapters of sacred history to be read and followed by those who came after.”