Souls in Waiting: The Embryo and Abortion in Nineenth-Century Mormonism

*Note: All links re-direct to either 1) an easily-accessible secondary source or 2) reputable reproduction of primary source.  Sources in parentheses generally come from databases such as Genealogybank; original images are available to readers upon request. 

Of all the non-dinner-table political topics, abortion certainly ranks near the top.  So charged is it that its mere mention breaks down social gatherings into battling tribes where, they believe, reasonable people don’t disagree. Yet the viciousness with which the better part of Latter-day Saints have fought the issue reveals more about Latter-day Saint relationships with the broader Christian community than it does about Latter-day Saint doctrine.

Modern Artist’s Rendering of Pioneer Woman w/Child, Courtesy Joseph Brickey Art

Pregnancy in early Mormon doctrine differed little from that of their Protestant neighbors.   Laws in New York and Ohio dictated that if the mother died from an attempted abortion, the administering doctor could be found guilty of “manslaughter in the first degree” (Outlines of a Course of Lecture on Medical Jurisprudence).  Abortion providers gained a bad reputation among Mormons early on.  When Joseph Smith was tarred and feathered in early 1832, one of the members of the mob was Dr. Dennison, a man commission to castrate Joseph Smith later served time for being an abortion practitioner.   Stories  of violent abortions gone wrong occasioned the local press; indeed, most abortions were assumed to be violent affairs.   A medical textbook identified the chief means of abortion to be “blows and bruises on the abdomen,” “drastic purgatives,” or “the introduction of pointed instruments into the womb.  But since the Mormon people had not fully developed doctrines regarding man’s filial relationship to God, their discourse went little beyond conventional wisdom.

John C. Bennett brought the scandal of abortion to the Saints’ front door.   Abortion providers had low reputations and were treated as accessories to murder, if not murderers in deed (For examples, see Evening Post, June 16, 1842; Boston Courier, March 10, 1842; Massachusetts Spy, November 30, 1842).  After John C. Bennett joined with the Saints in 1840, he quickly acquired a reputation for being a philanderer (and accused Joseph Smith of the same).  The rumor mill spread a variety of tales about Bennett’s and Smith’s sexual relationships.  Both friend and foe claimed Bennett was an abortion practitioner. In 1842, Hyrum Smith signed an affidavit claiming that Bennett “would give [women] medicine to produce abortions, providing they should become pregnant.” Sarah Pratt, the wife of apostle Orson Pratt and the most prominent of the alleged mistresses, was accused of alternatively being both Joseph’s and Bennett’s mistress.  Though Pratt’s animosity towards the Prophet endured for generations, she acknowledged that Bennett was an abortion doctor: “There was a house in Nauvoo,” Pratt further told an anti-Mormon author, ‘right across the flat,’ about a mile and a-half from the town, a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house” (Wyl, Joseph Smith, The Prophet, 59).    In 1842, “the flat” was a settlement for the poor on the western end of Nauvoo along the Mississippi riverbanks where Joseph was attempting to build a hotel.  John Taylor’s and Heber C. Kimball’s family lived there.  Helen Kimball recalls “hear[ing] delicious strains of music” from steamers as they rode by.

As Bennett was scandalizing the Mormon community with his philandering–which no one denied–and his abortions, the

The Orson and Sarah Pratt Family, Courtesy Utah Historical Society

The Orson and Sarah Pratt Family, Courtesy Daughters of Utah Pioneers/Signature Books

Saints were developing more sophisticated doctrines regarding the relationship between God and man.  Prior to Nauvoo, the Saints did not commonly understand themselves to be literal children of God.   Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses taught even as God had sent men “into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit,” so they must be “born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten.”

Yet the phrase “children of God” only appeared twice in Joseph Smith’s revelations and without exposition.  Joseph Smith’s vision of three kingdoms of glory declared that the obedient were “born sons and daughters unto God.”  But this language was widely understood to refer to the change of one’s nature following conversion, not as a descriptor of one’s inherent nature.  One revelation suggests that “in the beginning,” every “spirit of man was innocent.”   But God “having “became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.”  The text is not only one of the few that hints at a premortal life in the revealed canon; it also suggests that it is during the gestation process when children are redeemed from the sins they had committed as spirits.

Bennett’s sins coupled with the evolution of Mormon doctrine prompted the Saints to see abortions as a particularly insidious threat to the Mormon community.  In March 1843, Joseph Smith held a mayor’s court on charges that Dr. William Brink had improperly administering herbs to a pregnant wife, causing the death of both mother and child.  He was found guilty of a wide array of charges: “us[ing] violence” to force delivery, withholding important herbs, incorrect diagnoses, and refusing to stop even “when implored to let  her alone.”  Brink was fined 99 dollars for damages.  Protecting mothers during the birthing process mattered Nauvoo’s civil authorities.

Over the next decade, the embryo became a new symbol for Latter-day Saints seeking to understand their relationship to God.  In 1855, Parley P. Pratt, for the first time, posited that mankind was deity “in embryo.”  Man already had the attributes of God, and these would, “by progress, produce the mature fruit after its own kind (Key to the Science of Theology, 101). In 1860, John Taylor taught man “is a God in embryo and possesses within him a spark of that eternal flame which was struck from the blaze of God’s eternal fire in the eternal world.” (Journal of Discourses, 8:3).

For most Saints, abortion practitioners were cast as highly-skilled hitmen of the unborn, generally employed in order to keep male predators’ honor “unsullied in the eyes of the multitude.” “This is murder,” Orson Hyde said plainly (Journal of Discourses, 2:77).  By 1871, views on abortion had not changed. Bishop Jesse Little told one news reporter that “Abortion is considered murder, no matter at what stage of prenatal life it may be committed. The persons who would practice would lose the spirit of God and apostatize.  He could not stay in the Church…We dare not practice abortion.  Because we are afraid of Brigham Young? No! Because we are afraid of ourselves.  Afraid of the effect it would have upon us.  We could not approach ourselves–for you have got to have a clear conscience to approach that tribunal” (Pomeroy Democrat, September 2, 1871). One reporter for the Deseret News offhandedly remarked that all abortionists ought to be executed (Deseret News, May 26, 1875). As several scholars have indicated, abortion was becoming increasingly prevalent in the nation’s cities.  Having resisted federal and “Gentile” influence for decades, the Saints had begun to identify themselves through valuing childbirth and opposing abortion.

Yet in spite of the Saints’ stated positions, their simultaneously-held views on when the spirit entered the womb presented complications to the “murder” narrative that they cultivated.  Brigham Young famously argued “when the mother feels life come to her infant it is the spirit entering the body.”  Young’s position neither noteworthy nor odd, though it was controversial.  Most state legislatures had taken care to define a fetus from a non-fetus by whether it was “quick” or “not quick.” According to the New York Journal of Medicine, it was an “absurd distinction…dangerous to morality and the best interests of society.” The views of Brigham Young and others, the journal argued, would have “fatal” consequences for society.  Yet the journal acknowledged that it was an “error upheld by popular belief.”   (“Trial of Madame Russell,” New York Journal of Medicine, January 1848, 98). Following their commentary was the transcript of an abortion case in which several doctors testified that “quickening” indeed defined   Indeed, doctors widely believed that twelve weeks marked the first “fluttering” or “quickening” to give life to the child (Ibid.).  Dr. David Brewster, editor of the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, agreed, mocking lawyers (who are bad physiologists)  for arguing the “quite absurd” position that the fetus “is not alive” before the “quickening” (Edinburgh Encyclopedia, 241).

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

Young certainly valued offspring–almost more than he did religious piety. “To live! To increase! To build up!” Young effused to his good friend, Thomas L. Kane, “is much better than a mere posthumous halo around a semblance of what once existed” (BY, Letter to TLK, BY Office Files). Brigham Young often worried himself about the continuance of the human race, even believing that interracial marriage would have the unintended consequences of sterilizing mankind (General Church Minutes, December 6, 1847). Young’s opposition to abortion had little to do with when the spirit entered the body.   Childbearing was as much–or more–of a religious act as any ritual.

Abortion in nineteenth-century Mormonism represented a contradiction of sorts: the impulse to promote the furthering of life while defying the “life-begins-conception” narrative.   For those seeking to understand the Mormon position, it serves them well to revisit the Mormons’ foundational assumptions.


2 comments on “Souls in Waiting: The Embryo and Abortion in Nineenth-Century Mormonism

  1. Laura Beer says:

    A wonderful introduction to a fascinating topic. I have had no luck findin a book on the variety of ways people have argued against abortion over time. Usually I see histories marking a progressive narrative of triumph over anti-abortionists. I found it fascinating to read that people of 1800s thought of abortion as violent, or as a hit-man job against infants.

    Do you have any idea when assisting in abortions or choosing them became grounds for excommunication in the church?

  2. Cheryl Purnell says:

    This was an extremely interesting article. While abortion has always been practiced by women, and often led to death for the woman as it was illegal and often performed by non-medical professionals, I enjoyed reading about it through the early Mormon view. So much about the LDS church is ignored by members because they are ashamed or embarrassed about it. We need to embrace all of our history and remember that even our prophets were men first and prone to the human condition of error, mistakes, arrogance, pride, etc. Other than a couple of “missed words” that pulled me out and forced me to reread a sentence several times, I really enjoyed it 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s