Guest Post: A Thread of Continuity: Patriarchy and Sexual Abuse in the Church from 1841 to Today
Guest post by brooke, a graduate student studying women and religion in 19th-century history.
Learning that a child has been the victim of sexual abuse is heartbreaking, no matter how long ago it was.
About a year ago, I was working on a project which focused on Lee County, Iowa Territory, during the Nauvoo period (just across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo). Many of the documents which I was looking at were institutional documents, such as minutes from the Iowa Stake and letters between church leaders. Since it was 2021, I had to resign myself to mostly those documents that had been digitized by the Church History Library, and luckily, there were a good number of them. I began to go through a document titled, “Minutes of meetings of the Nashville Branch, 1840-1843,” which were part of the Elias Smith papers, who served as a bishop in Iowa. As bishop, Smith oversaw church disciplinary actions, which filled the first several pages of the document. It opened with a lengthy church court for a man named William A. Hickman (known to the local non-Mormons as “Wild Bill”) who had attacked and gotten into fights with several other members. It was a fascinating opening, but I was far more shocked by what I found next.
The page that followed was written in a different handwriting. It read,
Mont Rose Lee Co. May 31st 1841
To the Bishop and his Council
I hereby profer the following Charges against Elder [redacted]
1st for coming in to my hous in the absenc of me and family except a Little girl about eleven years old and another [unclear, but likely “six”] years old and highly abuseing my hous by unlawfully Laying hold of the ^eldest^
littlegirl and forcing verry improper Conduct upon her unbecoming any man which more as man of his Standing in the Church of Jesus Christ of laterday Saints
I sat at my desk, stunned by what I had just come across. Of course, as someone who studies women’s history, I was used to the type of history that leaves you heartbroken for your historical subjects. I had written my thesis on a woman who had a manipulative, emotional (and possibly physically) abusive husband, who struggled with health and infertility, whose husband entered polygamous marriages when she failed to have children, and who had bouts of depression so severe that her journal was littered with suicidal expressions. I was used to difficult history that made me cry and ache for my historical subjects.
This wasn’t even the first time I stumbled across sexual abuse in my historical research. In my thesis, as I investigated the woman who became the second wife to my subject’s husband, I found that as a teenager, her mother died leaving her an orphan, and she was placed in the care of family friends. However, at age 19, she fled from the family, pregnant, having been sexually abused by the man who was supposed to be like (and certainly old enough to be) a father to her. As I explored more, I found out that that man, William G. Mills, had been excommunicated from the church by the time he sexually abused her, but that a hymn he wrote is still in our modern hymnbook. Hymn #40, “Arise, O Glorious Zion,” was written by a sexual predator.
So, I had experience with history where women and children were abused. But nothing prepares you for just randomly coming across a case of a young girl being raped.
Of course, I wanted to know who the girl was. I looked up Abraham Washburn and found that he was a recent convert from England, and he did have two daughters, who would have been 12 and 9 years old at this time. It was possible that it was his daughter who was sexually assaulted, but it was also entirely possible that it was some other girls at his home. Housing was in short supply in 1841, and many families lived together or took in children from other families. But ultimately, I realized, since Washburn had decided to protect this girl’s identity, I should respect that decision and continue to protect her identity as well.
More than the girl, I wanted to know the identity of the man. I wondered if it was “Wild” William Hickman since the minutes of his church court had just preceded this document. But Washburn’s reference to this man’s “Standing in the Church” made me wonder if it was someone more respected and with more ecclesiastical power than Hickman.
However, what made me truly angry was how the man’s name had been blacked out. It wasn’t cut out of the original document, nor was it scratched over with a marker, nor a piece of paper placed on top to block it out. It hadn’t been removed from the document decades ago by those who knew the man personally. The name was blacked out with a digitized black box, meaning that when this document was digitized within the last couple of decades, some worker or administrator at the Church History Library made the decision to digitally redact the name.
The most common form of redaction from historical documents happens when family members turn over documents if there is anything in them that they would prefer not to be public knowledge. Additionally, information about living people or those who were recently living is often protected. However, the older the document is, then any redactions are typically up to the discretion of the archivist. While the church does often keep certain documents or parts of documents away from the eyes of professional historians, particularly in cases where the information has to do with sacred ceremonies, I couldn’t see any reason to hide this man’s name. Over a hundred and fifty years later, the church was still actively protecting a sexual predator who had long been dead.
As I read the recent AP News article about MJ and the years of sexual assault she suffered at the hands of her father, Paul Douglas Adams, my mind was brought back to this little girl living in Iowa Territory in 1841. Other than the letter from Washburn, there is no evidence that any action was taken against this sexual predator. Perhaps he did face some sort of church disciplinary action, but if he did, those involved thought it best not to leave a record.
I saw a thread of continuity that I didn’t like. As the article in AP New by Michael Rezendes explains, “the church is more concerned about the spiritual well-being of perpetrators than the physical and emotional well-being of young victims.” What this article did not delve into was how rooted this attitude is in patriarchy.
In a patriarchal society, women and children are not considered whole people, but rather are possessions or belongings of a man. Mormon theology has often, since the 19th century, prioritized the salvation of men. Under this patriarchal theology, women’s salvation is brought about by their husband, something called “salvific coverture.” This theology teaches that women and children are simply brought along by a man into the Celestial Kingdom. While this teaching is not nearly as prominent as it was in the nineteenth-century church and much has been done to emphasis women and men’s equal importance in the church, their families, and salvations, there are still remnants of this patriarchal theology today.
So of course, the church has and still sometimes does prioritize men’s salvation, because the salvation of men (according to this patriarchal thinking) would lead to the salvation of women and children too. If women and children are not seen as whole people, if they are not as valued in the church as men are, then we will continue to prioritize the salvation of rapists over protecting the well-being and lives of children and women. For us to truly prioritize protecting women and children who become victims of men, we need to unravel the patriarchy which still lines our church teachings and culture. We need to reckon with how the patriarchy that we uphold as a church community also protects sexual predators. It has since at least the 1840s, and it will as long as those ideas still exist in our church.
 Elias Smith papers, 1834-1846; Minutes of meetings of the Nashville Branch, 1840-1843; Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/15d26858-063d-463e-a351-2b376f4661da/0/0 (accessed: August 5, 2022).