Guest Post: Mary Jane, Wilford Woodruff, and the 267 Dead Wives
“We meet today with joy to act
A proxy for thy dead,
And give thee scores of wives who’ll be
Like Crowns upon Thy Head”
-Mrs A Randall, written for Wilford Woodruff on his 70th birthday
Let me tell you a story.
A story about powerful men and invisible women.
A story about women viewed as prizes, as objects, rather than as people.
A story about a man who liked to give himself dead wives for his birthday.
267 of them.
But first let me tell you a bit of my story. A story about Zera Pulsipher, my ancestor, and the man who baptized Wilford Woodruff.
My family loves to talk about him and about how pleased we are that someone in our family baptized the man who would one day become a prophet. We take pride in him and his accomplishments.
A few months ago while I was preparing a talk on family history for my daughter to give in Primary, I discovered that Zera Pulsipher, at the age of 68, had polygamously married a 14 year old girl named Martha Hughes. Martha had her first baby a year later. She would have five children with him in total.
First, I felt sick. Then I thought, who was this poor girl? How did she feel about being given to and impregnated by a man old enough to be her grandfather? Did she think she was doing God’s will? Did she feel betrayed by her parents? Was there a boy she loved and had hoped to marry instead? Did anyone even ask her what she wanted? How many nights did she cry herself to sleep?
What was her story?
I had never heard once about Pulsipher’s four wives. I didn’t even know he was a polygamist. These real women who lived and breathed and wept and bled are peripheral to their husband. Invisible.
I know his story. (Or I thought I did.) Why don’t I know hers?
These thoughts on the inequality and tragedy of polygamy were on my mind when I learned that Wilford Woodruff had sealed dead women to himself on his birthday.
So let me tell you that story about Wilford Woodruff.
To celebrate his birthday, on multiple occasions (his 70th, 71st, 72nd, and 74th) Wilford Woodruff invited dozens of women and girls to the temple to do proxy work for previously deceased women and girls he then sealed to himself as wives.
Woodruff recorded in his journal in 1877 that he had received revelation from God that the temple work should be done “for and behalf of the wives who are dead and have been sealed to my servant Wilford, or those who are to be sealed to him, and this shall be acceptable unto me saith the Lord, and the dead of my servant shall be redeemed in the spirit world and be prepared to meet my servant at the time of his Coming.”
After their time in the temple, Wilford was surprised with a “present of a birth day Bridal cake three stories high.”
When I first learned this, I was shocked. And revolted. And so confused. But there it was, written in his own hand in his journals.
I thought, who were these women? Why have I never heard of them? Why have they been erased?
How could this have been from God? Why did this man feel like he had the power to seal more than two hundred strangers to himself in order to magnify his glory at the expense of their consent?
If it was solely about redeeming the dead, why didn’t they seal dozens of dead men as well? Why not seal the single dead men and women together, if love or even knowledge of each other in this life is irrelevant?
Who are these poor women? What are their stories?
So I started digging. I poured through the Family Search records and Woodruff’s journals.
And I found them.
So now I can tell you the story of Mary Jane Belden.
Mary Jane was born in Potsdam, New York in 1833. When she was 21 years old she married a man called Uri William Hart. The next summer she gave birth to a baby girl, whom they also named Mary.
Tragically, Mary Jane and her baby both passed away within two months.
Twenty years later, Mary Jane was one of 154 deceased women and girls who received their endowment by proxy on Wilford Woodruff’s 70th birthday in order to be sealed to him as polygamous wives.
During her life Mary Jane was not a member of the church, nor was her husband, who was still living at the time Mary Jane was sealed to Woodruff as an eternal wife. She was baptized by proxy ten years after her sealing.
Mary Jane, Uri, and baby Mary were finally sealed together as a family in 1960.
I could also tell you the story of Percy Hart, one of the many women who received her proxy endowment on his 70th birthday, who had been dead for twelve years before Woodruff was even born.
Or the story of Lydia Hart, who passed away when she was six years old. She doesn’t have her baptism, confirmation, initiatory, or endowment work done, since those are unnecessary for people who die before the age of accountability. But she is eternally sealed as a wife to Wilford Woodruff.
Or the story of Sarah Woodruff Hart, who passed away several months before her 15th birthday, who was one of the 154.
Or the stories of Mabel Hart, Emeline Hart (age 9), Martha Sophia Hart, Pamela Baggs, Delia Selden Hart (married mother of two), Emily Hart (age 15), and Mary Conover, who were among the many people posthumously sealed to Woodruff on his 72nd birthday.
The following excerpt is from Wilford Woodruff’s journal entry dated March 1, 1879:
“And I had sealed to me at the altar 74 single women who were dead. which makes 267 in all of the dead single women who have been sealed to me in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City and in the St George Temple. I was also sealed today for 65 Couple of dead friends of the Hart family. Making 139 sealings and 7 adoptions.”
Women with husbands and families of their own, women dead before Woodruff took his first breath, teenagers, and children were all sealed as wives to a man they hadn’t even met. Women who should be able to write their own stories.
So let me tell you another story.
The story is about a woman, or a girl. She is like you, or she is not. She is funny, or maybe intellectual. She may be kind. She may be cruel. She has a terrible singing voice. She sings like an angel.
She is a human being with hopes, and dreams, and potential, with a love worth giving and a life of her own.
She is supposed to be equal to a man.
She is a man’s 203rd wife.
Let’s tell her story.
Erin has three girls at home, a husband at her side, and a nerdy heart at all times.
Woodruff’s journal entry recording the revelation:
Woodruff’s journal entry for his 70th birthday:
Woodruff’s journal entry for his 71st birthday:
Woodruff’s journal entry for his 72nd birthday:
Woodruff’s journal entry for his 74th birthday:
Woodruff’s Family Search page:
Mary Jane’s Family Search page: