Guest Post: Mary Jane, Wilford Woodruff, and the 267 Dead Wives


By Erin

“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:

Mrs A Randall’s poem:

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:

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20 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    This is a really impactful piece, thanks for putting it together and sharing with us. And thanks for the sources so we can retrace your footsteps.
    Polygamy. Ugh. It’s the herpes of Mormonism – the gift that never stops giving.

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    Thank you thank you. Women’s stories need to be heard, no matter how heartbreaking they may be. I was taught to revere this man, Wilford Woodruff, and others like him. Some would still choose to do so, but no matter your opinions, lets be honest about what he really did. And lets listen to the women’s stories and not erase them in the telling of a pretty story about a ‘prophet’

  3. Annie says:

    You capture the feeling and implications of polygamy so well; they really deserve a response from our church leaders. (Psst! And by “response” I mean a real apology, none of this “we don’t know why the Lord commanded this practice” business.)

    I have a 16-year-old daughter who felt shattered when her 16-year-old bf kissed another teen girl- tell me again how women can or should bury their feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams to be an accessory to a man for eternity. I cannot fathom her being wed to a 50/60 y/o man, let alone having 5 babies with him. WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN?

    I read my ancestor’s stories, one teen married a man 40 years older than her who already had a wife and 8 kids; she was only 17. She did this happily because she believed this was REQUIRED of her for exaltation, that the Lord wanted this of her. And later on he’d go on to marry another woman 55 years younger than him as well.

    Spiritual manipulation flooded free will right out of their soul; their will was folded carefully away and prophets proclaimed polygamy a success because many women obeyed perfectly with a glorious afterlife promise dangling before them, like a diamond pendant just out of reach.

  4. Abby Hansen says:

    My friend from high school’s great-great-great grandmother was named Delight Stocking and was promised as a future bride to Wilford Woodruff when she was 8 or 9 in Nauvoo (and then married him as a plural wife when she was 18 and he was 50). I have thought about that relationship many times over the years since I heard her story.

    Delight spent her teenage years knowing that her first sexual experience was going to be with that old man up on the stand at conference, and he looked out at this CHILD, knowing he would be the man to take her virginity someday. She didn’t get to date, have boyfriends, flirt, or dream of her wedding day with the boy of her dreams. She just knew that at 18, that 50 year old guy on the stand would be her husband.

    Now I remember being at BYU when my 19 year old neighbor married a 29 year old guy, and we all thought it was a little weird because he was SO OLD. And they’d dated so briefly, and it felt like she just wanted to get married and he was taking advantage of her youth and lack of experience in the dating world. They were so unequally yoked.

    I can’t fathom the dynamics of being a teenager marrying a 50 year old prophet. He’d be experienced sexually and in life in general, and she’d be a baby. She’d have spent her life being told what a spiritual giant and leader he was. There’d be zero chance for even the semblance of an equal relationship.

    It just sounds too much like rape. 🙁

    • That’s so incredibly fundamentalist. We don’t think of our polygamous history the same way that we think of more current fundamentalist sects. And we should. I have great grandmothers who seem to have been peaceful in polygamy, and we should very much be asking why that is. I have one great grandmother who clearly WASN’T content in polygamy (or perhaps marriage at all) being divorced twice, widowed twice. We should ask what she knew that others didn’t.

  5. MonikerChallenged says:

    Wow. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Mary says:

    Thanks for this post. This is shocking and disturbing. As you rightly pointed out, if this was just about sealing people and giving them blessings, why not seal random single men and women together and then seal them as children to some general authority?

    It’s even creepier that the sealings were performed on his birthdays. This clearly demonstrates how polygamy was about male kingdom building and about the status of male leaders in the eternities. And I suppose they could justify it all by saying they were giving these poor women celestial glory. Who wouldn’t want to be married to a future God?

    I feel so sad for these women. There is a reason we don’t seal people today who were never married while alive. The excuse in the polygamy gospel topic essays wears thin about how Joseph was commanded and other leaders were commanded, but that God didn’t always show them how to implement the commandment. Well we have proof right here that supposedly it was God’s will that President Woodruff have a vast celestial harem of women who never knew him.

    31 For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.

    32 And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    33 For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms like, unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    God forbade polygamy to peoples in the New World because of the suffering of His daughters. Then He changes His mind in the 1800s, and now Old Testament whoredoms are acceptable again, including the suffering of His daughters? I don’t think so.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I want to direct this comment to the poster, but I don’t see a name…Anyway, I attempted to read the journal pages provided so I could prove to myself that the post was correct, but I could only decipher some of the words. How in the world does anyone figure out what is actually written? I would love some help, because at this point I can’t see the poster’s conclusions. I don’t doubt that is true based on other readings of church history, but I really would like to say I read it myself.

    • Erin says:

      I’m sure there’s a more scientific way to do it, but what I did was zoomed in once on the screen, and then let my eyes relax and just read.
      If you compare the part of the transcription to the specific part of the page it’s referring to your brain can start to decipher things.
      When you get stuck on a word, look for that letter in a word you can understand. His capital C’s don’t really look like C’s until you can see it somewhere like in “Salt Lake City.”
      Good luck! Once it clicks, it clicks.

  8. Maggie says:

    Zerah Pulsipher is my ancestor too and that story of Martha Hughes I would like to know more about. This topic of polygamy is also disturbing to me on so many levels and having so many in my family who participated makes it hard sometimes to look at it objectively. I have read many of the pioneer journals and some truly seemed happy while others were quite miserable.

  9. Jan Signore says:

    Thank you for writing about what you found regarding Wilford Woodruff. This makes a mockery of the sealing covenant. I’m happy I have a testimony of Jesus Christ, for which I am grateful. I agree an apology is owed, but as President Oaks said, “the Church does not apologize”. Quite something to say about an organization run by imperfect human beings.

  10. Amy says:

    So seal them all to Jesus, but of course it isn’t at all about Jesus. This might ruffle some feathers, but temple dealings are only “valid”, in the minds of living Mormons, so it’s all for not anyway. Left with only the feelings of injustice and outrage that any man would have such audacity. The real disgrace here is the polygamy to the living women who were just numbers. I like what Violadiva said in her comment…”the herpes of Mormonism”, so true!

  11. Brittany says:

    It is truly sickening what men can get away with when they convince their community that God approves of it.

  12. Anne says:

    I had no idea. Absolutely crazy. I even checked out Wiford’s Family Search page, and sure enough, all these wives are there in plain sight. It takes awhile to scroll down to see them all. Ugh. The gospel of Jesus Christ is simple and beautiful, but this makes a mockery of it all. I have also done a lot of recent study about current fundamentalist Mormons (specifically Warren Jeffs). It is uncanny how much the views about women have not changed much. This, if anything, demonstrates why we should never rely on the arm of flesh. Jeremiah 17:5 ¶ Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man (or woman) that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.
    6 For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.
    7 Blessed is the man (or woman) that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is.
    8 For he (or she) shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

  13. Brandon says:

    According to Woodruff’s page on Family Search, 95 of the women sealed to him have the last name of Hart (one of these has a middle name of Hart since her mother was a Hart). So, I looked up why he would be so interested in the Hart family and this is what I found from an article in the July 1993 Ensign entitled, “Wilford Woodruff: A Man of Record,” by Dean C. Jessee. Speaking of Woodruff, Jessee recounts, “In 1876 he bought a history in which he found all the descendants of ancestor Stephen Hart, born in Braintree, England, in 1605. In the following weeks he spent many days “getting out the names of the Hart family for baptism.” On June 20 he recorded the fulfillment of his labors: “Glory Hallelujah for this day, for in spite of the Devil through the blessing of God I have had the privilege … of going into the Endowment House and with my family have been baptized for 949 … of my dead relatives and friends.” Two days later he repeated the process for 924 others. Later in the year, he spent most of a week in St. George “preparing the names” of Hart and Woodruff ancestors for sealing in the newly constructed temple. By 1885 his records had produced vicarious baptisms for 3,188 of his family and friends, and endowments for 2,518 of them. To the end of his life, President Woodruff actively corresponded with relatives and others, including the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, for family information.” So, it is a curious idea to seal his own female ancestors to himself as wives–especially when some of them were just children when they passed, had died before Woodruff was even born, and when some of them were already married to spouses and had children of their own–especially when these women were later sealed to their own spouses besides Woodruff. What a mess. I guess you have to remember that proxy endowments had never been performed while Joseph Smith was living. Those were instituted by Woodruff himself, when he was temple president of the St. George temple.

  14. Kathy says:

    Thank you for this well researched article. While I agree that we need an apology, more importantly we need an explanation for Section 132 and the doctrine that justifies this treatment of women in the past and continues to hang over the heads of women today as an eternal possibility. Hopefully, you’re adding to information that Church leaders can’t ignore because it’s harmful in our day to think this is okay. Leaders need to either retract it or be clear that this is the fate of women, which it isn’t. I believe in a God who loves women also, so this has to be a mistake of men. Sadly, until this doctrine is corrected, preferably retracted, Church leaders today are perpetrating this mistake.

  15. JR says:

    In trying to understand the 19th century Mormon mindset on such sealings, I found chapter 2 of J Stapley’s “The Power of Godliness” very helpful. As one illustration, he reported that a Mormon “woman in 1880 wrote the First Presidency to see if she could be sealed to a practicing Mormon man while still remaining civilly married to her nonpracticing husband. Church president John Taylor approved the request, with the stipulation that she maintain complete honesty and openness with her civil husband.” This illustrated the strength of the then Mormon belief that being sealed in an eternal marriage in this life was essential to exaltation (sometimes referred to as “salvation”) in the hereafter. The same belief seemed to have been the motivation for the Woodruff sealings (and others like them):

    “In an effort to extend sealings to as many deceased relatives as possible, church leaders directed the sealing of unmarried female ancestors as wives to living descendants. [Note: it seems their genealogical research was not perfect in identifying marital status of such ancestors.] The rationale was straightforward: marriage and posterity in the eternities were viewed as the highest blessings, but not every individual in history had been married or had children. Wilford Woodruff described Brigham Young’s solution to this problem: ‘He told me to have the single women of my father’s and mother’s households sealed to me. I asked him ‘how many?’ He said if there was not over nine hundred and ninety-nine to take them.’ Woodruff estimated that he had had approximately three hundred such women sealed to him as wives.” “..the practice … was fairly common among those individuals who invested in genealogy and temple work during the nineteenth-century-temple era.”

    That 19th century belief was abandoned by 20th century Mormonism. While there are clearly aspects of 19th century thought and practice that show “women [being] viewed as prizes, as objects, rather than as people,” there was also then a firm belief in the necessity of an earthly sealing to eternal happiness. In the context of that belief, it was quite natural for Woodruff and others including at least some women to view those approximately three hundred sealings as gifts to those women out of concern for their eternal joy as gifts to Woodruff. It seems, however much I dislike it and the language used to describe it, the 19th century Mormon cosmology/theology worked both ways.

    Here is Apostle Amasa Lyman’s April 5, 1866, acknowledgment of errors: “We were not aware that any such a thing as plural marriage had to be introduced into the world; but the Lord said it after a while, and we obeyed the best we knew how, and, no doubt, made many crooked paths in our ignorance.”

    While many would disagree that it was the Lord who said it, in the 19th century [many] Mormons believed it and that the associated “sealings” in this life were necessary to the happiness of women, not just men, in the hereafter. The Woodruff example is not just “A story about a man who liked to give himself dead wives for his birthday.” It is more complicated than that.

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