Great-Grandfather’s Family


Nostalgia may haze over how the nineteenth century was for many families. Hard. Understanding a few of their challenges makes us appreciate their triumphs—and helps us see our own conditions in perspective.

No matter how hard we work for harmony and happiness in the home, the inevitable differences of opinion between spouses, between parents and children, between children, and between children and neighboring parents and children make our goal challenging. Added to that, we must all learn to cope successfully with the problems, the adversities, the temptations and snares of our times.

But family struggles are not unique to our generation; each has had its share of hardships, frustrations, and conflicts. The poetry of James Whitcomb Riley and the engravings of Currier and Ives suggest that family life of the nineteenth century was filled with charm, warmth, affection, fun, and general fulfillment for both parents and children. And so it was. But it was also confronted with adversities, predicaments, dangers, and vice. It may be helpful for us to remember in times of stress that the challenges of our day are matched by the trials and difficulties that our forebears faced. Some of these problems have not changed.

First, there were the hard economic realities that for many meant putting children out of the home to work at an early age. Young Duckworth Grimshaw of Lancashire, for example, who joined the Church in the 1840s, was apprenticed to a textile dyeing shop when still a child. In his early teens he worked as a loom jobber. Thomas Giles worked in the mines alongside his father. The information uncovered by a special government investigating commission in nineteenth-century England is heartrending in its description of the long, hard hours of work put in by small children and teenagers in the mines and factories. Even for those not caught in the tentacles of the new industrial system, it was standard to put children out as apprentices or maids.

In America, where industrialism did not develop very far until after the Civil War, there was also the problem of what to do with growing children to turn them into economic assets and relieve pressure on the family, and in the long run to prepare them for making their own way in the world. A common solution was to let boys live and work with farmers or other adult employers. Lyman Wight in New York state was off working on neighboring farms in his early teens, and in his late teens went as far afield as Michigan and Canada in pursuit of work and experience. Sanford Porter’s childhood job, one in which he experienced considerable cruelty, was selling fish. Alonzo Raleigh, also a New Englander, was apprenticed to a mason. At the age of fourteen young Tom Marsh (later known as Thomas B. Marsh) ran away from home. Within a few years he had held jobs as farm worker, waiter, groom, grocer, and type founder. To the extent that departure from home for work was part of the experience of the nineteenth-century family, the warmth and security of family life was broken down by instability and dislocation.

Even if nineteenth-century employment patterns did not frequently break up families, there were other signs that all was not well with many families. The per capita consumption of liquor was astronomical. “Father, dear Father, come home with me now, The clock in the steeple strikes two,” went one popular ballad as a frail child plaintively tried to persuade her father to leave his bottle at the saloon and return to take care of a sick mother and the children. By the turn of the century the United States had more than 100,000 legal saloons and some 50,000 “blind pigs and tigers.” The crusaders of the anti-saloon league, led by women like Carrie Nation, may have been overzealous at times, but it was a fact that drinking was contributing to poverty, to crime, and to desertion and abandonment. Another threat to nineteenth-century family solidarity was the rising tide of prostitution—the “social evil.” In Chicago alone at the end of the century a study revealed that there were at least 5,000 regular prostitutes and 10,000 occasional ones.

Then, too, there was strain on many families as a result of emigration and migration, a stress magnified among some Latter-day Saints by pressures of the “gathering” spirit. The emigration of Europeans to America was a major pattern, but in addition there was the westward movement in America that kept families on the go. In individual terms this meant opportunity, as we know, but it also meant hardship; immigrants were, in Oscar Handlin’s term, the “uprooted.”

Were there husbands who were anxious to take off to new lands while wives were determined to stay close to home and family? Among the Saints, there were some wives who were determined to join the Saints at all costs. Were there children who left for new locations leaving their parents behind? Certainly among the Saints this was often the case—as many readers know from their own family histories—especially if only the younger members of the family converted. Obviously these geographic movements contributed to physical separation within families. Even when a family moved together to the new world, pressure was placed on family unity if the parents spoke with an accent or continued dress and customs of the old country while the children were growing up as Americans. Such was the poignant, oft-repeated immigrant experience, both within and without the Church.

If the harsh nineteenth-century general economic necessity of putting children out of the nest, the corrupting influence of saloon and brothel, and the wrenching separations caused by moves to new locations were not enough, many nineteenth-century families were sometimes troubled by religious divisions. Religious differences were a recognized cause of marital friction, which led clergymen of all faiths to encourage religious unity within the family. Ofttimes there was a live-and-let-live attitude, a kind of working compromise within families that allowed the wife to go her own way, attending her religious services and seeing to the religious education of the children, while the father paid scant attention to things of the Spirit. All of this was a minor irritant, an additional cause of dissension. But it could become a major focus of contention. The revivalistic activity associated with Wesleyism in England and with the waves of revivalism in America could not be counted upon to affect all family members in the same manner. The family of Joseph Smith, Sr., was not the only one that found some family members attracted to one denomination while others were drawn elsewhere.

If religious differences could occasion misunderstanding and hard feelings in families prior to the organization of the Church, conversion to the restored gospel sometimes created a crisis in family relations for many converts from 1830 to 1900.

Traumatic experiences at the time of conversion were fairly common. Mary Crandall, converted in Ireland, was locked up by her parents for three months before she was finally able to emigrate to Utah. Tearful, emotional confrontations occurred when the new convert, full of testimony, tried to persuade parents or other relatives who were disinterested or hostile. Orson Hyde called upon his sister and her husband and spent a couple of days with them. Long discussions about the restored gospel ensued, but they could not be convinced. His brief diary entry vibrates with emotion: “We took our things and left them, and tears from all eyes freely ran, and we shook the dust of our feet against them, but it was like piercing my heart.”

Upon coming into the Church, what concepts of family life did the new converts find? They found reinforcement of the tradition of strong, faithful families, which many of them already held. They found inspiring teachings about the importance of family life. But they were still confronted by the same social forces that threatened family solidarity in society generally, as well as other pressures created by the conditions of the new religion.

To start with, most Latter-day Saint families of the past century were under severe economic pressure. Repeated moves—Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, the Great Basin—did not make it easy to put down roots. Emigrants from Europe, learning a new language and trying to find a good job in Nauvoo or the Great Basin, faced added difficulties. Most families looking back on their history emphasize the success experiences, the family-strengthening ones. It is our view of the traditional American dream: strong, faithful families growing stronger in a new and fruitful land. But without question there were numerous examples of heartache, of failure in the new setting, of unrewarding work or underemployment, all tending to place added stress on some families. As time passed, the best locations in the West seemed to be filled up. What were the new immigrants to do then? What indeed were the sons of Latter-day Saint families to do? More than one diary account of life as it was lived by many of our own flesh-and-blood Saints is a long, dreary tale of drudgery, of constant worry, of eking out a meager existence. Not that Latter-day Saints were alone in facing such challenges, but perhaps their hardships were more severe because of their more frequent moves, the larger incursions of immigrants, and a limited economic base in the western states.

From the beginning, also, a portion of Latter-day Saint families learned the experience of having an absentee father. I am referring now to the calls upon some Mormon men to go on missions—mining missions, settlement missions, exploring missions, and especially proselyting missions—with the result for some of these families of temporarily depriving the mother and children of the husband-father’s presence and support. This absence could be a few weeks or a few months; there are also examples of missions that lasted for five to seven or more years; many lasted two to three years. However, the number of missionary fathers out at any one time may not have been large; only in the 1870s did the number of missionaries reach 900, and one might guess that at least half of them were single men. There was constant turnover, new missionaries being called to replace those returning home. Thus, there may have been only several hundred Latter-day Saint families who experienced, temporarily, a fatherless existence as a result of these missions.

The missionary call and departure, with its great spiritual blessings, were also great tests of family cohesion. Most wives of missionary husbands probably reacted as did Rebecca Bolton. As her husband Curtis wrote in his journal about his call as a missionary to France in 1849, “At first flush, she thought it hard that I should have to leave her in so destitute a situation as she then was. But a few moments after, burst into tears and said, ‘Go in the name of Israel’s God and prosper and I will take care of myself.’” But tension and marital strain for some could occur even after the missionary was serving in his field of labor. Jesse Haven’s letters from South Africa and Oliver Huntington’s from England are examples reflecting the difficulties of normal family existence when economic support was lacking at home and the father was absent for an indefinite period of time.

Then, along with economic privation and an absent father, was for some the institution of plural marriage. Starting during Joseph Smith’s own lifetime but limited to a few dozen families until its official announcement in 1852, plural marriage brought a powerful new challenge to the equanimity of Latter-day Saint family life. Never could it be said that a majority of Latter-day Saint families were polygamous families. If each mother and her children are considered as a single family unit, the percentage reaches something like 10 or 15 percent. These families, by and large, tended to include the most prominent families within Latter-day Saint society.

While there were many examples of success, of harmony, of love, of delightful “aunty” relationships with the plural wives of one’s father, it should also be said that for some the plurality of wives created tensions and unhappiness. “My wives have not spoken to each other for many months,” wrote one husband in 1856. We do not have a thorough study of divorces in Mormon families, polygamous and monogamous, but we do know that permanent separation ended some nineteenth-century marriages. Obviously plural marriage for most meant even more fatherly absence than had existed before. In the words of Professor Eugene Campbell of Brigham Young University, “Many of the normal problems of marriage, such as finance, personality adjustment, sexual relationships, jealousies, child-rearing and discipline were all magnified in plural marriages.”

These factors—those presenting special challenges to Mormon families—are not the whole picture. But they are part of the picture. In the actual recorded experiences of family life we discover, not surprisingly, that behind our surface impression of harmonious, loving families—the families of the family portraits existed most of the challenges which threaten family life today. The point is that in the past century neither the family life of Americans and Europeans generally, nor that of the Latter-day Saints, was as free of problems as we have tended to believe. We now find ourselves in a period of looking on our past. There is a tendency among many of us to overstate the positive, understate the negative. We need not hesitate to see the whole picture as we seek to discover our forefathers. The more we see their fiber and strengths, the more we will appreciate their efforts in building the Church and in raising their children.

Perhaps partly because of these circumstances, our prophets gave repeated emphasis to the importance of family solidarity. During the nineteenth century, in the sermons of General Authorities and in newspaper and magazine articles, the ideal of Mormon family life was a frequently recurring theme. It was stressed that marriage could be eternal; family relationship of parents and children could be perpetuated in the hereafter; children were precious souls, each ultimately important in the sight of God; parents were answerable to God for teaching their children. It was stressed that if family life was a challenge, the Saints should remind themselves that God wanted a tried people. Surmounting obstacles was a means of maturing and strengthening character, just as it is today. If coupling and parenting were trials, so was life, all of life, a trial—a time of probation. If approached with the right attitude and with the right kind of response from parents and children, the family provided the most beautiful and fulfilling experiences of life. It could be a foretaste of heaven.

Thus, the restored gospel added spiritual depth to the general family ideal of the age by placing it in an eternal perspective. In temple marriage, in the program of home teaching, and in the practical advice given in Relief Society and in the Church periodicals, the Church provided aids and supports to help its members withstand stresses and strains on the family as family members tried to come close to that noble ideal. Some remarkable families of the past came close to achieving it. If we face family problems today, let us recognize that so did our progenitors. Like them, we can continue striving.

[illustration] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson

Davis Bitton, a professor of history at the University of Utah, is also an Assistant Church Historian. He serves in the Sunday School presidency of the Federal Heights Ward, Salt Lake Emigration Stake.