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She Had a Question, 1897 (1)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 02, 2009

Before there was a “Girl Query” department written by Catherine Hurst, there were “Confidential Chats” hosted by Aretta Young and Frances M. Richards. Their style is completely different from the candid, to-the-point advice of Catherine Hurst, but the letters they received show that 10 or 20 years didn’t make a bit of difference in the concerns of young Mormon girls.

I wish our girls would send me more letters, for I want to get at the hearts of the girls, and I cannot do that, unless they will open those sacred portals and allow a vision of that inmost holy of holies. Ask your questions, girls. I think I can tell you something about almost any subject which girls are interested in, for I was a girl myself once, and I try not to forget my feelings and actions at that time. If you do not wish your letters published, I will only publish the answer, and shall keep sacred the secret of your name and identity. Let me now proceed to reply to this letter which I have received:

Dear Sister: – The “Confidential Chats” in the Journal have a great charm for me. Last year Miss Aretta Young and Mabel had a correspondence about “round dancing,” which interested me very much. I can sympathize with Mabel. Like her, I am exiled from all dancing parties; because, if I ever go to one, I am ridiculed so much on account of my scruples concerning round dancing, that I feel worse than when I stay away from such entertainments altogether.

It was Mabel’s and Miss Young’s letters in “Confidential Chats” that first caused me to think seriously on the subject. Since reading them, I have wondered, if round dancing is, or was ever, actually disapproved of by the First Presidency of our Church, why so little attention is paid to such disapproval by our young people in general. I ask, whether it is that we are so mixed up with the outside element; or is it because the authorities of the wards give undue license to merry-makers; or is it obstinate naughtiness in our young folks themselves.

My parents have taught me to honor the instructions given by the Prophets of the Lord. And believing that President Brigham Young said that the Saints would be better off if they would refrain from round dancing, I will not indulge in it; although I have had even a Bishop tell me that, “it does not do to be too straight-laced; waltzing is a delightful exercise, of which young people should not be robbed.” And a Sunday School superintendent told me at one party, “It will be better for you to go home, as you do not waltz, and might get your feelings hurt.” These are only a few of the hard things I have had to meet and answer in this matter.

But my parents and two noble brothers help me to maintain the position I have taken. My brothers never dance at all, although they are merry hearted young men, and would enjoy dancing, if our parents did not encourage us all the time to refrain from round dancing, and if the old fashioned square dances were engaged in now.

A lively lady friend of ours called in to see us the other day, and was talking as most of our friends talk now-a-days about the pleasures of round dancing.

Mother said she did not believe the young people enjoyed their dancing now, as much as dancing was enjoyed in the days of the Pioneers and early settlers of Utah, say forty years ago, when most of the dancing that was done consisted of reels and cotillions.

The friend said, “But those kinds of dances are things of the past now, and all out of date.” Father made us all laugh by saying in a jovial way, “So are squash pies, baked beans and buttermilk out of date; but I often think I should enjoy them more than I do the ‘angel cake,’ ‘lollies’ and ‘pollies,’ or whatever they are called, and the dainty beverages we are asked to partake of at the entertainments we attend now-a-days.”

Dear friend, I hope my “chat” will not be so long that you will have to decline to answer it. What I want, is to know, if I can find out, whether the stand I have taken with regard to round dancing is wise or foolish. I would not like to be numbered among the virgins of the latter kind.

Sincerely yours, Willmia.

My dear young friend, you are asking the same question which a number of our girls scattered throughout the Church are asking. If round dancing is wrong, why is it wrong? And if it is wrong, why do our girls and boys indulge in it?

Let me call your attention to one principle in our Church. As you are a young girl, I will answer you as if you had not read these things for yourself. In the great plan of salvation, we are told that Lucifer wanted to come and act as the Savior of this world. But his plan was to redeem and save everybody whether they would be saved or not. In other words, he wanted to take away the agency of mankind. Now, the Gods decided against him, and after that occurred the war in heaven.

If you will read carefully the Book in the Old Testament, called Leviticus, you will see there that God laid down strict and severe laws for the government of His chosen people. Moses when in the Mount, was preparing himself to bring to his people the higher law, which is only enjoyed under the Melchisedek Priesthood. When he saw them worshipping a golden calf, he knew that they could not be trusted with those purer ordinances, and so the lower ordinances, or as these laws are sometimes called, “the schoolmaster,” were given to the Jews.

Now in these days, God has revealed the higher law which Christ brought to earth, namely the highest and purest type of “self-government.” Each one, in this order, may or may not keep the law. if you break the Sabbath Day, you are not taken out and stoned to death, but your parents gently and kindly teach you to keep that law. Then, when you grow older, you keep it because you love to do so. You see, we are on a higher plane, and it is also true that we have the more responsibility to bear, and consequently we can sink lower.

That answers your question as to why this given rule of our leaders, namely, that round dancing is to be discountenanced, and discontinued if possible, is not observed. We are using our agency to the fullest extent.

Now, my dear young and sensible girl, you ask if round dancing is wrong? It is a means of wrong coming to some, or rather it generates sin in the hearts of some. Now, for the same reason that you would not play cards or drink beer or buy lottery tickets or have your fortune told, you will not dance round dances. It may not and probably would not hurt you or your kind, noble brothers. But it does do incalculable mischief to some, and it opens the door for much sin to enter into the midst of our young people, and therefore you shun it as you do the other things I have mentioned.

If you were here with me, I would tell you some things further, which I cannot tell in this open letter. I will say one thing, however, and that is I fear the time will never come when our young people will avoid this forbidden practice until our mothers see their duties in a clearer light. There is altogether too much ignorance in regard to the deep and holy secrets of life among us young and old. How many mothers are teaching their girls and their boys the root of the objection to round dancing. In other words, how many of our mothers are teaching their sons and their daughters the whole story of that beautiful mystery called parenthood!

And when you tell a boy, “there are some apples, but you must not eat them,” he says right away, “Why not? They are sweet to the taste and very desirable, I want some.” And the girl comes along with a thin, white, dainty ball-dress on, and she holds out her pretty, innocent, but tempting arms, and he turns away from the mother’s cold, soulless, and unintelligent warning, and in a moment the apple of desire is between his lips, he has eaten, he swings his pretty partner around and around, and when he is through with the dance, he says mentally, “My mother is a simpleton. Why should I not enjoy such a delicious thrilling experience.”

Oh, my dear girl, it is these mothers who should study the laws of nature for themselves, and then they should teach every truth to girls and boys alike.

There is an inconsistency in requiring young people to refrain from a pleasure, unless you can explain to them why they should refrain. After that, our girls and our boys will need no one to come out and stone them to death, for having been taught correct principles, they will govern themselves.

Write again dear girl, and let me recommend you to get some of Dr. Mary Wood Allen’s little books which you can get from her at Ann Arbor, Mich. Study these things for yourself.

Kindly Yours, Frances M. Richards.



17 Comments »

  1. I’m afraid that the fourth paragraph from the end of this advice from Sister Richards may have exactly the opposite effect from what she intends.

    Begin by dressing in something pretty: a thin, white, dainty ball-dress. (No, I’ll stay at home and wear my burlap underwear, a homespun dress, and my army boots.)

    Then, turn[] away from the mother’s cold, soulless, and unintelligent warning. (Exactly what I was thinking!)

    [S]wings his pretty partner around and around.
    (Gee, it’s awfully nice that someone thinks I’m pretty–beats staying home and playing Cinderella, no matter how noble my brothers are, even if all this swinging makes me a little dizzy.)

    (Thanks, Sister Richards. Loved your advice!)

    Comment by Mark B. — October 2, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  2. From the opening: “they will open those sacred portals and allow a vision of that inmost holy of holies”.

    Sounds like something from the Roman de la Rose. Not the imagery I’d expect in this particular venue!

    Comment by Doug Hudson — October 2, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  3. Oh my. I’ve edited a small paper (very small) and was in charge of submissions. The plea for letters in the first paragraph sounds rather familiar.

    And the letter itself! Hilarious! It sounds like it came straight from the pen of one of the columnists. (But of course I could be wrong!)

    And the answer! Almost too good to be true!

    In other words, how many of our mothers are teaching their sons and their daughters the whole story of that beautiful mystery called parenthood!

    ROFL

    And, the children, knowing all about this “delicious thrilling experience,” are going to stop waltzing?!? More likely they’d run out in droves to experience that feeling for themselves…

    Thanks for the laugh, Ardis.

    Comment by Researcher — October 2, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  4. It’s going to get even better. If this segment hadn’t already been long enough, I would have included a later letter that Tells You Exactly In Case You Missed It The First Time what will result from round dancing. Next time.

    What you all have pointed out about the language and general style of this (which is typical of the tone of the entire 1890s run of the Young Woman’s Journal) makes it all the more clear what a refreshing break Catherine Hurst was a few years later. No wonder the girls wrote to her.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 2, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  5. Exactly In Case You Missed It The First Time what will result from round dancing

    I can’t wait!

    Comment by Researcher — October 2, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  6. “Willmia” does sound rather mature. I’m impressed by her last lines: “What I want, is to know, if I can find out, whether the stand I have taken with regard to round dancing is wise or foolish. I would not like to be numbered among the virgins of the latter kind.”

    (I am similarly suspicious about the origin of some of the letters from teenagers printed by Dear Abby and Ask Amy.)

    Using Heritage Quest, I found one Willmia living in Utah during this approximate time period. She would have been about 20 years old in 1897.

    Comment by Justin — October 2, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  7. Ha! That’s a very Justinian thing to do!

    Skeptics though we all may be, Willmia reminds me very much of girls I’ve known (maybe a girl I once was) who took truer-than-true-bluer-than-blue stands on various marginal issues to the point of annoying everybody around — you know, the one who insists on buying YW refreshments at Store X rather than Store Z, because Z is open on Sunday and X is not (even though you’re buying the refreshments on Wednesday). Or the one who won’t drink rootbeer because it has the word “beer” in its name, or because it’s made by the same company that makes caffeinated cola, or whatever. That much rings true to me, that there would be a girl not content simply to sit out the round dances, but who made such a prig of herself that the ward leaders told her to go home.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 2, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  8. FWIW, the Willmia I found was Willmia Brown Robinson (1877-1965).

    Comment by Justin — October 2, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

  9. Nice find, Justin.

    Comment by Hunter — October 2, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  10. I’m having a Young Frankenstein moment here: “Ah, sweet mystery of life….”

    On the other hand, my wife teaches math at a junior high, and when we occasionally chaperon the dances there, the deep and holy secrets in the “waltzing” there leaves little to the imagination. I’m afraid that poor Misses Young and Richards would faint away in a near fatal case of the vapors. I’m sure there was a middle ground in there somewhere, but it’s not on display at these dances.

    Comment by kevinf — October 2, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  11. Awesome. I love reading 112-year-old pleas for better sex ed in the home. I still think so many problems could be solved if parents spoke more openly with their children.

    Comment by kew — October 2, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  12. Ardis, this was delightful. So let me see if I have the arts straight: theatre (good); fiction (bad, then good); round dancing (bad); square dancing (good). What was the stance on painting? Opera?

    Comment by Kylie — October 2, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  13. What did Aretta tell Mabel? Who is Dr. Mary Wood Allen and what is in her little books?

    I know know the sentiment in what Sister Richards wrote is quaint, and few today see the harm in a waltz, but it all comes down to where to draw a line that needs to be drawn. I am sure there were those for whom a square dance too was “a means of wrong coming to some, or rather [an event that] generates sin in the hearts of some.”

    I certainly felt some primitive stirings when I was a member of a square dance club in college, but I never felt so icky as I did as I attended one dance where a couple with whom I was friends proceeded to pantomime the initiation of the “beautiful mystery called parenthood” as dance. Somewhere in between the square dance and the display my friends put on was that line, and on that day I crossed it.

    We should never fault nor mock those who who draw that line closer to the side of safety, nor parents and leaders who encourage youth to establish high standards. Parents and leaders must, however, teach the correct principles and not just issue dictates.

    “Just say no” is only a starting point, and must be followed up, as Sister Richards indicates, with as complete an explaination of the facts. Children need to know what the hypothalamus does, but they also need to know how it relates to them, much as they need to learn how to listen to the Spirit. “This warm feeling of happiness is the Spirit, this other is your body’s response to the proximity of a hot guy.”

    Leaders in particular must also recognize when they might be eating meat offered to idols in front of one for whom the idol has meaning.

    My wife will not touch an herbal infusion of any kind because they are called “teas.” Out of respect for her I do not either, even though for me I would see nothing wrong with a pepermint tea, or even a mild grain beverage like a Sharp’s. (Hmm, should I put some in my food storage?) For the “noble” at heart these things may not be a temptation and may not lead to sin, but “for the same reason that you would not play cards or drink beer [Was this pre- or post-catechism? (somewhere around this time was when the WoW went from being advice to commandment, part of a movement called "catechism"] or buy lottery tickets or have your fortune told, you” should not dance in a suggestive way, injest substances that appear to some to be something that might impair your judgement or otherwise break a commandment.

    Sister Richards values may be behind the curve of fashion and her language may appear as quaint as her ideals, but in principle she is absolutely right.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — October 3, 2009 @ 8:10 am

  14. In all our laughing at this, I had thought we were laughing almost entirely at the words and overwrought tone of the advice, not at the general principle behind it. If that line was blurred, I’m glad, Eric, that you redrew it.

    As you and one or two others have mentioned, there are current dances that appall us every bit as much as the waltz did Sister Richards and Willmia, and for exactly the same reason. It’s easier to see that point in dances that offend us, and easy to laugh at the stodginess of past generations whose dances we now consider classic and suitable for stake talent shows or all-church youth festivals of the not-too-distant past: the waltz is shocking? the Charleston is indecent? swing is immodest? Well, yeah, at one time, they were.

    Dr. Mary Wood Allen wrote hygiene books chiefly for parents to use in giving their children an understanding of human reproduction. A sample of one such, What a Young Girl Ought to Know, will give you a taste of their “pure” (non-clinical) tone. And I’ll reprint what Aretta Young discussed with Mabel in another installment of this “She Had a Question” series.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 3, 2009 @ 9:19 am

  15. This post, Our Sacred Secret, presents a lesson on sex education recommending a different author, but books of very much the same style.

    And here are advertisements for such books from church magazines; the comments include links to the text of some of those books.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 3, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  16. Dear Ardis.

    I suppose I knew that you, Researcher and others for whom I have great respect stand squarely for virtuous principles even when having fun with language. I guess that in trying to raise my children I have been trying hard to get them to develop empathy and I have become too attuned to the effects such play can have on the corporeal. My standard for the dead, who are not dead, but sleep is much the same.

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — October 3, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  17. Thank you for your comments, Eric, and your kind words. I’m sorry if I caused offense.

    The main thing that I found funny about the article was the use of euphemism such as “[T]hat beautiful mystery called parenthood.” Parenthood is defined as “the state of being a parent” and is at least several steps removed from waltzing. (Oh my. I just noticed that it’s too late at night to try and write a serious response. This post really makes me giggle.)

    I will simply quickly agree that teenagers need accurate, thorough information from their parents to help them navigate the minefields of adolescence and adulthood, and then they need to combine this information with wisdom and charity and good judgment and a lot of assistance and help from their parents and their church leaders.

    As Ardis said, thank you for “redrawing the line.”

    Comment by Researcher — October 3, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

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