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Women’s History Lecture Series: Chad Orton, “Those They Left Behind”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 09, 2010

Last night the Church History Library debuted its Women’s History Lecture Series with an hour-long presentation by Chad Orton, an archivist with the Library, and the historian who has done so much to restore an authentic knowledge of the heroic men who went to the rescue of the stranded 1856 handcart companies, by peeling off the layers of accumulated legend behind which they had become obscured.

In a similar way, his lecture last night introduced us to the heroic – and human and fallible and faithful and amusing and real – women and children who were left behind when married Latter-day Saint men answered the call to serve missions. The labors of those missionaries, “and the accompanying growth of the Church,” Chad noted, “couldn’t have happened without the support of these missionary wives and children … [They made] sacrifices at home so that the gospel might go forth into the world.”

Using the letters and diaries and photos of these wives and children, and sometimes of their missionary husbands, Chad let these women and children tell their own story in their own voices. We heard from the wives of prominent men – like Sanie Lund, wife of Anthon Lund who later served in the First Presidency, and Mary Ann Angell Young, wife of Brigham Young – and also from some who were previously unknown to me, like Clorinda Schmutz, whose husband John served two missions to Switzerland within a ten-year period. We also heard from Tony Lund, Anthon’s 12-year-old son, who labored manfully to support his father and ease his mother’s burdens. (And I confess to being proud that Chad used the story told here on Keepa about George Meacham’s service to missionary wife Alice Spendlove.)

Chad let these women tell about their husbands’ departures, some within days of their marriages, others within a short time before the women would give birth, and others in middle age. In all cases, despite the general pride in their husbands’ calls, the women had to make their own way, to keep their children fed and clothed, to provide funds for their traveling husbands, to deal with their own loneliness, to assume the management of farms and businesses with which they had never dealt – these were challenges common to all the wives. The women found their individual ways to face the hardships: we heard about women who moved back home with their parents, and women who took in boarders and did sewing or washing or assumed other income-producing work in addition to their already full loads as mothers and homemakers.

We heard about miraculous instances: Sarah Peterson (Sanie Lund’s mother) saw her own husband, Canute off on a mission. She waited for offers of help from men in the community to help plow her fields and plant her wheat, but when no such offers came she did the work herself, utterly ignorant of the proper procedures. She planted too late and too deep, and the men told her she would never raise a crop. Yet she tended that field, a seemingly barren one when compared to the lush growth of the neighbors’ fields, as if her children’s lives depended upon it – because they did. Then the plague of crickets came and devoured all those prospering fields of her neighbors. Only after the destroyers had gone, and the community was facing the prospect of a terribly hungry winter, did Sarah’s field sprout. She produced 60 bushels of wheat, enough to feed her own family, and enough to share with her neighbors – and she saved a jar of what the family called their “salvation wheat” to show her husband when he returned from his mission.

Chad told us of other missionary wives who produced much more wheat than Sarah had, who raised sheep – and fought the constant escape of those sheep through a fence the woman couldn’t mend properly – who raised barns (hoping in the beginning that the expense wouldn’t displease the husband, but noting with satisfaction in the end that the barn saved so much money in the way of unspoiled hay that the family would have been farther head going to the expense of barn building years earlier), who worked double shifts to do their own work as well as their husband and then were kept up all night tending to sick children.

Through the words of these women, we heard of their homesickness for their husbands, their frustrations at meager Christmas gifts for their children, their loneliness on Sundays – the day when the women had been accustomed to spending more hours in close association with their husbands. They wondered if their husbands missed them as much as they missed their husbands, and they compared their husbands’ situations of being able to mentally picture them at home, while they had little idea of where their husbands were that night.

Chad told us about the Lehi Missionary Wives Society, and how before their second meeting could be held, the members of the club assembled at the train station to meet the casket of a missionary and accompany it and the missionary’s widow to the cemetery. We heard of other expected homecomings that did not come to be, and about the joyful meetings of other wives with their honorably released husbands. Chad closed by reminding us again that while we have long told stories of the faith and courage and achievements of men in the mission field, such service would have been impossible without the largely untold story of faith and courage and work of “those they left behind.”

This lecture moved so rapidly from story to story to story that it was impossible for me to grasp and remember it all. I hope that Chad soon publishes some form of this paper so that I can hear again of these women who did such remarkable things – not because they planned on being remarkable, but simply because they did what needed to be done.

Other lectures planned for this series are:

August 12, 2010: “Recording and Remembering” – various ways women of the Church have chosen to record and remember the events of their lives, by Christine cox, director of Church History Library Services.

September 9, 2010: “Wife, Sister, Aunt,” – the private life and relationships of Eliza R. Snow, by Jill Mulvay Derr, senior research historian with the Church History Department.

October 14, 2010: “From Plain to Plane” – the leadership of the Church’s young women by Ruth May Fox, by Brittany A. Chapman, an historian associated with the Library.

November 11, 2010: “Emma Smith in the Aftermath of the Martyrdom” – Emma’s efforts to administer Joseph’s estate, settle the debts, and provide for her children, by Sharalyn D. Howcroft, an archivist with the Library.

All of these dates are Thursdays, and the lectures are all scheduled for 7:00. They are open to the public, at no charge, and will be held in the Library at 15 East North Temple, Salt Lake City (once you enter the library, hostesses will direct you to the right floor and room).



8 Comments »

  1. Although we usually think of these married missionaries and their left-behind wives as figures of the long-ago 19th century, their stories don’t seem all that distant to me:

    My own mother was born while her father was a missionary in England. My grandmother was left behind as a newlywed, probably not yet knowing she was expecting my mother; since her own widowed mother was in no position to provide a home to her, she moved in with her mother-in-law, a woman whom at first she barely knew, being partially supported by my grandfather’s brother — my grandfather was serving his second mission both for himself and that brother, and it was Orson’s part to look after the missionary’s wife and child until the missionary came home. My mother was more than two years old before she met her father for the first time.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 9, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  2. There were some missionaries who served in the same mission as my father (Canadian, late 1940s) who had married shortly before they started their mission. And my grandfather served a mission in Great Britain during the Korean War, leaving my grandmother home with my youngest uncle–who would have been in his late teens at the time.

    Some of those people might still be alive–my grandfather isn’t, but maybe my uncle has some memories of that time. I’ll have to contact him.

    For some reason I’ve become rather partial to 20th century Mormon history. We need to add these stories to the ones told last night.

    And, darn, I wish I could have been there.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 9, 2010 @ 10:19 am

  3. For the life of me, I can’t understand where you’ve gotten enough exposure to 20th century Mormon history to become partial to it.

    Keepa was pretty well represented there last night. I hope I’m not telling tales out of school to say that not only was I there, but so was Researcher and so was Bessie, who has contributed some pictures and stories to earlier posts.

    Chad hopes that his lecture will inspire members to pull out family records and stories of wives-left-behind. If you are able to collect some memories from your uncle, ask if he’d be willing to have them shared with the Library.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 9, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  4. Yeah, I wish I could have been there, too. (I enjoyed reading Orton’s BYU Studies articles that were linked here at Keepa about the myths of the handcart rescue.) I hope the presentation gets published. The subject of “those left behind” seems like such an obvious story to tell, and yet, so untouched.

    The Fall lineup looks great, too. If, perchance I were able to make one of these presentations, how assured could I be that I’d get a seat? Was the auditorium anywhere near to full capacity?

    Comment by David Y. — July 9, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  5. I forgot to put this in the OP: The lecture was recorded, and it should be available on the Library’s website in a few weeks. I’ll put up a sidebar link as well as add a comment to this thread when that happens.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 9, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  6. David, there was an overflow room, although there were scattered seats still available in the main room. My group went down about 15 minutes before time, and the room was then only about half full.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 9, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  7. Thanks for the report, Ardis.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 9, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  8. Ardis, I wish I could have been there. I’m rather partial to women’s histories and these stories are mostly new to me. I’ll have to dig in my files and see what I have.

    Thanks for the report.

    Comment by Maurine — July 9, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

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