Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Evaluating Historical Documents; or, I Do Not Think that Proves What You Think It Proves

Evaluating Historical Documents; or, I Do Not Think that Proves What You Think It Proves

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 05, 2012

The current issue of Journal of Mormon History carries a letter to the editor by Connell O’Donovan [1] commenting tangentially on “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism” by Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright in an earlier issue of JMH. He provides some biographical detail, chiefly on Augusta Adams Cobb Young’s (I’ll call her Sister Cobb for brevity) medical training with the (unsourced) claim that Sister Cobb “felt that mainstream medicine, combined with common sense and priesthood blessings/faith healing were the best path”).

Then he provides excerpts from two documents, dated December 1847 and February 1848, written by Sister Cobb. Those excerpts contain the claims:

This blessing dear sister I seal upon your head in the name of Jesus C by virtue of the priesthood vested in me [2]


I do this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood vested in me [3]

And from these two statements by Sister Cobb, the author boldly concludes:

In future academic research and thoughtful debate on the issue of female sacerdotal and spiritual authority in Mormonism, Augusta Adams Cobb’s two statements must now be included, weighing heavily on the side of women’s full right to hold and use LDS priesthood.


I will not argue here about Sister Cobb’s or any woman’s “right to hold and use LDS priesthood.” I do argue that it is essential to read historical documents for what they actually say, and not read into them anything they do not say, or that we might wish they said – and that’s exactly what the author has done here.

The most that can possibly be drawn from these two statements is that Sister Cobb claimed or believed she held the priesthood – not that she in fact did hold the priesthood. (Neither, by the way, do these statements demonstrate that whatever Sister Cobb meant by holding the priesthood is the same as what contemporary parties [including the author] mean by that claim; that is a necessary point for evaluation, although I won’t discuss it further here.)

Other than her own statement – and anybody can claim anything without its necessarily being factually correct, of course – what evidence is there that Sister Cobb held the priesthood? Does she (or the author) provide the date of ordination, or the name of the person ordaining her, or any other information about the circumstances? Mormon teachings assert that “no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (Hebrews 5:4), and it has been an important facet of Mormondom’s claimed authority that Joseph Smith and others were ordained directly under the [resurrected] hands of John the Baptist, or of Peter, James and John. Everyone holding the priesthood today can – or should be able to – trace his authority step by documented step back to the Lord Jesus Christ. A simple claim to holding the priesthood, without the lineage to back that up, holds no water. (And again, my argument here is not that Sister Cobb had no such priesthood lineage, only that no evidence is given to support Sister Cobb’s claim or the author’s conclusion.)

Is there any independent evidence to substantiate Sister Cobb’s assertion? Was a certificate given? Is the ordination recorded in minutes, or on a membership record? If there is such documented evidence, it is not cited and both Sister Cobb’s assertion and the author’s conclusion remain unsupported.

The author asserts that Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards “actively believed” that Sister Cobb held the priesthood because they witnessed her 1848 will. All my experience, having witnessed hundreds of wills and trusts and similar legal documents, is that  witnesses certify only that the document was signed by the person whose signature is affixed, and that such person declared a document to be valid, and that such person appeared to be mentally competent. I have been privy to the contents of some documents because I was the secretary who typed them, but in no case was I, as a witness, endorsing a single word of a document’s contents beyond attesting to the signer’s signature and apparent competence. The witnesses to Sister Cobb’s will cannot be assumed – absent other evidence – to have known its contents or to have certified any claim the testator made. The signatures of Kimball and Richards do not constitute evidence of an “active belief” in Sister Cobb’s priesthood.

Did Sister Cobb really understand the claim she was making? That is, had she lived in Nauvoo long enough to receive significant doctrinal instruction, and was she privy to the kinds of councils and meetings where functional understanding of the priesthood was shared? Did she know enough about the Church and its authority claims to make a competent assertion to a priesthood “vested in [her]”? I ask this, because in this very 1848 document Sister Cobb requested to be sealed as a plural wife to the Lord Jesus Christ. At the very least this request calls into question her theological understanding; it may also signal a grandiose opinion of herself and her eternal standing that does not reflect well on her understanding. (And yes, I’m aware of the 19th century speculative assertions that Jesus married – even polygamously – during mortality; I am not aware that such speculations had been made before Orson Hyde’s 1854 sermon, or that such speculations had any bearing on Sister Cobb’s peculiar request.)

Historians very often use historical records as evidence for ideas the makers of those documents were not aware they were recording. (This same issue of JMH includes a collection of essays written by young Mormon scholars about interdisciplinary history [4]; Kate Holbrook demonstrates, for example, how seemingly simple cooking recipes can reveal facets of lived religion.) But in all cases, historians must analyze those documents and apply a logical chain of reasoning to extract the evidence they contain. Historians must always be wary of uncritical, unanalyzed acceptance at face value, especially of novel claims. And above all, historians must be careful not to read their own desires into documents.

In this case, the evidence provided does not support the claims of Sister Cobb or the conclusions made by the author. The documents do not support Sister Cobb’s assertion of priesthood, nor the author’s assertion of “heavy weight” toward women’s right to priesthood.

[1] “Augusta Adams Cobb Young: Priesthood Holder,” Journal of Mormon History 38:2 (Spring 2012), vii-ix.

[2] Augusta Adams Cobb to Amey C. Aldrich, December 28, 1847, Theodore A. Schroeder Collection on Mormonism, Wisconsin State Historical (microfilm copy of this collection available at the Church History Library)

[3] “The Last Will and Testament of Augusta Adams,” February 21, 1848, Brigham Young Collection, Church History Library.

[4] Rachel Cope, “New Ways In: Writing Interdisciplinary Mormon History,” with essays by Rachel Cope, Matthew Bowman, Amy Easton-Flake, Ryan G. Tobler, Rebecca de Schweinitz, and Kate Holbrook, Journal of Mormon History 38:2 (Spring 2012), 67-145.



  1. Interesting. Can you help me see the link between the will and the two statements of blessing? (Is there one?)

    “requested to be sealed as a plural wife to the Lord Jesus Christ”

    She sounds like quite a character . . .

    (This would actually be an awesome idea for an alt history of Nauvoo–all the women want to be sealed to Jesus, and all the men want to be sealed to those women.)

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — April 5, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  2. I haven’t read the document, but the author says that the document Augusta labeled as her will “was actually a formal plea to have her sealing for eternity … to Brigham Young canceled, so she could be sealed by proxy to either Jesus Christ (her first priority) or failing that, to Joseph Smith.”

    (My ellipses here and elsewhere are not made with the intent to conceal, but in the desire not to quote more than is fair from these brief materials. I haven’t distorted the relevant point.)

    That “will” contains the second statement (“I do this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood vested in me”). There’s no link other than Augusta herself between the will and the first statement.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 5, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  3. It looks as if the second of those quotations (FN3) was from Ms. Cobb’s will.

    Witnesses to the execution of a will (and I’ve drafted a lot of wills and directed their execution, and I’ve been asked by colleagues to act as witness to others) usually don’t know anything of the contents of the will. By law, a person with an interest in the estate cannot be a witness to the will, and persons without an interest (in the legal sense) would also generally be uninterested, unless they were possessed of a particularly active idle curiosity. A good lawyer will ask the testator some questions, so the witnesses can hear the answers and have some basis for believing that the testator had the capacity to make a will, but he or she wouldn’t take time as the will was being executed to discuss the disposition of the estate or any odd language that the testator wanted inserted into the will.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 5, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  4. Ardis, you wrote “The most that can possibly be drawn from these two statements is that Sister Cobb claimed or believed she held the priesthood – not that she in fact did hold the priesthood.” And that is exactly what I wrote TWICE: “…at least one LDS woman certainly believed in the 1840s that she held priesthood” and “Augusta wrote two significant statements indicating her belief that she held priesthood.” I never once claimed that she did in fact hold it and find your assertion that I did puzzling.

    Her Last Will and Testament is less than one page long. I seriously doubt that Richards and Kimball signed it without reading the brief statement.

    But thanks for advertising my letter to the editor – it’s great publicity for my upcoming publication of her 200 plus letters that she wrote to Brigham Young, to be entitled “The Lioness of the Lord” (to be published in 2013 by the University of Utah Press)! And look for my presentations on Augusta at Sunstone and John Whitmer in July and September, respectively.

    Connell O’Donovan

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — April 5, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

  5. Thanks for commenting, Connell.

    Your conclusion that these statements “[weigh] heavily on the side of women’s full right to hold and use LDS priesthood” has meaning only if Sister Cobb did in fact hold the priesthood. If she did not hold the priesthood, her belief is of no weight whatsoever in that regard.

    Whether Richards and Kimball read the statement or not, there is no explicit endorsement of Sister Cobb’s claim to priesthood, nor an endorsement of her wish to be sealed to Jesus Christ. That’s not what “witness” means.

    This post, incidentally, is not about you as a researcher, nor even — as I have stated — about the specific debate you have entered. As regular readers of Keepa know, I often give mini lessons in “doing” history, both to demonstrate how historians work and to give tips to the [usually family related] history that many readers do themselves. Your letter was a convenient example — many other published materials could have served as well.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 5, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  6. Whatever the merits of the arguments on either side (I’m rather busy and don’t have time to spend any brain power on the technicalities of will signing today) I do think that it is encouraging to see that the contributions of non-academic historians (by which I mean those without PhDs and teaching positions at universities or working for an institution like the Church History Library) are taken seriously in this field, unlike some of the scientific fields of study which rarely if ever take notice of those outside the normal career track.

    In other words, I’ve appreciated Connell’s work, particularly his projects about the early Saints in Massachusetts.

    Comment by Amy T — April 5, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

  7. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I haven’t seen the latest issue and I am dissapointed not to have had an opportunity to respond in print to this letter. Though I was pleased to see Connell in the Archives a number of weeks ago and discuss these documents, of which I was not previously aware.

    Methodologically, I agree with your comments. Moreover, I think on such topics it is vary challenging as people (myself included) seem to bring all sorts of modern meanings to the word “priesthood.” As it stands, I view Augusta to be generally unrepresentative in her approach to the temple liturgy, beliefs, and her relationships with BY and other church members.

    These are now the only two examples of such a priesthood invocations of which I am aware. Nor are they related to healing in any way. Considering their context, I think they are best viewed in context of the immediate post-Nauvoo years that were saturated in priesthood language, which I tried to contextualize in my adoption paper. Basically, the idea of a cosmological priesthood that is lineal and incorporates men and women in the united network of heaven.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 5, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

  8. I find this fascinating. Probably not enough to buy Connell’s upcoming book, but sill fascinating. I’ve read some of his work before and have enjoyed it. It is especially fascinating after just reading Matt Bowman’s post on Patheos that you noted in your “Notes from the Field”

    Your mini lesson is much appreciated. It is a good reminder to read critically. Not everyone is equally careful with their conclusions.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — April 5, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

  9. Me, too, Amy — without the openness of the field, I’d have little role. I have never heard anyone speak of Connell without awe at the range of his research, either.

    J., thanks for your remarks — and, of course, if you were going to respond more fully elsewhere, certainly don’t let this brief coverage interfere with that. I don’t have the background to have said what you just did about the post-Nauvoo years and the views of the priesthood or priesthoods, but it was generally that which I had in mind when I mentioned the need to evaluate whether “priesthood” meant the same to Sister Cobb as it does to contemporary Mormonism. Connell would seem to be equating them, or Sister Cobb’s claims, even if legitimate, would be irrelevant to any contemporary discussion about women’s right to hold and exercise the priesthood.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 5, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  10. Thanks, Bruce.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 5, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

  11. In rereading my comment, I don’t want to be dismissive of Augusta’s experience. Often times, it is aberrations that allow us to probe more deeply into the dynamics at play. I think this is the case with several aspects of Augusta’s life. I’m very much looking forward to Connell’s complete volume.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 5, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  12. Important lesson, and one I hope to take to heart. It is too easy to read these old documents with a modern perspective only, and not being academically trained, the reminder to read critically is important for me.

    However, of more importance is that I have not yet received my copy of the Spring 2012 JMH. I am hoping it is in my mailbox when I get home tonight.

    Comment by kevinf — April 5, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

  13. kevinf, mine only came yesterday, so most are probably still in the mail. Enjoy!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 5, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

  14. Thanks for the mini lesson Ardis. It is, as usual in any lesson you teach, quite clear, even to those of us outside the field.

    Comment by Diane Peel — April 9, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  15. […] Parshall has already taken issue with some of the conclusions drawn in O’Donovan’s letter. The following are some […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Responding to O’Donovan on Augusta Adams Cobb Young and priesthood — April 12, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

  16. I received my Fall 2012 copy of the JMH, and Stapley responds fully in the letters section. Without making any judgments on the merits of their arguments, I am impressed that even with some pretty fundamental disagreements, the dialogue is very respectful and serves as a lesson in and of itself in how to handle such disagreements in a civilized manner. I’m for electing both Stapley and Connell to Congress, as they obviously both have some interpersonal skills otherwise lacking there.

    Comment by kevinf — October 11, 2012 @ 10:08 am

  17. So, kevinf, am I lacking in those interpersonal skills in my my own discussion here, or are you saying that I’m too [fill in the blank] for you to want to curse me with election to political office? 😉

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 11, 2012 @ 10:38 am

  18. Ardis, good one. I’d vote for you, so if you ever run, I’ll get the name of some dead person off your blog and register to vote in Utah. Vote early and often, you know.

    Actually, all three of you (Connell, Stapley, and you) are behaving like adults, which is refreshing. I mostly remembered this post and thought it would be worthwhile to point out Stapley’s response in the JMH.

    I have to say, though, after receiving my copy, looking at the letters section this time, the table of contents started looking to me like the program for one of those big wrestling extravaganzas: Stapley vs O’Donovan, Aird and Topping vs the JMH Staff, and in the headline event, Robin Jensen vs. The World at Large!

    My apologies in advance to all of these folks, as I respect them all, but I don’t recall ever seeing an issue that started with such a long list of “scholarly disagreement,” although I will admit that the Joseph Smith/Mark Twain thing did seem a bit of a stretch to me at time.

    Comment by kevinf — October 11, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI