Before the Manifesto: The Life Writings of Mary Lois Walker Morris
Melissa Lambert Milewski
Utah State University Press, 2007
USU Press has dependably, and regularly, issued very good volumes in a very good series entitled "Life Writings of Frontier Women." This is number 9 in the series. As with previous volumes in this series, this book explores the life, and writings, of a woman of faith whose name is unfamiliar to me. I doubt that many Latter-day Saints have heard of Mary Lois Walker Morris. But her story is fascinating, her writing clear and exciting. Her diaries open up a chapter of Mormon history that continues to fascinate scholars and laypeople alike.
In many ways, Morris' life story is a sketch of much of early Mormonism as taught and practiced by Brigham Young and his immediate successors. Born in England in the early 1800's, Mary emigrated to the United States after coverting to Mormonism. She would later marry another English convert. But after his death, she re-married and soon became involved in the life of plural marriage. Her discomfort with the idea is clear from her writings, but she finally settled in and agreed to live the life of a plural wife.
When the persecutions began, she would find herself hiding from government raiders. Ultimately, when called upon to testify in a court of law, she would present herself as an artful defender of the Principle. But things degenerated, and Mary would find herself accompanying her daughter Kate, also a polygamous wife, to Mexico, in order to live out their beliefs.
Her involvement in so much of Mormon life, including leading roles in the Relief Society, is well documented. She was known as a tireless worker, a wonderful poet, and a great keeper of her diaries. She wrote constantly, knowing that, some day, her memories would serve as an encouragement to others travelling the same path.
Many studies of early Mormon polygamy suffer from a common malady: a lack of a consistent and continuous narrative of those who lived it openly before the Manifesto and those whose view of Pres. Woodruff's statement did not include a command to end the practice immediately. In fact, many Saints saw the Official Declaration as a compromise to gain stateship for Utah, and determined to continue to live a lifestyle so clearly commanded by Brigham Young.
What kind of courage did it take to adopt this strange new way of living, to move from hearth and home to a land far outside one's realm of experience? The stereotypical picture of the plural wife -- a shrinking violet, a humble and bendable woman -- is belied by this amazing story of an amazing woman. Morris emerges from this history as a formidable and determined practitioner of a lifestyle she considered vital to her salvation. No federal law, no marshalls, and no Manifesto would deter her from pursuing her convictions.
As the introduction to the book explains:
"Mary Lois left behind an extraordinary wealth of writing about her life. In her memoir, she seemed to sense that she had lived through times of great change, and with the flare of a natural storyteller, she recounted moments of great drama, sadness, and joy. While more mundane, the activities she recorded in her diaries clearly provided her with a sense of accomplishment and of completion as she set their details to paper. Her faithful journal writing and the massive fifteen-year task of writing her memoir bear witness that she felt her life in some small way had been significant and was worth recording for future generations." (p. 49)
"...in some small way..."? On the contrary, her example, her life, speaks in a large way to the sturdy stock of the early Mormon pioneers. It speaks to a time, perhaps now gone, when brave men and women were willing to pursue their convictions without fear of consequences. These Saints lived in an ongoing atmosphere of crisis, expecting the federal authorities to come crashing down on them at any time. Now we have a Mormon running for President. Go figure.
I'll end where I began. The life of Mary Lois Walker Morris is, in many ways, a paradigm for the larger story of life among the Mormons before, and shortly after, the Manifesto. It is a fascinating life of courage, strong belief, and loyalty to a newfound faith that would shape and mold their lives. It's a great story, and worthy of reading.