Boston’s Mormon women’s organization, 1844

Nauvoo had its Relief Society, but the “society of sisters” in Boston was instead the “Sewing and Penny Society,” or so the Church’s New York City newspaper reported. Despite all that the Relief Society has become in the nearly 170 years since it was founded, it apparently only existed in Nauvoo. In other areas, women were left to their own devices.

The impetus for the “Sewing and Penny Society” wasn’t relief, but the calls of the Twelve for donations to the construction of the Temple from outside Nauvoo. As a result, the sisters in Boston created a local women’s organization, as the following item from The Prophet (New York City) of 3 August 1844 explains:

Boston, July 25, 1844.

Mr. Editor.—I send you the minutes of a society lately formed in this place, by which you will perceive the ladies of the Boston branch are determined not to be behind hand in assisting the rolling on of the cause of Christ.

A society of the sisters was formed on the 16th inst., called the “Boston Latter day Saint’s Sewing and penny Society.” The object of which is to lend their aid in the purchase of glass, nails &c, for the Temple of God, now being erected in Nauvoo.

The meeting was called to order and opened with prayer by Miss. Elvira Bassford, and the following officers chosen, viz—

  • Mrs. Mary McAllester, president.
  • Mrs. Clarissa B. Sperry,  Vice Pres’t.
  • Miss. Elvira Bassford, Vice Pres’t .
  • Mrs. Margaret E. Wallace, secretary.
  • Mrs. Isaac Hardy, treasurer.
  • Mrs. Isabella Jones,
  • Mrs. Caroline Welch,
  • Mrs. Margaret Clementson,
  • Mrs. Almira Hicks,
  • Miss. Mary Murray,
  • Miss. Mary Brown, as Committee of Arrangement.

The society meet once a month, and devote a day to sewing for the benefit of the society; and also to pay in the sum of one penny per week or more, each. It is expected that the brethren and friends will supply them with work. Every exertion of this kind is commendable, and it is to be hoped that they will succeed in their praiseworthy efforts, even beyond their most sanguine expectations. Yours, &c.

A. Mc. A.

Likely, given the society’s formation on July 16th, the news of the martyrdom was very fresh when the society was formed, although the news may have been discounted initially because it was from non-Mormon sources (like the reporting in the Prophet which only acknowledged the martyrdom after it received news from Mormons in Nauvoo).

I haven’t yet found any additional references to this organization, so I can’t even suggest that it made it to its second meeting. But I suspect that the organization didn’t survive the turmoil of the next few years. Boston and New York, in particular, suffered a lot of turmoil in the years after the martyrdom as schismatic groups attempted to gain followers there (often successfully) and rumors of polygamy (or affairs, for those who hadn’t heard of polygamy) spread along with attempts by some local leaders in the East to practice polygamy without authorization. However, some of the names of these women—McAllester, Sperry, Hicks, Welch and even Murray—appear in subsequent LDS history, so it may be that their descendants survived the turmoil and stayed with the Church.

Still, you have to like the initiative that these women took. I would find it encouraging to see such initiative today.


12 comments for “Boston’s Mormon women’s organization, 1844

  1. “I would find it encouraging to see such initiative today.”

    That seems kind of an odd conclusion–care to elaborate?

  2. I would also find it encouraging to find that kind of initiative today… but am constantly discouraged to routinely find almost none of it, and when it is found it is about trivial things and not about being “determined not to be behind hand in assisting the rolling on of the cause of Christ.” I hear lots of people who know what the model of a society for the ’cause of Christ’ is supposed to look like (Zion) but find absolutely nobody willing to take the actual first steps to move in that direction… they are all just sitting and waiting for SLC to do something rather than just going out and doing it!

  3. Great post, thanks.

    It’s not always that we’re waiting for Salt Lake, but that someone higher up won’t let us do something. I’ve also seen several women get discouraged when they have plenty of initiative but absolutely no support from any other LDS women around them. I regret one example in particular where I didn’t do more to encourage and help a woman who had great ideas but no support in implementing them.

  4. There are many who have great ideas about how to create and run now organizations to meet needs or how to organization a well functioning society along gospel standards, but because the overwhelming majority is sitting on their hands, including those “higher up”, then nothing happens. The idea might spread among friends/neighbors but most will keep an eye on leadership (ultimately SLC) and when no sign of approval comes then the idea fades.

    But we should not be waiting for SLC to approve what they haven’t disapproved of. For instance, take building a Zion like community. Does the CHI say members can’t/shouldn’t live in close proximity? So if the whole ward wanted to buy a large tract of land and all move onto it OR just all buy homes in one subdivision, then what is stopping them? The church doesn’t dictate where/how to spend your income, so there isn’t any statement against pooling money/resources together with those neighbors is there? It happens amongst non-members across the globe, is there something wrong with us doing so? Or just a cultural abnormality in doing it that makes us think it is ‘wrong’?

    With all ideas though, it seems like a few will have them and like them and see how they could work, but the rest sit idly waiting for SLC to give permission to things they have never said we couldn’t/shouldn’t do, and since SLC has never said “Hey, don’t try to build zion” or “don’t create charities to help the poor” or “don’t create a abuse support group”…etc, no signals are given from above and the idea fades simply because far too many wait to be commanded in all things. I personally think it is the other way around and SLC is waiting for US to want to make those changes enough to take actual steps toward achieving them.

  5. Nice find, Kent.

    This is new to me, but Arrington apparently knew something of it (maybe not your article, though, since he gives the organization a slightly different name, leaving out the “Sewing” part); he says that they raised $21.27.

    This is all new to me (I plead my usual excuse of knowing no more about pre-July 24, 1847 Mormon history than most of us learn in seminary), and I’d like to know more, even if it’s only to track down the Arrington sources and add them to your wonderful article from The Prophet.

  6. I thought we agreed a quite a bit Kent, but that a few disagreements on key ‘hot button’ issues makes the separation seem larger. I often read your posts and find myself nodding in agreement… with perhaps the occasional “I would say that with a nuanced difference” kind of disagreement. Occasionally though one of us is out in left field :)

  7. Please do look into it, Ardis. You certainly know the resources and have better access to them than I do.

    Jax, yes, you are right. Although, I’m not sure which field, left or right, each of us is out in!! [GRIN]

  8. Still, you have to like the initiative that these women took. I would find it encouraging to see such initiative today.

    I think this is exactly what Sister Beck is trying to get us to do.

  9. I think that in encouraging us to study the history of RS and turn to the roots of what RS means and what our responsibilities within it are, she is encouraging us to take initiative like they used to do.

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