For today’s post we welcome back Susanna Morrill, friend and occasional contributor to the JI.
I have been thinking about Nancy Peirson’s journal since I first ran across it years ago during my dissertation research. It is a fantastic resource for tracking the earliest, lived religious practices of Mormons, especially medical and health practices. I am at the beginning of this project centered on Peirson’s journal; these are some initial thoughts on the subject. Nancy Peirson was baptized into the LDS Church in 1838 and remained a faithful Mormon until she died en route to Salt Lake City in 1852. Peirson was part of the Richards family, a sister to Willard Richards. Peirson recorded her life in a journal written from 1846 to 1852. Health, illness, and death are central themes in this journal. Regularly and carefully recording the health of her friends, neighbors, and family, Peirson became increasingly fixated on illness and disease as she dealt with a painful tumor on her side, a malady that probably led to her premature death. She created a network of Mormon correspondents, a network that was focused on discussions of health and illness. Most of these correspondents were her siblings: Willard, Rhoda, Levi, and Hepsy Richards (among others). In these exchanges we see how the family’s pre-Mormon Thomsonian health practices smoothed the way for their conversions to the LDS faith.
Last summer, with the help of a grant for the Redd Center at BYU, I had the chance to read in detail this correspondence between the extended Richards family. It is compelling historical and cultural fare. As described in Peirson’s journal, each letter was read and re-read and circulated around to nearby family members and then sent on to or heavily excerpted for more distant loved ones. As Hepzibah Richards wrote to her sister, Rhoda Richards, the letters were each a “short paper visit,” each a “rich present” that was treasured and kept. (1) This was an extended and expanding dialogue. I quickly came to see that Peirson’s concern with health and illness was part of her family’s culture and conversation from long before her journal began in 1846. In the 1809 letter just mentioned, Hepzibah Richards reports to Rhoda Richards the health of their brother, Joseph, and his wife, Nancy; describes in some detail the deaths of two women in the town (one that had taken all of five minutes and the other that had extended days); and notes: “It is tolerably healthy around us.” (2) Richards family members interpreted illness—their own and that of others—as divine signs that they should be setting their sights on the inscrutable plans of God, not on the things of the world. In 1822, Rhoda Richards wrote to Hepzibah Richards and detailed the colds, injuries, and deaths of family and friends, drawing the following from these experiences: “Sister H. we live in a dying world. Our friends and acquaintances are constantly dropping ointo [sic] eternity. We must soon follow them and are we prepared to bid this world adieu when the summons comes? I hope you will make wise improvement of your precious time.” (3)
None of this is unusual in the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century Reformed Protestant Americans. Sickness and death were daily realities before the age of antibiotics and the faithful understood these realities from within their Calvinist perspectives. In the Richards family, however, members looked to other resources to actively alleviate their ailments. Willard and Levi Richards became practicing Thomsonian doctors and their sisters embraced the system and seem to have become informal practitioners themselves. Family members describe Thomsonianism as a system of faith. At one point, Levi Richards wrote to Willard Richards and encouraged him to stay in Richmond, MA, for the winter in order to more efficiently spread Thomsonianism, implicitly suggesting the model of contemporary revivals (also reported enthusiastically in the letters) with Willard as a compelling itinerant preacher. (4)
Mormonism was attractive to the Richards family, in part, because it initially allowed them to combine their health practices with their religious practices. Cousins Brigham and Joseph Young introduced Mormonism to the Richards siblings and, not coincidentally, it was Thomsonian doctor Willard Richards who was the first to be baptized in his family. In trying to persuade the rest of the family to join him in the new faith, he framed Mormonism as a truth that superseded Thomsonianism. On sending his sister, Rhoda Richards, news of his baptism, he insisted that to be Mormon was “to believe & practice every known or revealed truth, in relation to every being & thing (emphasis in original).” (5) To sister Hepzibah Richards, he wrote a few months later that since his baptism he was healthier than he had been in fifteen years and this was because his body was simply reflecting his now healthy soul. He wrote that when they followed God’s will “we shall rejoice in the light of his countenance which will be health to our souls continually. …What is the soul? It is the body and spirit united. This is what I mean by soul. I know of no other meaning to attach to it. So that when we say the soul is happy we mean happy in spirit and body, or body and mind.” (6) Chronically ill Rhoda Richards claimed similar health benefits after she was baptized.
The transition from Thomsonian practices to Mormon faith healing was a relatively smooth one for Willard and Rhoda Richards. While the Mormon practices of laying on hands and using consecrated oil seem quite different from the Thomsonian reliance on emetics, the principle behind them was not so different as it first appears. In both cases, those performing the practices had faith that the human body could be purified: in Mormonism through God’s grace combined with human effort and free will, in Thomsonianism through physically purging the body of poisons. Catherine Albanese classifies Mormonism and Thomsonianism as strands of a loose, long-standing metaphysical tradition in North America. According to Albanese, in metaphysical systems practitioners use the power of the mind and tap into a macrocosmic/microcosmic correspondence between the divine and human realms in order to create some kind of healing, often a combination of spiritual and physical healing. Members of the Richards family were, then, trading one metaphysical tradition for another and they were able to do this because of these foundational assumptions within a larger American metaphysical worldview. The transition was obviously more complicated and difficult for the family, but this interpretive framework is suggestive.
Despite this initial optimism, illness and early death felled Richards family members after they were baptized. Willard Richards’ infant son died, Nancy Peirson’s two grown daughters died after re-locating to be with the body of the church, and Hepzibah Richards also died after moving to the Mormon community. And, of course, Nancy Peirson waged a long and ultimately losing battle with what was diagnosed as cancer. Indeed, family members eventually turned back to Thomosonianism and combined Mormon and Thomsonian health practices, claiming relief from emetics, but also consecrated oil and blessings. This is, perhaps, the even more interesting transition to explore since it points to one possible origin of the continuing resonance between Mormonism and alternative health practices. Still, when the Richards first encountered Mormonism, they found a faith that logically extended their Thomsonian health practices. I am intrigued to explore more carefully how these early converts understood the intersection between body and soul, practice and faith, and to figure out if this connection was shared more widely by early Mormon converts.
(1) Hepzibah Richards to Rhoda Richards, typed transcript, January 20, 1809, Willard Richards Family Papers, box 1, folder 1, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University.
(3) Rhoda Richards to Hepzibah Richard, typed transcript, June 8, 1822, ibid.
(4) Levi Richards, Rhoda Richards, and William Richards to Willard Richards, typed transcript, September 18, 1835, Willard Richards Family Papers, box 1, folder 2, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University.
(5) Willard Richards to Rhoda Richards, typed transcript, January 20, 1837, ibid.
(6) Willard Richard to Hepzibah Richards, typed transcript, March 20, 1837, p. 1, ibid.