Born to working-class parents in Guilford, Massachusetts, Phoebe Ann Morton (1786–1854) married James Angell in Providence, Rhode Island, at the age of sixteen. They had ten children, four of whom died while young. Following the breakup of his mother’s unhappy marriage, her son Truman O. Angell remembered how she had “seven children to support, and nothing but her hands for her fortune.” He expressed sympathy for “my Mother’s sufferings in consequence of the conduct of my Father toward her. … Her trials were truly great: she almost sank under them.” 1 2
Angell was baptized in January 1833 while living in New York. The single mother moved with her family to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1834 or 1835, then moved again in 1838 to Far West, Missouri. 3 While there she served as midwife for Mary Fielding Smith in delivering Joseph F. Smith, then cared for the two while their husband and father, Hyrum Smith, was imprisoned in Liberty, Missouri. 4 She joined the Nauvoo Relief Society on April 14, 1842. Because she had little money and few items to donate, she volunteered her services to “repair old clothes if necessary when new material cannot be obtained.” 5 After arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1848, she worked as a midwife and nurse and often visited and cared for women who were sick. At the end of her life in 1854, when her own health was failing, she received the same care in return. 6 7
Many women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Angell, practiced “social” medicine: they treated common ailments, sicknesses, and injuries with their own home-manufactured medicines, including salves, syrups, teas, ointments, poultices, and dressings. At a time before modern medicine had attained high rates 8 of success, many combined the then-popular Thomsonian use of natural remedies and herbs with faith and fervent prayer, often distrusting doctors and their unproven remedies. Mormon women, like their American contemporaries, developed an informal health network within their communities in Nauvoo, Illinois, providing medical care for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. Church leaders asked individual women to act as midwives and nurses, even setting them apart for these appointments. 9 The Nauvoo Relief Society coordinated service for the sick and the poor. Even after the disbanding of the Nauvoo Relief Society in 1845, women gathered informally while crossing the plains to assist and care for each other. 10 11
Willard Richards, an apostle and Thomsonian physician, organized the Council of Health in 1849 in Salt Lake City to address the health problems facing the Saints in their new, difficult living conditions. Women participated and created a female branch for the training of midwives. 12 In 1852, Angell was president of the Female Council of Health; Patty Sessions and Susannah Liptrot Richards were her counselors. They met weekly and presented lectures or shared personal experiences and recipes for natural prescriptions. At times, they also spoke in tongues and performed blessings, a common practice among nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint women. 13 14
At the August 14, 1852, meeting, Angell spoke about the importance of combining faith with practical knowledge and experience in treating the sick.