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6

Seek to the Lord for Wisdom

Female Council of Health

Old Adobe Tabernacle, Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah Territory

August 14, 1852


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.1 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.”2

Angell was baptized in January 1833 while living in New York.3 The single mother moved with her family to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1834 or 1835, then moved again in 1838 to Far West, Missouri.4 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.5 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.”6 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.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.8 At a time before modern medicine had attained high rates 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.9 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.10 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.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.12 Women participated and created a female branch for the training of midwives.13 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.14

At the August 14, 1852, meeting, Angell spoke about the importance of combining faith with practical knowledge and experience in treating the sick.

Sister Angell spoke, exhorting the council not to trust in the knowledge which is obtained from books, or to trust in herbs altogether, but seek to the Lord for wisdom.15 She referred to a circumstance in Nauvoo when much chill and fever was among the people. She cried to the Lord that he would show her something to do them good. In the night she received the following receipt as though a voice spoke to her:16 “Take boneset, such a portion; lobelia, one handful; put it in one pint of vinegar, let it stand overnight, and administer it to the sick when the chill comes on, a tablespoonful once every hour.”17 She bore testimony of the great good this receipt did. She used one bushel of boneset that summer.18

Footnotes

  1. [1]Laura P. Angell King, “Mother and Midwife and Nurse,” Laura P. Angell King Papers, 1, CHL.

  2. [2]Truman O. Angell, “Autobiography,” 1884, 3, 6, CHL. This first breakup was temporary, lasting three to four years. They reunited for more than a decade, then separated permanently.

  3. [3]Angell, “Autobiography,” 7; King, “Mother and Midwife and Nurse,” 2; see also Paul L. Anderson, “Truman O. Angell: Architect and Saint,” in Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985), 134.

  4. [4]“Obituary Notice,” Deseret News, Feb. 1, 1855; Angell, “Autobiography,” 6–7.

  5. [5]King, “Mother and Midwife and Nurse,” 2–3.

  6. [6]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Apr. 14, 1842, 26; June 16, 1843, [91], in Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow, eds., The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 46, 101.

  7. [7]King, “Mother and Midwife and Nurse,” 4; Patty Bartlett Sessions, Mormon Midwife: The 1846–1888 Diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions, ed. Donna Toland Smart (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997), 181, 194, 203, 209, 210.

  8. [8]For more information on the practice of social medicine among women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 11–12, 47, 61–66.

  9. [9]Samuel Thomson, New Guide to Health; or, Botanic Family Physician, Containing a Complete System of Practice, 3rd ed. (Boston: J. Howe, 1831), 38–48, 70–71; Z[ebedee] Snow, “Speeches Delivered at the Assembly of the Council of Health, on Ensign Peak,” Deseret News, July 24, 1852; Christine Croft Waters, “Pioneering Physicians in Utah, 1847–1900” (master’s thesis, University of Utah, 1976), 14, 16.

  10. [10]Elizabeth Ann Whitney remembered that Joseph Smith ordained her and set her apart to “administer to the sick” in Nauvoo. Also in Nauvoo, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball appointed Patty Sessions as a “doctor for women.” (Elizabeth Ann Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent 7, no. 12 [Nov. 15, 1878]: 91; Phoebe C. Sessions, “Biographical Sketch,” Woman’s Exponent 27, nos. 1–2 [June 1 and 15, 1898]: 294.)

  11. [11]Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Eliza and Her Sisters (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1991), 75–97; Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 178.

  12. [12]Historian’s Office, Journal History, vol. 73, Feb. 21, 1849, CHL. By 1852, these meetings were held in Representatives Hall, on Ensign Peak, in various ward halls, or in the old adobe tabernacle, and were attended by anywhere from forty to three hundred people. (“Council of Health,” Deseret News, Mar. 20, 1852; “[Untitled],” Deseret News, May 15, 1852; “[Untitled],” Deseret News, June 26, 1852; “Extracts from J. W. Cummings’ Address before the ‘Council of Health’ and Their Friends, on Ensign Hill, June 16th,” Deseret News, July 10, 1852; “Speeches Delivered at the Assembly of the Council of Health on Ensign Peak,” Deseret News, July 24, 1852; “[Untitled],” Deseret News, Aug. 21, 1852; Jessie Del Macdonald Clawson, “Pioneer Physicians,” in Museum Memories [Salt Lake City: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2010], 2:83.)

  13. [13]The Female Council of Health was organized by July 1851. For more information and an image of the August 14, 1852, meeting reproduced here, see Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 179–180. Willard Richards, his wife Hannah, and his brother Phineas taught courses in nursing, midwifery, and childcare at Angell’s house. (“[Untitled],” Deseret News, May 15, 1852; Claire Wilcox Noall, “Utah’s Pioneer Women Doctors,” Improvement Era 42, no. 1 [Jan. 1939]: 16; Richards Family Collection, “Phineas Richards Journal,” May 6–Dec. 20, 1851, CHL.)

  14. [14]Sessions, Mormon Midwife, 169, 181, 194, 203; Richards Family Collection, “Phineas Richards Journal,” May 6–Dec. 20, 1851; “Council of Health,” Deseret News, Mar. 20, 1852; “[Untitled],” Deseret News, Apr. 3, 1852; “[Untitled],” Deseret News, Aug. 21, 1852; Thomas Carter, Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 210–212. For more information on the nineteenth-century practice of female healing, see Derr et al., First Fifty Years, xxi–xxv; and “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women,” Gospel Topics, accessed May 2, 2016, lds.org.

  15. [15]Brigham Young expressed these same sentiments: “It appears consistent to me to apply every remedy that comes within the range of my knowledge, and to ask my Father in Heaven, in the name of Jesus Christ, to sanctify that application to the healing of my body; to another this may appear inconsistent. … But it is my duty to do, when I have it in my power. Many people are unwilling to do one thing for themselves, in case of sickness, but ask God to do it all.” (Brigham Young, “Discourse,” Deseret News, Sept. 10, 1856.)

  16. [16]According to Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), receipt was a commonly used word for recipe.

  17. [17]Boneset, or thoroughwort, an herb and a common home remedy in the nineteenth century, was used as a diuretic, particularly during flu epidemics. Lobelia was a common wild plant sometimes known as “Indian tobacco,” and its leaves were used for respiratory ailments, asthma, coughs, and lung afflictions; it was also used to cleanse the stomach and to induce vomiting. (Thomson, New Guide to Health, 38–48, 70–71; W. A. Newman Dorland, The American Illustrated Medical Dictionary [Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1900], 244, 364; S. Henry Dessau, “The Treatment of Epidemic Influenza,” New York Medical Times 22, no. 4 [Apr. 1894]: 97.)

  18. [18]Following Angell’s speech, “Sister Gibbs,” Dr. Samuel Sprague, and Patty Sessions gave recipes for various ailments. This could be Sarah Waterous Gibbs [Eldredge], who later operated a “hospital home” and provided care for sick children. (Pioneer Women of Faith and Fortitude, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: International Society of Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1998], 1:884.)