The Church Historian's Press



Utah Woman Suffrage Association

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah Territory

October 7, 1889

Elvira S. Barney

Elvira S. Barney. Circa 1880s. Barney practiced obstetrics and medicine in Utah. She was deeply committed to the work of women’s rights and religious liberty. She spoke at a mass meeting on March 6, 1886, in Salt Lake City: “Oh, that my voice could reach the ears of those uninformed and misinformed of the United States. I would ask them to listen to the testimony of the ten thousand wives and mothers of Utah, with large, intelligent, loving families, of beautiful, pure children.” (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

Elvira Stevens Woodbury Huntington Barney (1832–1909) gave the invocation at a meeting of the Utah Woman Suffrage Association, a prewritten prayer that was then printed in the Woman’s Exponent. Her words demonstrate one way in which women engaged publicly in theological discourse and expanded the role of women in society.

Barney’s sermon-like prayer exhibits a life of careful thought and involvement. She was born in Gerry, New York, the daughter of a merchant and a teacher. The family converted to the church in 1844 and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. Shortly after their arrival, her father died from a brief illness in 1844, and her mother passed away three months later, purportedly of exhaustion.1 Elvira traveled across the plains with her older sister Jane and Jane’s family, arriving in Utah in 1848.2 Two years later, she married John Woodbury, and together they served a mission to the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii), along with a group including Barney’s sister and a former brother-in-law, from 1851 to 1856.3 After divorcing Woodbury, she married Oliver Huntington on December 28, 1856; they, too, divorced.4 Barney then married Royal Barney Jr. as a plural wife on January 6, 1866, in Salt Lake City.5

Barney followed in the footsteps of her mother by teaching school, first in Winter Quarters and while crossing the plains, then in California before and after her mission, and later in Utah.6 She attended the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) in Salt Lake City and Wheaton College in Illinois from 1864 to 1866; she studied medicine in the eastern United States, then returned to Utah to teach medical courses for young women.7 She demonstrated her father’s knack for business in her work with the home manufacture movement, women’s cooperative stores, and grain storage, all of which were closely associated with the Relief Society.8

Barney actively pursued political causes, including women’s rights and suffrage. On February 12, 1870, the Utah territorial legislature granted suffrage to Utah women, following a precedent set in Wyoming the previous year. In response to the threat of federal legislation limiting Mormon women’s voting rights because of polygamy, Barney spoke at a mass meeting on March 6, 1886. Notwithstanding these protests, the federal government rescinded the vote from Utah women the following year. In 1889, Utah women formed the Utah Woman Suffrage Association, an affiliate organization of the National Woman Suffrage Association that had been founded two decades earlier by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.9 Nineteen local suffrage associations were organized throughout the counties of Utah Territory over the next few years, with representatives meeting often to coordinate efforts.10 The territory organization convened in the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City on October 7, 1889.11 Delegates from each association in the territory were invited, and addresses were given by prominent speakers, including James E. Talmage, Charles W. Penrose, Zina D. H. Young, and Lula Greene Richards.12

The Utah Woman Suffrage Association was open to “all women, without regard to party, sect, or creed.”13 The territory association and various local associations had chaplains, allowing them to incorporate a religious component in a secular organization.14 Sarah M. Kimball was the first listed chaplain for the territorial association on April 11, 1889, but at the July 19, 1889, meeting, Barney filled that role.15 The prescribed responsibility of “minister” allowed her to engage in a pastoral role, leading both Mormon and non-Mormon women in prayer to God in a nondenominational manner, seeking his aid in the quest for woman suffrage.

O God, the Eternal, the Father of the heavens and the earth, in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, we, a small portion of the human family, have assembled ourselves together under this roof for an especial purpose, and we do pray thee, that thou wilt inspire both the speakers and the hearers with a portion of thy heavenly divine influence, that good shall be the result of our assembling together, that we may learn and prepare ourselves for storm or fair weather, for war or peace, for prosperity or adversity. Thou hast blest us in early youth, thou hast been with us all the journey of life thus far, and we pray thee that thou wilt forget us not in our declining years.

Thou didst cause that the earth should roll into existence, and from chaos it was formed. Thou didst cause that the earth should produce vegetation, and that the human and animal creation should subsist upon it, and dwell upon its face; and now we do implore thee that thou wilt bless the earth, that it may still bring forth vegetation, and that thou wilt cause the dews of heaven to descend, and the rains in due season.16 Wilt thou temper the climate for the good of mankind and all animal creation, that we may feel to praise thy holy name that mankind does live. Wilt thou, the Great Eternal, command the lightning, the earthquakes, and the elements, that they may be manifested for the good of all vegetable and animal creation.17

We pray for the weak, we pray for the afflicted, and we pray for the strong, that they may be willing to help carry the burdens of the weak.18 We pray that thou wilt, in thine own way and time, mellow the hearts of the wicked and immoral, that thy grace may spread and form a canopy over the whole earth, that sin and wickedness may not be known, and righteousness triumph. Wilt thou be with the rulers of the nation, that thy voice shall reach their ears in their council chambers, that they may fear to make unjust laws,19 and that they may study to improve and make better those already formed, that the cries of the people may not reach thee because of oppression.20 Wilt thou soften the hearts of the rigid, that the means that man has at his disposal may be used for the whole of humanity; may they not forget their benefactor but ever bend the knee in humble reverence to thee.21

Wilt thou be with woman as thou hast with man, to strengthen her where she is weak that she may aid in the defense of truth and right, and where her voice is heard throughout the broad face of the earth, may it have echo in the hearts of the honest, and may she serve to smooth the wrinkles of unjust laws, as she does and has, the pillows beneath the aching heads of thy soldiers and servants.22 We pray thee that thou wilt bless thy handmaidens here in this little nook in the valleys of the mountains, that we may perform noble and grand acts that will compare with the grandeur of the mountains around.

Hear us, O Father, at this time, and accept of our humble offering, for we dedicate ourselves, our meeting, and our cause unto thee, asking a forgiveness of our sins, in the name of Jesus, amen.

Cite this page

Prayer, At the Pulpit, accessed July 24, 2024