Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier

I tried to get into this book. I really did. But it just wasn’t written for me–not at this time of my life anyway. The first chapter bored me. The second merely reminded me why I no longer read books dealing with religion much anymore. And the third convinced me that I couldn’t finish the rest.

Chapter 3 deals with the Kirtland years and is so biased and apologetic that I couldn’t stand it any longer. According to Bradley and Woodward (apparent fans of the Mormon persecution complex), the problems that arose in Kirtland had nothing to do with Joseph Smith. His illegal bank was not at fault, nor his taking over the town from the original occupants. No. The real problem is the people who loaned Mormons money and then wanted the money back. These creditors (or as the authors erroneously call them–debtors) are the evil ones. The honoring of contracts and the law is called persecution, harassment, and mob violence. Oliver Cowdery’s excommunication is not even given the proper context in this chapter.

At this point I wondered why Deseret Book hadn’t published this apparently purely faith-promoting, biased account. So I flipped ahead to Joseph Smith’s courting of married women and teenage girls beginning on page 109. Although the authors try to spin Joseph’s abuse of power and influence into something from God, the fact that they include some of the quotes that they do, frankly admitting that Joseph Smith coerced, married, and had sex with the wives of other men and teenagers in secret, is certainly enough to get a rejection from the church’s publishing house with their current anti-polygamy rhetoric. Any sort of objective reading of what these faithful women say Joseph Smith said (in addition to the letters in Joseph’s own handwriting) will startle any thinking Mormon. He gave them guilt trips, commands, empty–yet fantastic–promises, and threats in order to have his way with these vulnerable, faithful, and gullible individuals.

In addition to the general white washing of the Kirtland history, the authors don’t take a critical or skeptical approach when it comes to statements made much later in life by participants. A disclaimer of some sort should be made when a 90 year old states that they believed such and such when they were 20 when that belief sounds much more like what they believe in their later years than what they probably believed or experienced then. (The section entitled “Memory and Belief in Autobiographical Recall and Autobiography” in Memory, Brain, and Belief is a good reference on this subject.) It’s a problem that any historian faces. The good ones at least note the fact that the later statement should possibly be taken with a grain of salt.

Although not from the vantage point of a skeptic, the look at the conversion processes of early Mormons is interesting. Why would people convert to this new religion? Emotionalism, instant community, social pressures, and promises of salvation were some of the motivating factors. The fact that the bulk of the converts were teenage girls (who would then influence the rest of their families) swayed by handsome young Elders probably didn’t hurt either.

Finally, the space devoted to the “gift of tongues” as practiced in the early church will be an eye opener to current believers. Why was the practice stopped? Isn’t it supposed to be a sign of the restoration? That’s certainly what the early church members thought. The women, especially, relished the experience and thought it was an evidence of the truthfulness of their faith. (Modern linguists say otherwise.)

I’m sorry to not provide a more thorough and complete review covering things such as Brigham Young’s marriage to the woman who already had two other husbands, what it was like to be Brigham Young’s daughter, or Hugh B. Brown’s wife. I’m just not that interested in the subject anymore and as they say, “so many books, so little time.”

from the publisher:
Zina Baker Huntington, Zina Huntington Young, Zina Young Card, Zina Card Brown. Mother, daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter�it was an impressive line of prominent women, all named Zina. One converted to Mormonism in New York in 1835. The next married Joseph Smith and Brigham Young successively and served as the church’s general Relief Society president. The third assisted her husband, Charles Ora Card, in founding Cardston, Alberta. The fourth married future church apostle Hugh B. Brown.

Collectively this extended family had a significant impact on a large region of the American West. Individually each helped shape her particular era. Zina Young and Zina Card worked tirelessly for woman’s suffrage. In addition, they encouraged women to study nursing and to become involved in industry, while also promoting drama and literature. And they inspired women through speeches and through their expressions of spirituality, including speaking in tongues. It was due in part to their efforts that many Mormon women came to feel good about themselves; in the process, the territory became not only habitable but bearable.

Modern readers will be happy to learn that the four Zinas’s stories have been remembered by two very able chroniclers: Dr. Bradley, an historian, and Mrs. Woodward, a descendant. For many readers, what will be most striking about this matrilineal family biography is the authors relate not only what happened but what it felt like, drawing on the women’s letters, diaries, and reminiscences. For instance, Zina Huntington discloses in her missives to her mother the alternating feast and famine she and her husband experienced on the western edge of New York state. With a stiff upper lip, Zina wrote that “a contented mind is a continual feast,” but then admitted that something besides food was missing from her life. This would be the beginning of a spiritual awakening for her.

Zina’s daughter came to be prominent in the inner circle of Mormonism in Nauvoo, Illinois. When the daughter eventually married Joseph Smith, she expressed her private feelings: “I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life,” she wrote, adding that she “never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman.” This emotional trial was offset by the spiritual outpouring Zina Young would find among her “sister wives” in Iowa and Utah, especially through their testimony meetings, where participants would wash and anoint each other and then sing in tongues.

The authors explain what life came to be like for a young girl, “Little Zina,” in Salt Lake City, raised in the Lion House where much of Brigham Young’s family lived. When older, this Zina would become a midwife and healer like her mother. When she also followed her mother’s lead by marrying a polygamist, she was initially heartbroken to spend her wedding night alone. “Well this is a lot worse than I bargained for,” she told her journal. She responded to her husband’s written greetings to his “quorum of wives” with, “I feel to thank God that those to whom I owe the duty of loving are [at least] loveable.”

The next generation’s Zina adapted to new circumstances by becoming a model homemaker. In contrast to her forebears who spent much of their lives away from their husbands, Zina Brown kissed her husband good bye each morning and waved her hanky from the porch as he drove away. She was the anchor to his sometimes varying moods and ill health, a socially active counterweight to his tendency toward reclusiveness.

Of course there are controversies in the lives of each of these women. Treating their subjects with sympathy and understanding, the authors tell readers in a straightforward way how Zina Huntington and her husband lost their home in Illinois due to naive trust in a fellow church member. In Salt Lake City Zina Young arranged to have her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, address an audience in the Mormon Tabernacle. Although the national women’s leader scandalized the community by speaking not only on suffrage but also on birth control, the two women would remain close. Zina Brown, like her mother, became known for her use of consecrated oil in healing blessings, now considered the exclusive prerogative of male priesthood holders.

In approaching such topics, the authors allow readers to appreciate these women as real people, who were all the more remarkable for what they accomplished in spite of human weakness and insurmountable obstacles. They demonstrate that complexity resides alongside single-mindedness, and that the four Zinas were women whose lives are worth remembering and celebrating.

Martha Sonntag Bradley is a University of Utah Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Architecture. Her numerous honors include the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the Student Choice Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Bennion Center Service Learning Professorship, and the honorary title of “1999-2000 University Professor.” She taught previously in the history department at Brigham Young University, where she received a Teaching Excellence Award. She has also served as coeditor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, publishes often in professional journals, and is the author of six books on Utah history, including Kidnapped from that Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists, A History of Kane County, and A History of Beaver County. She has six children and three grandchildren.

Mary Brown Firmage Woodward is the daughter of Zina Card and Hugh B. Brown, and inheritor of her mother’s heirlooms�letters, memorabilia�which in 1976 she removed from boxes, barrels, and trunks to catalogue as the genesis of this book. She attended Brigham Young University in the 1930s, married Edwin R. Firmage, who died in 1986, and later Ralph Woodward. With her husbands she served two LDS missions to London, England, and Nauvoo, Illinois. She has published in the Ensign and Improvement Era.

“This intimate account of the four-generation female dynasty of Zinas runs parallel to the traditional story of the LDS church, depicting a woman’s world, where revered men visit occasionally. The Zinas were central to all the important LDS female movements: spiritual gifts, celestial marriage, suffrage, the Relief society, as well as motherhood and education. The authors have turned this rich, compelling record into a cohesive and illuminating window on the past.” �Claudia L. Bushman, Adjunct Professor of History, Columbia University

“A rare view of a family of women from the beginnings of Mormon history, Four Zinas traces with a fine line the inter-generational strings which bind the heart. We need this book�because the authors offer an unprecedented analysis that stretches over both time and geography. It is an extraordinary story.” �Valeen Tippetts Avery, Associate Professor of History, Northern Arizona University