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Merging Mormon women & women of Genesis: Hannah Tapfield King’s Women of the Scriptures

Pages 1103-1122 | Published online: 26 Feb 2018


When Hannah Tapfield King published Women of the Scriptures (1878) her work became part of the growing body of women’s biblical interpretation—most often written as character studies—in nineteenth-century America and Great Britain. King’s Bible sketches provide a useful case study of how nineteenth-century women went to the source of religious authority to assert the importance of women’s roles, agency, attributes, impact, and authority within patriarchal religious communities. Analyzing King’s exegesis within the context of the growing fields of women’s religious history and women’s biblical interpretation, this study also opens a new field of inquiry into how Mormon women adopted and challenged Protestant interpretations of scriptures as they read the Bible through a distinct Mormon theology that differed from traditional Christianity’s understanding of the gospel knowledge and keys possessed by the patriarchs, the fall of Adam and Eve, polygamy, and man and woman’s eternal potential.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

Amy Easton-Flake is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century women’s reform literature and biblical hermeneutics. Her work may be found in the New England Quarterly, Symbiosis: A Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations, Journal of Mormon History, Religious Educator, and multiple edited volumes. She currently serves on the steering committee of the Recovering Women Interpreters of Scripture group for the Society of Biblical Literature.


1 Hannah Tapfield King (1878) The Women of the Scriptures (Salt Lake City: privately published). Hereafter page numbers will be referenced within the text.

2 For collections of primary source material, see Marion Ann Taylor & Heather E. Weir (2006) Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis (Waco, TX: Baylor UP); Marion Ann Taylor & Christina de Groot (2016) Women of War, Women of Woe: Joshua and Judges through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans); Marion Ann Taylor & Heather Weir (2016) Women in the Story of Jesus: The Gospels through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans).

3 ‘As we step back to take a larger look at Book of Mormon usage in early years, we can make a number of general observations. First, compared to the Bible, the Book of Mormon was hardly cited at all … . To a people who have come to prize the Book of Mormon as ‘the keystone’ of their religion, it may come as a surprise to learn that in the early literature the Bible was cited nearly twenty times more frequently than the Book of Mormon.’ Grant Underwood. ‘Book of Mormon Usage in Early LDS Thought’, Dialogue, 17(3), p. 52.

4 Philip Barlow (2013) Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, rev ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 109.

5 For a good overview of nineteenth-century Mormon women’s lived reality, see Maureen Ursebach Beecher & Lavina Fielding Anderson (Eds) (1987) Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Chicago: University of Illinois Press); Carol Cornwall Madsen (Ed.) (1997) Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah (Logan: Utah State University Press); Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, & Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Eds) 1992 Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book); Maxine Hanks (Ed.) (1992) Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books). For examples of individual women, see Richard E. Turley Jr. & Brittany A. Chapman (Eds) (2011–14) Women of Faith in the Latter Days, vols. 1–3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book).

6 While many other Mormon women used, referenced, and interpreted the Bible (and in particular women of the Bible) in their poems, lectures, and articles, King is the only one who wrote character sketches of multiple biblical women.

7 For more information on Hannah’s upbringing see Leonard Reed, ‘As a Bird Sings’: Hannah Tapfield King, Poetess and Pioneer’, BYU Studies, 51(3), pp. 102–105; Augusta Joyce Crocherdon (1884) Representative Women of Deseret: A Book of Biographical Sketches (Salt Lake City: J.C. Graham & Co.), pp. 91–92; Dorothy Brewerton, Carolyn Gorwill, & Leonard Reed, The Songstress of Dernford Dale: The Life of Poetess, Diarist and Latter-day Saint Hannah Tapfield King (privately published, 2011), pp. 25–37; Hannah Tapfield King, ‘Autobiography of Hannah Tapfield King’, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 8–10.

8 For more information about Hannah’s literary accomplishments in England, see Augusta Joyce Crocheron (1884) Representative Women of Deseret, a book of biographical sketches to accompany the picture bearing the same title (Salt Lake City: Graham & Company), p. 92.

9 For more information about Hannah’s experience with the Anglican faith, see Carolyn Gorwill (Ed.) (1984) The Journals of Hannah Tapfield King (Kingston, Ontario: privately published), from the section in appendix, pp. 36–37, entitled ‘Brief Memoirs from the Life of Hannah Tapfield King’; Brewerton, Gorwill, and Reed, Songstress, p. 23, pp. 28–29.

10 King, ‘Autobiography’, pp. 63–64.

11 ‘I compared all she told me by the Bible which had ever been my standard of truth—it endorsed all she said. I studied, I prayed’. ‘My Story—Hannah T. King,’ in Treasures of Pioneer History, comp. Kate B. Carter, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1952–1957), 3, pp. 45–48.

12 A phrase used by Hannah about her first impressions of the Latter-day Saint gospel, in Gorwill, ‘Brief Memoirs from the Life of Hannah Tapfield King’, Journals, from the section in the appendix, p. 36.

13 Gorwill, ‘Brief Memoirs from the Life of Hannah Tapfield King’, Journals, pp. 36–37.

14 ‘My Story—Hannah T. King’, pp. 45–48.

15 Gorwill, Journals, ‘Brief Memoirs from the Life of Hannah Tapfield King’, p. 36.

16 King, ‘Autobiography’, pp. 8–10.

17 Ibid., p. 126.

18 Unsurprisingly, Thomas King was at first opposed to emigrating to Utah. Eventually, however, after excessive pressure from his wife and children and undergoing a serious illness, his daughter recorded that he was ‘humbled and weakened as a child and gave consent to sell out and move to Utah.’ As cited in Reed, ‘As a Bird Sings’, p. 106.

19 For more information on the King’s family struggles in coming to America and living in Utah, see Browerton, Gorwill, and Reed, Songstress, pp. 69–108.

20 See Crocherdon, Representative Women, p. 95. For a more inclusive list and discussion of Hannah’s writing in the Woman’s Exponent in particular, see Chapter 11 of Browerton, Gorwill, and Reed, The Songstress of Dernford Dale, pp. 139–152.

21 Hannah’s writing for the Woman’s Exponent was a source of great joy and pride for her. She wrote, ‘It has been my delight to write for the Saints since I have lived in Salt Lake City, and my reward has been their love and rich appreciations of my writings. I have been a constant writer for the Woman’s Exponent, a paper got up and entirely carried on by the women of our people. President Young desired me to write for it and I have done so with pleasure to the best of my ability in prose and verse’. ‘My Story—Hannah T. King,’ in Treasures of Pioneer History, comp. Kate B. Carter, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1952–1957), 4:47.

22 For historical background on the Exponent, see Sherilyn Cox Bennion (Summer 1976) ‘The Woman’s Exponent: Forty-Two Years of Speaking for Women’, Utah Historical Quarterly, 44(3), pp. 226–239; Carol Cornwall Madsen (2006) An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B Wells, 1870–1920 (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies), pp. 34–66.

23 Brewerton, Gorwill, and Reed, Songstress, p. 143.

24 See Christiana de Groot and Marion Ann Taylor, ‘Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Interpreters of the Bible’, in Christiana de Groot and Marion Ann Taylor (Eds) Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Interpreters of the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), p. 5; Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, pp. 6–7.

25 Rebecca Styler (2010) Literary Theology by Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate), p. 73.

26 Carolyn De Swarte Gifford (1985) ‘American Women and the Bible: The Nature of Woman as a Hermeneutical Issue’, in Adela Yarbro Collins (Ed.) Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship (Chico, CA: Society of Biblical Literature), p. 22.

27 Benjamin Jowett (1860) ‘On the Interpretation of Scripture’, in F.H. Hedge (Ed.) Essays and Reviews (London: Parker & Sons), p. 377.

28 de Groot and Taylor, ‘Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women’, 9. See also Gerald Bray (1996) Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), p. 306.

29 Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, pp. 15–17.

30 Styler, Literary Theology, p. 72.

31 Stephen M. Frank (1998) Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), pp. 26–35; Mary P. Ryan (1981) The Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 75–98; Mary Ryan (1982) The Empire of Mother: American Writing about Domesticity 1830-1860 (New York, NY: Hawthorne Press), pp. 54–60.

32 Styler, Literary Theology, p. 69, p. 71, p. 77.

33 Hannah Tapfield King (1878) ‘The Holy Scriptures’, Woman’s Exponent, 7(2), p. 11.

34 For a good discussion on the intellectual sisterhood in nineteenth-century Utah, and King’s role within it, see Maureen Ursenbach (Winter 1975) ‘Three Women and the Life of the Mind’, Utah Historical Quarterly, 43(1), pp. 26–40.

35 See for instance, Hannah T. King (1876) ‘Affectionately Addressed to Mrs. Zina D Young’, Woman’s Exponent, 4(16), p. 121; Hannah T. King (1876) ‘Addressed to Mrs. L.B.Y.’, Woman’s Exponent, 5(1), p. 1; Hannah T. King (1882) ‘A Letter to a Gifted Sister’, Woman’s Exponent, 10(3), p. 19; Hannah T. King (1882) ‘Affectionately Addressed to Sister S.M. Kimball’, Woman’s Exponent, 10(16), p. 121; Hannah T. King (1883) ‘A Loving Tribute’, Woman’s Exponent, 11(21), p. 161.

36 For findings of this in Protestant, female exegesis, see Styler, Literary Theology, p. 78; Julie Melnyk (2001) ‘Women’s Theology and the British Periodical Press’, in Linda Woodhead (Ed.) Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts (Aldershot, England: Ashgate), p. 191.

37 King, ‘The Holy Scriptures’, p. 11.

38 Paul C. Gutjahr (1999) An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), pp. 1–3.

39 For examples of this, look at each of these women’s exegesis of Sarah, reprinted in Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, pp. 149–172. Taylor and Weir also surmise from their vast research that ‘most [nineteenth-century interpreters] seemed to delight in discussing Sarah’s imperfections’ (187).

40 Janet B. Sommers (Spring 2003) ‘Vision and Revision: The Midrashic Imagination in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Woman in Sacred History”’, Religion and Literature, 35(1), pp. 23–44, p. 31.

41 Harriet Beecher Stowe (1874) Woman in Sacred History: A Series of Sketches Drawn from Scriptural, Historical and Legendary Sources (New York: J.B. Ford), pp. 12–13.

42 Richard Bushman (2005) Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Random House), p. 585. For more information on the effect of Old and New Testament forms of restoration on Mormon theology see Jan Shipps (2007) Sojourner in the Promised Land (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press), p. 246, pp. 292–296.

43 Joseph Smith (2006) Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book), p. 181, pp. 59–61.

44 Stowe, Woman in Sacred History, p. 12.

45 Ibid., p. 25.

46 Ibid., p. 37.

47 Ibid., p. 18.

48 Interestingly, this reverence for the Old Testament prophets continues in the Mormon Church today. One may readily see this by looking at an Old Testament Sunday School manual and noting what they emphasize and ignore.

49 Genesis 25:23–24; 27:1–42 (King James Version).

50 Genesis 29:23–30:24 (KJV).

51 Elizabeth Julia Hasell’s exegeses of Rebekah, reprinted in Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, p. 303.

52 Sarah Hale’s exegeses of Rebekah, reprinted in Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, pp. 285–286.

53 Anne W. Stewart (2012) ‘Eve and Her Interpreters’, in Carol A Newsom, Sharon H. Ring, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Eds) Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press), p. 46.

54 For a good overview of interpretation of Eve through the centuries, see Stewart, ‘Eve and Her Interpreters’, pp. 46–50.

55 For an extensive discussion of images of Eve in the Woman’s Exponent, see Boyd Jay Petersen (2014) ‘“Redeemed from the Curse Place Upon Her”: Dialogic Discourse on Eve in the Woman’s Exponent’, Journal of Mormon History, 40(1), pp. 135–174.

56 2 Nephi 2:24–25.

57 Moses 5:8.

58 Petersen, ‘Redeemed from the Curse’, p. 150.

59 Ibid., pp. 150–153.

60 Stewart, ‘Eve and Her Interpreters’, p. 46.

61 Taylor and Weir, Let her Speak, p. 22, p. 24.

62 Emmeline B Wells (1886) ‘Woman’s Influence’, Woman’s Exponent, 14(15), p. 14.

63 Genesis 16:1–16.

64 Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, p. 396; For specific examples from different nineteenth-century female interpreters see Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, p. 115, 140, 178, 284, 327–328, 368, 389–390, 393, 396.

65 Doctrine & Covenants 132:61–66.

66 Sarah A. Fullmer (1883) ‘Our Franchise’, Woman’s Exponent, 11(24), p. 185. For a list of more of these references see footnote 72 in Andrew C. Smith (2014) ‘Hagar in LDS Scripture and Thought’, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 8, p. 112. Examples in the Woman’s Exponent include Anonymous (1877) ‘A Few Reflections’, Woman’s Exponent, 6(1), p. 3; Anonymous (1877) ‘A Few Reflections’, Woman’s Exponent, 6(2), p. 9; Mrs. Jennie Tanner (1886) ‘The Ladies’ Mass Meeting’, Woman’s Exponent, 14(20), p. 159.

67 Anonymous (1881) ‘Mormonism Will Live’, Woman’s Exponent, 9(20), p. 156.

68 Initially King, like most Mormons, was upset upon learning about polygamy. A letter she wrote a week after she learned of the official announcement of polygamy in 1852—shortly after her own conversion to the Mormon faith—contains her initial feelings toward the practice: ‘I could not speak or shed a tear at first, I felt overpowered stunned as it were! … I then went to my Lodging close by … and there I wept unrestrainedly till the agony of my feelings subsided’. She also recorded in her journal and autobiography her opposition to her daughter entering into a polygamous marriage. However, by the time she wrote Women of the Scriptures, twenty-five years later, King’s feelings on polygamy appear to have altered dramatically. For more information and the original sources quoted, see King, ‘Autobiography’, pp. 174–176, pp. 233–234, p. 244.

69 Hannah’s remarks were reported in full in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 40 (23 December 1878), pp. 805–806. Perhaps the greatest evidence of King’s changed view of polygamy was her sealing to Brigham Young in 1872. Significantly, though, this marriage was for the next life only and she never lived or had conjugal relations with Brigham Young in this life. Her desire to be sealed as a plural wife to Brigham Young appears to be based solely on her understanding of the sealing ordinance as necessary for salvation. For more information see Reed, ‘As a Bird Sings’, p. 113.

70 See for instance, Hannah T. King (1886) ‘Bereavement’, Woman’s Exponent, 14(18), p. 139; Hannah T. King (1885) ‘Impromptu Lines’, Woman’s Exponent, 14(1), p. 3.

71 See for instance, Hannah T. King (1878) ‘Thoughts on the Woman Question’, Woman’s Exponent, 7(7), p. 49; Hannah T. King (1879) ‘Events of the Present Day’, Woman’s Exponent, 7(19), pp. 204–205; (1880) ‘Watchman! What of the Hour’, Woman’s Exponent, 9(9), p. 69.

72 King, ‘The Holy Scriptures’, p. 11.

73 Joy A. Shroeder (2014) Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 161.

74 Hannah Tapfield King (February 15, 1882) ‘Extracts from My Letters’, Woman’s Exponent, 10, p. 138.

75 For an overview of nineteenth-century gender norms and the use of the image ‘Angel in the House’, see Anne Hogan & Andrew Bradstock (1966) Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the House (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press), pp. 1–5.

76 Jane E. Rose (1995) ‘Conduct Books for Women, 1830–1860: A Rationale for Women’s Conduct and Domestic Role in America’, in Catherine Hobbs (Ed.) Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia), pp. 37–58; Sarah E. Newton (1994) Learning to Behave: A Guide to American Conduct Books Before 1900 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), pp. 43–46.

77 1 Peter 3:6 (KJV).

78 See ‘The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony’ in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 261–262.

79 Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, p. 182.

80 Genesis 17:5, 15 (KJV).

81 Stowe, Woman in Sacred History, p. 25.

82 For an overview of this image in the nineteenth-century, see Barbara Welter (1966) ‘The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860’, American Quarterly, 18, pp. 151–174.

83 Catherine A. Brekus (1998) Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), p. 151.

84 Ann Braude (2007) Sisters and Saints: Women and American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 80.

85 Nancy Hardesty (1999) Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press), p. 65.

86 Aileen S. Kraditor (1981) The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement 1890–1920 (New York: Norton), pp. 96–122.

87 Two of the best works of scholarship documenting this phenomena are Ann Douglas (1977) The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Anchor Books) and Lori Ginzberg (1990) Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven: Yale University Press).

88 Susanna Morrill (2006) White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Mormon Women’s Popular Theology, 1880-1920 (New York: Routledge), p. 116; Linda P. Wilcox (1992) ‘Mormon Motherhood: Official Images’, in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Eds) Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), p. 209.

89 Morrill, White Roses, p. 117.

90 Ibid., p. 172.

91 For references, see footnote 14.

92 For overviews of nineteenth-century exegesis on Hagar, see Cynthia Gordon (1985) ‘Hagar: A Throw-Away Character Among the Matriarchs?’, in Kent H. Richards (Ed.) Society of Biblical Literature 1985 Seminar Papers (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press), pp. 271–277; Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, p. 187, pp. 252–53.

93 Gen.16:4-6(KJV).

94 Gen. 16:7(KJV).

95 Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak, p. 187.

96 Gen. 21:9-20(KJV).

97 Gen. 21:17, 19(KJV).

98 Hannah Tapfield King (1876) ‘The True Mother’, Woman’s Exponent, 5(2), p. 9.

99 Joseph Smith most famously explicated this view of the Mormon God, as well as the Mormon understanding of progressive salvation in the King Follett discourse, a funeral sermon delivered in Nauvoo, Illinois. For the latest textual and historical interpretation of this sermon, see Stan Larson (Summer 1976) ‘The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text’, BYU Studies, 15, pp. 193–208.

100 Hannah Tapfield King (1876) ‘Desultory Thoughts’, Woman’s Exponent, 14(5), p. 105.

101 For more information, see Claudia Bushman (Winter 2000) ‘Edward W. Tullidge and The Women of Mormondom’, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 33(1), p. 5 and Petersen, ‘Redeemed from the Curse’, pp. 157–58.

102 Interestingly, Claudia Bushman found in her study of Eve in nineteenth-century thought that ‘it was primarily women who emphasized the implication that Eve is a goddess’ (Bushman, ‘Edward W. Tullidge’, p. 5). For more on the eternal nature of motherhood in Mormon thought, see Petersen, ‘Redeemed from the Curse’, pp. 157–158.

103 Zina D. Young (1874) ‘R.S. Reports’, Woman’s Exponent, 3(7), p. 50.

104 Eliza R. Snow’s hymn ‘O My Father’ originally popularized the idea of a mother in heaven. It was first published in The Times and Seasons in November 1845.

105 Morrill, White Roses, p. 140.

106 Qtd in Styler, Literary Theology, p. 77.

107 See for instance, Carol Cornwall Madsen (Ed.) (1997) Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press); Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Eds) (1992) Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book); Ursenbach and Anderson (Eds), Sisters in Spirit. For examples of individual women, see Richard E. Turley Jr. & Brittany A. Chapman (Eds) (2011, 2012, 2014) Women of Faith in the Latter Days. Volume I, II, III. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book).

108 Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims; R. Marie Griffith (1997) God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley: University of California Press); Ann Braude (1997) ‘Women’s History is American Religious History’, in Thomas A. Tweed (Ed.) Retelling U.S. Religious History (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 87–107.

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