Friday, March 4, 2011

Helen Winters Woodruff

Many of the women I’m featuring this year made very different choices than I would have, but did it with the conviction they were doing God’s will. The women featured in this post and the next are women that chose to enter post-manifesto polygamous marriages. As my purpose in this blog is to celebrate Mormon women, rather than teach Mormon history, I’m not going to provide a thorough history of the practice – plenty of more qualified individuals have already done this. I’ll just say that although estimates of the number of plural marriages that occurred after the 1890 manifesto vary widely, as do opinions about just how much the contemporary prophets encouraged/tolerated it, there were polygamous marriages that happened between 1890 and 1904 that were performed or sanctioned by apostles who felt they acted according to God’s will. Among these individuals were Owen Woodruff, Helen May Winters, and Avery Clark. Today I’m featuring Helen.

In 1901, about three and a half years after her marriage to apostle Owen Woodruff, they decided that God would bless them for entering a polygamous marriage, and he married Avery. Helen struggled. Her correspondence with Owen is peppered with references to her struggling with feelings of “selfishness,” “discouragement,” and not having the self-discipline she wanted. That said, she strove to do her part to claim the blessings she felt would come her way through living “the principle.” She received a blessing of encouragement from another polygamous woman. She was kind (although occasionally pedantic) in her correspondence and relationship with Avery. She encouraged Owen “for her [Avery’s] sake” to try to spend several months with Avery (who lived in Mexico at that time) after she gave birth. As circumstances would have it, she arrived there herself shortly after the birth of Avery’s child and took over the nursing duties for a time. Her correspondence with her husband is often warm, charming, and it is shows her love and devotion to him. She worked to control her feelings, and she strove to learn to overcome her own “selfish pleasure” and “live for others.”

In 1904, Helen and Owen were sent to Mexico to hold conferences (and avoid testifying in the Smoot trials). They decided not to be vaccinated for small pox because they assumed God would protect them from it as they did His work. They assumed wrong. Both died painfully of small pox, leaving four children behind.

I’m in no position to judge whether she was correct in interpreting her spiritual promptings. But I am in a position to admire how she acted on them. I admire that she wasn’t content to silently suffer in hopes of blessings in the hereafter, but wanted to enjoy the blessings of following God’s will in the present. She worked to improve her own attitude and took actions to make her difficult marriage full of love and good will. I love that she knew the kind of woman she wanted to become, and did her best to become it.

Source: Snyder & Snyder (2009). Post-Manifesto Polygamy: The 1899-1904 Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff.

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