Guest Post: A Thread of Continuity: Patriarchy and Sexual Abuse in the Church from 1841 to Today

Guest post by brooke, a graduate student studying women and religion in 19th-century history.

Photo by Jocelyn Morales on Unsplash

Learning that a child has been the victim of sexual abuse is heartbreaking, no matter how long ago it was.

About a year ago, I was working on a project which focused on Lee County, Iowa Territory, during the Nauvoo period (just across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo). Many of the documents which I was looking at were institutional documents, such as minutes from the Iowa Stake and letters between church leaders. Since it was 2021, I had to resign myself to mostly those documents that had been digitized by the Church History Library, and luckily, there were a good number of them. I began to go through a document titled, “Minutes of meetings of the Nashville Branch, 1840-1843,” which were part of the Elias Smith papers, who served as a bishop in Iowa. As bishop, Smith oversaw church disciplinary actions, which filled the first several pages of the document. It opened with a lengthy church court for a man named William A. Hickman (known to the local non-Mormons as “Wild Bill”) who had attacked and gotten into fights with several other members. It was a fascinating opening, but I was far more shocked by what I found next.

The page that followed was written in a different handwriting. It read,

Mont Rose Lee Co. May 31st 1841

To the Bishop and his Council

I hereby profer the following Charges against Elder [redacted]

1st for coming in to my hous in the absenc of me and family except a Little girl about eleven years old and another [unclear, but likely “six”] years old and highly abuseing my hous by unlawfully Laying hold of the ^eldest^ little girl and forcing verry improper Conduct upon her unbecoming any man which more as man of his Standing in the Church of Jesus Christ of laterday Saints

Abraham Washburn[1]

I sat at my desk, stunned by what I had just come across. Of course, as someone who studies women’s history, I was used to the type of history that leaves you heartbroken for your historical subjects. I had written my thesis on a woman who had a manipulative, emotional (and possibly physically) abusive husband, who struggled with health and infertility, whose husband entered polygamous marriages when she failed to have children, and who had bouts of depression so severe that her journal was littered with suicidal expressions. I was used to difficult history that made me cry and ache for my historical subjects.

This wasn’t even the first time I stumbled across sexual abuse in my historical research. In my thesis, as I investigated the woman who became the second wife to my subject’s husband, I found that as a teenager, her mother died leaving her an orphan, and she was placed in the care of family friends. However, at age 19, she fled from the family, pregnant, having been sexually abused by the man who was supposed to be like (and certainly old enough to be) a father to her. As I explored more, I found out that that man, William G. Mills, had been excommunicated from the church by the time he sexually abused her, but that a hymn he wrote is still in our modern hymnbook. Hymn #40, “Arise, O Glorious Zion,” was written by a sexual predator.

So, I had experience with history where women and children were abused. But nothing prepares you for just randomly coming across a case of a young girl being raped.

Of course, I wanted to know who the girl was. I looked up Abraham Washburn and found that he was a recent convert from England, and he did have two daughters, who would have been 12 and 9 years old at this time. It was possible that it was his daughter who was sexually assaulted, but it was also entirely possible that it was some other girls at his home. Housing was in short supply in 1841, and many families lived together or took in children from other families. But ultimately, I realized, since Washburn had decided to protect this girl’s identity, I should respect that decision and continue to protect her identity as well.

More than the girl, I wanted to know the identity of the man. I wondered if it was “Wild” William Hickman since the minutes of his church court had just preceded this document. But Washburn’s reference to this man’s “Standing in the Church” made me wonder if it was someone more respected and with more ecclesiastical power than Hickman.

However, what made me truly angry was how the man’s name had been blacked out. It wasn’t cut out of the original document, nor was it scratched over with a marker, nor a piece of paper placed on top to block it out. It hadn’t been removed from the document decades ago by those who knew the man personally. The name was blacked out with a digitized black box, meaning that when this document was digitized within the last couple of decades, some worker or administrator at the Church History Library made the decision to digitally redact the name.

The most common form of redaction from historical documents happens when family members turn over documents if there is anything in them that they would prefer not to be public knowledge. Additionally, information about living people or those who were recently living is often protected. However, the older the document is, then any redactions are typically up to the discretion of the archivist. While the church does often keep certain documents or parts of documents away from the eyes of professional historians, particularly in cases where the information has to do with sacred ceremonies, I couldn’t see any reason to hide this man’s name. Over a hundred and fifty years later, the church was still actively protecting a sexual predator who had long been dead.

As I read the recent AP News article about MJ and the years of sexual assault she suffered at the hands of her father, Paul Douglas Adams, my mind was brought back to this little girl living in Iowa Territory in 1841. Other than the letter from Washburn, there is no evidence that any action was taken against this sexual predator. Perhaps he did face some sort of church disciplinary action, but if he did, those involved thought it best not to leave a record.

I saw a thread of continuity that I didn’t like. As the article in AP New by Michael Rezendes explains, “the church is more concerned about the spiritual well-being of perpetrators than the physical and emotional well-being of young victims.”[2] What this article did not delve into was how rooted this attitude is in patriarchy.

In a patriarchal society, women and children are not considered whole people, but rather are possessions or belongings of a man. Mormon theology has often, since the 19th century, prioritized the salvation of men. Under this patriarchal theology, women’s salvation is brought about by their husband, something called “salvific coverture.”[3] This theology teaches that women and children are simply brought along by a man into the Celestial Kingdom. While this teaching is not nearly as prominent as it was in the nineteenth-century church and much has been done to emphasis women and men’s equal importance in the church, their families, and salvations, there are still remnants of this patriarchal theology today.

So of course, the church has and still sometimes does prioritize men’s salvation, because the salvation of men (according to this patriarchal thinking) would lead to the salvation of women and children too. If women and children are not seen as whole people, if they are not as valued in the church as men are, then we will continue to prioritize the salvation of rapists over protecting the well-being and lives of children and women. For us to truly prioritize protecting women and children who become victims of men, we need to unravel the patriarchy which still lines our church teachings and culture. We need to reckon with how the patriarchy that we uphold as a church community also protects sexual predators. It has since at least the 1840s, and it will as long as those ideas still exist in our church.

[1] Elias Smith papers, 1834-1846; Minutes of meetings of the Nashville Branch, 1840-1843; Church History Library, (accessed: August 5, 2022).




  1. This is shocking, yet not surprising. Perhaps, the best course of action is to stop upholding the leaders of the church who demand the obeisance and blindness to the evil that is emanating from them. Thank you for continuing the descretion regarding the young girl.

  2. I’m not in the area, but is it possible for anyone to swing by the church history library and view the original documents in person? What a shameful cover-up.

  3. Thank you for this.
    A year ago I emailed an author who has done extensive research into polygamy in the early church. I wanted his take on old men (like 60+) marrying teenage girls. He replied rather quickly. His reply was short and curt. “It was not uncommon for that to happen in the 19th century. In plural marriages there was nothing inappropriate or deviant about it.”
    In 1855 my g-g-g-grandfather married a widow as his 6th wife. She had children. One of those children was an 8 year old girl. Five years later, when he was 60 and she was 13, he told her she could either become his 7th wife or she could get out of the house. They were sealed in the endowment house with the approval of the first presidency. Nothing inappropriate or deviant about that?!
    It sickens me to hear church leaders defend polygamy with terms like “wholesome” or “loving”.
    Only a patriarchal society would come up with polygamy and call it “wholesome and loving”.

    • My guess would be it’s one of those well known LDS names like say Romney or Smoot or Young – not to say it’s one of those but just a well thought of legacy family name that members would quickly recognize.

  4. This article caught my attention for two reasons. First, “Wild Bill” Hickman is my great-great-something grandfather. Yes, he was wild. Served as bodyguard to Joseph Smith along with Porter Rockwell. Family lore has it that he had eight wives who all divorced him. (If family lore is correct – haven’t looked personally – one of his wives was the mother of Minerva Teichert, which puts a big smile on my face, thinking I might be related to her.)

    The other reason this caught my eye was because I had just read a review of the AP article referenced, which looked at the actual court documents and found that the biases (??) of the AP author had influenced him to make assertions and draw conclusions that didn’t square with the actual court documents and the various participants’ sworn testimony.

    I say, “The truth is good enough.” There are all kinds of problems in the church that needs to be dealt with, in this horrific category, as well as others – so why exaggerate, lay blame inaccurately, and say things that simply aren’t true? That strategy deflects potential solutions.There are definitely problems and issues that need to be corrected, but many of the assertions of the AP author fall short of the truth.

    Lastly, if women are property of men under patriarchy, are men property of women under matriarchy? I’ve not researched this thoroughly, and so cannot comment with complete intelligence, but I’ve seen many women who were abusive and authoritarian, and many men who were kind, compassionate leaders. I don’t think the “patra” or the “matra” is the issue, but rather how does one deal with power?

    • Hi Robin – I don’t see Brooke advocating for matriarchy, so your question confuses me. Generally when feminists talk about rooting out patriarchy, they aren’t talking about instituting matrarchy – they are talking about parternship.

    • The problem with Jacob Hess’s article that you linked to is that he does not ever state his own biases. He mentions one of the reporter’s biases near the end of the article. Hess’s article didn’t really help. Squabbling over details in the story doesn’t make the Church or its helpline look any better. This isn’t the only case of abuse in the church. As the title of this post states and as the post outlines, there is a thread of continuity in how abuse is handled in the church that is rooted in attitudes that are a part of a patriarchal power structure. I agree with the assertion that the church is more concerned with the spiritual well being of perpetrators than the well being of victims. Even as he decries the AP article, Hess relates how glorious it is for perpetrators to have a chance at a new spiritual life. Here is my bias: victims needs should always be prioritized.

  5. Thank you for this post. Abraham Washburn and his 9-year-old daughter Amy Jane are my direct ancestors. Amy’s slightly older sister Mary Ann was married to a polygamist–Joseph Bates Noble–at just 14 years of age. She later divorced him and then remarried.

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