Gifts and Boondoggles:
Spiritual Praxis among Early Mormon Missionaries

For six weeks in the summer of 2013, student scholars from all over the United States and from Europe met daily in the Maxwell Institute library to discuss and research the topic “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” This seminar was hosted by the Maxwell Institute and directed by Terryl Givens. The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2013 are the result of the research done by the students and were presented at a BYU symposium on July 11, 2013.

 

In March 1841, a man sat outside his shop making shoes in the town of Dukenfield, England. In his own words, “some little children stopped before the door to play. My attention was arrested by hearing them talking about people they called “dippers.” They said that they dipped people over head in water and talked gibberish in their meetings, and the children tried to imitate speaking in tongues” (Morris). The shoemaker, George Morris, was intrigued and began investigating, eventually attending a meeting where he recalls how “[the] gift of tongues, the interpretation of tongues, and the spirit of prophesy was poured out richly…in very deed a rich foretaste of heaven”. Shortly after this, he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, drawn in by the charismatic power it displayed.

 

In this short vignette it is evident that the Mormon missionaries’ display of spiritual gifts was perceived two very different ways: where the children saw speaking in unknown tongues as a boondoggle, or a pointless activity that only gives the appearance of having value, George Morris saw and felt a real power and call to belief. This is illustrative of the larger issue playing out on the early Mormon missionary front: the prevalence of spiritual praxis could have very positive effects when gifts were performed successfully and believed to be necessary and true; when they failed, however, outsiders and insiders alike — seeing pretense, scam, and incompetency — could easily be repelled away from the church. The prominence of the Mormon claim to and performance of spiritual gifts was therefore both a powerful tool for attracting converts and an easy target for tearing the church down. In an attempt to understand this polarizing facet of the early church, this paper turns first to the doctrinal claims giving rise to it; then, it explores how charismata — when believed to indeed be of God — played a key role in the missionary movement in compelling people to conversion. A discussion will follow on how, given their volatile nature, gifts could be seriously detrimental to both the church’s image and the proselytizing cause. Finally, this paper investigates how gifts that failed in their efficacy provided an opportunity for the missionaries to hone their understanding of the correct use of gifts, and for outsiders to continue to question and doubt the authority of this new religion — with perhaps no real resolution possible.

 

The gifts of the Spirit — such as the gift of unknown and known tongues, healing the sick, casting out devils, prophecy, and others — were believed to flow out from the proper administration of the gift of the Holy Ghost; believers, therefore, saw them as a sign confirming that true authority had been introduced on the earth once more, and had been granted specifically and exclusively to their church (see Messenger & Advocate II:4, 243-245, 251). The early church claimed the right to exercise gifts of the Spirit and emphasized this claim in an effort to strengthen their restorationist position, and to highlight “the great contrast between the saints of the last days, and those who are strangers both to God and his ways, one sees understands and rejoices in the glory and order of the new testament church, while the other tries to evade the force of the plainest facts set forth in it [and] defaces the glory of the church of Christ” (Messenger & Advocate II:8, 308). Elsewhere, in Mormon literature the claim is brought forth almost tauntingly: “We ask for these signs. We look among the Presbyterians: no such signs there. We look among the Methodist, Episcopalians, Baptists, Universalists, &c. &c. &c.: but, we find none of these signs. Now we ask, are they built upon the rock, upon which the ancients built? no. … But here comes a sect called “Mormons.” They lay hands on the sick and they recover” (Messenger & Advocate, 251). Any Christians outside their faith tradition that didn’t practice charismatic gifts, then, were accused by the Mormons with the double charge of failing to align to God’s original order and not possessing the true authority to do so. The Mormons’ sincere belief that this was the case, along with the encouragement received in revelations given in 1830 and 1832 contextualizing spiritual gifts in the sphere of missionary labors (see D&C 24, D&C 84), strengthened the position for employing and leveraging both the claim to gifts and their practice as a conversion tactic. It was not in the absence of controversy that they did so, however, nor was it without repercussions; the claim and practice introduced great tension. This will be explored at greater length following a discussion of the ways that spiritual gifts were used to great effect as a conversion tool.

 

As early as 1830, vibrant accounts from missionaries, converts, and outsiders alike testify to the open performance of spiritual gifts in the field, and to the positive role they could play there. It appears clear that both the stand-alone claim to possess the gifts and the actual exercise or display of the same were major keys in the conversion of many in the first several decades of the proselytizing effort. This two-tiered approach is seen in John Woodbury Stillman’s experience, as he writes: “[one of the servents of God] came to see my Mother who had been sick for over seven years. he talked on the first principles of the gospel and the gifts healing &c. I cannot express the joy my heart felt. the spirit bareing testimony to the glorious truth of it. I said to my- self as I had often said before why is it that these things have not been enjoyed by the children of men, and why can they not be enjoyed now as well as in ancient times if the Lord has a church upon the Earth the Elder then…by the request of my mother kneeled down and prayed and then laid his hands upon her in the name of the Lord and rebuked the disease and that same moment all her pains and com-plaints left her, moveing off out at the ends of her fingers and toes, and she felt perfectly well although she had been in such distress but a few minutes before, and she had been given up to die by the most skilful physicians in the country” (Woodbury, 174-175). It was not merely the claim to gifts, or a simple healing, but both at play together that converted. Indeed, it appears from some accounts that the elders’ reputation for having the ability to cast out devils or heal often preceded them, and that people applied to them specifically for these purposes (see Evening and Morning Star I:6, 46). Healings especially were a popular appeal, and understandably so, as one of the most practical of the charismatic gifts in an era where undeveloped medical resources could not always prevent or stop sickness and disease.

 

Turning to healings now, it seems clear there were some instances where healings were performed without any ostensible motive beyond the restoration of an individual’s health, as in one elder’s account of a surreptitious administration to the sick child of a Campbellite family while its parents were away; once finished, they assumed their previous innocent aspect of book-reading in the other room, and though the mother was surprised to find her child well upon her return they offered no explanation as to how that had occurred (Shurtliff). More commonly, however, healings were performed specifically with some connection to covenant or conversion. Esaias Edwards recalls the elders promising that “if [his sick wife] would covenant to obey the gospel that it was her privilege to be healed by the laying on of the hands of the elders”. Based on this promise, they entered into the covenant and the elder administered; her pains left, and as soon as she had enough strength she walked to the creek and was baptized along with Esaias (Edwards). In another instance, Wilford Woodruff recalls blessing a woman who — in grave illness — had promised to be baptized. Once healed, however, she retracted that promise. Woodruff recounts how his companion warned her “she was acting a dangerous part, and the Lord would again afflict her if she did not repent”, and how when they later came upon her again she was, sure enough, “very low with the same fever”. She was healed a second time and, on this occasion, did not fail to be baptized subsequently (Patten). Often, miraculous stories like these would be shared as proofs to the skeptical or as encouragement for the believer, and the healed person himself might be produced as evidence. Once as Wandle Mace preached about three specific healings to which he had been witness, a young woman in the audience stood and testified that he had in fact just recited the account of her own baby’s healing, and “held her babe up to the gaze of [the] large congregation, showing that it had grown to be a plump and healthy child” (Mace). Indeed, perhaps the tangible physical dimension of early converts’ conversion experiences informed their sure and certain rhetoric of testimony-bearing— echoes of which can be heard in the language spoken from LDS pulpits today.

 

In addition to healing, other types of gifts were employed in the missionary effort. The gift of unknown tongues, dramatic in its performance and more-or-less entirely phased out in the church’s modern missionary efforts , also appeared to be a magnetic force for those geared towards restorationism, such as George Morris. It was also the impetus for James Farmer to join the church, as he recounts in his autobiography: “I attended the meetings of the Saints, heard them speak in tongues and glorify God. This caused my heart to rejoice. I was quite convinced of the Truth and was baptized” (Farmer, 3). Another account even claims that they were effective in diffusing the hostile tension at a meeting where a mob had gathered: says Lewis Barney, “I was moved upon to speak in a language unknown to me. At this the Captain of the mob got up and said no one could deny but that was a pure language” (Barney). Though the Captain wasn’t ready to admit that the language was necessarily inspired of God (perhaps it had been learned previously), Barney asserts that by the close of the meeting “the best of feelings [were] enjoyed by all, both Saints and mob” (Barney).

 

The manifestations of prophecy or exorcism were also seen as miraculous acts that could lead to conviction and ultimately baptism. An elder recounts that some women invited them to stay when she heard they were Mormons, for she “had heard that Mormons could cast out devils”; the elder then writes: “the devils were cast out…and they wept like little children, and their minds were opened to receive the truth…and their hearts ready to embrace it; and in a few days the Lord blessed me with the opportunity of leading them into the waters of baptism” (Evening and Morning Star 1:6, 46). William Staines’ recollection of his own conversion also relies heavily upon hearing “the Saints speak in tongues and prophesy” (Staines). It is interesting to note his belief that one “could not be a Latter-day Saint without these gifts,” specifically referencing the tongues, interpretation, healing and prophecy (Staines). The bestowal of these gifts seemed to be very present in the minds of early converts to Mormonism.

 

This has been a review of some of the very positive effects the performance of successful spiritual gifts could have in the mission field. However, as mentioned before, gifts of the spirit were not uniformly successful in either their individual application — they didn’t always work — or in their place in the missionary effort — they often repelled as much as they attracted. The enactment of gifts, when successful, could elicit ruthless reactions from the public: the performance of tongues was particularly susceptible to mocking, and healings could evince physical and political violence. Daniel Williams tells of being healed by the elders of a disease that had made him incapable of walking. When he “walked home full of glee in the sight of my neighbours to their great astonishment”, many were apparently filled with rage, “especially a Mr Edwards Baptist Minister of Loar who a few days after came…full of the devil, got into such a pashon till his wife was compelled to fetch him home ” (Williams, 20-21). Elders in Hawaii claim to have been “noct down and beat shamefuly” after having administered to the sick during a small pox epidemic (Green, 32), and in the Sandwich Isles missionaries report having been threatened and beaten by one Charles Turner, a Christian of a different denomination, who recruited both the local Marshall and constables to demand that they cease administering to the local sick (Farrer, 31-32). If successful gifts had the power to attract the attention of the public in this way, the power of unsuccessful attempts to attract negative attention was even greater.

 

Accounts of failed gifts among the Mormons frequently saw circulation, affecting and often damaging the fledgling church’s image. While the Mormons pointed to the successful enactment of spiritual gifts as a testimony of the restored church’s truth, those outside the church pointed to the unsuccessful enactments as proof of the church’s falsity. One newspaper ran an article that described a Mormon bishop administering to a sick child who subsequently died, concluding: “after the performance of this miracle, who dare say that the Lord is not with the Mormon Church and people” (Reeves, 155). The bold Mormon claim that gifts were a sign of the authority of their church was flipped around, and its converse was asserted by outsiders in the event of failure.

 

Turning now to several accounts of gifts that failed in their efficacy, we will observe how the tension between believers and scoffers remained fully intact: with strong rational arguments made against the gifts by those who saw the gifts as so much nonsense, and doctrinal principles emerging on the other that both defended the performance of gifts, even when failed, but also honed or channeled their use within the missionary effort. A brief methodological side note acknowledges the natural reticence to discuss or write about moments of failure and disappointment, particularly when — given the importance status of gifts in the early church — much was arguably at stake. Many incidents likely went unarticulated altogether, except in a confused or humiliated heart. In other instances, it is possible to see indirect allusions to them, as in the diary entry of a missionary in Hawaii: “wee administerd to sevral sick persons one woman was releaved amediately”; presumably the others were healed less immediately if at all, but this receives no mention (Green, 37). Very often, however, saints were forthright about these disappointments: Hyrum Smith, as a missionary on one of the earliest missions to Ohio, writes simply and directly “reynolds and my Self was Caled to Brother Dibbles to lay our hands upon a Sick Child accordingly we went But no avail” (Smith, 20). And where gaps in the Mormon record exist, the outside public gladly fills in with their accounts of tongues, prophecies, healings, exorcisms, and resurrections that played out less-than-perfectly. It is possible to find accounts of gifts that failed, as well as a good amount of speculation and commentary surrounding them.

 

One such account comes from a local Vermont newspaper, in the region where Joseph Brackenbury, a Mormon elder, had been preaching when he passed away in 1832. The article publicized his death, spreading that he had succumbed to poison; this charge would have hit Mormons particularly hard, given the canonized revelation stating that a missionary could have power “against deadly poison” (D&C 24:13). The article further claims that his company tried to heal him, and then raise him from the dead — and that in both attempts they were unsuccessful (Prince, 150-151). Whether or not the attempted ‘resurrection’ actually occurred is unclear; what is interesting is the way the event is framed by outsiders as an episode of “charismatic excess bordering on necromancy” (Brown, 45). In the framing is a clear response to the original Mormon accusation that ‘gifts are necessary, and you don’t have them’ as they say, in effect: ‘clearly they’re not, and you don’t either’. The church’s image takes quite a knock over this, as similar reports were spread in Ohio and New York, as well. One might ask, however, whether the problems went past the public, to the personal. And indeed, reports from within do indicate that the saints “took the death hard, as a “trial to [their] faith”” (Brown, 45). How did members of the church understand and negotiate a situation like this one, especially in light of the glorious gifts they saw as their right?

 

There is a very clear answer within Mormon doctrine, based on earlier Christian scripture. Faith was seen as the operative principle in successfully performing a spiritual gift, as Jesus Christ had pointed out to his apostles when they asked why they had been unsuccessful in casting out a devil (see Matthew 17:20). An article in a church publication publically acknowledged: “the faith of the church of Christ of latter day saints, has not been sufficient, amid such a world of unbelief, to perform many great miracles” (Phelps). This doctrine may be consoling as far as it still allows for the church and its authority to be legitimate in the face of failed gifts, but its consolation only reaches so far; in this event, the people around you, many in positions of church authority, or you yourself could be implicated for a lack of faith. It seems that such was the sentiment William McLellin struggled against as he recounted an episode in his diary, where as a missionary in Ohio he had become ill but had been unable to “exercise faith enough to be perfectly healed”. Immediately following this confession he self-justifies by proclaiming that “neither could Timothy of old”, parenthetically citing 1 Timothy 5:23, which he had interpreted rather liberally to come to this conclusion (McLellin).

 

The doctrine of faith as the operative principle, in addition to sometimes being self-implicating, also lends volatility to each performance of a spiritual gift. It highlights the radical lack of control that must be faced in employing charismata; a lack of faith, for instance, in the person being healed, the person performing a healing, or even an observer in the general vicinity is enough to cause spiritual foundering. The awareness of such a lack of control, and the awareness of their critical audience, combined to introduce a certain level of self-consciousness in some missionaries’ experience with or at least discussion of gifts. Luman Shurtliff presented in his autobiography the dilemma he and his companion faced when a member of the church had fallen ill and asked them to call the doctor: “We knew the people were watching us and if Brother Price had not faith to be healed and we administered, the mob would soon be upon us” (Shurtliff). They opted for the safe option and set out to call the doctor, but were stopped “as if by some irresistible power”, at which point they “laid [their] case before the Lord”. They were then told to return and administer, which they did — “the next day Brother Price was well” (Shurtliff). In another account, however, he recounts how he and his companion both became ill, and administrations were of little or no benefit. He describes the situation like this: “thus the devil had gotten power over us and here in this place where we have preached the gifts and the power of the gospel, we were sick and could not help ourselves. We have called in an elder of faith, we have administered to each other and yet we are here …and cannot help ourselves” (Shurtliff). There is a sense of powerlessness, but then further of shame before scoffing outsiders: “Our flesh is gone,” he writes, “our sight is very dim, our enemies laugh at our affliction. We dare not apply to a physician” (Shurtliff). He eventually returned home without ever having recovered. Both these instances demonstrate the self-awareness a missionary might experience while employing spiritual gifts in a situation where, doctrinally, faith was believed to be an essential ingredient.

 

At the same time, the principle of faith as the operative principle in effecting gifts provided a doctrinal basis that allowed for a broader-reaching interpretation of the way spiritual gifts could be performed, and by whom. In one account, an Elder Brown, who was preaching to the Paiutes, anointed and administered to a woman ill after childbirth, but to little effect if any at all (Brooks, 22). So a medicine man was called for. Brown observed the medicine man’s method of curing — which involved singing, chanting, rolling, and sucking then expectorating a green substance from the body — and witnessed its ultimate success: the woman was healed (Brooks, 23). In trying to doctrinally reconcile his own failure and the medicine man’s success, he suggests that perhaps “by their songs, suction & carrying off the disease…they induce faith in the patient”, concluding: “I know not but the general testimony is that often remarkable cures are affected” (Brooks, 23). He was willing to go so far as to grant that faith’s presence, even without the presence of the proper authority, could be enough to bring about an efficacious healing.

 

Outsiders seemed very much aware that for Mormons, the performance of gifts depended largely on faith. And to one who believed the enactment of a gift was nothing more than a mere boondoggle to begin with, the entire ‘lack of faith’ argument sounded like a trite excuse. One observer published sardonically: “whenever any miracle fails, they have a convenient salve at hand to account for the failure; that is the want of faith: a most impudent and officious intruder, always ready at hand to nullify all their pious efforts, and to render them weak and feeble as other men” (Coe). In areas with a significant Mormon population, unsympathetic newspaper articles headed “Fanaticism” or “Infatuation” systematically listed the deaths of people who had passed away, and described how, in trusting impotent healing powers over modern medicine, they thus became “miserable victims of their faith” (Ohio Repository 17:3, 1831; see also Sandusky Clarion 16:51, 1831). Such responses implied that those who didn’t believe in the possibility of real gifts — or at least in the Mormon claim to have access to them — was that those who put their faith in them deserved what they got. Faith in such gifts was a childish impulse.

 

While such an attitude was often displayed in publications and elsewhere, other accounts show that enough curiosity existed among outsiders for demands to be made for the demonstration of gifts. Some made these requests in earnest, clearly expecting a miracle, while others expected a failed demonstration and hoped to expose the Mormon enterprise; Mormon missionary accounts show that such requests were common, and they commonly framed them in scriptural terms as “sign-seeking”. The Annals of Manchester for the year 1840 contains the community’s account of the Mormon elders’ arrival, and profession to possess the gift of tongues (Axon, 211). In order to put this to the test, a Mr Thomas Taylor held a formal meeting in the course of which a young Elder Mahon would be asked to demonstrate both the gift of tongues and the interpretation thereof. Their account states that he was unable to understand the Hebrew read to him, and that “there was not a word of Hebrew in his jargon” when he attempted to produce it himself (Axon, 211). Parley P. Pratt responded to this incident, and the mocking publicity it prompted, with the publication of a pamphlet that firmly condemned Taylor as a sign-seeker and Mahon for failing to follow Christ’s example in handling temptation, and firmly stating that people should “leave these things to the movings of the Spirit of the Lord, especially avoiding to exhibit them as a mere curiosity to gratify those who come seeking signs as a matter on which to build their faith” (Pratt, 3). This principle served to channel the practice of gifts, and decrease their potential for driving people from the church.

 

But ultimately, this principle — of ‘context being key’ in the manifestation of gifts — meant the curious are left perpetually dissatisfied. Taken in combination with the other piece of core doctrine, that charismata will only work in the presence of belief (or, taken further, will never work in the presence of disbelief), it appears evident that satisfaction will likely never be achieved, so long as one is standing outside the realm of faith or the faith tradition. And ultimately, the faithful may never be satisfied entirely, either– so long as failed gifts continue to occur, there is a lacking element, if not in the authority of the church, then in their own faith or that of the trusted people around them.

 

There was a sense, however, that gifts of the Spirit could be perfected, that more could be bestowed upon the church. As was written in a letter to Oliver Cowdery, though the faith of the church hasn’t always been sufficient to perform miracles, “thanks be to God, if the church continues to go from grace to grace, and from faith to faith, it will soon lack no good gift” (Phelps). Until that occurred, however, it was up to each individual to determine, as did George Morris the shoemaker, whether the acts performed by early Mormon missionaries were simple gibberish, or a rich foretaste of heaven; put differently: boondoggles, or true gifts of the Spirit.

 

 

Works Cited
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2. Barney, Lewis. “Autobiography (1808-1846)”. Available at <www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/LBarney.html>

3. Brown, Samuel Morris. In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. New York: Oxford University, 2012

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