Elizabeth Kane’s Change of Heart
The following is an essay by Ashley Alvarez, research assistant for Ryan Lee, curator of 19th Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts. Since October 2015, she has been researching the writings of Elizabeth Kane for a future book project:
A brief account of Elizabeth Kane’s trip to St. George, 1872-1873
“The longest Christmas I ever spent!” writes Elizabeth Kane in her first day in Utah. She spent the next three months in this foreign land–in a climate that will benefit her ailing husband, Thomas L. Kane. If it were not for her dear Thomas’s health, she would never have come. Elizabeth Kane was in the land of the Mormons, but she was a Presbyterian, firmly devout, and disdained Mormons and their beliefs.
From December 25, 1872 to March 10, 1873, Elizabeth Kane explored what it was like to be a “Gentile,” or non-Mormon, in Utah. Elizabeth possessed very strong views of the roles men and women fulfilled in the family and fiercely opposed polygamy—and here she was in Utah among Mormons who practiced plural marriage. Her husband Tom did not express the same religious sentiments. In fact, Elizabeth’s devotion to her faith opposed her husband’s lack of religious conviction and his passion for advocating the Mormons.
Though he did not align himself with any religion, Thomas L. Kane had sympathy for the Mormons and interest in their beliefs. Persecution forced the Mormons to move west, settling the Great Basin region of the western United States. Thomas first came in contact with the Mormons in May 1846 when he met Jesse C. Little, an agent dispatched by the church to lobby government support for Mormon refugees. The Mormons found sympathy in the aspiring social reformer and Thomas advocated their cause. Thomas maintained correspondence with Brigham Young, the prophet of the Mormon Church, and mediated the dispute between Mormons and the federal government known as the Utah War of 1857 and 1858. During the American Civil War, Thomas served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 42nd Pennsylvania Infantry, and would lead his band known as the “Bucktails” into several battles, including Gettysburg. His acts of bravery would eventually earn him the rank of major general. Thomas L. Kane’s health began to fail after he was wounded in battle and developing pneumonia.
The urging of Brigham Young convinced Thomas L. Kane to travel to Utah in 1872 to 1873 to regain his health. Elizabeth loved her husband more than she hated the Mormons so she consented to travel to Utah. Elizabeth was not eager to be among Mormons whom she deemed barbaric, centuries behind the times, and oppressive to women.
However, Elizabeth’s exploration of Utah changed her perspective of Mormons and her personal faith. As she became more acquainted with Mormon women, Elizabeth recognized their true merits. These were women of incredible faith and experienced more independence than most women in the eastern United States, “having the entire management, not only of their families, but of their households and even outside business affairs.” Elizabeth admired this independence and wrote on several occasions that she desired to works outside the home. This idea of Mormon women being independent contradicted her original assumption that their husbands oppressed them.
Elizabeth acquainted herself with Mrs. Lange, a Mormon woman she described as “shrewd and hard-headed as Susan Anthony herself.” Elizabeth wrote, “I wonder how in the world she came to be a convert to Mormonism. It seemed as if no delusion of the senses of the imagination could have come over her.” Elizabeth originally thought women who convert to Mormonism must be delusional, but here she met a competent, well-educated woman who defied Elizabeth’s initial stereotype.
With each Mormon she met, her negative assumptions changed. Mormon men and women were admirable and members of the faith possessed sincere and enduring faith that she felt she did not possess. Elizabeth recalled a conversation she had with and a Mormon missionary and wrote, “I wish I had half as cheerful a confidence in Heavenly Providence as he has in the omniscient wisdom that dispatches him.”
Elizabeth discussed polygamy in detail with many women throughout her travels. One woman admitted the pleasure of seeing Elizabeth happy in her monogamous marriage, but she was satisfied in her condition as a plural wife in this life knowing blessings would come to her in the next. Elizabeth commented in her journal, “My happiness is a stronger missionary sermon than anything I could say by word of mouth.” Elizabeth came to learn that polygamy was a trial of faith for the Mormons, but was impressed with the peace that presided in their homes.
The atmosphere of Mormon homes reflected the sincerity of members. Elizabeth wrote her feelings after attending a Mormon church meeting, “The curious thing was the air of perfect sincerity of all the speakers. I cannot feel doubtful that they believed what they said.” Elizabeth learned these women and men did their best to endure cheerfully despite the trials of polygamy and persecution they faced. Humbled by the genuine faith of the Mormons, Elizabeth wrote, “They can all teach me something.”
Elizabeth appreciated the Mormons’ faith, endurance, hospitality, and, most importantly, their care of her husband. A Mormon man by the name of Elder S. earned Elizabeth’s respect because of his heartfelt care for Thomas. The Kane family slept in the room below Elder S. and Elizabeth could discern his voice praying at night. While Thomas was sick, Elizabeth could hear the sound of Elder S. praying nearly all night. Elizabeth knew Elder S. prayed for Thomas while he was sick and wrote, “I think that, under God I am indebted for his recovery to the kind and able nursing of the Mormons.”
In the final pages of her 1872-1873 journal, Elizabeth’s perspective of the Mormons shifted from combative to appreciative. She had pity for the Mormons and the many trials they faced. She possessed tender feelings toward St. George and the journey back to the East would be a plunge into the world again. Brigham Young invited the Kane family to the Lion House to dine before their departure. Elizabeth journaled, “…my opinion of the Mormon women has so changed during the winter that I was willing to eat salt with them.” Concluding her experiences in Utah, Elizabeth wrote “I found the best men and women, the most earnest in their belief, the most self-denying and ‘primitive Christians’ in their behaviour clad in homespun garments of the remote settlements.”
Elizabeth left Utah with a greater appreciation of her personal faith and became more sympathetic to Mormons. As the US Congress was in the process of passing anti-polygamy legislation, she wrote, “–and it will be in the name of the Law that our President and Congress will bully and terrify these helpless women and innocent little children.” She began to understand Thomas’s passion for advocating the Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws would cause harm to the plural wives and their children because the husbands would no longer provide for them.
Elizabeth’s exploration of Utah was more of an exploration of her own assumptions. She originally looked down upon the Mormons thinking they corrupted Christianity because of the practice of polygamy. She believed Mormon women to be ignorant, dependent, or coerced to submit to plural marriage. Elizabeth soon discovered Mormon women were independent, highly educated, and happy in the life they lived. Believing to possess a great amount of faith herself, she came to see sincere manifestations of faith in the Mormons. Elizabeth even humbled herself to suggest she had much to learn from the Mormons. In parting, a Mormon woman who became a friend to her bid farewell to Elizabeth, weeping for her. Elizabeth established heartfelt relations with many Mormons she met. The initial purpose of the Kane family’s visit to Utah in 1872 to 1873 was to heal Thomas physically. In the end, this trip also healed Elizabeth spiritually.
Commentary from the Author:
Through researching Elizabeth Kane, I gained valuable insights of myself and understood more about the conversion process. No matter the religion, people of faith gain humility as they seek to understand faiths other than their own. Elizabeth was incredibly humbled during her trip to Utah and recognized the merits of the LDS faith.
Like Elizabeth, at one point in my life I did not value LDS beliefs because their beliefs were not my own. In learning more about the LDS faith, the Lord humbled me greatly. I gained a sure testimony of the principles I once questioned.
Brigham Young said it best, “ ‘Mormonism,’ so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, (1997), Chpt 2). There is truth in all religions despite personal differences. Elizabeth came to that understanding when she spent time in Utah, just as I gained that understand when I attended seminary. Through taking the time to understand another’s perspective, truth is manifested. As these principles are applied, individuals draw nearer to God, but they must humbly seek to understand the faith of others.
All quotations by Elizabeth are from the following source:
Elizabeth Kane St. George Journal, Vault MSS 792; Kane family papers papers; 19th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts; L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University