We can imagine ourselves visiting Aunt Rachel Grant, long-time president of the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society and one of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s “leading ladies,” at her home on Salt Lake City’s Second East Street. In the year of our visit, 1890, her two-story, plastered adobe home partakes of the prevailing feminine ideal that stresses homemaking and handicraft. The stove is highly burnished, while the arms of each chair are covered with homemade lace crocheting. A corner “whatnot” meticulously displays pictures, small framed mottoes, wax and hair flowers, and other curios. Rachel’s person also reflects her times. Despite her sixty-nine years, her skin remains supple and clear. She credits her preservation to a lifetime devotion to skin hygiene—no sunlight without a protecting bonnet, no dusting or sweeping without gloves.
We visit Rachel Grant not wishing to find fault with her domesticity and primness nor with the other Victorian values she so fully embodies. Rather, we seek to understand her and her age—and in a sense, ourselves. Aunt Rachel may not be as celebrated a feminist as her contemporaries Eliza R. Snow, Bathsheba W. Smith, or Emmeline B. Wells, but she has influenced later generations certainly as much and perhaps a great deal more. In our age, which often overlooks the obvious, we forget the power that a nineteenth-century woman often wielded from her home. Rachel’s only child, Heber J. Grant, with whom she enjoyed a particularly close relationship, led the Church for twenty-seven years of the twentieth century, preaching and practicing the values he had learned from her.
To understand Rachel Grant is to learn something about the personality of present-day Mormonism.
Rachel Ridgway Ivins was born at Hornerstown, New Jersey, March 7, 1821, the sixth of eight children. She would have few memories of her parents. Caleb, her father, evidently involved himself in the family’s expansive business concerns, which included Hornerstown’s distillery, country store, and grist and saw mills. Due to apparent sunstroke, Rachel’s mother, Edith Ridgway, died when Rachel was six. To compound the tragedy, Rachel’s grandmother, Keziah Ivins, described by her contemporaries as a “lovely, spirited woman, liked by all,” died just four years later.
The orphan was subsequently raised by a succession of her close-knit relatives. For several years she remained at Hornerstown with Caleb Sr., her indulgent grandfather. However, she found the stringent household of her married cousins Joshua and Theodosia Wright at Trenton more to her liking. The Wrights’ home was set off by gardens complete with statuary and wildlife and meant no diminution in her lifestyle. Moreover, much to Rachel’s delight, the house was run by cousin Theodosia with precision, industry, and regularity. Under the older woman’s demanding, six-year tutelage, teenage Rachel learned both personal discipline and the domestic arts. An able student, she returned to Monmouth County when she was about eighteen as a housekeeper for Richard Ridgway, her widower uncle.
She must have marveled at the religious changes in her neighborhood. Like upstate New York’s earlier and more famous “Burned-Over” district, central New Jersey experienced wave after wave of religious excitement during the first half of the nineteenth century, with the newfangled and despised Mormons competing with the more established Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. By the late 1830s, a cadre of some of Mormonism’s ablest missionaries, including Jedediah Grant, Erastus Snow, Benjamin Winchester, Wilford Woodruff, and Orson and Parley Pratt, had founded a half-dozen Latter-day Saint congregations in central New Jersey, several with their own unpretentious chapels.
Rachel’s kin played a major role in this activity. Young Israel Ivins was the first Latter-day Saint convert from Monmouth County. Merchants Charles and James Ivins soon followed. Parley Pratt described James as a “very wealthy man” and enrolled him, along with himself, as a committee of two to reissue the Book of Mormon in the East. But no conversion was as telling upon Rachel as that of her older sister, Anna Lowrie Ivins. Optimistic and stoical, Anna was her alter ego and would remain so to the end of Rachel’s life.
Whatever the sociology and psychology of conversion, Rachel, despite her initial belief that the Latter-day Saint preachers were “the false prophets the Bible speaks of,” seemed ideally prepared to accept the new religion. She always had been “religiously inclined, but not of the long-faced variety” and had enjoyed reading the Bible. Yet in a century that cultivated such things, she was a young lady without strong ties to a visible religious establishment. For generations her progenitors had been practicing Quakers, but by the nineteenth century this commitment had begun to wane; Rachel herself bridled at the Friends’ prohibition against song. Therefore, at the straitlaced Wrights’, who banned music from their home, she would retreat to a small grove of trees where she would sing as she sewed for her dolls. This penchant for music may have contributed to her conversion at sixteen to the more musically inclined Baptists, though her commitment failed to go very deep. She later claimed to have “never learned anything from them.”
When Anna and a friend from Trenton told her that Erastus Snow and Joseph Smith, the Church’s Prophet, would preach at the “Ridge” above Hornerstown, she concluded after some hesitation to go. Though she found Joseph to be a “ fine, noble looking man . . . so neat,” she was by her own account “prejudiced” and thus paid little heed to his message. Only politeness to her Trenton friend persuaded her to return the following day, Sunday, to hear Joseph Smith once more. Thereupon she returned to her room and pled for the Lord’s forgiveness for deliberately listening to false doctrine on the Sabbath. But Joseph Smith’s preaching planted a seed that continued to grow. “I attended some more meetings,” she recalled, “and commenced reading the Book of Mormon [so enthralled she began reading one evening and did not stop until almost daybreak], Voice of Warning, and other works,” and was soon convinced that they were true. “A new light seemed to break in upon me, the scriptures were plainer to my mind, and the light of the everlasting Gospel began to illumine my soul.” When a Baptist minister’s funeral sermon consigned an unbaptized youth to hell she noted with favor the contrast of Orson Hyde’s discourse on the innocence and salvation of young children.
Rachel’s interest was neither isolated nor unique. A local historian wrote of Joseph Smith’s preaching foray, “Hundreds attended the [Mormon] meetings,” and Joseph “sealed [in baptism] a large number.” The drama of the moment was heightened when the Prophet anointed a lame and opiated boy, promised him freedom from both his pain and crutches, and saw the results as promised. Alarmed at the rising tide, the old-line clergy used stern methods to put down the new faith. Rachel’s Baptist minister admonished her that if she continued attending the Latter-day Saint meetings, she could retain neither her pew nor her fellowship in the congregation. “This seemed to settle the question with me,” Rachel remembered, “I soon handed in my name [to the Latter-day Saints] for baptism and rendered willing obedience.”
“Oh, what joy filled my being!” she exclaimed. Her conversion opened a floodgate of suppressed emotions that brought her Quaker relatives to the point of despair: “When she was a Baptist, she was better, but now she is full of levity—singing all the time.” She delighted in the words of Joseph Smith and those of another young dynamic preacher, Jedediah Grant, and became completely enmeshed in the Saints’ close-knit society. In addition to the Ivinses, of whom probably a dozen joined the new faith, many of her neighbors were also baptized. “What good times we had then,” she proclaimed years later.
Nevertheless, Rachel wanted to settle in Nauvoo, Illinois, the hub of Mormon activity during the early 1840s. Already Charles and James Ivins had reconnoitered the area and returned with plans to move their families there. Driven by “the spirit of gathering,” Rachel, along with several of her Ivins relatives, ventured to the Mormon capital in spring 1842.
“The first year of my stay was a very happy one,” she remembered. Her cousins Charles and James Ivins rose to immediate prominence. As two of the richest capitalists in the young city, they resumed their merchandising, met in council with Church leaders, and eventually operated the Nauvoo ferry. Their imposing, Federal-style, three-building complex on the corner of Kimball and Main streets was used for retailing and small community gatherings and served as a home as well. Here, Rachel lived with James and his family in comfort and relative high style.
Well-bred and in her early twenties, Rachel must have turned the head of more than one admirer. While she herself denied having been a belle, she possessed charm and quiet refinement. Emmeline B. Wells remembered her Nauvoo appearance:
She was dressed in silk with a handsome lace collar, or fichu, and an elegant shawl over her shoulder, and a long white lace veil thrown back over the simple straw bonnet. She carried an elaborate feather fan. . . . I recall the fascination of that fan. One could easily discern the subdued Quaker pride in her method of using it, for Sister Rachel had the air, the tone, and mannerisms of the Quakers.
There was more than a subdued and attractive façade. While little is known of her daily Nauvoo activities and interests, her bosom companion was Sarah Kimball, which suggests a great deal. Several years Rachel’s senior, this young and aﬄuent matron entertained Church leaders with memorable elegance. Significantly, Sarah was a thoroughgoing feminist who sought stimulation beyond the thimble and needle and who helped to initiate the Nauvoo Female Relief Society. The intimate friendship of Sarah and Rachel would continue the rest of their lives.
During these Nauvoo days, Rachel came to see the Church and its leaders at close view. Her understanding and acceptance of Latter-day Saint teachings deepened. Because of her love of family and tradition, she especially found the newly declared doctrine promising salvation to the worthy dead “very precious to my soul.” Yet, Joseph Smith proved to be an enigma. When he preached, his power deeply affected her. But in private and informal moments, he seemed distressingly “unProphet-like.” Outgoing and playful, his personality was the polar opposite of Rachel’s—and contradicted her view of what a prophet should be.
There were interludes when Joseph whittled away at her sectarian seriousness, and she came to admire him, along with his brother Hyrum, more than any men she had ever known. She was often at the Prophet’s home for parties, although he was present only occasionally. “He would play with the people, and he was always cheerful and happy,” she remembered of these occasions. Once while visiting the Ivinses on the Sabbath, he requested the family girls sing the popular “In the Gloaming.” Rachel believed singing and newspaper reading breached the Sabbath and responded with a mortified, “Why Bro. Joseph, it’s Sunday!” Smith swept her objections aside with a smile and the comment, “The better the day, the better the deed.”
These pleasant moments were not long lasting. Smith’s opponents, some of whom were in Rachel’s own household, were gathering force. Charles and apparently James Ivins joined the Law, Foster, and Higbee brothers in resisting the growing economic and doctrinal complexity of Mormonism. Charles, who, despite his original capital worth, had not prospered in Nauvoo and reacted with particular outrage to rumors that some Church leaders were teaching and practicing plural marriage.
Rachel also knew of these rumors in a very personal way. When Joseph sought an interview with her, she believed he wished to ask for her hand in plural marriage. Her personal turmoil over this prospect must have been excruciating. Her initial response was offended outrage, and she vowed with untypical shrillness that she would “sooner go to hell as a virtuous woman than to heaven as a whore.” On one hand, there was the weight of outraged tradition, her cautious and puritanical instincts, and her family’s clamor that she withdraw from the Church with them. (Charles Ivins’s name appeared on the anti-Smith Nauvoo Expositor masthead as one of its publishers.) Yet in other moments she must have considered her still-strong feelings for Mormonism and her respect for Joseph. In her emotional distress, Rachel found it impossible to throw off a persistent fever that eventually threatened her life.
The historical record during these difficult times is inconsistent, perhaps reflecting Rachel’s own ambivalence. She refused to meet with Joseph Smith, yet years later she insisted that her faith never wavered. In fact, she repeatedly requested that the elders rebuke her illness; each time she felt strengthened. When Sidney Rigdon sought to lead the Church after the Prophet’s assassination, she saw Joseph’s mantle fall instead upon Brigham Young. “If you had had your eyes shut,” she later testified of President Young’s remarkable speech, “you would have thought it was the Prophet [Joseph]. In fact he looked like him, his very countenance seemed to change, and he spoke like him.”
Notwithstanding these remarkable experiences, Rachel left Nauvoo in late 1844 bewildered and emotionally scarred. As her son later revealed, “When plural marriage was first taught, my mother left the church on account of it.” She returned to New Jersey, ailing physically as well as spiritually and planning never to mingle with the Saints again. She would be gone almost ten years.
In Victorian symbolism, a dried white rose had an unmistakable meaning: better be ravaged by time and death than to lose one’s virtue. While Church leaders insisted that plural marriage was heaven-sent and honorable, Rachel, like most women of her generation, initially rejected the practice. She was, in fact, the quintessence of the nineteenth century’s prevailing feminine ideal. Where and how she absorbed these values can only be suggested. Her first school was an eighteen-by-twenty-four-foot affair with a ceiling hardly high enough for an adult to stand, but nothing is known about what really counts—her teachers, primers, and curricula. She continued her formal studies while living in Trenton. Schools for young women in the area, like the Young Ladies’ Seminary at Bordertown, emphasized as their most important duty “the forming of a sound and virtuous character.” Rachel was schooled in the heart, not necessarily the mind. She also assimilated the ideal image of womanhood by reading popular religious literature and almost certainly women’s magazines and gift annuals—the common purveyors of the reigning feminine ideal.
Following her Nauvoo experience and her return to the East, Rachel first ran the old Hornerstown household. When her brother Augustus married, she transferred her talents successively to the homes of her sisters Anna, Edith Ann, and particularly Sarah. Very much in her natural element, Rachel became a devoted spinster-aunt. She sang to her nieces and nephews the melodies of her own youth, sewed their clothing, and did more for them, according to their hard-pressed mothers, than their mothers could do. There were also times of inspiration. When consumptive Sarah lay discouraged because of her daily fevers and chills, she asked Rachel to pray and sing several Latter-day Saint hymns. When Rachel rendered “Oh, Then Arise and Be Baptized,” Sarah found the unexpected strength to sing with her and, remembering the hymn’s message, requested baptism. Thereupon Sarah’s fainting spells ended.
The New Jersey branches that previously had yielded Latter-day Saint converts so bounteously still had some members. Sam Brannan recruited some of the New Jersey Saints to join the Brooklyn’s 1846 voyage to California. Two years later Elder William Appleby returned from the West to revive the local flocks and, incidentally, to administer to Rachel for her periodic bronchitis. But this activity was a pale imitation of the excitement that had once burned through the region. Seeking to integrate the gospel more fully with their daily lives, Anna Ivins, her husband-cousin Israel, and several other members of the Ivins family still loyal to the new faith decided in 1853 to join a large company of New Jersey Saints gathering to Utah.
The request forced Rachel into a final weighing of the Church and plural marriage. For a time after Nauvoo she had compartmentalized the two. Even in her early distress about polygamy, she had refused to listen to William Smith, Joseph’s schismatic brother, when he had come to the Ivinses’ Hornerstown home preaching “another Gospel.” When possible she continued her outward Latter-day Saint activity. But for at least several years she struggled with plural marriage, until at some point through prayerful self-searching she found she could accept the doctrine. Although anti-Mormon family members warned that the westward journey would endanger her health and offered a lifetime annuity if she would stay, Rachel turned her face once again to the Mormon promised land, and this time she did not look back.
She prepared carefully. Anticipating frontier scarcity, she filled a chest with bedding, wool and calico piece goods, and a practical wardrobe of bonnets, gloves, and dresses. Other members of the emigrating party, all relatively prosperous, were equally well stocked. By their preparations they were in fact saying good-bye to their life in the East.
The emigrants traveled comfortably. Rachel had the familiar society of several of her Ivins relations, including her cousins Theodore McKean and Anthony Ivins as well as Anna and Israel. Leaving Toms River on April 5, 1853, the party—comprising “a large number of persons from Toms River and other places in the state”—made its way to Philadelphia, boarded the train to Pittsburgh, and then floated on river steamers via Saint Louis to Kansas City. After visiting sites of interest in Jackson County, they purchased mule and wagon out fits (remembered as “one of the best equipments that ever came to Utah in the early fifties”) and began the trek west.
The two-and-a-half months on the plains passed equally pleasantly. Anna and Israel traveled with a milk cow and two heavily provisioned wagons. One of these was furnished as a portable room, complete with chairs, a folding bed, and stairs descending from its tailgate. Rachel walked, and while walking spent much of her time knitting, and when tired mounted the stairs and the bed for a rest. Rachel believed the arid Great Plains air permanently thinned and dried her hair, but it also cured her long-standing bronchitis. After about a 130-day journey from New Jersey the Ivins pioneers arrived in Salt Lake City on August 11 and turned up Main Street. There they found temporary lodging with their preacher-friend from years before, Jedediah Grant.
Rachel was now a mature thirty-two. The bloom of youth had passed, but her statuesque charm remained. In polygamous Utah, where sex ratios were perhaps slightly in her favor, she must have had her admirers. But the Ivinses seemed unhurried and cautious about such things. Three of her four brothers never married, and the fourth waited until he was in his thirties. Two of her sisters married cousins. For Rachel’s part, she discounted romance or physical attraction. “One could be happy in the marriage relations without love,” she reportedly advised, “but could never be happy without respect.”
Whether seeking respect or more likely hoping to find a spouse worthy of her own esteem, Rachel’s hopes were fulfilled by Jedediah Morgan Grant. She had known him from her late teens when “Jeddy,” as he was familiarly known, barnstormed through the New Jersey camp meeting circuit as a missionary. His wit and eloquence won scores of converts and his preaching reputation became a local legend. A biographer has aptly labeled him “Mormon Thunder,” but he was more than a religious enthusiast. As a teenager he ambitiously read from Wesley, Locke, Rousseau, Watts, Abercrombie, and Mather. In Salt Lake City, his charity was open-handed and widely heralded. Brigham Young chose him as a counselor and as mayor of Salt Lake City. Already much married, Jeddy sought out Rachel’s hand as his seventh wife two years after her Utah arrival.
Given Grant’s Church, civic, and connubial duties and Rachel’s practicality, their courtship was probably unceremonious and perfunctory. Brigham Young insisted that she first be “eternally sealed” by proxy to his predecessor, apparently to satisfy any obligation owing Joseph. Then on November 29, 1855, Rachel left the home of Anna and Israel, where she had lived for the last two years, and married Grant “for time [in mortality] only” in the Endowment House.
Life at the Grant adobe home on Main Street (the site later occupied by the Meier & Frank in Crossroads Mall) must have been challenging to a woman so private and self-controlled (illus. 2-1). In turn, her ways and presence unsettled others. When little Belle Whitney was once sent to the Grant home for silk thread, she was startled. “I saw this strange beautiful woman sitting there,” she recalled. “She looked to me like a queen, and I really thought she was one. I did not dare ask her for the silk. . . . I turned and ran [away].” Initially the other Grant wives were also caught off guard. Instead of exchanging close confidences as women of the century were prone to do, Rachel was restrained. “She writes frequently [to you],” complained one of Jeddy’s wives with some edge, “but does not see fit to read them to us.”
Rachel was not altogether happy at the Grant household. “Remember the trials your dead grandma had and that she was only a wife for a year,” wrote her son many years later to one of his own children. The fault did not lie with Jeddy. Though he was often absent on Church assignment, the two evidently enjoyed a satisfactory relationship. She remembered her tendency to “lean” upon him—perhaps too much she later wondered—and in later years she never expressed a hint of criticism of her husband. In turn, one of Grant’s few surviving letters expresses concern, cautioning her “not to work to[o] hard.” On November 22, 1856, she bore him a son, Heber Jeddy Grant, nine days before “lung disease,” a combination of typhoid and pneumonia, took Jedediah’s life at the early age of forty.
For a time attendants also feared for the new mother’s life. Rachel’s labor had been difficult, and the shock of her husband’s sudden death weakened her further. Without him she had no tangible source of security. Her cache of New Jersey “store goods” had long since been personally used or distributed to those around her, while Grant’s small estate would have to be divided with her sister-wives. Her eastern relatives had promised that the latch-string would always be out for her return—if she would renounce her religion. But she rejected this; in matters of faith Rachel had made her decision.
Rachel eventually recovered, and because of the two dominant forces that now shaped her life—her religion and her son—she remarried. President Young promised the Grant wives that if they would remain as a unit and accept George Grant, Jeddy’s brother, as their new husband, they would successfully raise their children to be faithful Church members. Rachel and several of the Grant wives complied. However, Rachel’s preference was to return to Anna’s Salt Lake household. She married George on February 17, 1858, resolute in her religious obedience and hopeful for the future of her son (illus. 2-2).
The union was a disaster. George, once a faithful Saint, Indian fighter, and hero of the 1856 handcart tragedy was, unbeknown to Church leaders, on a downward course. His erratic and immoderate behavior, apparently due to alcoholism, soon became public. Six months after his marriage to Rachel, George “committed an unprovoked attack on Thos. S. Williams with [the] attempt to kill.” The fracas ended in a street brawl. With such incidents and George’s drinking becoming more common, President Young dissolved the two-year-old marriage, but Rachel’s hurt never entirely healed. “It was the one frightful ordeal of my mother’s life, and the one thing she never wishes to refer to,” Heber remarked in later years.
Rachel thereafter rejected every opportunity for remarriage. Although prizing her independence, her overriding concern was Heber. Nothing—not a new father nor any other uncontrollable circumstance—must inhibit his promise. For several years she and her son remained at the Grant home on Main Street with a couple of the other widowed and now divorced wives. But the lack of money forced the sale of that property and the break up of their extended family. With President Young’s permission, Rachel took her $500 share of the transaction and purchased a cottage on Second East Street (illus. 2-3).
The change in living standards was wrenching. The disappointed and disoriented six-year-old Heber wandered back to the Main Street home and vowed that some day he would live there again. Certainly the new home had no luxuries. Rachel at first had only six dining plates, two of which were cracked, an occasional cup and saucer, her bed and bedding, and several chairs. There was a meager diet, which allowed only several pounds of butter and sugar for an entire year, and many blustery nights with no fire. One Christmas Rachel wept because she lacked a dime to buy a stick of candy for her boy’s holiday.
Poverty, or at least scarcity, was a part of pioneer living, and Rachel’s situation differed from many others only in degree. Yet being accustomed to relative aﬄuence and to giving rather than receiving, she must have found these trials poignant. Once while visiting Anna, who had moved to St. George in southern Utah, she firmly declined President Young’s offer of Church aid. Instead, she supported herself and Heber by sewing, at first by hand in the homes of others and later with a Wheeler and Wilcox sewing machine in her own house. “I sat on the floor at night until midnight,” Heber remembered many evenings, “and pumped the sewing machine to relieve her tired limbs.” The machine’s constantly moving treadles became a symbol of the Grant family’s stubborn independence.
Despite her financial distress, she retained her personal style and preferences. A willing hostess, she often subjected Heber and herself to a diet of “fried bread” (slices of bread warmed in a greased frying pan) so she could “splurge” on entertaining her friends. And she continued her fastidious habits. “She could wear a dress longer than anyone I have seen and have it look fresh and nice,” a relative recalled. “She always changed her dress in the afternoon and washed herself and combed her hair, and if at home put on a nice white apron. . . . It would not look soiled [for several days].” Only her providence allowed this. She often cannibalized several threadbare garments to produce something “new” and usable.
About five years after moving to Second East Street, Rachel began serving meals to boarders out of her small basement kitchen. Alex Hawes, a New York Life insurance man, helped make her venture successful. Attracted by her intelligence, charm, and culinary skill, Hawes first boarded and then at his own expense outfitted a small room at the Grants for his use. His rent and warm testimonials to Rachel’s cooking provided her, as the boarding business increased, with a growing margin of financial security.
Conversation at the Grants’ boarding table was interesting and at times lively. “How I used to chaff her on matters religious or otherwise,” Hawes recalled, “& how with her quiet sense of humor she would humor my sallies! We even made bets on certain events then in the future.” The intelligent, detached, and agnostic Hawes enjoyed the iconoclast’s role. “I know I respected [Hawes],” remembered Miss Joanna Van Rensselaer, a Methodist boarder, “notwithstanding his belief or want of belief—and recall vividly an argument between him and Miss Hayden—as to whether there was a real Devil.”
Rachel was Hawes’s antithesis. She permitted no smoking in her home; gentlemen were told to indulge their habit on a tree stump in the yard. She was equally firm in defending her religion before her boarders, never neglecting, as she remembered, “any opportunity to introduce Mormonism to them.” W. H. Harrington, an editor of the Salt Lake Herald, recalled her kindly and repeated assurances of his forthcoming but never realized conversion (“at which I would smile quietly”). Her boarders came to call her “Aunt Rachel,” following the lead of her two nieces who served the table.
Shortly after starting her boardinghouse business, Rachel was “blessed and set apart” as the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society “presidentess.” Relief Societies had been organized briefly in Nauvoo and later in Utah during the middle 1850s, but not until a decade later did the movement gain momentum. When it reached Rachel’s Thirteenth Ward, she fit Bishop Edwin D. Woolley’s bill of particulars for the job. “It was not his habit to be in a hurry in his movements,” Woolley told the women at their organizing session, and he wished the Relief Society sisters to be likewise “cool and deliberate” and their leaders obedient in carrying out “such measures as he should suggest from time to time.” His eye naturally rested upon Rachel.
The burden of leadership was often heavy. She trembled to overcome her diffidence when speaking or conducting meetings. The kind Scandinavian sisters unknowingly repelled her as they grasped and kissed her hand. She “scarcely knew what to do” with some women who behaved irrationally and then demanded the Society’s charity. Rachel repeatedly gave herself solace by saying “it was not the numbers that constituted a good meeting.” And there was Bishop Woolley, whose bark was as legendary as his toothless bite. He scolded them for having “left undone some things that he told us to do, and we done some things that we ought not to.” But his comments apparently were nothing more serious than passing irritation, for he and his two successors retained Rachel in her position for thirty-five years.
The detailed minutes of the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society suggest she closely resembled the nineteenth-century ideal Latter-day Saint woman. On occasion she prophesied. She experienced uncommon faith and expression while praying. Following priesthood counsel, she used, when possible, articles manufactured in Utah, and when Brigham Young requested women to abandon their cumbersome eastern styles, she wore, despite ridicule from many women, the simplified and home-designed “Deseret Costume.” Her name appeared with those of a half-dozen other prominent Latter-day Saint women protesting the passage of the anti-Mormon Cullom Bill. Likewise, she was a member of a committee of leaders representing the “large and highly respectable assemblage of ladies” thanking Acting Governor S. A. Mann for his approval of the Utah Woman’s Suffrage Act.
However, as her Relief Society sermons show, Rachel was more a moralist than an activist. “We all have trials to pass through,” she spoke from personal experience, “but if living up to our duty they are sanctified to our best good.” Her tendency was to see only the good in life. She called for obedience to authority and the avoidance of faultfinding. God’s hand and his rewards were omnipresent. “I am a firm believer in our being rewarded for all the good we do,” she insisted, “& everything will come out right with those who do right.” She had long since made her peace with plural marriage. While its practice might be a woman’s “greatest trial,” she rejoiced that she herself had experienced the “Principle.” Propounding duty, goodness, obedience, toil, and sacrifice, her Quaker-Mormon attitudes blended comfortably with the era’s prevailing Victorianism.
Rachel and her Thirteenth Ward sisters did more than sermonize. Notwithstanding “often having to endure insults,” the Relief Society block teachers canvassed the congregation to discover the needy and to secure for their relief an occasional cash donation. The sisters were usually more successful in procuring yarn, thread, calico pieces, rugs, and discarded clothing, which they transformed into stockings, quilts, and rag rugs. The Relief Society women also braided straw, fashioned hats and bonnets, stored grain, and sewed underwear, buckskin gloves, and burial and temple garments. On these items the poor had first claim; the remainder were sold with most of the proceeds going to charity. During Rachel’s three-and-a-half-decade ministry, a time of scarcity and deflated dollars, the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society’s liberality in cash and goods exceeded $7,750. The little money left she invested for her sisters in securities, which appreciated spectacularly after her death. By 1925 the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society had assets worth $20,000.
Rachel Grant’s “greatest trial” during her years as Relief Society president was her worsening hearing. She had noticed a hearing loss in late adolescence, but when she was almost fifty, an attack of quinsyleft her virtually deaf with what she described as a “steam engine going night and day” in her head. No longer hearing melody, much conversation, nor the proceedings of her Church meetings—among the things she valued most—she nevertheless attempted to carry on. In her Relief Society meetings she compensated for her disability with what her friends felt to be an extra sense. “She often picked up the thread of thought and conversation,” commented one of her Relief Society coworkers “and voiced her own conclusions so appropriately and so ably that her associates marveled afresh at the keenness of her spiritual comprehension.
Because she led the women of the prominent Thirteenth Ward, and in part because of her able manner, her in fluence in later years spread. She became recognized as one of Mormondom’s “leading sisters” who in lieu of a centralized Relief Society staff, traveled throughout the territory speaking and advising on distaff questions, becoming “Aunt Rachel,” an honored pioneer title, to more than her boarders. While never rivaling Eliza R. Snow, Bathsheba W. Smith, or Emmeline Wells as women’s exponents (the latter two served under her presidency during the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society’s early years), she was nonetheless esteemed as a model of proper behavior. Stately, serene, fastidious, and proper, Rachel came to be compared with Victoria herself.
Rachel might have traveled and preached in the outlying settlements, but she was always uneasy at center stage—restrained not only by her natural hesitancy and lack of hearing but also by her preoccupation with Heber. She never doubted that the boy’s destiny would at least equal his father’s, and her urgent anticipations coupled with her light discipline did much to forge his character. If in his youth Heber took advantage of her leniency and proved to be very much a boy, in later years his attitude toward her became reverential. “There are many things about her that I could wish were different,” he candidly declared in adulthood, apparently with reference to her firmly programmed ways and mannerisms, “but mother is one of the sweetest and kindest of women and as loveable as can be.”
In many ways, and especially in the ways most pleasing to her, Heber proved a facsimile of herself. Neither prim nor systematic, he accepted the Ivinses’ business-mindedness and Rachel’s Victorian values. Above all, she bequeathed to him her towering commitment to their religion along with her feelings of Latter-day Saint embattlement and persecution. As Heber rose to commercial and Church prominence, becoming during the last twenty-five years of Rachel’s life a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his career was the fulfillment of her own.
Her last years were again dominated by family concerns. Due to the long illness and eventual death of Lucy Stringham Grant, the first of Heber’s three plural wives, Rachel’s grandmotherly duties were heavy. For a time, the seventy-year-old woman personally tended Lucy’s six children. Later she moved to an upstairs room and surrendered much of this role to her son’s second wife, Augusta Winters Grant. Yet she still darned, mended, and sewed for the family and invited her grandchildren to her room for school study and silent companionship—though they learned that Rachel’s displeasure might easily be aroused if they wandered too close to her immaculate and painstakingly made bed. Her deafness insulated her from the family’s quarrels and prompted occasional humor. The children “had no idea,” she told them, “how funny it was to see their angry faces and hear none of their words.”
Such a statement reveals a characteristic attempt to see the bright side of her tormenting disability. To the end she refused to accept its finality. She was repeatedly anointed and blessed. As a measure of their regard, congregations from Idaho to Arizona in 1900 fasted and prayed for her hearing. She repeatedly repaired to the temple, hoping that health baptisms in a holy place—a common practice at the time—might bring a cure. “I watched in breathless silence to see the miracle performed,” Susa Young Gates recalled of one such temple experience. “I saw my miracle . . . eight long agonizing times [she was baptized with little effect] . . . the vision of Aunt Rachel’s beaming smile at God’s refusal to hear her prayer gripped my soul with power to bear.” The miracle, of course, lay in Rachel’s good nature, despite her tormenting aﬄiction.
Rachel Grant was equanimity personified. The financial panics of the 1890s crushed her son’s ascendancy for several decades; to aid him, she transferred to him the stocks and properties that he had previously given her. She reacted with similar stoicism to the death of little Heber, her semi-invalid grandson upon whom she had lavished so much love and attention. In 1903 at the age of eighty-two, she retired from the Thirteenth Ward Relief Society presidency. “I am not one,” her resignation read, “who wishes to hold on to an office when I can not do as I wish.” She thus conceded to old age what she had steadfastly refused to grant to her deafness.
During her final five or six years Rachel retired from most pursuits—with the exception of her reading, meditating, and letter-writing. She was honored by an annual “surprise” birthday party. After one such fête, a reporter from the Woman’s Exponent found her “the picture of health and happiness. . . . It can truly be said of Sister Rachel, that she has grown old gracefully.” Yet her lifetime of physical and psychological toil had its effect. Rheumatism, nerves, and the constant cacophony within her head would often not allow sleep until 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. Accordingly, she would take a hymnal from under her pillow and sing the silent sounds of the past. “I was awake early this morning & thinking of my past life,” she wrote revealingly to Heber on such an occasion.
When you were young I thought & prayed that I might live to see you grown then I would be satisfied, if you wer[e] a faithful L[.]D[.] Saint . . . when thinking of the many things I had passed through hard & unpleasant how happy it makes me now that I never complained . . . not even to my sister. I knew she would feel bad. I can talk about them now without caring.
Clearly her outward serenity had often been a mask.
After fighting for a week with pneumonia, which brought little actual suffering, Rachel died on January 27, 1909, at 1:10 A.M.—with “absolute and perfect confidence” in what lay ahead. She was almost eighty-eight. Heber, who would fulfill his mother’s faith by becoming the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was at her bedside. Through him and his administration of almost three decades, her personality would touch yet another generation of Saints.