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Modern Mormon women are hardly the first to sometimes struggle with their faith's view of ideal family life. After all, the 19th century saw waves of LDS wives bolt from their husbands.
"In 1855, a hundred women, single and married, fled Utah with departing federal troops in order to escape the horrors of polygamy," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. "Some women ran away from polygamy, but others left legal husbands to enter plural marriages."
Ulrich's account of runaway Mormon wives will be just one of the topics at next week's Mormon History Association conference.
The June 4-7 gathering is expected to draw hundreds of people scholars and nonscholars alike to the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo.
Celebrating its 50th year, the Mormon History Association is an independent, nonprofit organization devoted to the study of LDS history.
Ulrich, the group's president, will deliver a presidential address titled "Runaway Wives 1840-60."
"To understand that phenomenon [of wives fleeing their husbands]," Ulrich writes in a preview of her speech, "one needs to know more about the nature of monogamy and laws governing it in the same period. Contrary to popular assumptions, marriages were far from stable in this period."
Past Mormons also had more "modern" attitudes than their antagonists, Ulrich notes, including "surprisingly liberal" support for divorce a view that might astound today's Latter-day Saints.
The Harvard professor calls these findings an "unexpected discovery" in her research for her forthcoming book, "A House Full of Females: Mormon Diaries, 1835-1870," to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in the next year.
Women's fear of the wrath of Mormon polygamous men also will be highlighted at the conference with a special screening of the film "A Mormon Maid." The 1917 silent movie, released by Paramount Pictures and long considered anti-Mormon, tells the story of a young girl in a Mormon wagon train caught between a scheming polygamous elder and a young recent convert.
The screening will be part of a conference tour of the LDS Motion Picture Studio (the Provo and Goshen locations in Utah County), where the Utah-based faith makes many of its films.
Next week's history confab spotlights scholars, but it isn't just for academics.
"This is an open invitation" to Mormons and non-Mormons alike, said Jonathan Stapley, who sits on the association's board.
"At the conference, you'll see all sorts of folks, from genealogists to historians to people who are casually interested in the topic of history," Stapley said. "The challenge is that people speak past each other and it may be a stretch for folks who have never read anything beyond what you might find in the [LDS Church's] Ensign [magazine]. But what we find is that people are excited to learn, and the only way to do that is to participate."
The way around the chasm between scholars and lay people, he said, is a combination of "enthusiasm of the nonspecialists and willingness of scholars and academics to speak to broad audiences."
The conference will examine the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through many lenses, including race, gender, culture and scripture.
The final day will culminate with presentations by major players in LDS scholarship, said Steve Evans, who runs the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent.
The heady lineup will include Terryl Givens, Andrea Radke-Moss and Claudia Bushman. In addition, Evans said, contributors to the groundbreaking Joseph Smith Papers Project and editors of major LDS journals will be on panels.
Matthew Heiss, an area manager of the LDS Church History Department, will lead a discussion about decentralization in the department.
How to register
P Registration for the Mormon History Association conference is available at the Utah Valley Convention Center, 220 W. Center St., Provo, on June 4 from 4 to 5 p.m. and June 5 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.