The Investigation of Dr. Ellen Ferguson


Have you ever felt hurt by those you serve with in your callings? Have misunderstandings stirred a resentful heart, culminating in an output of gossip and blackened reputation? This is a sad, but true, example of the damage that is caused by petty female jealousies. We must be watchful, and learn from this lesson.

In 1882, the Deseret Hospital opened its doors to LDS patients.  The Priesthood set each of the Board members, and doctors, apart. The purpose of this hospital was to allow members of the Church to heal in a comfortable environment and receive priesthood blessings as was necessary.

These women were exemplary women, having worked on many projects together.  Eliza Snow, Romania Pratt, Margaret Roberts, and others worked together and enjoyed one another’s company in many venues. But as is fairly common, those who get along well on a social level, don’t always get along well at a business level, which appears to be the case here.

As the Resident Surgeon in charge, Dr. Ellen B. Ferguson demanded a certain level of professionalism and obedience. Other doctors saw things differently, and trouble ensued. Accusations were made, both exaggerated and false, and eventually a Church Council was held to view the charges.

This council was held in the Salt Lake Stake in 1884. The question arose: How could such good women allow such injury.  It proved to be such a difficult case that the stake president, Angus M. Cannon, asked the prophet, Pres. John Taylor, to be present.

Pres. Taylor had the opportunity to interview the lady officers of the hospital, but his questions were answered “with such a diversity of opinion, with so much commotion in existence, with so many severe charges being made, how it is possible for all to be right, and yet all acted upon principles that they conceived to be right; but which were in many respects incorrect.”

There were several accusations, first one being that Dr. Ferguson was “austere and dictatorial in her intercourse with [three of the officers]. She, on the other hand, charged them with “insubordination and plotting against her.” The Board sided with their fellow officers and requested Dr. Ferguson to resign. At this point, the Board, upon hearing the officers’ side of the story, stated as reasons for this discharge her “incompetence as an opium eater, a drunkard, and a thief.”

The ladies apparently gossiped, and Dr. Ferguson’s name was dragged through the mud, which added to all the hurt and anger. Pres. Taylor stated that “this was a serious injury (the gossiping) against the law of the Gospel, or the celestial law, or the law of equity. People on their part occasionally claim things that they have no right to claim, and those who govern sometimes go beyond the bounds allotted to them. And hence arises difficulty and trouble.” Courts are then appointed to “decide correctly, justly and equitably.”

Following are some of Pres. Taylor’s thoughts that he wished to make public to show the actions pertaining to “government, rule, authority, dominion, the conflict of opinion, the necessity of being prepared to act wisely, prudently and intelligently, and to discriminate between right and wrong.” He felt it necessary to get to the very bottom of the case, to show how the law of the Gospel can work with the law of the land.

“In this case we have a hospital. There is a Board of Directors. Then there is a resident surgeon, and it becomes her duty to attend to certain rules and principles that are laid down to use medical talent and ability for the benefit of the patients and the hospital, and to manipulate certain things committed to her charge. Sister Ferguson, it would seem, got up a set of rules. They might be very good, but it would seem they were not adopted by the Board, and it would also seem that the Board held the power in its own hands to manipulate these affairs. So that, although the rules drawn up by Sister Ferguson might have been very good and very advantageous if adopted, it appears they were not.” Sister Ferguson came from hospitals, from back east, where the resident surgeon makes final decisions of which the Board is to comply. When confronted, her feathers got a little ruffled and she assumed a dictatorial air according to the Board members.

“Being members of the Church, we have covenanted to live the law of the Gospel, where we must demonstrate forbearance, kindness, and harmony. This law is preparatory to the celestial law. We have not got it yet quite, and we are not prepared for it quite; but we are trying to introduce those things, and the Gospel has been restored for that purpose, and revelation has been given for that purpose, and the heavens have been opened for that purpose, and the Priesthood of God has been organized for that purpose in all its various forms and ramifications, and predicated upon that principle.”

“The Executive Board of the hospital was desirous to be set apart by the Priesthood that they might act under the blessing of God. The difficulty arose amongst some of the Board members, and while Sis. Eliza Snow tried to bring things back to harmony; it was not obeyed, so they now appear in this council.”

“Bitter feelings led to character defamation. Sis. Ferguson was accused of taking opium. She does take this as a medicine to ease her neuralgia of the heart and sometimes it can overcome her.” Instead of accusations, those sisters of the Board should have been compassionate. He lamented that she had to stand before the fire of her accusers against her moral conduct, her actions, and her reputation.

“Now, I suppose that these sisters were mistaken in their ideas. I do not think that they have bad hearts; but sometimes when people allow their prejudices to run against a person, they carry these things too far. While we are desirous to put down iniquity, we must not go to work and act a cruel part toward anybody. God does not do it. He pours blessings upon all, and He has to be merciful to us all, otherwise we would not be as we are today, surrounded with the blessings we enjoy.”

“Some things were said to be strangely disappearing, so that she was accused of being a thief; but when we came to inquire into these things we find there was no foundation for the charges. They seem to have arisen from unworthy jealousies. “

“Joseph Smith taught that even though we may have the gift of discernment, and be able to see into the hearts of men, we have no business bringing charges against any person without evidence and witnesses. As Latter-day Saints we ought to be under the law of love, of kindness, and of mercy. Yet, it is appropriate to ferret out evil and search for evidence when necessary. Both are necessary. If, in fact, there is a guilty party, the law stands ready to condemn. It is not for us to condone the sin, but we must let the law of God do its deed.”

“Sister Ferguson, I give you my right hand of fellowship and say God bless you, and try and be a little more humble. And I will do the same to those other sisters. God bless you all in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Sister Ferguson admitted to perhaps appearing to be arbitrary, commanding in her desire to have respect and obedience from those under her charge; but a good deal of this kind of feeling appeared to have arisen from jealousy and from watching for faults, and when found, magnifying them to a great extent.

Pres. Angus Cannon announced the decision of the council:  That Sis. Ferguson resign, considering the injured feelings involved. However, everyone was encouraged to apologize, extend the hand of fellowship, build the good doctor up, and let everything pass; all for the purpose of increasing a good feeling of influence.

How many of us get our feelings hurt? How many of us have considered leaving the Church over these hurt feelings? How can we live the law of the Gospel to prevent any part in similar circumstances?

Found in the Journal of Discourses 26:346, Remarks by President John Taylor before the High Council of Salt Lake Stake of Zion, Feb 20, 1884.