On her 37th birthday, Martha Knight joined Philinda Merrick, a woman who had already or would soon become her sister wife, at the founding meeting of the Relief Society. She would contribute to the organization in Nauvoo as the wife of a prominent bishop, and continue making contributions as a struggling widow. She would go on to live a very long, faithful life of service and learning.
Martha was the daughter of a Campbellite minister, and when four of her family members joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, she and her husband, Vinson, began investigating. She was seriously ill when she met Joseph Smith – she had been given five years to live by a doctor. Smith blessed her and promised her that she would live to “a good old age.” She made a full recovery and was baptized by Smith a year later.
The next year, Martha and Vinson left their prosperous farm to join the saints in Kirtland. Vinson would go on to hold many prominent church positions, including counselor to Bishop Newel Whitney in Kirtland, acting Bishop of the Adam-ondi-Ahman Stake, and Bishop of the lower Nauvoo ward. The Knights knew persecution – they had to flee their prosperous farm in Missouri in response to the violence and unrest in Missouri.
Some time in 1841 or 1842, Joseph Smith introduced the principle of plural marriage to Vinson. According to family tradition, Vinson came to Martha one evening carrying a basket and told her he had just brought produce to Philinda Merrick, a widow of the Haun’s Mill massacre. He told her he had been asked to enter plural marriage, and he thought he could do the most good by marrying Philinda. Martha replied, “Is that all?”
Her time spent in this polygamous marriage was short, as Vinson died in the summer of 1842. She became a plural wife of Joseph Smith within a month. We know nothing about their marriage, and little about her remaining time in Nauvoo, other than some of her trials – her children had been very sick in the weeks following Vinson’s death, and she lost a daughter in 1844.
After Joseph Smith’s murder, she became a plural wife of Heber C. Kimball, but we have little evidence that they spent much time together. For most of her life, she lived with her children and grandchildren in various Utah settlements, frequently moving. She served diligently, blessing the lives of her family, serving in the first Relief Society presidency in Weber County, completing temple ordinances, and eventually becoming a regular temple worker at the St. George Temple.
Martha was a woman of intelligence and curiosity. She particularly enjoyed learning about world news, and according to her obituary, she was known in Weber County as "one of the best posted persons … on the military operations of the contending forces” in the Spanish-American war. She was praised for her physical strength, endurance, and needlework.
Joseph Smith’s prophecy of her long life was correct – she died of “old age” at the age of 96.
In Sacred Loneliness, by Todd Compton (1997).
The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History, eds. Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, Matthew J. Grow. The Church Historian’s Press, pages 30, 36, and 660).
“Widow of Prophet Joseph Smith Dead.” Ogden Standard 1901.