Thursday, May 25, 2017

Martha McBride Knight Smith Kimball

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.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Desdemona Fullmer (Smith Benson McLane)

After joining the church, Desdemona Fullmer fled persecution after persecution. She arrived in Kirtland during a period when many were apostatizing, yet she stayed true. A year later, she joined the exodus to Missouri. She moved around frequently there trying to find safety from the mobs, often having to hide in the woods at nighttime to avoid harm. She lived in Haun’s Mill when the massacre occurred. The mobs gave her extra time before forcing her from Missouri because her brother was fighting a serious illness, and she was caring for him.

After arriving in Nauvoo, two major events occurred in her life. The first was that she joined the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo at its initial meeting and continued to be a part of it, although never in a prominent way. The second is that she became a polygamous wife of Joseph Smith. Emma Smith was unhappy about this marriage, and Desdemona knew it.

Desdemona fled mob violence yet again and travelled to Utah with the Willard Richards division. She remarried twice, but neither marriage lasted. She became the third wife of Ezra T. Benson, married for time, but they divorced after six years. A year later, she married Harrison Parker McLane, but after a few years, he left her and the church in one fell swoop, joining the Morrisite sect. Her only child did not survive infancy.

Desdemona experienced many hardships in her life, including mob violence, hunger, and loss. Yet, her faith gave her strength. In her autobiography, recorded later in life, she recorded that, “The spirit of the Lord direc[t]ed me and [angels] vis[it]ed me and my faith increased. in this church. I belong 30 years and the longer I live in it the better I like it.” She died true to the faith.


In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton (1997).

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Elvira Cowles (Holmes)

At the first Relief Society meeting, Elvira Cowles was nominated as the treasurer for the society. Elvira was diligent in her work. The Relief Society minutes are peppered with accounts and resources that were placed in her care and distributed, including cash, in-kind donations, and land deeds. When she gave accounting, she recognized the value of her labor, confirming that “much good had been done and the hearts of many made to rejoice.” She was careful to give an accurate picture – on one occasion that she was called on to present accounting, she gave an overview but declared that she would need more time to resolve a few loose ends. Two weeks later, the accurate accounting was presented.

Elvira Cowles’ life was filled with complex family situations that could have been traumatic, but she seemed to weather them well.

The first is her polyandrous marriage. A few months after her marriage to Jonathan Holmes, Elvira was also married as a plural wife to Joseph Smith. While we don’t know how much Holmes knew about the marriage at the start, we do know that after the Nauvoo Temple was completed, Elvira was sealed to Joseph with Holmes standing as proxy, and Holmes was sealed to his first wife, who died before he met Elvira. It should also be noted that records about polygamy are really messy and complicated, so some researchers believe her marriage to Joseph had happened before her marriage to Holmes – I am going with the dates that Elvira gave in her affidavit to create the chronology.

Elvira and Jonathan’s marriage for time endured and appears to have been very happy, and according to family traditions, shortly before her death, “her husband … in humility and sorrow at [the] thought of her passing, asked her what reports she would give to the Prophet Joseph. She replied, ‘Only the best report. You have always been a kind and devoted husband and father.’”

The second situation that could have been complicated, but she managed with grace, was her father’s opposition to polygamy and his excommunication. Her father, Austin Cowles, was a member of the highly influential Nauvoo Stake Presidency. When the revelation on polygamy was read to the Nauvoo High Council, Austin opposed the revelation. He would resign from his calling a month later, and helped write the Nauvoo Expositor, which brought polygamy into the public eye. Interestingly, Jonathan Holmes was among the group that destroyed the Expositor. We don’t have any writings capturing how Elvira felt during this period, but we know that after his death, she wrote that Austin spent “a long life in making the world better, an example to all who knew him, with charity for all and malice towards none.” She doesn’t seem to have harbored ill will towards him.

She eventually settled in the Farmington area of Utah, and her obituary described her thus, “Faith, hope, and charity were the chief traits of her character through life … She has ever proved herself a kind wife, affectionate mother, and a generous, kind-hearted neighbor.”

I am grateful for the good works she brought to pass through her efforts in the Relief Society, and her devotion to the people she loved.


In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton (1997).

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sophia Bundy Packard

Sophia Bundy Packard and her husband, Noah, were introduced to the church by their neighbors, the Jolly family. They had originally pitied the Jolly family for their belief in the “gold bible,” and decided to visit them to be friendly (and set them straight about the error in their ways). Mrs. Jolly rose to the occasion, taking the scriptures Noah quoted to her and showing how they fit into the Mormon understanding of the scriptures. He could not refute her arguments.

When Mrs. Jolly later offered Noah a Book of Mormon, Sophia and her husband read it out loud together. On their second reading, the couple received a powerful spiritual confirmation of its truth, and they were baptized. They moved first to Kirtland, with many stretches where Sophia was left to manage as best as she could while her husband served several missions, and the family was often impoverished. After a few short stops in other places, the family settled down in Nauvoo in 1840.

Sophia was present at the first Relief Society meeting, and after Elizabeth Ann Whitney motioned that Emma Smith be named President of the Relief Society, Sophia seconded the motion.

When the Relief Society organized four “necessity committees,” designed to “search out the poor and suffering – To call on the rich for aid and thus as far as possible relieve the wants of all,” Sophia was named to one of these committees. These committees would eventually transform into our current visiting teaching program. At a later meeting, Eliza R. Snow records Sophia stating that “she desird [sic] to do her duty and magnify her calling faithfully,” and Sophia did this, bringing attention to the needs of sisters on several occasions captured in the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, and donating resources to help the poor.

She travelled to Utah in 1850 in the Warren Foote company, and settled the next year in Springville, Utah. She died in 1858, as her husband puts it, “her life in all probability shortened by over-exertion in taking care of the sick in the move that took place that season from the north to the south.”

I’m thankful for her example of dedicated service, and for the visiting program she pioneered – it has blessed my life immensely.


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, and Matthew J. Grow.

Warren Foote Company (1850), Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847-1868.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sarah M Kingsley Howe Cleveland

When Joseph Smith called for suggestions on the name for the women’s organization of the church, Sarah M Cleveland, newly ordained to serve as a counselor to Emma Smith, brought forward the name “The Nauvoo Female Relief Society.” After some debate, her choice of the word “relief” stood. The Relief Society leadership liked that the term set them apart from benevolent societies of the world, and that it spoke to the scale of the effort these women would undertake.  

This was the first of many ways that Sarah left her mark on the society. As I’ve read the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, she strikes me as a woman that seems at ease in her leadership role, comfortable giving counsel, leading, and acting as one given authority from God. She conducted meetings in Emma’s absence, gave women opportunities to share their spiritual experiences, and used spiritual gifts including the gift of tongues and healing. In fact, one woman was so pleased with a healing blessing she received from the RS presidency that she declared that “she never realized more benefit thro’ any administration – that she was heal’d, and thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.”

She had long had close ties to Emma Smith. After Joseph had been imprisoned in Liberty Jail, Emma and her children lived in Quincy, Illinois with Sarah and her husband John Cleveland, who was friendly to the church but never did join it. After Joseph and Emma settled in Nauvoo, they selected a lot across the street from their home for the Clevelands, where John and Sarah settled for a time, eventually leaving Nauvoo to find work a little over a year after the Relief Society formed. Although the family returned to Nauvoo later on, she is not found anywhere in the Relief Society minutes after this move.

While we don’t have official documentation, it is likely that she was sealed as a plural wife to Joseph Smith – Eliza R Snow’s sealing happened at Cleveland’s home (and usually only those that had committed to polygamy were witnesses to these sealings), she was resealed to Joseph in two temples, and some contemporary sources cite her as a plural wife. She continued to live with John for the rest of her life. Some sources imply that she was sealed for eternity only, which does fit the historical data well, but can’t be confirmed.

When the saints left for Utah, Sarah stayed behind with her husband. Different sources give different reasons, but according to her family’s biographer, Sarah had originally left her husband to join a camp that was leaving Nauvoo, but Brigham Young counseled her to stay because her husband was “a good man, having shown himself kind ever helping those in need.” She seems to have joined a protestant revivalist religion before her death; regardless of how she viewed her membership in the church at that stage, she was the kind of woman that would need a community to worship within.

I appreciate Sarah’s charitable & confident leadership. She believed in the goals of the Relief Society and its divinely-ordained status, and thrived in her service.  We have been blessed through the foundation she laid.


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, and Matthew J. Grow.

Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

Friday, March 3, 2017

Philinda Clark Eldredge Merrick Keeler

Philinda Merrick had known tragedy by the time she joined that first Relief Society meeting. Driven from her home in Missouri in 1838, her family had stopped in Haun’s Mill on its way to gather to Nauvoo. The mill was attacked by an anti-Mormon armed mob that same day, and Philinda watched her husband’s murder. Her oldest son was mortally wounded by the mob because “nits make lice.” He died the next month. She was penniless, as the mob had stolen their savings from the sale of their home, and she had a wounded son and three other children to care for.

As her husband’s body was lowered into the ground, a man that had survived by running and hiding exclaimed, “There goes some of your foolhardy bravery.” Her reply: “I would rather have him lying there than standing in the coward’s shoes you stand in.” She honored his bravery and wanted it for her children; she told her sons, “I am always ready to help you unless you come to me with a wound in the back. In that case, I just would not be interested.”

She stayed at the mill until her son died. She had a choice – her father-in-law offered to take them in and care for them if she would renounce her faith. She stayed true, and Brigham Young arranged for her travel to Nauvoo.

She took in sewing and lived in the Smith home. Emma personally invited her to come to the organizational meeting of the Relief Society, declaring that Joseph had said that “the work of women in the Church is just as important as the work men have to do. He wants to organize us under the power and authority of the Priesthood that we may have the same Heavenly Guidance and direction in our lives the men now have. You have been chosen to be with us at the time.”

Again and again, the leadership in the church showed concern for her on an individual level. During that first meeting, Emma Smith called attention to Philinda’s financial plight. She declared that she “is a widow – is industrious – performs her work well, therefore recommend her to the patronage of such as wish to hire needlework – those who hire widows must be prompt to pay and inasmuch as some have defrauded the laboring widow of her wages, we must be upright and deal justly.”

She became a plural wife of Vinson Knight in 1842 and was widowed the same year. In 1846, she married Daniel Hutchinson Keeler, with whom she had two children. They moved to St. Louis when they were driven from Nauvoo, where they lived between 1847 and 1852. She was so anxious for her children to gather to Utah, she embarked on the trip west in the midst of an active case of consumption. She died in Fort Laramie in 1852.

I love Philinda’s courage, dedication, and industry. I also love how her presence in the society and the body of the church mattered. It would be easier to see her as an object of charity than a giver of it, but her presence in the society mattered despite this, or maybe even because of it. What mattered was her integrity and resolve in the face of crippling opposition.


Eggman-Garret, Carla. Escape From Utah, pages 4-7.

Kofford, Paul Ernest, Biographical Sketch, Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel 1847-1868,, accessed 2/24/2017.

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).  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

2017 Theme: In the beginning

175 years ago, twenty women sat together in the upper room of a red brick store. They were organized under the pattern of the priesthood, and counseled by Joseph Smith to encourage “the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor – searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants – to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community.” They called themselves the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, and Emma Smith declared, “We are going to do something extraordinary … We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”

This month, I want to tell their stories.

In honor of the 175th year of Relief Society Celebration, I’ve decided to highlight the twenty founding members of the Relief Society. If you’ve noticed my current production rate, you’ll realize I won’t finish this in the month of March – I’m shooting for once a week during women’s history month, and the rest as life allows.  

The format will also be a little different this time because of the fact these twenty women lived very different experiences. Some stayed in the church until they died; others did not. Some lived very public lives; others left few records. My usual format of sharing how their stories have influenced me won’t always apply.

That said, I believe wholeheartedly that all their stories need to be told, because isn’t this the form our Relief Societies take?  We come from different backgrounds, we bring different skills to the table, some thrive in the limelight while others move in quiet ways, and yes, some leave our ranks.

They all make up our story. It is a story of miracles, heartbreaks, progress, setbacks, faith, questions, love, strength, revelation, and uncountable acts for good. It is a story that matters deeply to me, and that has shaped me into who I am and how I see the world.