When she was six, Mary Johnson’s family left their native Denmark to join the saints in Utah. Things did not go for the family as planned. While at Mormon Grove, Kansas in 1855, Mary’s father and baby brother died, and because camp leaders knew her mother wouldn’t make it, Mary and her sister were sent to different families before the death so they would have people to care for them in the winter. At 7 years old, Mary was an orphan, separated from her siblings, in a country where she couldn’t speak the language, and being cared for by an elderly couple that considered her a burden.
Mary’s guardians joined the ill-fated Martin handcart company. She was small and had a difficult time keeping up, and her guardians were harsh with her when she fell behind. In Wyoming, her feet were frozen so badly that when they thawed out, they turned black. When the rescuers from Salt Lake arrived, she was placed in an ambulance wagon, where she appreciated the kindness she was shown, but it didn’t stop the flesh from falling off her feet. Both feet had dropped off by the time they reached Salt Lake, and she had to have her legs amputated to the knees. She was among the “hard to place with a guardian” cases that Brigham Young took in, and even after her siblings arrived and she joined them, Brigham took special cares for her, helping to pay the bills for a specially designed sewing machine that Mary could use her knees to tread.
It would be easy for Mary to be discouraged, but she was determined to claim the blessings that came from the sacrifices she made. She told her siblings, “I am sure that I shall have my feet and legs after the resurrection,” and learned to walk on her knees, having decided that artificial limbs were too uncomfortable. At age 19, she married Elijah Parsons in the endowment house. He was good hearted, even carrying her around on his back when they went on outings. Mary took her motherhood seriously, believing it to be her mission in life. She bore 7 children and taught them the gospel. Elijah struggled to find work, so Mary carded wool, spun yarn, and knitted stockings to help make ends meet. She was noted for her knowledge of the scriptures and the doctrines of the Gospel.
During her last decade, she suffered a variety of health conditions, including asthma, a tumor, and congestive heart failure. However, she was determined that her funeral expenses not burden her family, so she knit and sold stockings to pay for it. She died of pneumonia in 1910.
To me, Mary embodied optimism, hard work, and making the best of painful circumstances. She knew who she was, and she knew the blessings God had promised her, and she clung to those things when life became overwhelmingly difficult.
Olsen, Andrew D. (2006). The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers.
Sorensen, Bailey. Mary Johnson Parsons. http://www.sonsofutahpioneers.info/00essays%20file/mary%20johnson%20parson.pdf (Published by a descendent in the 4th grade. How awesome is that?)