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).