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).