Thursday, March 18, 2010

Juanita Leavitt Brooks

Juanita Brooks came into her role as a highly influential Utah historian gradually, starting out as an English instructor and dean of women at Dixie College, and then after leaving the college, taking on a diary collecting project for the WPA in the 1930s. She had a gift for locating pioneer diaries and proved highly competent at editing them, with her most prominent editing projects being the diaries of Hosea Stout and John D. Lee.

My favorite quote from Brooks is a long one, and in large measure her father’s, but a good one:
One day Dad said to me, “My girl, if you follow this tendency to criticize, I’m afraid you will talk yourself out of the Church. I’d hate to see you do that. I’m a cowboy and I’ve learned that if I ride in the herd, I am lost. … One who rides counter to it is trampled and killed. One who only trails behind means little because he leaves all responsibility to others. It is the cowboy who rides the edge of the herd, who sings and calls and makes himself heard, who helps direct the course. So don’t lose yourself, and don’t ride away and desert the outfit. Ride the edge of the herd and be alert, and know your directions and call out loud and clear. Chances are you won’t make any difference, but on the other hand, you just might.”

Brooks embodied this in her scholarship. She chose to address an area of Mormon history that we’ve historically been touchy about: the mountain meadows massacre. She published a book on the topic, as well as a biography of John D. Lee. And she did pay a price for it, being blacklisted from LDS church publications and experiencing antagonism from some that she worshipped with and discouragement from some of the church hierarchy (despite coming to the conclusion that there was no evidence Young was involved in the attack). But she stayed in the church her whole life despite this.

I’m grateful for her courage. While I’m not advocating actively getting into territory beyond your capacity to come to terms with, I am extremely grateful that scholars like Brooks have provided me the opportunity to learn about the gray areas of our history from someone that doesn’t have an axe to grind with the church. I look at the openness we are experiencing in church history at this time - you can now walk into Deseret Book and purchase a book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre that the assistant church historian co-authored, for goodness sake - and know that it took women like her calling out loud and clear to get to where we are now

Bitton & Ursenbach. (1974). “Riding Herd: A Conversation with Juanita Brooks.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
Peterson, Levi. Utah History Encyclopedia:
Scanlon & Cosner (1996). American Women Historians, 1700s-1990s: a biographical dictionary.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mary Johnson Parson

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. (Published by a descendent in the 4th grade. How awesome is that?)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Maria Bentley Christian Linford Rich

When Maria Linford and her husband John joined the Mormon church in 1842, they paid a heavy price for it. The best customers of John’s shoemaking company (including in relatives) in Graveley, Cambridgeshire, England, were so upset that they decided to “starve him to [give up Mormonism] by withholding our work.” His business suffered great losses, to the extent he could no longer afford to employ his workmen, but John and Maria stayed true to their beliefs, even contributing funds to the building of the Nauvoo Temple. Perpetual Emigration funds became available to them in 1856, and John, Maria, and three of her four sons (the fourth staying behind to serve a mission in the Cambridge Conference) made the arduous journey to join the saints, traveling by boat, ferry, train, and eventually joining the Willie handcart company.

The hunger, fatigue, and cold faced by the Willie handcart company are well known, and the Linfords experienced them. John had fallen ill in Florence, Nebraska, and had been so ill toward the later part of their journey that he was unable to walk, and his family pushed him in their handcart. At the rescue camp site of the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater, John died on October 21st and was buried in a mass grave. The relief wagons arrived from Salt Lake later that evening.

Maria’s economic struggles continued when they arrived in Zion impoverished on November 9, 1856. Maria’s employer did not allow her to even have her sons in the house to visit, let alone live there, and her three boys were split between the homes of two different relatives. Maria was very unhappy with this arrangement.

Out of necessity, on July 26, 1857 she became the second wife of Joseph Rich, 29 years her senior. She married him for time, while Joseph stood as a proxy for her sealing to John. Maria’s granddaughter Eliza M. Denio recounts that Maria worried about her marriage because she was afraid of what John thought about it. But one night Maria had a vision in which John appeared to her and told her understood her reasons for making her choice, and he was pleased with her, which gave her comfort. She was able to live with her sons, and Rich was very good to her boys. As he and his first wife, Elizabeth, aged and suffered deteriorating health, Maria cared for them.

Her husband was called to settle the Bear Lake Valley in 1864. The settlement struggled from crop failures, hunger, and cold, but Maria worked steadily during her time there, serving as ward and then stake relief society president, and being involved in the organization of the primary association. Even in the tough frontier conditions, her granddaughter recounts that Maria was “extremely dignified and lady-like, and very particular about her personal appearance.” She continued to work and serve until her death in October of 1885.

I admire Maria’s steadiness, and the strength it took her to do what was necessary. Her children recall that she did what had to be done “without a murmur.” She suffered for her faith, but she brought about much good.

Linford, Golden C. Linford Family Heritage: George Christian Linford 1877-1933, Alice May Peterson 1886-1971.

Monday, March 8, 2010

“Little old woman,” 1857

13-year-old Mary Goble arrived in Salt Lake City with the Martin Handcart Company in poor circumstances. Her mother had died on the day they arrived, and her feet were frozen. Brigham Young wept as he saw her circumstances, and told the doctor to remove just her toes, rather than her feet, and he wouldn’t have to remove them any farther. The amputation occurred while her sisters dressed her mother for her grave.

Initially, the surgery was not successful. Seven months later, her feet were getting worse, and the doctor said he couldn’t help her unless he removed her feet. Mary told him of President Young’s promise, and the doctor replied, “All right, sit there and rot, and I will do nothing more until you come to your senses.”

One day as Mary was sitting and weeping in pain, a “little old woman” knocked on her door, stating that she had felt prompted to come to her. Mary told her old President Young’s promise, and this wonderful woman replied, “Yes, and with the help of the Lord we will save them yet.” She was not content to sit and wait for the miracle to arrive; she made a poultice for Mary’s feet, and came every day for three months to change them. Mary healed completely.

I love this “little old woman.” I love that she was in tune to the Lord’s promptings and acted on them. I love that she trusted in the Lord, but thoughtfully considered what her role could be in bringing His will to pass. And I love that she did not give up, working daily for three months to make sure the miracle came to pass.

Olsen, Andrew D. (2006). The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mary Ann Mellor and Louisa Mellor Clark

I’d originally intended for these to be two separate posts, but so much of what I admire of Mary Ann Mellor and her daughter Louisa were too connected for me to split apart.

The Mellor family’s emigration to join the saints was difficult from the start. On the day their ship was set to depart from Liverpool, Mary Ann went into premature labor and gave birth to conjoined twins that died after a few hours. The doctors were unsure if Mary Ann would survive. But because this was the last ship available in the season, the future of perpetual emigration funding was tenuous, and the family had already sold their land in Leicester, Mary Ann told her family to board the boat without her. Her sixteen year old daughter, Louisa, and her two year old daughter chose to stay behind with her, and her husband took the other five children with him. Louisa did this knowing full well that she might be left alone with a two year old to care for in an unfamiliar city, possibly never seeing the rest of her family again, but she made the choice to help her mother in her time of need. By a twist of fate, Mary Ann's husband came back two days later for them, as the ship was anchored for a time in a nearby river after its departure. Against doctors’ wishes, they carried Mary Ann on a stretcher to the boat, and the whole family journeyed across the ocean together.

As part of the Martin handcart company, they faced many difficulties on the trail. Mary Ann had regained some of her strength, but was still weak enough she nearly gave up on many occasions. On one occasion, she did. She told her family she would go no further, kissed her children goodbye, and “sat down on a boulder and wept.” Again, Louisa chose to come to her mother’s aid. She told the family to go on without her, prayed that she and her mother would be able to catch up with the company without harm, and got off her knees and went to work. As she returned to her mother’s boulder, she found a pie in the road, which she gave to her mother to eat. They rested for a time, and then succeeded in rejoining the group. Louisa recounts that “many times after that, Mother felt like giving up and quitting, but then she would remember how wonderful the Lord had been to spare her so many times, and offered a prayer of gratitude instead.”

Mary Ann, her husband, and her seven children all arrived safely in Utah. They were eventually called to settle Fayette (building the first brick home there), and in 1875, James was called to serve a mission to England. He returned in 1877, arriving on the doorstep with a woman named Mary (Polly) Knowles that he introduced to Mary Ann as a woman he’d brought back from England to be his plural wife. Stunned, Mary Ann stared at them for a few minutes, then showered them with a pan of fermenting milk and slammed the door. Eventually Mary Ann and Polly would have a cordial relationship. Louisa became the second wife of Edwin Clark, had nine children, and became active in temple work.

My attention was initially drawn to Louisa as I read this account. I love her bravery, devotion, and faith, choosing on two separate occasions to risk her life to support her mother. But I think Mary Ann is also worthy of praise. Despite discouragement and loss, she always made the choice to keep trying, and managed to maintain her spunk. I think their story is a beautiful account of the difference a brave teenager can make, and the power that comes through a strong mother/daughter bond.

Olsen, Andrew D. (2006). The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers.

Monday, March 1, 2010

We are strong women

For my in-laws, the phrase “we are strong women” was a kind of family motto. While it is true physically in some cases (my mother-in-law did do judo in college, after all), it refers to the decisions they make and the way they respond to challenges in life. They choose to look for the positive when the negative is closing in around them. They choose to love in situations where it hurts to do so, and to hope when the easier thing to do is give up. They work hard to achieve their potential and help those in their responsibility do the same.

They are examples of one of the many kinds of strength I see in so many of the Mormon women I've met. I love the diversity of ways this strength manifests itself. I’m grateful for the countless examples of women who acted with purpose, despite the costs, when they knew who they were and the role God wanted them to fill.

Several of the women I’m featuring this month were a part of the Martin or Willie handcart companies. I did this because I’ve frequently heard quotes about the caliber of the saints that survived this trek, and I was curious about what their lives were like after they arrived. I picked out a few of the women that especially resonated with me.

This month is a little crazy, so I’m only anticipating two posts a week, but at least I’m going in with realistic expectations this time, right? While I’m not featuring as many women this go around as I’d like, I hope you enjoy learning about them all the same.