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, https://history.lds.org/overlandtravel/pioneers/10579/philinda-clark-eldredge-myrick-keeler, 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).