Mary Fielding Smith grew up a farmer’s daughter. Born in Honidon, Bedfordshire, England, on July 21, 1801, she was the sixth child of John Fielding and Rachel Ibbotson Fielding. During her most tender years, Mary learned from both her father and mother the meaning of hard work, discipline, devotion to God, and sacrifice. Two of her siblings, Joseph and Mercy, emigrated to Canada in March of 1832 to establish themselves as farmers, and Mary joined them two years later, where the three joined a small break-off group of Methodists. But in the spring of 1836, Elder Parley P. Pratt arrived from the United States to preach the gospel. His message was not well received. However, Elder Pratt had persuaded a man named John Taylor, who was not yet baptized, to join him on a preaching circuit through the countryside. Nine miles outside of present-day Toronto, they came upon the farm of Joseph Fielding. Wary of the preachers, Mary and Mercy went to the home of a neighbor, “lest they should give welcome or give countenance to ‘Mormonism.’” But their brother Joseph stayed and greeted the visitors by saying, “We do not want a new revelation or a new religion contrary to the Bible.”
Elder Pratt simply responded, “If that is all, we shall soon remove your prejudices.” He invited Joseph to send for his sisters. They all sat down to supper, during which Elder Pratt promised to “preach the old Bible gospel and leave out all new revelations which are opposed to it.” He did so, and it was not long before Mary, Mercy, and Joseph were baptized into the restored Church of Jesus Christ on May 21, 1836, along with John and Leonora Taylor and others.
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Gathering in Kirtland
By the spring of 1837, Mary, Mercy, and Joseph had gathered with the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio. But in July of the same year, Joseph left with Heber C. Kimball and others as missionaries to England, and Mercy was called on a mission to Canada with her new husband, Robert B. Thompson—another English immigrant from Canada. Mary was left alone, and while a new country, culture, and faith may have proved daunting enough, they were coupled with a spirit of dissent and apostasy that was growing in Kirtland. Yet, when so many others faltered and fell, she endured and kept the faith. “I feel more and more convinced,” she said in a letter to Mercy, “that it is through suffering that we are to be made perfect, and I have already found it to have the effect of driving me nearer to the Lord and so suffering has become a great blessing to me.” She also wrote in a letter this touching account of a Sabbath meeting in the holy temple when she looked upon the Prophet Joseph Smith, seated with three of his brothers in the Melchizedek Priesthood pulpits: “All, I believe,” she said, “faithful servants of the Living God. Joseph and Hyrum I know best and love much. While I looked at them, my heart was drawn out in earnest prayer to our Heavenly Father in their behalf, and also for the prophetess, their aged mother, whose eyes are frequently bathed in tears when she looks at or speaks of them.”
Marrying Hyrum Smith
During this time, Mary came to know Joseph and Hyrum Smith and greatly loved and respected them both. But she didn’t know that her acquaintance with the Smith family would quickly become even more intimate after Hyrum Smith’s wife, Jerusha, passed away in October 1837, leaving behind five small children. Joseph, seeing the burden of grief borne by his beloved brother, inquired of the Lord and was instructed to tell his brother that it was the will of the Lord that Hyrum marry Mary Fielding. Little is known about the details surrounding Mary’s reaction to that revelation and the subsequent proposal by Hyrum. However, we do know that Mary did not consider marriage to be a light thing, nor was she desperate to take the first proposal that came along. She was 36 years old and had received proposals in the past, one of which she had declined in a letter, saying, “I never intend, whether I am right or wrong, to be united to any person whose religious sentiments do not agree with my own.” Moreover, Mary had vocalized strong feelings in the past against being a stepmother. Yet, on December 24, 1837, Mary and Hyrum were wed in Kirtland. For her to have accepted Hyrum’s proposal is evidence that she knew it was the will of God.
In Good Times and Bad
Mary’s marriage to Hyrum meant that not only did she take his name but also shared his part in good times and bad. While Hyrum languished in misery and loneliness in Liberty Jail, Mary was forced out of the state of Missouri with six children—Joseph F., the couple’s first child together, had been born on November 13, 1838, just days after his father’s arrest and incarceration. Hyrum wrote many anguished letters to Mary during this time, but either they never reached her or she was too ill to answer. In fact, for four months she was at the “gates of death,” and it was only by the tender care of her sister Mercy that she was able to survive and make her way to safety in Quincy, Illinois, where Hyrum joined her in April 1839 upon his release from prison.
Despite their hardships, Hyrum and Mary had five years together in Nauvoo, where they enjoyed some semblance of a normal home and family. It was during these relatively peaceful years that another child, Martha Ann, was born to the couple on May 14, 1841. But Mary’s most difficult test was yet to come.
The threats against Joseph and Hyrum were constant and unrelenting, and Mary’s worst fears were realized when, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1844, George D. Grant knocked at the door and told her that Joseph and Hyrum had been murdered. According to Martha Ann, her mother “fell back against the bureau. Brother Grant took her and placed her in a chair. The news flew like wildfire through the house. The crying and agony that went through that house and the anguish and sorrow that were felt can be easier felt than described, but that will never be forgotten by those who were called to pass through it.”
The moment when Mary and her children came to the Mansion House to see the body of their fallen husband and father was described by an observer:
She [Mary] trembled at every step, and nearly fell, but reached her husband’s body, kneeled down by him, clasped her arm around his head, turned his pale face upon her heaving bosom, and then a gushing, plaintive wail burst from her lips.
“O, Hyrum, Hyrum! Have they shot you, my dear Hyrum—are you dead? Oh, speak to me, my dear husband. I cannot think you are dead, my dear Hyrum.”
She drew him closer to her bosom, kissed his pale lips and face, put her hands on his brow and brushed back his hair. Her grief seemed to consume her, and she lost all power of utterance.
Martha Ann remembers that from that day on, her mother never seemed to smile: “How sad and sorrowful my darling mother used to look. She scarcely ever smiled again. If we could get her to laugh, we thought we had accomplished quite a feat.”
The Journey West
In the fall of 1844, Heber C. Kimball married Mary for time as one of his plural wives. Though they never lived together, from that point forward Heber would watch over Mary and her family. It was February 1846 when President Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles crossed the Mississippi River and started west. If material concerns ever gave someone ample reason to stay in Nauvoo, they would have given Mary a reason. But she was determined to follow the apostles and bring her household with her. By September 1846, she had resourcefully outfitted herself and her family for the journey. Martha Ann described the day of their departure:
We left our home just as it was—our furniture and the fruit trees hanging full of rosy-cheeked peaches. We bid goodbye to the loved home that reminded us of our father everywhere we turned. I was five years old when we started from Nauvoo. We crossed over the Mississippi in the skiff in the dusk of evening. We bid goodbye to our dear, old, feeble grandmother [Lucy Mack Smith]. I can never forget the bitter tears she shed when she bid us goodbye for the last time in this life. She knew it would be the last time she would see her son’s family.
Mary and her family spent the winter of 1846 in Winter Quarters, Nebraska. In the spring of 1847, President Brigham Young and the vanguard company pioneered the way to the Salt Lake Valley and then returned to later bring the rest of the Saints. Heber C. Kimball organized the last company to make the journey in 1848. He sent word that Mary and her group were to travel with him, but Mary had lost so many horses and oxen that it seemed an impossible request. Heber’s large company was already 27 miles out on the trail when Mary finally scraped together unbroken wild cows and steers, yoked them up, and set out. When she reached the camp, she was met by Captain Cornelius P. Lott, an experienced and trusted trail boss in charge of the company. After discovering her lack of supplies, Lott declared that Mary was not prepared and sent her back. After all she had done to be obedient and get ready, his harsh words must have stung her deeply. Joseph F. was standing by and heard them. He resented the captain for the rest of his days because of the hurt those words caused his mother. But Mary looked the captain in the eye and firmly declared that she was going on and that she would beat him to the Salt Lake Valley and ask nothing along the way.
Mary’s relationship with Captain Lott did not improve. When one of Mary’s oxen lay down in the yoke, stiffened up, and appeared to be dying, Captain Lott announced that he had known that Mary would prove a burden on the company. She said nothing, went to her wagon, and retrieved a bottle of consecrated oil. She asked Joseph Fielding and James Lawson to anoint and administer to the animal. The animal stirred, stood, and moved off as if nothing had happened. Moments later, another ox went down. Another blessing was given, with the same result. Those oxen and the others brought her through to the Salt Lake Valley—ahead of Captain Lott and the rest of the company.
Mary’s Millcreek Homestead
It was the intention of Church leaders that Mary have property at the very center of the newly platted Salt Lake City, but Mary was of a different mind. Not long after her arrival in the valley, she saddled Hyrum’s old horse and rode out looking for a place to build a farm and establish her independence. She found land near some springs in the area known today as East Millcreek. In the spring of 1849, Mary and her family began carving their homestead out of virgin wilderness. They built a home and a dugout barn and cultivated 40 acres of good farm ground. But the hard work took a toll. In July of 1852, Mary went into the city to attend a public function and soon after fell ill. The Kimballs took her into their home, but despite their efforts she passed away on September 21, 1852. President Heber C. Kimball said at her funeral:
If any person has lived the life of a saint, she has. If any person has acted the part of a mother, she has. . . . I have never seen a person in my life that had a greater desire to live than she had, and there was only one thing she desired to live for, and that was to see her family.
Her son, Joseph F. Smith, later paid the highest tribute to his mother when he said:
How I love and cherish true motherhood! Nothing beneath the celestial kingdom can surpass my deathless love for the sweet, true, noble soul who gave me birth—my own, own, mother! O she was good! She was true! She was pure! She was indeed a Saint! A royal daughter of God! To her I owe my very existence as also my success in life, coupled with the favor and mercy of God!
Lead image painting by Julie Rogers
Look for the new History of the Saints documentary this Mother’s Day entitled Mary Fielding Smith: Faith and Courage in Every Footstep—Mother of Apostles and Prophets. Available at Deseret Book and at historyofthesaints.org.