When fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith received his first vision in 1820, Charles Smith was a year old. But his life, like the lives of thousands of people in the British Isles during the nineteenth century, would be profoundly affected by that vision. As a young man, Charles heard the gospel message in his native England and became part of “the gathering to Zion.” He is one example of the faithful, though not famous, Saints who left their homes and came to Utah.
Charles was born July 10, 1819, in Ipstones, England. His parents, John and Ann Varley Smith, had six other sons and one daughter. Because Charles was not a strong child, he was apprenticed to a watchmaker. Children in England at that time did not have the opportunity to go to school unless their parents were very wealthy. Boys were apprenticed, or taught a trade, at an early age in exchange for their work. Sometimes they were only seven or eight years old.
In 1840, when Charles was twenty-one years old, he heard two Mormon missionaries preaching the gospel. He knew that what they were teaching was true, and he asked to be baptized. Charles was the only member of his family to join the Church. Not long after his baptism, Charles also became a missionary and was the companion of the missionary who baptized him! Charles served his mission in England and North Wales until 1843.
Later Charles and his fiancée, Sarah Price, said good-bye to their families and went to Liverpool, a seaport from which most of the Latter-day Saint emigrants embarked. They were married on shipboard after they set sail for Nauvoo. Although the trip across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Equinox was long, the 572 Saints “arrived in full health and vigor, with not one soul lost, full of praise and thanksgiving to the God of Israel for his mercy in blessing them with a safe journey with no serious difficulty” (Journal of Charles Smith).
The company of Saints remained together on the second part of the trip, from New Orleans up the Mississippi River to Nauvoo. As their boat landed at Nauvoo on April 12, 1843, the Prophet Joseph was standing on the riverbank to welcome them! The next day he delivered an address to the new arrivals that was very comforting to them after their long journey.
Charles worked in a brickyard and as a watchmaker. He also had the opportunity to help build the temple. A musician all his life, Charles played the flute and the dulcimer, a stringed instrument something like a harp, in the Nauvoo Band.
Sarah and Charles were happy in Nauvoo and grateful that they had joined with the Saints. However, the Saints began to be persecuted by mobs. Charles and Sarah’s first son, John, was born in June, 1844, just a few weeks before the Prophet was martyred. John died in January of 1846 while the first group of Saints was preparing to leave Nauvoo for the West. A second son, Charles Edward, was born in August of that year, when the mobs were gathering to drive the rest of the Saints from Nauvoo.
Charles helped Mary Fielding Smith, Hyrum Smith’s widow, move her belongings across the river. He and Sarah and little Charles Edward spent the winter at Winter Quarters, then, in March, fit out for the trip West. In fitting out, Charles bought a yoke of oxen, a wagon, a cow, food, and other supplies. They left Iowa City in March, joining Isaac Higbee’s company, and entered the Salt Lake Valley in September, 1848.
The Smith family needed a home to live in, so Charles began making adobe bricks so that he could build a house. Charles also worked at his trade and was the first watchmaker in Salt Lake City.
Not long after the Smiths were settled in their new home, Charles Edward, who was two years old, fell into a pot of boiling water and was scalded to death. Of the nine children born to Sarah and Charles, only five lived to adulthood.
A second mission call came to Charles, and he returned to his homeland in 1852, leaving Sarah with a small daughter. He was thrilled to see his mother and family again. Still, none of them were interested in the Church.
Charles received another mission call in 1862. This time he was to take his family and help settle St. George, where he planted cotton, corn, peaches, and sorghum. St. George was a difficult place in which to live because it was very hot and dry. The pioneers tried many times to dam the Virgin River so that they could irrigate their farms, but each time a spring flood washed out the dam. At times Charles had to go back to Salt Lake City to work as a watchmaker for a while to earn enough money to feed his family. Finally, after ten years of his family’s living in a one-room house, he was able to build a larger home in St. George.
Throughout the trials that he and his family endured—the deaths of their children, persecutions of mobs, separation from his family during his three-year mission, and difficult living conditions—Charles remained faithful and enthusiastic about the gospel. A devoted student of the scriptures, he was second counselor to Bishop Henry Eyring in the St. George Second Ward. Later Charles served on the stake high council there for twenty-seven years, and he spent many years doing temple work. For the last five years of his life he was the patriarch of the St. George Stake.
His granddaughter Ethel Smith Matheson remembered him as a very gentle, soft-spoken man who always carried a pocketful of peppermints. His grandchildren always ran to him for a handout and a kiss. She recalled that for many years he climbed the steep stairs of the town clock in St. George to take care of the clockwork.
Charles Smith, like many other early converts to the Church, helped build the kingdom quietly and steadily. Because he listened to the missionaries and was willing to leave home and family, hundreds of his posterity have enjoyed the blessings of the gospel.