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Testimonies from the Past

To heed Brigham Young’s prophetic counsel to gain a living testimony, many young women wrote and preserved their testimonies as a witness to the world. They were committed to live by the principles of the gospel and determined to receive the blessings promised of God.

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  • What can I learn from young women’s stories that strengthens my faith and helps me develop my testimony?
  • Why is it important to write my story and to share my testimony?

Faith of an Orphan Girl
When Elvira Stevens was required to leave her home and family in Nauvoo and travel across the plains to Zion, she sought the spiritual strength and the heavenly power of the temple.
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A Young Girl Strong and Courageous
When 12-year-old Mary Elizabeth Rollins first gained her own testimony of the Book of Mormon, she could not have imagined what lay ahead. Just a year later, she watched mobs burn haystacks, saw Church leaders tarred and feathered, and risked her own life to save pages of scriptures from men who were destroying the printing office. But her faith carried her through.
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A Willing and Obedient Daughter
After Brigham Young asked his daughters to dress less extravagantly, his daughter Zina willingly responded by removing ruffles from her dresses. When a young man she knew insultingly told her that she now looked like “a yard of pump water,” Zina wasn’t discouraged. In matters of faith, she had a lot in common with another brave Zina—her mother.
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A Testimony in the Heart of a Girl
As a young woman living in a comfortable three-story house in New York, Zina Huntingon thought life was a little dull. Then one day she returned home to find a strange new book on the windowsill, and her life would never be the same.
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A Witness of the Savior
It was no ordinary sacrament meeting when 12-year-old Genevieve Johnson heard an Apostle tell about his remarkable vision of Jesus Christ—and felt her own testimony of the Savior burn brightly within her.
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A Testimony of Virtue
Whether living in large cities, Scandinavian villages, or small rural towns, such as Moroni, Utah, members of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association of the 1880s created their own manuscript periodicals. In each issue, they wrote anecdotes, sermonettes, and poetry and bore testimony. Lena Jensen, a member of the Moroni Ward, Sanpete Stake, shared her testimony of virtue in the ward manuscript periodical entitled The Young Ladies Advocate.
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Elvira Stevens Barney

Elvira Stevens Barney was born March 17, 1832. “When twelve years old, Elvira heard the gospel preached by a Mormon Elder, and from that time daily prayed in secret till the Lord gave her a testimony that satisfied her heart.

“Elvira was baptized in 1844, and went with her parents to Nauvoo where her father died after a brief illness, on October 4th. The January following Elvira and her mother were preparing for the journey across the wilderness, parching corn, etc.; her mother, overcome by toil, grief and exhaustion, died the 6th of the month. Their farm, household goods, etc. were sold, and the five children received ten dollars each to fit them out for a western journey. Elvira parted with her twin brother, fourteen years old, with tears in his eyes, and never saw him again. He died six years aVer. Elvira was taken some twenty—five miles across the prairie among strangers and there spent the winter. There were no children for her to mate with, no one to feel tenderly for the lonely, quiet aching heart of this orphan girl” ("Dr. Elvira S. Barney," in Representative Women of Deseret, comp. Augusta Joyce Crocheron [Salt Lake City, UT: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884], 76–81).

In 1846 the early members of the Church dedicated the temple in Nauvoo. Like Elvira Stevens, many of the Saints had already crossed the Mississippi River and left Nauvoo to begin their journey to Winter Quarters. “Few of those already on the trail to Winter Quarters returned for the dedication, but one who did was fourteen–year–old Elvira Stevens. Orphaned in Nauvoo and traveling west with her sister and brother–in–law, Elvira crossed the Mississippi three times to attend the [dedicatory] services, the only member of her wagon company to do so. ‘The heavenly power was so great,’ she wrote, ‘I then crossed and recrossed to be benefiied by it, as young as I was.’ Elvira had not yet received the temple ordinances, but the spiritual power of the edifice itself and the circumstances of its dedication remained prominent memories of her ... life in Nauvoo” (Carol Cornwall Madsen, In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1994], 23).

Years later Elvira wrote about her experience on the back of a postcard that depicted the Nauvoo temple in 1846 and then later when it had been left in ruins.

 

“The temple appears as I last saw it in 1846. I left there after returning three times across the Mississippi River (the only one from our company that was westward bound) to witness the dedication, 1st, 2nd, 3rd days of May 1846, I then only 14 years, an orphan. The Heavenly power was so great I then crossed and recrossed to be benefitted by it as young as I was.” —Elvira Stevens

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Mary Elizabeth Rollins

Fall, 1830
Kirtland, Ohio

“Quite a number of the residents of Kirtland accepted baptism. Mother and myself also, in the month of October, 1830. There was a meeting that evening, and we learned that Brother Morley had the Book [of Mormon] in his possession the only one in that part of the country. I went to his house just before the meeting was to commence, and asked to see the book; Brother Morley put it in my hand, as I looked at it, I felt such a desire to read it, that I could not refrain from asking him to let me take it home and read it, while he attended meeting. He said it would be too late for me to take it back after meeting, and another thing, he had hardly had time to read a chapter in it himself, and but few of the brethren had even seen it, but I pled so earnestly for it, he finally said, ‘Child, if you will bring this book home before breakfast tomorrow morning, you may take it.’ He admonished me to be very careful, and see that no harm came to it.

“If any person in this world was ever perfectly happy in the possession of any coveted treasure I was when I had permission to read that wonderful book. . . . We all took turns reading it until very late in the night as soon as it was light enough to see, I was up and learned the first verse in the book. When I reached Brother Morley's they had been up for only a little while. When I handed him the book, he remarked, ‘I guess you did not read much in it.’ I showed him how far we had read. He was surprised and said, ‘I don't believe you can tell me one word of it.’ I then repeated the first verse, also the outlines of the history of Nephi. He gazed at me in surprise, and said, ‘child, take this book home and finish it, I can wait.’

“About the time I finished the last chapter, the Prophet Joseph Smith arrived in Kirtland. . . . Brother Whitney brought the Prophet Joseph to our house and introduced him to the older ones of the family (I was not in at the time.) In looking around he saw the Book of Mormon on the shelf, and asked how that book came to be there. He said, 'I sent that book to Brother Morley.' Uncle told him how his niece had obtained it. He asked, 'Where is your niece?' I was sent for; when he saw me he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid. After a moment or two he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great blessing, the first I ever received, and made me a present of the book, and said he would give Brother Morley another.”

—Mary Elizabeth Rollins

Fall 1831
Independence, Missouri

After leaving Kirtland, 13-year-old Mary Elizabeth moved with her mother, brother, and sister to Independence, Missouri.

“Terrible were the threats against our people, we were too much united to suit the inhabitants of Missouri, and they did not believe in our religion, or our way of doing business; [also] we did not believe in slavery. . . . Soon a mob began to collect in the town and set fire to the grain, and hay stacks in the yard of Bishop Partridge. All were destroyed. Then they began to stone the houses, breaking the doors and windows. One night, a great many got together and stoned our house, part of which was hewed logs, the front was brick. After breaking all the windows, they commenced to tear off the roof of the brick part amidst awful oaths and howls that were terrible to hear; all of a sudden they left and all was quiet. Soon after, I saw Bishop Partridge tarred and feathered, also Brother Charles Allen.

“The mob renewed their efforts again by tearing down the printing office, a two story building, and driving Brother Phelps' family out of the lower part of the house and putting their things in the street. They brought out some large sheets of paper, and said, ‘Here are the Mormon Commandments.’ My sister Caroline and myself were in a corner of a fence watching them; when they spoke of the commandments I was determined to have some of them. Sister said if I went to get any of them she would go too, but said ‘They will kill us.’ While their backs were turned, prying out the gable end of the house, we went, and got our arms full, and were turning away, when some of the mob saw us and called on us to stop, but we ran as fast as we could. Two of them started after us. Seeing a gap in a fence, we entered into a large cornfield, laid the papers on the ground, and hid them with our persons. The corn was from five to six feet high, and very thick; they hunted around considerable, and came very near us but did not find us. After we satisfied ourselves that they had given up the search for us, we tried to find our way out of the field, the corn was so high we could not see where to go. . . . Soon we came to an old log stable which looked as though it had not been used for years. Sister Phelps and children were carrying in brush and piling it up at one side of the barn to lay her beds on. She asked me what I had. I told her. She then took them from us, which made us feel very bad. They got them bound in small books and sent me one, which I prized very highly.”

—Mary Elizabeth Rollins

(Autobiography of Mary E. Lightner, Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, 17 (1926), pp. 193­–96)

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Zina Young Card

When Zina Young heard a bell summoning her to a meeting in the parlor of the Lion House, she may have thought nothing unusual was about to happen. But what her father, President Brigham Young, had to say probably surprised her. He asked his teenage daughters to be better examples to others by giving up something very dear to them—the ruffles and flounces that made their dresses stylish.

Zina was an artistic girl who enjoyed drama and acting. Why did she have the courage to give up her beautiful ruffles? Zina gave us a clue about why she responded obediently when she wrote about her life as one of the prophet’s daughters:

“President Young was so just, so tender, so noble, and his children were taught by their mothers to obey him implicitly. But his rules were few. The time for instruction and association with him was found when evening came and he would ring the old prayer bell that would bring the whole family together for prayers in the spacious parlor. Oh, those prayers! It seemed as if he talked face to face with God. They have been a tie that bound the family with sacredness and devotion that is rarely found. … He used to have his children sing and dance for him. They had a music teacher, dancing master, and a governess, for he appreciated an education and did all in his power to give everyone in his family an opportunity for knowledge and improvement and culture.”

—Zina Young Card

(“A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Zina Young Williams Card. Salt Lake City, Utah, March 26, 1930, Church History Library, Zina Card Brown collection, MS 4780, Box 5, Fd. 14, It. 1, pp. 2-3)

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Zina D. Huntington Young

Zina Young may have inherited some of her courage to follow a prophet’s counsel from her brave mother, Zina D. Huntington Young.

“One day on my return from school, I saw the Book of Mormon, that strange, new book, lying on the window sill of our sitting-room. I went up to the window, picked it up, and the sweet influence of the Holy Spirit accompanied it to such an extent that I pressed it to my bosom in a rapture of delight, murmuring as I did so, ‘This is the truth, truth, truth!’”

(“How I Gained My Testimony of the Truth,” The Young Woman’s Journal, April 1893, p. 318).

As a young woman, Zina had many remarkable spiritual experiences, including, as her patriarchal blessing promised, witnessing the ministering of angels:

“On one occasion I saw angels clothed in white walking upon the [Kirtland] temple. It was during one of our monthly meetings, when the saints were in the temple worshipping. A little girl came to my door and in wonder called me out, exclaiming, ‘The meeting is on the top of the meetinghouse!’ I went to the door, and there I saw on the temple angels clothed in white covering the roof from end to end. . . .

“When the brethren and sisters came home in the evening, they told of the power of God manifested in the temple that day, and of the prophesying. … It was said, … ‘That the angels were resting down upon the house.’” (Tullidge, Women of Mormondom, p. 207.)

Another time in the Kirtland Temple, Zina and her sister Presendia heard angels singing:

“While the congregation was … praying, we both heard, from one corner of the room above our heads, a choir of angels singing most beautifully. They were invisible to us, but myriads of angelic voices seemed to be united in singing some song of Zion, and their sweet harmony filled the temple of God.” (Tullidge, Women of Mormondom, p. 208.)

When the Prophet Joseph revealed that the Saints were to leave Kirtland for Missouri, Zina’s family left all their valuables behind. This move, Zina said, “left us bare as a sheered sheep.” In 1839, the family moved on to Commerce, Illinois, where the whole family became ill with cholera:

“In a few days all our prospects were blighted, our mother dead, ourselves all sick and our crops going to waste, weeds choking them. … None attended [mother’s] funeral but John and William. I was so sick that I noticed nothing hardly. … We were a pitiful sight and none to [pity] us but God and his prophet. …

For a time, Zina was inconsolable at her mother’s death. Then another spiritual experience confirmed her faith. As she paced the floor, almost brokenhearted in her loneliness, she heard her mother’s voice:

“Zina, any sailor can steer on a smooth sea, when rocks appear, sail around them.”

Zina cried out:

“O Father in heaven, help me to be a good sailor, that my heart shall not break on the rocks of grief.”

A sweet peace came over Zina’s soul, and never again did she give way to such heart-rending grief.

(“Mother,” The Young Woman’s Journal, Jan. 1911, p. 45.)

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Genevieve Johnson Van Wagenen

“I shall never forget one sacrament meeting in the Provo First Ward. I was about 12 years old at the time. Apostle Melvin J. Ballard was the speaker. He bore his testimony. It was truly a spiritual experience. His testimony thrilled the audience. He told of seeing the Savior. He wept as he told how the Savior took him in his arms and kissed and hugged him and blessed him. And as Apostle Ballard kissed the Savior’s feet he saw the nail prints.

“I sat spellbound and enthralled, for I truly felt the Lord’s Spirit at the meeting. Apostle Ballard was a wonderful soloist. After speaking, he sang 'I Know That My Redeemer Lives.' The tears rolled down his cheeks as he sang. They rolled down mine too. I felt very close to my Savior. I knew his testimony was true. I desired to live so that I too could be in my Savior’s presence.”

—Genevieve Johnson Van Wagenen

Elder Melvin J. Ballard recorded the experience as follows:

“I recall an experience which I had two years ago, bearing witness to my soul of the reality of his death, of his crucifixion, and his resurrection, that I shall never forget.  I bear it to you tonight, to you, young boys and girls; not with a spirit to glory over it, but with a grateful heart and with thanksgiving in my soul, that I know that he lives, and I know that through him men must find their salvation, and that we can not ignore this blessed offering that he has given us as the means of our spiritual growth to prepare us to come to him and be justified.  

“Away on the Fort Peck Reservation where I was doing missionary work . . . I found myself one evening in the dreams of the night in that sacred building, the temple.  After a season of prayer and rejoicing I was informed that I should have the privilege of entering into one of those rooms, to meet a glorious Personage, and as I entered the door I saw, seated on a raised platform, the most glorious Being my eyes have ever beheld, or that I ever conceived existed in all the eternal worlds.  As I approached to be introduced, he arose and stepped towards me with extended arms, and he smiled as he softly spoke my name.  If I shall live to be a million years old, I shall never forget that smile.  He took me into his arms and kissed me, pressed me to his bosom, and blessed me, until the marrow of my bones seemed to melt!  When he had finished, I fell at his feet, and, as I bathed them with my tears and kisses, I saw the prints of the nails in the feet of the Redeemer of the world.  The feeling that I had in the presence of him who hath all things in his hands, to have his love, his affection, and his blessing was such that if I ever can receive that of which I had but a foretaste, I would give all that I am, all that I ever hope to be, to feel what I then felt!”

(Melvin J. Ballard, “The Sacramental Covenant,” Improvement Era, October 1919, 1031-32)  


Lena Jensen

My Dear Sisters,

Let us try to be virtuous. There is nothing that will bring us greater reward than virtue. If we are virtuous and pure in the eyes of our Heavenly Father he will pour his blessings upon us. Let us make up our minds to be virtuous and pure in the eyes of our God, so that when we choose a partner for life we can be to him a virtuous wife if we can not do any more, for virtue is better than riches. 

My dear sisters how blessed are we if we will only live as we should. The Lord has said, whatsoever you ask in faith you shall receive, but how can we have faith if we do not live so that the Lord can be pleased with us, and how can the Lord be pleased with us if we are not virtuous, pure and holy?  Let us cultivate the faculties which our Heavenly Father has given us so that when we are called to leave this stage of action we may leave a good name worthy to be long remembered, and God may say, well done thou good and faithful servant, enter in to my glory and be clothed in robes of righteousness.  May this be our happy lot is the prayer of your sister and friend,

Lena Jensen

The Young Ladies Advocate, Editor Mary A. Fletcher, dated March 31, 1884 (Punctuation added for clarity)

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