Mary Rachel Smith Ellsworth was an amazing woman—a shining example of obedience to the will of her Father in heaven. Her impact upon 2500 missionaries and their posterity, through fifty years of missionary service, has been felt throughout the world. She and her husband, President German E. Ellsworth, envisioned and began implementing a program for proselyting the gospel that was many years ahead of their time.
Her life spanned the pioneer, horse-and-buggy era to the jet age, and she embraced modern inventions and conveniences with rejoicing as a means of helping her be of greater service to the Lord. She was born April 18, 1876, in Lehi, Utah, a daughter of Jesse and Mary Ann Price Smith. Mary was proud of her Welsh and English ancestry, and one of her favorite statements was, “I’ve too much Welsh in me to let that pass!”
As a young woman Mary was stunning—about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with long, glossy brown hair, a peaches-and-cream complexion, and deep brown eyes that made many a young man’s heart beat faster. In later years those same bright eyes penetrated the souls of hundreds of young missionaries, but they also sparkled with wit and wisdom as she illustrated gospel principles with meaningful and humorous stories and experiences.
Her formal education was so limited that people were incredulous when she said that she didn’t go to school at all until she was nine years of age, and that at 14 she was out working. She finished eighth grade at 14 and was ready to begin her studies at Brigham Young Academy when financial disaster struck the family; then she would not burden her parents or even ask to go. Instead, she went to work doing housework and tending children. She later recalled:
“At the age of 15, I worked for a widow who ran a boarding house. … She fed and housed sixteen men who were working in the construction of the sugar factory and the Lehi Bank. The widow was fifty-nine years old, and so I had to work long, hard hours. I went to work at 5:30 each morning, and it was often 9 o’clock at night before I finished. Father used to take me with a lantern in the dark mornings, because I was afraid to go alone.”
She earned three dollars a week for ninety hours work—or about three cents an hour!
In her teens Mary participated in most of the Church and community activities. Her lovely singing voice was coupled with dramatic talent, and she starred in several theatricals. The Smith home was the center of many socials for the young set.
Always very popular and much sought after, Mary met and fell in love with a young man from Salt Lake City who was living at the boardinghouse. Overwhelmed by her love but anxious to do what the Lord would have her do, she prayed and asked the Lord whether it was his will that she should marry the young man. She asked Him to direct her mother and she would do whatever she told her.
The next morning her mother came to Mary’s room to awaken her. Then she said, “Mary, I want you to give up John. If you marry him, you will rue it all your life.”
Mary, accepting this as the Lord’s will, broke off with the young man. A year later, he returned to Lehi to attend a mutual friend’s wedding and begged Mary to return to him. Finally, after exhausting his arguments, he cursed her mother for her supposed interference.
“Immediately a change came over me,” Mary said, “and for the first time I felt I could willingly give him up. He went away the next day and I never saw him again. And though this was one of my hardest trials, through it I found the Lord. Since that prayer, I have gone to him with all my troubles, in sickness, in financial affairs, and he has never failed me.”
Then Mary met German E. Ellsworth. At first sight he knew that she was the girl he wanted for his wife, but tactfully he didn’t overwhelm her at first with this knowledge. They courted until he went on his first mission to California, and then corresponded for two years. Two weeks after his return, on June 29, 1898, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple.
Following their marriage they lived in Riverton, Utah, where German was principal of the Riverton School and very active in the Church. Their first two children were born there. With her husband away a great deal, and with little to do but care for her two small babies, and watch the dust on Redwood Road going south in the morning and returning with the south wind at night, Mary half-seriously asked if they couldn’t move back to Lehi, because she thought Lehi was just “one step away from the celestial kingdom.” So they moved at the end of 1902. Two months later, in February 1903, they attended a stake conference where Elder Matthias Cowley of the Council of the Twelve was speaking. At the close of the meeting German was called up to the stand and introduced to Elder Cowley, who said, “Brother Ellsworth, all the time I was talking I felt like you were wanted in the Northern States Mission. Will you go if called?”
What a shock! German had been home from his mission only four years. But—if the Lord wanted him—. In two weeks he received a call to go to the Northern States Mission.
Since Mary now had three babies to care for (two of her own plus her brother’s child, whose mother had just died in childbirth), some of the townspeople were disturbed at the call. But Mary and German, mindful of promises that had been given to them and secure in their faith in the Lord, accepted the call willingly as the will of the Lord through his servants.
Although German had left as a regular missionary, within a year he was called by telegram to preside over the mission, which comprised seven states and part of Canada and had 175 missionaries. Mary, with her two small children (her brother had since remarried and taken his little son with him) followed her husband to the mission headquarters in Chicago.
Rearing a young family in the mission home (they eventually had six children) while also teaching and working with 175 missionaries was no small task. But Mary was like a daughter of Martha in the Savior’s day: she used to tell her children how much she loved to work, but she never asked anyone to do anything she wouldn’t do harder and better herself. All the children learned to do the household chores, working alongside their mother. But to work merely with the hands and leave the mind free to dawdle was a waste of precious time, so as they were busy working, Mary would tell them stories and experiences. They discussed books and memorized poetry together. She had the gift of making teaching moments out of the commonplace. She was not only a compulsive worker but a compulsive teacher as well.
In addition to their own family, the Ellsworths had ten missionaries living with them in the mission home, and the strain of the hard work began to tell on Mary’s health. She was expecting her fifth child, and the combined mental and physical stress caused her to lose the baby and almost her life. Her husband administered to her several times as she hovered between life and death. She prayed to the Lord. Later she wrote in her autobiography:
“I promised to teach the gospel and do all I was called to do if the Lord would only let me live and stay with my husband and children. German was supposed to leave that day for a conference at Nauvoo with some of the General Authorities. He asked me what he should do. I told him to go. He said all of them would fast and pray for me. Gradually my fever went down and finally I slept.
“I know the Lord heard and answered our prayers. No doctor could have saved me; still I must give them credit for all they did. I slowly got well, but our son was gone. And since then, I have tried to keep my promise to the Lord to never fail to do anything that has been asked of me in the Church by those whose right it was to direct me.”
When German left Mary, it was with a heavy heart, but he had an important mission to perform. Under the direction of the First Presidency he was opening Nauvoo to the missionaries For the first time since the Saints had left there in 1846–48.
Mary’s great Faith and trust in the Lord made her highly receptive to the promptings of the Spirit. One day while she was taking to the bank a deposit of $300 that belonged to the missionaries and the mission, she passed through a crowded department store in downtown Chicago and heard a warning voice: “Take your money out of your purse.” She turned to a young English girl who was with her at the time and asked if she had heard anything. “No, mum,” was the reply.
Again the voice spoke to Mary, and she repeated the message to the girl, who said, “I’d certainly do what it said, mum.” So she stepped behind a large screen, took the money out of her wallet, wrapped it inside a handkerchief, and pinned it inside her dress front.
As they completed their shopping and were walking out of the store, Mary felt a tug on her purse. She looked down and saw that it was open—and her wallet was gone. Spotting a small, well-dressed boy of eight or nine hurrying away, she quickly followed him, grabbed him, and demanded that he return her wallet or she would turn him over to the police. He handed over the wallet and disappeared.
Mary had a bright intellect and a gift for interpreting the scriptures. At 5:30 each morning she would arise and prepare breakfast, and by 7:00 she was teaching the missionaries in a daily scripture study class that she instituted. She had a profound knowledge of the gospel and could teach it clearly and with great impact.
When German Ellsworth first entered the mission home in Chicago as a missionary, he had noticed the Book of Mormon wasn’t being used for proselyting, so he ordered 36 copies from Salt Lake City. When the mission president returned, he said, “Brother Ellsworth, that is enough copies of the Book of Mormon to last us a year.” German was troubled by this, so after he was called to preside over the mission he wrote to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and asked permission to print a 10,000-copy edition of the Book of Mormon in Chicago. He was advised it was too large and expensive a project.
In June 1907 German accompanied Elder George Albert Smith to Palmyra, New York, to purchase the Sacred Grove and the Smith home. There he had an opportunity to visit the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah several times. One morning as he was on top the hill, he heard a voice that said: “Push the distribution of the record taken from this hill. It will help bring the world to Christ.” He went into Palmyra, bought 300 picture postcards of the hill, and wrote in quotation marks the statement he had heard and sent it to all his missionaries, asking them to push the sale and distribution of the Book of Mormon and to teach from it and bear witness of its truthfulness.
When he next went to Salt Lake City for general conference, he related his experience to president Joseph F. Smith and asked again for permission to print a 10,000-copy edition of the Book of Mormon.
After he talked to the Church President about the value of the book as a missionary tool and its having been given by the Lord for that very purpose, President Smith told him, “Go ahead, and the Lord bless you.”
To save costs, Mary did all the proofreading herself, with the aid of three missionaries—this work in addition to cooking, washing, taking care of her children, and her other responsibilities. The Ellsworths also collected, secured copyrights, and printed Songs of Zion, a hymnbook. As a result of these printing ventures, President Ellsworth helped establish a printing firm in Independence, Missouri, and became its first president.
In the next few years more than 300,000 copies of the Book of Mormon were printed and a great program of using it as a missionary tool took root. And through the coming years, with each new scientific advancement in communication, the Ellsworths envisioned even greater use of the Book of Mormon, in movies, on radio and television, in magazines and other media. They designed and printed beautiful embossed cards and posters with scriptures from the Book of Mormon to place in trains, buses, and public buildings. On each poster was printed: “A Message to You from Ancient Scriptures.”
As mission mother, Mary was in charge of all the Relief Societies in the Northern States Mission (and later in the Northern California Mission, when they were called to preside there). She organized the women in doing genealogical research, and as a result, more than 10,000 names were cleared for temple work. In doing her own genealogical work, she went alone to England for three months; during her life she researched and added 14,000 names to the Ellsworth family and 8,000 to her own Smith line.
President Ellsworth presided over the Northern States Mission until August 1919. Then, on December 28, 1941, soon after the beginning of World War II, the Ellsworths were again called to preside over a mission—the Northern California (now California North), with headquarters in San Francisco. (They served there seven and a half years, being released in June 1949.)
As Mary traveled throughout the mission, she noticed that in most places the members were meeting in public halls, mostly in dirty and unsuitable places, where members of the priesthood had to go early to clean up beer cans and cigarette butts before meetings could begin. She discussed this with her husband and both became convinced that if the members could have their own little chapels, this would increase the missionary effort and also the fellowshiping of members.
Because of wartime economy, it was difficult to get the necessary approvals and financial backing. But German knew the project would pay big dividends. If it were left to him, he said, he would first build chapels in prosperous growing cities and then would send in missionaries to build the branches, instead of trying to build branches in old rented, tobacco-soaked lodge halls. The plan was adopted to get the members to share the costs, and as it worked out, because of the tremendous increase in tithing and church membership, the chapel building program paid for itself. In the Northern California Mission President and Sister Ellsworth supervised the building of 16 new chapels, the remodeling of 6, and the purchase of lots for 12.
Mary Smith Ellsworth gave many hours in compassionate service. She took in the sick, homeless, and lonely, young children whose parents couldn’t care for them, immigrants, and many others. At general conference in April 1947, the wife of the German Mission president told of the terrible suffering of the Saints in Germany and especially the need for bedding. Mary raised her hand immediately and said, “Northern California Mission will send 100 quilts!” By the end of June she had collected 145 beautiful quilts and blankets from her mission, and they were shipped to Europe.
In September 1945 President George Albert Smith asked the Ellsworths to come to the Idaho Falls Temple dedication and then October conference. Because she was redecorating and refurbishing the mission home, Mary at first declined. However, President Smith prevailed upon her. She later said she could see the hand of the Lord in his message, because after the dedication she was given a checkup by her physician in Salt Lake City and he discovered she had cancer. She underwent an immediate operation, which was successful, though she once stopped breathing while on the operating table and had to be revived.
Mary lived until June 30, 1953; and at her funeral in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, President McKay declared: “Righteousness and godliness were fixed and guiding stars in Sister Ellsworth’s life. … From girlhood, she had the courage to do right, though none might see her. … She was loyal to her parents, and obedient to the will of her Father in heaven. … Faith, love, and patience were virtues that contributed to her sterling character and outstanding influence. … God bless her for her obedience and the testimony she bore to all the world.”
Mary Rachel Smith Ellsworth left an indelible mark upon the lives of thousands by her words of inspiration and counsel, her obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and her compassionate love and concern for those who needed it.