What were Joseph Smith’s sisters like, and what happened to them after the martyrdom?

Print Share

    Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of religion and history, Brigham Young University When Joseph Smith obtained the plates in 1827, his older sister, Sophronia, was twenty-four and his younger sisters, Katharine and Lucy, fourteen and six. All three joined the Church and proved their sincerity through sacrifices and persecution, though none came west. Their solid family loyalty through affliction is a main theme of their lives.

    Before the Church was organized, Sophronia married Calvin Stoddard on 2 December 1828. Daughters came in 1830 and 1832, one of whom lived to care for Sophronia in mature years. After the Church moved to Kirtland, Katharine, almost eighteen, married Wilkins Jenkins Salisbury on 8 June 1831. Three of their eight children were born in Kirtland.

    Jenkins faithfully marched to Missouri with Zion’s Camp and was shortly thereafter ordained a seventy. But both men allowed problems to develop in their marriages and with the church. Jenkins Salisbury was excommunicated by the Kirtland High Council in 1836 after confessing to “talebearing and drinking strong liquor.” The High Council minutes also add substantial testimony by Joseph and Hyrum Smith that he had intermittently deserted his family. A few years earlier, these same minutes record that Calvin Stoddard had surrendered his preaching license for inactivity and transgression. These unfortunate facts explain the patriarchal blessings given by Joseph Smith, Sr., in Kirtland. Sophronia’s says she had endured “much sickness and much sorrow because of the conduct of thy husband.” And Katharine’s blessing similarly suggests her burden: “my heart mourns for thee in consequence of the transgression of thy husband.”

    Yet both husbands were promised blessings if they repented. Jenkins Salisbury remained loyal enough to take his family to Missouri in 1838, then into Illinois. But Calvin Stoddard died 19 Nov. 1836. Sophronia married William McCleary in Ohio on 11 Feb. 1838. The couple apparently had no children. William also took his small family into Missouri and then Illinois. In the meantime Sophronia showed great faith in a healing that Lucy Mack Smith’s manuscript history relates in detail. The doctor had finally left the weakened woman alone because “he could be of no service to her.” Apparently dying, Sophronia lay immovable for days. Mother Smith trusted Jared Carter, and asked him to administer to Sophronia with “my husband” and several others, “that by their united faith she might be healed.” A half hour after this was done Sophronia quietly assured her mother: “I shall get well … but the Lord will heal me gradually.” The same day she sat up, and three days later was strong enough to begin to walk.

    The parents and sisters’ families were together in the 1838 move to Missouri. Katharine bore a son in a hovel in the driving rain with help and prayers from her mother and Sophronia.

    We get our first glimpses of Lucy, then in her late teens, during the 1839 migration and settlement in Illinois: losing her shoes in the icy mud near their Mississippi crossing, fainting at Quincy after running to tell Hyrum’s wife that Joseph and Hyrum were released from prison, later suddenly overcoming her sickness in the excitement of hearing Joseph’s voice on a visit. When Lucy was almost nineteen, her prophet-brother performed Lucy’s marriage to Arthur Millikin, a “clerk,” according to Nauvoo records.

    The Smith family appreciated Arthur’s kindness. Three months after Lucy’s marriage in 1840, Joseph Smith, Sr., died. Living in Nauvoo, Lucy and Arthur took major responsibility in caring for the widowed and ailing mother, with the help of visiting Sophronia. In her manuscript, Lucy Smith paid heartfelt tribute to these individuals: “Faithfully did they watch over me; never was a disconsolate widow more blessed in her children than I was in them.”

    We see the sisters next in the official records of the newly revealed temple ordinances. In 1840 Lucy Smith Millikin assisted her mother in baptisms for the dead for the Mack family, being proxy in the baptism for her mother’s older sister Lovina, a remarkably spiritual woman. After the martyrdom, the Nauvoo Temple was complete enough that thousands of sealings and endowments could be done. Sophronia and her second husband William McCleary received the “endowment,” which is recorded in temple records as distinct from their “anointings” and their “washings.” All of these ceremonies named in D&C 124:39 were performed for the McClearys 23 December 1845, and their marriage was sealed for eternity a month later, 27 January 1846.

    Post-martyrdom temple records also indicate the family’s degree of harmony with the Twelve, whom the Church had sustained to succeed Joseph. Mother Lucy, Sophronia and husband, together with the widows of Hyrum, Samuel, and Don Carlos participated in the Nauvoo endowments and sealings. But Emma, the Millikins and the Salisburys are absent from these records.

    Why did only the families of Samuel and Hyrum come west? Mother Lucy Smith expressed her hope to do so in her 1845 conference address. In recounting her family’s sacrifices she underlined those of the Smith women: “I have three daughters at home. They have never had anything but have worked for the church.” Yet the seventy-year-old mother was physically and emotionally dependent on Emma and her daughters, who did not go west. With blatant self-aggrandizement, the surviving son William worked for Smith dominance, forcing the Twelve to discipline him. Unwilling to accept their direction, he pitted family loyalty tragically against church loyalty. Details are unclear for each sister, but either family feeling or the inertia of poverty prevented their coming west. Then as years passed and children’s families grew, it was emotionally impossible to sever connections and move. Yet no doubt appears in historical records of their total faith in the divine calling of their brother Joseph.

    The Reorganized Church was officially founded on the claim of family succession sixteen years after the martyrdom. But it was not until 1873, another thirteen years, that the sisters enrolled in the Reorganization. Some evidence suggests that Katharine Salisbury and Lucy Millikin earlier believed in the theory of family succession to the presidency.

    But the dozen-year delay in joining the RLDS Church suggests conversion to, not historical knowledge of, that concept. In addition, the antipolygamy program of the Reorganization may have appealed to Katharine and Lucy. Katharine made an affidavit in 1893 disclaiming knowledge of that doctrine from her brother Joseph. Katharine lived thirty miles away, at Plymouth, Illinois, until after the martyrdom, and Joseph shared his revelations only with the trusted inner-circle of leadership. Furthermore, we simply do not know how significant RLDS theology was for Joseph Smith’s sisters.

    We have even less information about Sophronia’s views. Perhaps she simply joined an available church, oriented to her family associations.

    The affection of the Smith sisters for their Utah relatives is on record through visits of cousin George A. Smith, plus nephews Joseph F. Smith, Samuel H. B. Smith, and others. These men and other Mormon missionaries describe Sophronia’s hospitality in letters home. Her husband, William McCleary, made wagons for the 1846 exodus, then died a few years later. By 1850 Sophronia and her surviving daughter were living with her sister Lucy, and Sophronia went to live with her daughter when she married. When she died in 1876, a relative wrote: “She was ever ready to bear her testimony to the truth of the work, and she fell asleep in Christ without a struggle, with full hope of being raised in the first resurrection.”

    Lucy Millikin’s life is more visible. She was physically tall and personally generous. Joseph Smith III considered his aunt “one of the most pleasant-mannered women I have known.” Mother of nine children born between 1843 and 1865, she also cared about her larger family, especially aging Mother Smith, who lived seven years with Lucy before moving back to spend her final years in Nauvoo with Emma. Arthur Millikin supported his family after the martyrdom as a saddler and harness maker; later he worked in railroad and coal company offices in the Colchester mining area east of Hancock County.

    Elder George Spiller, visiting in 1856, gives us a glimpse of the Millikin family’s faith a dozen years after the martyrdom: “They testified that they knew that their brother Joseph was a prophet of God, and when I took my departure they earnestly requested me to pay them another visit as soon as I could.” Another significant insight comes from an 1860 letter of Joseph F. Smith, who was dismayed at the prejudice against the Utah family generally shown by the Illinois Smiths, with an outstanding exception: “Aunt Lucy said, as soon as she got hold of my hand, she felt she had been mistaken and she greeted me warmly.”

    Both Arthur and Lucy Millikin died of respiratory disease in 1882. Relatives said that Lucy’s infection came from prolonged care of a sick daughter-in-law.

    Katharine Salisbury was the last surviving sister. She and her blacksmith husband appear in Hancock Company in the 1850 census. These were days of ostracism and danger for known Mormons, and her family had repeatedly received threatening messages to move on. Katharine had borne eight children before Jenkins died in 1856, and she lived with rich family relationships to her death in 1900. With good health until the end, she dramatically fulfilled her father’s 1834 blessing that she would “live to a good old age.” Enlivening her final years were annual birthday celebrations, where descendants gathered to honor Katharine and hear her bear her testimony. She lived to see many newspaper articles honoring her integrity in the area once so unfriendly to her family.

    On her eightieth birthday a reporter described Katharine as “a tall woman, with one of those clear, pink and white complexions so charming in an old lady. Her eyes are blue and her face is a pleasant one. She wears her gray hair, in which there are yet traces of gold, in a coil.”

    Hostility to Brigham Young was a virtual tenet of the earliest Reorganized Church, but that pattern did not fit Katharine. In her widow’s need she wrote President Young for assistance in purchasing a house in 1871. He answered with $200 and an assuring letter, followed later by additional hundreds to help Katharine consolidate her land. Notes of appreciation are preserved in LDS archives addressing “Brother Brigham.” In them Katharine prays for “the blessing of heaven” to be with President Young “and all the church.” When an additional gift was carried by cousin George A. Smith, she expressed “unbounded” gratitude and emphasized, “it seemed like old times to meet with the Servant of the Lord.”

    A dozen years later, in 1885, Elder Victor E. Bean visited Katharine’s farm. His doctrinal debate with her son was unproductive, but as he bade Katharine goodbye, he asked whether she would ever come to Utah to visit her relatives: “She began to sob and said, to have the elders call on her, traveling as we were, carried her mind back to early days when her brothers used to go in the same way to preach the gospel.” She related how grateful she still was to President Young, how she wished to visit Utah but feared that her poverty and age would prevent it, how she welcomed further missionary visits. The elders left her “in tears, and she desired an interest in our prayers.”

    Thus Katharine from time to time included western Mormons in full fellowship and, like her sisters, based her faith on personal experience. Descendants reported her testimony—that she was in the house when Joseph, bruised and breathless, brought in the plates. Like Emma and William Smith she was not allowed to see, but lifted them to find that they were “heavy.” In 1894 a reporter published the convictions that Katharine shared with all of her brothers and sisters: “She was a member of her father’s family when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon. She speaks of him as being an intelligent, honest and upright man. She is now and always has been a firm believer in the mission of her brother, and because of this belief she and her family have suffered much from the hands of fanatic men.”

    Source note: Journals, minutes, and letters quoted are found at the Church Historical Department, as are the Herbert S. Salisbury papers that pertain to his grandmother, and the ms. version of Lucy Smith’s history. Other family information has come through the contacts of the author or Buddy Youngreen, leading expert on Smith family descendants. For the Joseph Smith III comment, see Mary Audentia Smith Anderson (ed), Joseph Smith III and the Restoration (Independence, Mo., 1952), p. 118. The final two newspaper sources are Chicago Record, 26 Aug. 1893, and Saturday Evening Post (Burlington, Iowa, 10 Mar. 1894). Sophronia’s quoted obituary is in Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1876. The spelling of “Katharine” varies, but I have used that found in Kirtland documents, in her signature on the Brigham Young letters, and on her gravestone.