Elizabeth Francis Yates: Trial by Heartbreak


“I can say that I have seen the hand of the Lord over His people on land and Sea,” wrote Elizabeth Francis Yates on March 12, 1905. “I have seen times when it required faith to believe that our enemies would not triumph over us. … and I can say with one of old ‘That I was Young, and now I am old, but I have never seen the rightous forsaken.’”

She was seventy-two, only five years away from her own death in Salt Lake City, but the sweet simplicity of her patience and faith was not the acquisition of her old age. It was a testimony that had been tried by heartbreak, refined by suffering, and tried again.

Raised in a cultured Church of England home in South Moulton, Devonshire, she was puzzled as a teenager by the contrast of the Bible’s teachings on baptism with those of her faith and “could not enjoy attending church after that.” She married William Williams at age fifteen, and after their first daughter was born, she began hearing about the Mormons.

Initially, Elizabeth was not interested. Even though she was not satisfied with her old church, “it was very respectable, at least.” However, she was too polite to refuse a tract when it was offered, and on a rainy afternoon began reading it. Soon she was absorbed in the account of a debate between Elder John Taylor and some French ministers.

“When I had read it all, I said aloud ‘praise the Lord. I have found the right way at last.’” She attended a meeting where Joseph Smith’s mission was explained. “To say that I was thrilled with joy but feebly expresses my feelings at that time. I could see no other way but to repent of my sins and to be baptized. I knew my people would bitterly oppose it when they knew it, and that my former friends would treat me coldly but it was worse than I ever thought.”

That one sentence, “It was worse than I ever thought,” contains an agony of heartbreak. What it meant was that her mother forbade her to reenter her childhood home. Her husband told her she must choose between her family and her faith; weeping in anguish, she refused to deny her testimony, and he abandoned her and their four little girls. Elizabeth found work in a woolen mill, laboring with the baby in a basket by the loom, and managing to support them all. Seeing her undefeated, William returned and took all four children to London. Under the law, there was nothing she could do to stop him or reclaim them.

She did not falter. Her last moment of hesitation had come on the very brink of her baptism when she looked down into the dark river at midnight, 4 December 1851, and “felt as though I could not possibly go in it, But a Voice seemed to say ‘There is no other way.’” In faith, she took that step. “It seemed after that that every thing had changed. The scales had fallen from my eyes, and the gospel plan was glorious, and I covenanted with My Heavenly Father that however dark the clouds may be, if friends turned to be foes that by His help I would serve Him. And I have tried in my faltering way to do so. I have often made mistakes, and said and done things I have been sorry for, but I have never doubted the truthfullness of this gospel or put stumbling blocks in the way of others.”

She spent the next six years in Bath, living with the family of a missionary, Thomas Yates, and spending her small earnings on a fruitless search for her children. “After years of fasting and prayers, and many tears, the Lord opened the way for me to come to Zion,” with the Yates family and their son Thomas, just back from his 6 1/2 year mission.

We do not know what it cost her to leave England. She only says, “I prayed earnestly to God to help Me in the long tedious journey that was before me, that I may not murmur on the way, or complain if a lion should be in my path, And he answered my prayers, for I saw nothing to murmer at. My heart was filled with gratitude all the way.”

Her son tells us what she, in the patience of her faith, omitted. She nearly died of seasickness, which lasted the entire voyage. She and Thomas were married on the morning of July 22, 1863, in Florence, Nebraska, and began the trek westward that afternoon. When Elizabeth discovered that there was not room for both her and her trunk in the wagon, she thought of her carefully packed china, the loveliest things she owned, and walked every step of the way, “my heart filled with gratitude.”

“Many shed tears of joy,” she says, “on first beholding the City of the saints.” She does not say if she was among them, but she must have been.

That same patience and gratitude deepened the love in her marriage. One daughter, Louise, who later became the seventh general president of the Relief Society, says that the only time she saw Elizabeth cry was when a cat knocked down the shelves in the cabin and broke that precious china. Thomas ordered the first set of Haviland that ZCMI shipped into the territory to replace it—a measure of love indeed, for they were struggling to make a living in Scipio, Utah, where he served as bishop and she as Relief Society president.

One of the tenderest mementos of their marriage is a letter he wrote her when he was working on the railroad in Echo Canyon to pay off his loan with the Perpetual Emigration Fund. We do not know what fears she had shared in a letter to him, but we have his loving reassurance:

“Another thing my darling that I feet sorry about is that you should think I stay out here on account of something you might have said in the past in the way of complaint at not being provided for as well as you could wish, believe me my own darling that such is not the fact at all. I do not remember that at any time you have said anything that could be mistaken for complain[t]. … My darling I love my dear humble home and you my darling wife and our dear little children. I love your society the best of all on earth, and never expect to meet with as much pleasure and happiness in this world as I get in your company.”

The love they had for each other and their five children could not, however, heal the ache in her heart. Her only son, Thomas, remembers hearing her sob in the night and, when he asked why, she said simply, “I was thinking of some little girls I left in England many years ago.”

But her children had not forgotten her, either. Susan, only seven at the time of the separation, ran away when she was eleven and sought refuge with a Mormon family, hoping to find a trace of her Mormon mother. The baby was already dead; another daughter would die a few years later. But about 1870, a missionary met Susie Williams and mentioned her to the Yates family in Scipio. With so fragile a clue, mother and daughter were reunited.

Susan did not stop searching for her sister. William, determined that the last daughter should never see her mother, took her away from England—ironically, to America, where Susan found her in Michigan through a newspaper advertisement. She joined them in Utah; all four daughters were sealed to Thomas and Elizabeth. “I have never,” Elizabeth seems to repeat, “seen the rightous forsaken.”

Sources: “Short Sketch of Life of Elizabeth F. Yates”; “Elizabeth Francis Yates, compiled by her son, Thomas J. Yates”; “Reminiscence of Louise Yates Robison”;“ Letter from Thomas S. Yates to Elizabeth Francis Yates, 21 December 1868”; all found in “Born of Goodly Parents,” the Life and Family of Louise Yates Robison, Gladys Robison Winter, compiler, in the Church Archives, Church Historical Department.

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard D. Hull