Margaret McNeil Ballard’s Legacy of Faith


M. Russell Ballard
She walked across the plains, then helped her family and her new community survive.

On a spring morning in 1854, the McNeil family stood by the sea to watch eight-year-old Margaret be baptized. It was so early that they had carried a lantern on their walk from the little village of Tranent, Scotland. The water was chilly as Margaret stepped into the sea with her father.

“As I came up out of the water,” she later wrote, “the day was just beginning to dawn and the light to creep over the eastern hills. It was a very beautiful sight, one that I shall never forget. At this time I was filled with a sweet heavenly spirit which has remained with me to this day.” (Autobiography of Margaret McNeil Ballard, pp. 1–2.)

More than a century and a quarter later, I, too, feel something of that heavenly spirit whenever I read about my great-grandmother Margaret McNeil Ballard, whose faith and tenacity have brought eternal blessings to me and others of her posterity.

Several years after she was baptized, Margaret and her family emigrated to be with the Saints. They joined a wagon company and settled in Cache Valley, where Margaret married Henry Ballard. Margaret was Relief Society president for thirty years; Henry was bishop for thirty-nine.

In 1979, I was privileged to speak in the rededicatory service of the Logan Temple. Standing in that holy building, I felt close to my noble great-grandparents, who had helped build and furnish it and who had served there faithfully for many years. Great-grandmother Margaret led the group of sisters that wove thousands of yards of fine rag carpeting to cover the floors of the Logan Temple. Great-grandfather Henry hauled the first load of sand used to build that temple. Then, as bishop, he wrote many recommends for its dedication in 1884.

I believe that Heavenly Father binds us to our kindred dead in many ways. I feel bound to Great-grandmother Ballard by the priesthood sealing ordinances. I also feel bound to her faith, which I have learned about through her own written words and those of other family members who have recorded her history.

Margaret was just ten when her family left Scotland and started for Utah. “I was … somewhat of a venturesome spirit,” she wrote. (Except where noted, all quotations are from Margaret Ballard’s autobiography.) The journey held more than enough drama to suit her. From Liverpool to New York, she cooked for and took care of her seasick family. Later, all the McNeil children except Margaret caught the measles.

Once, the McNeil wagon was delayed by runaway oxen, but Margaret was sent ahead to join the main part of the company with four-year-old James strapped to her back. That evening, she recorded, “A kind lady helped me take my brother off my back and I sat up and held him on my lap.” In the morning, people in the company shared bacon and bread with her and James.

Margaret carried her precious load for about a week. “Each morning one of the men would write a note and put it in the slit of a willow stuck into the ground, to tell how we were getting along. In this way mother knew that we were alright.”

After the family was together again, Margaret was charged with caring for the family cow. Wakening early, she would hurry the cow ahead of the company so it could eat in the grassy places along the way. Then, as the company caught up with and passed her, she would hurry the cow along to catch up. “Being alone much of the time,” she wrote, “I had to get across the rivers the best I could. Our cow was a Jersey and had a long tail. When it was necessary to cross the rivers I would wind the end of the cow’s tail around my hand and swim across … with the cow.”

One evening when she was looking for the cow, she felt something soft under her bare feet. She looked down and found to her horror that she was standing in a bed of snakes. “At the sight of them I became so weak I could scarcely move,” she wrote. “All I could think of was to pray, and in some way I jumped out of them.” Whether it was escaping from Indians or finding a lost animal, Margaret continually sought and acknowledged the Lord’s protecting care.

After arriving in Utah, the family—penniless and almost starving—camped near the outskirts of Ogden. While her father went into town to look for work, Margaret went to a nearby house to beg for food. “I knocked at the door and an old lady came and said, ‘Come in, come in, I knew you were coming and have been told to give you food.’” The woman gave her a loaf of fresh bread to take to her family and soon came herself to bring the McNeils a hot meal. “The woman was surely inspired of the Lord to help us,” wrote Margaret.

On their way from Ogden to Cache Valley, the McNeil family met Henry Ballard, who was returning from general conference in Salt Lake City. He helped the McNeils along their way. Margaret recorded, “I was a little barefooted, sun-burned girl, driving my cow along the country road, but it was made known to my mother and to [Henry] at that time that I would someday be his wife.” She married Henry less than two years later, when she was fifteen.

After the family reached Logan in October 1859, the McNeils built a log house, with doors and windows made of woven willow branches plastered with clay. All that winter, Margaret carried the family’s water from the river three blocks away. She had no shoes, and her feet, even wrapped in rags, left bloodstains on the snow.

In the spring, she drove the cattle while her father held the plow to break ground for the first crops planted in Logan. “I have seen the heavens darkened with the grasshoppers until one would think it was midnight,” she recalled. She would use willow branches to drive the grasshoppers into trenches and then bury them alive.

Perhaps it was her own plentiful hardships that attuned Margaret so keenly to others in difficulty. A few years after her marriage, when she was expecting their first child, Henry and Margaret were raising a fine steer to sell in order to buy material for baby clothes. One day Henry came home and told Margaret that a family they knew in Logan had suffered a great financial loss and that the townspeople had been called upon to support them.

The Ballards had a winter’s supply of food, but no money, and only the steer to sell. She was disappointed but said, “Give it, Henry, we will find some way.” After Henry left the house, she found two of his old homespun woolen shirts. “I … pulled down the blinds … so that no one would see me try my hand at a new art, I spread the shirts on the floor and without a pattern cut out two little dresses and sewed them by hand. This was about all the clothes I had for my first child.”

Margaret’s greatest sorrows were the deaths of five of her eleven children. But even in this, the Lord did not fail her. Ten days before her daughter Ella died, Margaret had a dream concerning her children that she could not interpret. After Ella’s death, Margaret went to the temple to complete ordinance work for her. While there, she prayed to know the meaning of her dream and was given a vision. “I was shown that my five beautiful children were saved and that they would be mine again. This was a great comfort to me, and I felt to praise my God for taking them, that through loosing them I might have them again.”

Several years earlier, Margaret had received another spiritual blessing after a great trial. She had become ill during a pregnancy and was confined to her bed. She had previously lost two children in infancy and had had several miscarriages. One day, when Henry took the children to see a parade, Margaret raised herself from her bed and crawled to the door to lock it so that she could pray undisturbed. Calling to remembrance her willingness to bear children, she begged for help and asked to know her standing before God.

“A voice spoke plainly to her, saying, ‘Be of good cheer. Your life is acceptable, and you will bear a son who will become an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.’” (Sketches from the Life of Margaret McNeil Ballard, p. 3.) Margaret recovered and bore a healthy son, Melvin Joseph, whom she gave to the work of the Lord. Although Margaret recorded this experience, she never revealed it. Family members discovered it in her personal papers after her death. In 1919, Melvin J. Ballard was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—a year after his mother died.

Great-grandmother Ballard also used the spiritual gift of healing, as she had been promised in her patriarchal blessing. She recorded that once, when her husband lay near death, she heard a voice instruct her to pray for him. Feeling timid about doing so because he had just been administered to, she hesitated. But when the voice came twice more, she obeyed. “The Spirit of the Holy Ghost was with me and I was filled with a Divine strength,” she wrote. “When I had finished my husband had gone to sleep and slept quietly.” She also recorded incidents when her son Melvin and her son Henry were healed through her faith.

Through a lifetime of following the Spirit’s promptings, Margaret developed an unwavering faith. When her son Melvin J. was presiding over the Northwestern States Mission, she visited him in Portland, Oregon. Among her most gratifying experiences was attending street meetings with the missionaries, bearing her testimony to “throngs of people crowded in the streets.” She wrote, “In my weak way I feel that I have assisted in the spread of truth.”

Margaret Ballard’s soul delighted as much in beauty as in truth. Her garden was a work of art—her violets and roses were unsurpassed in Logan. Her granddaughters also delighted in receiving her Christmas gifts, “drawn-work” handkerchiefs she stitched for them and bottles of carnation or lily-of-the-valley perfume.

Throughout her life, she prized her independence. Approaching seventy, she asked her sons to remove a partition in her home to make her sitting room more spacious. When they failed to do it after several months, she did the job herself.

Above all, she valued her knowledge of the gospel. “My testimony of the truthfullness of the Gospel grows stronger each day,” she wrote in her later years. “And the work grows dearer and sweeter to my soul.” Her autobiography ends with a fervent plea to her posterity: “I plead of you all to heed the spirit of God that you may also have this testimony burning in your hearts, that you may have His Spirit as your daily companion.”

The faith of Margaret McNeil Ballard binds me to her and increases my own faith in God, whose power binds the generations together through sacred ordinances.

[photo] Margaret McNeil Ballard between 1886 and 1891; she was between forty and forty-five when this photograph was taken.

[illustrations] From crossing the plains as a girl to bearing her testimony in street meetings when her son presided over the Northwestern States Mission, Margaret displayed unwavering faith and trust in the Lord. (Illustrated by Robert Barrett.) Inset: Grandma Margaret, by Kaye Groll

[photos] Right: Margaret and Henry Ballard, about 1867. Margaret was twenty-one years old. Below: Margaret with her children in 1886. Standing, from left, are Rebecca Ann, Melvin Joseph, Henry William, Thomas McNeil, and Ellen Phoebe. Seated are Lettie May and Margaret holding Mary Myrtle.