Latter-day Saint pioneer Mary Ann Angell Young was a living testament that faith in God and his gospel is reason enough to endure any number of hardships with dignity, patience, and unwavering hope. So deep and steady was her devotion to the gospel that no extremity of persecution, toil, illness, or separation from loved ones in life or in death disturbed her faith. She endured countless trials and privations not by dint of sheer stoic resignation, but with a tempered and whole-souled trust in the Lord.
Born in Seneca, Ontario County, New York, in 1803, Mary Ann was reared under the wise hand of God-fearing parents. Years after the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, Mary Ann joined the Free Will Baptist Church there and taught in the Sunday School. Like her parents (also members of that denomination), she continued to develop a keen interest in the Bible.
“Her study of the scriptures, especially the prophecies, so engrossed her mind, that she confidently looked for their fulfillment, in consequence of which she resolved never to marry until she should ‘meet a man of God.’” 1 That crowning blessing came years later, shortly after her conversion to the restored gospel.
Mary Ann learned of the Book of Mormon when Elder Thomas B. Marsh preached of the Restoration in Providence in 1830. From him she requested a copy of the sacred book, which she prayerfully read and believed in. “She testified many times that the Spirit bore witness to her when she took the Book of Mormon in her hands, of the truth of its origin, so strongly that she could never afterwards doubt it,” wrote her biographer, Emmeline B. Wells.2
Two years later Mary Ann journeyed to her native New York to investigate the new religion firsthand. Her parents, who were visiting friends near Palmyra, the “Cradle of the Restoration,” had not told her enough about the new faith in their letters to satisfy her. So she joined her parents, and together they heard and embraced the restored gospel and were baptized by Elder John P. Greene, a brother-in-law of Brigham Young.
Because her parents were not ready to gather with the Saints in Ohio in 1833, Mary Ann struck out for Kirtland alone. There, at the age of thirty, she met her “man of God” for whom she had waited so long. Hearing Brigham Young preach, she “instinctively felt drawn towards him, and … admired him so much, that when … he asked her to be his wife she unhesitatingly consented, feeling confident he was her true mate.”3
After a brief courtship, they were married on 18 February 1834, two years after the death of Brigham’s first wife, Miriam Works, who died of chronic tuberculosis, leaving Brigham with two young daughters. Brigham wrote in his diary that Mary Ann “took charge of my children, kept my house, and labored faithfully for the interest of my family and the kingdom.”4
Although the newlyweds were not strangers to hardship, they had not been targets of persecution, hatred, and threats of bodily harm and death. But perilous times soon befell them. Mary Ann scarcely had time to organize her home before Brigham marched with Zion’s Camp, and mob troubles escalated in Ohio and Missouri.
In December 1837 Joseph Smith cut off from the Church approximately forty to fifty dissenters in a “high and mighty pruning.”5 This action brought persecution to Brigham, who had vigorously testified against the malcontents and defended the Prophet. His life in peril, Brigham fled Kirtland on December 22. Shortly thereafter, Joseph and other faithful members left the area as well.
During that winter, Mary Ann and her five children had to fend for themselves while apostates terrorized them, ransacking their home in the pretended belief that Brigham was hiding there. The tormentors “used ’threats and vile language’ that undid [Mary Ann’s] emotions until her health became frail. This was, she later told her biographer, ‘undoubtedly the severest trial of my life.’” 6
In February 1838 Mary Ann, now suffering from “consumption” (tuberculosis), gathered her children and what few possessions the mob had not taken and undertook the long, difficult journey to Richmond, Missouri, to rejoin her husband. “He was so … shocked at the change in her appearance that his first exclamation was, ‘You look as if you were almost in your grave.’”7
Brigham could now devote himself to nursing Mary Ann to good health. The Lord also knew of her desperate need for relief and care. On 17 April 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation temporarily relieving Brigham from his heavy Church responsibilities, thus allowing him to care primarily for his family and ailing wife.8
That salutary respite was short-lived. Tensions and hostilities between the Saints and Missourians increased until, in October 1838, Church members were again expelled from their homes. Then, in February 1839, the Young family and other Saints left Far West and braved the winter cold to seek refuge in Illinois. Their wagons and animals confiscated, most of the destitute Saints walked.
In this difficult exodus, Brigham Young would push ahead with his family, find lodging for them, and then return to escort the weaker and orphaned Saints onward as well. Mary Ann and the children lived in eleven different quarters during the three-month ordeal.
Ten days after Mary Ann gave birth to Emma Alice in Montrose, Iowa Territory, on 4 September 1839, duty again called her husband away—on a mission to England. Brigham was so ill that he could not walk to the river without help; his whole family languished with sickness as well.
“In this emergency Sister Young trusted in God, and … rejoiced that she had the opportunity to cross the river to see her husband once more before his departure to a foreign land.”
At the sad parting, Mary Ann said to Elder Young, “Go and fill your mission, and the Lord will bless you, and I will do the best I can for myself and the children.”9
Between Nauvoo and Montrose, the Mississippi River is a mile wide. Necessity often required Mary Ann to make the dangerous river crossing in a skiff to obtain food. One day in late November 1839, Mary Ann was suffering from the ague (malaria), and her hungry children were crying for food.
Mary Ann tossed a tattered blanket into the boat and wrapped another around herself and the infant Emma Alice. A winter storm had come up, and a stiff northwesterly wind swept across the river. Wearing a thin cotton dress and shawl, Mary Ann rowed into wind-whipped waves that soaked her and her baby.
Finally Mary Ann reached Nauvoo and visited a friend who fed her. “Sister Young came into my house … with her baby Alice in her arms, almost fainting with cold and hunger, and dripping wet … ,” this sister recorded. “I tried to persuade her to stay, but she refused, saying, ‘the children at home are hungry, too.’ I shall never forget how she looked, shivering with cold and thinly clad. … She came back [from the tithing office] with a few potatoes and a little flour, for which she seemed very grateful, and … weak as she was from ague and fever, wended her way to the river bank to row home again.”10
After his return from England, Brigham became ill with what is thought to be scarlet fever. It was winter, and the family was living in a log cabin that had a blanket for a door.
“When the fever left me on the eighteenth day,” Brigham wrote, “I was … so near gone that I could not close my eyes, … and my breath stopped. … [Mary Ann] threw some cold water in my face; that having no effect, she dashed a handful of strong camphor into my face and eyes, which I did not feel in the least. … She then held my nostrils … , and placing her mouth directly over mine, blew into my lungs until she filled them with air. This set my lungs in motion, and I again began to breathe.”11 That inspired treatment, now a common resuscitative technique, was not known or practiced until the twentieth century.
Brigham later built his family a new home in Nauvoo, and a degree of peace and prosperity surrounded the growing city. However, before long, opposition mounted against the Saints until once again they were forced from their homes in midwinter.
On the trail west, Mary Ann put her healing talent to frequent use. She nursed “Colonel” Thomas L. Kane to health, after which he decided to devote himself to helping the Saints and other oppressed people. She also helped restore Eliza R. Snow’s health.
In Winter Quarters, Nebraska, “Sister Young performed a noble mission; there was sickness in almost every log cabin in the settlement, and provisions were scarce and comforts there were none. … Inquiring into their needs and bestowing medicine and attention wherever she could, [Mary Ann] was an angel of mercy in very deed.”12
Mary Ann did not leave for the Great Salt Lake Valley with her husband in the spring of 1847. Instead, she stayed behind, caring for the children and others.
Three weeks after arriving in Salt Lake Valley, President Young returned for his family. Together they reached their new home in Utah on 20 September 1848. Considering the privations and trials of the past, the family lived in relative peace and prosperity for many years. Yet her prosperity did not alter “her demeanor towards her … neighbors. The poor were her especial care and none were turned [away] empty.”13
Mary Ann bore six children and cared for her two adopted daughters as well; her son Brigham Young, Jr., became an Apostle.
Mary Ann survived her husband by five years. Two years before her death on 27 June 1882, continual physical ailments caused her great suffering, as did later “severe pain which she bore with great patience and the most perfect resignation to the will of her heavenly Father.”14
Despite the tribulation in her life, Mary Ann demonstrated an unshakable reliance on the Lord. Her character never failed her; her faith never faltered. She passed through a host of hardships with extraordinary steadiness and acceptance, “always [looking] upward from whence help would come.”15
Her example awes us, and we feel compelled to ask how she managed to never complain but to be “ever cheerful and buoyant.”16 And yet we know the answer.
Surely the primary bulwark of her faith and fortitude through her darkest hours was her testimony. She testified that she knew “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that Brigham Young is his rightful successor, by testimony upon testimony of the fulfillment of prophecies uttered by these leaders of the people. I know it for myself, and I bear this testimony to all the world, that this is the everlasting Gospel, revealed by the power of God’s inspiration and the visitation of angels in the dispensation of the fullness of times.”17