Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner

FYI: MCQ concludes his guest-posting with us. Thanks MCQ!.

As I mentioned in the thread to Kevin’s post, my wife is a descendant of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. You may not believe this now, but I have been preparing a post on Mary Elizabeth for about a week. After obnoxiously jacking Kevin’s thread, I figured I better hurry up and get the post done.

When I first learned that she was my wife’s ggg-grandmother, I had no idea who Mary Elizabeth was, despite the fact that I had grown up in the Church. We tend not to talk much about our female heroes, especially the ones that were involved in practices with which we are currently uncomfortable. Well, the more I learned about her, the more I realized that Mary Elizabeth is surely one of our heroes, and we ought to talk about her, and many others like her, a lot more.

She was born in Lima, New York, April 9, 1818. Mary Elizabeth was one of the first persons to read a copy of the Book of Mormon, even though she was only twelve years old when she was baptized and came in contact with it. She first met the Prophet Joseph just after this time. He was astonished to find a Book of Mormon in her family’s house. He was told of her great desire to read it and that this was the reason that it had been given to her by the person to whom Joseph had sent it. He sent for her:

After a moment or two he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great blessing, the first I ever received, and made me a present of the book, and said he would give Brother Morley another. He came in time to rebuke the evil spirits, and set the church in order. We all felt that he was a man of God, for he spoke with power, and as one having authority in very deed.

She moved with the saints to Jackson County in 1831 and there received the ability to interpret when members of the Church spoke in tongues. Though Oliver Cowdery protested her interpretations to the Prophet, Joseph confirmed her gift.

She witnessed the persecution of the saints in Jackson County and risked her life there for the first time in defense of her religion in an incident that is perhaps the most famous one from her life:

The mob renewed their efforts again by tearing down the printing office, a two story building, and driving Brother Phelps’ family out of the lower part of the house and putting their things in the street. They brought out some large sheets of paper, and said, “Here are the Mormon Commandments.” My sister Caroline and myself were in a corner of a fence watching them; when they spoke of the commandments I was determined to have some of them. Sister said if I went to get any of them she would go too, but said “They will kill us.” While their backs were turned, prying out the gable end of the house, we went, and got our arms full, and were turning away, when some of the mob saw us and called on us to stop, but we ran as fast as we could.

In this way, she and her sister rescued some of the printed pages of the “Book of Commandments” (later D&C) from the mob.

In August 1835 she married Adam Lightner of Liberty, Mo. Adam was not a member of the church but was friendly with the saints from the beginning of their marriage and the couple moved to Far West where they ran a store in the Mormon community and Mary Elizabeth bore her first child. Adam was trusted by the saints and he risked his life by purchasing gunpowder and smuggling it through hostile territory to get it back to Far West so that the saints could defend themselves from the mob. After Haun’s Mill, the state militia came to Far West with a cannon to level the town and instructions to spare only two (non-member) families, hers being one of them for Adam remained steadfastly unbaptized:

A part of the bloodthirsty mob camped near the city and placed a cannon in the middle of the road, intending to blow up the place. Then they sent in a flag of truce, demanding an interview with John Cleminson and wife, and Adam Lightner and wife. We went a short distance to meet them. We saw a number of the brethren standing around the place of meeting, well armed. As we approached, General Clark shook hands with the two men, being old acquaintances, and remarked that Governor Boggs had given him an order for our safe removal before they destroyed the place. … I asked the General if he would let all the Mormon women and children go out? He said, “No.” “Will you let my mother’s family go out?” He said, “The Governor’s orders were that no one but our two families should go but all were to be destroyed.” “Then, if that is the case, I refuse to go, for where they die, I will die, for I am a full blooded Mormon, and I am not ashamed to own it.” “Oh,” said he, “you are infatuated, your Prophet will be killed with the rest.” Said I, “If you kill him today, God will raise up another tomorrow.” “But think of your husband and child.” I then said that he could go, and take the child with him, if he wanted to, but I would suffer with the rest.

Far West was spared the cannon, but of course Joseph and others were arrested and spent a long time in jail while the saints were forced to leave Missouri. Mary and Adam went first to Lexington, KY and tried to make a living there and other places, but eventually ended up in Nauvoo. By that time, Mary Elizabeth had borne a daughter, Caroline, and was pregnant with another boy, to be named George Algernon, when she arrived in Nauvoo in January 1842.

The shock of her life awaited her there, for Joseph soon told her that he had been commanded to take plural wives and that she was the first wife he had been commanded to take, but that she had been far away at the time and this was the first opportunity he had to tell her. He told her an angel had appeared to him multiple times and commanded him that he must obey this principle or be killed. Mary Elizabeth’s reaction was predictable:

“Well,” said I, “don’t you think it was an angel of the devil that told you these things?” Said he, “No, it was an angel of God. God Almighty showed me the difference between an angel of light and Satan’s angels. The angel came to me three times between the years of 1834 and 1842 and said I was to obey that principle or he would slay me. “But,” said he, “they called me a false and fallen prophet but I am more in favor with my God this day than I ever was in all my life before. I know that I shall be saved in the Kingdom of God. I have the oath of God upon it and God cannot lie; all that he gives me I shall take with me for I have that authority and that power conferred upon me.”

Well, I talked with him for a long time and finally I told him I would never be sealed to him until I had a witness. Said he, “You shall have a witness.”

Mary Elizabeth prayed to receive a witness of the truth of Joseph’s words and was visited by an angel, whom she claimed was also seen by her aunt. She agreed to marry the Prophet and was sealed to him by Brigham Young in February of 1842. Â She was about eight months pregnant at the time, and her baby, George Algernon was born in March. By July of that year, Adam found work upriver in Pontoosuc and wanted to take the family there. By this time, Mary Elizabeth was already pregnant with another child, whom she would call Florentine Mathias. If she bore a child fathered by Joseph, it would have to be this child, but throughout her long life, though she spoke many times and very proudly of being married to the Prophet, she never mentioned a sexual relationship with him, nor that she ever had a child fathered by Joseph.

The Prophet Joseph, on learning that we were going to leave there, felt very sad, and while the tears ran down his cheeks, he prophesied that if we attempted to leave the Church we would have plenty of sorrow; for we would make property on the right hand and lose it on the left, we would have sickness on sickness, and lose our children, and that I would have to work harder than I ever dreamed of; and, “At last when you are worn out, and almost ready to die, you will get back to the Church.” I thought these were hard sayings and felt to doubt them. But the sequel proved them true.

After one last attempt by the Prophet to get Adam baptized (which I described on the thread to Kevin’s post), the family left for Pontoosuc, only to have one calamity after another, including the death of one child by illness, their house being struck by lightning and the death of two other children (including Florentine) by poisoning. In 1844, Mary Elizabeth was approached by men going to kill the Prophet and was actually forced to make a flag for them to carry. After the Prophet’s death, she wanted to attend his funeral but was prevented by these men who said they would kill anyone going to the funeral. Later, Mary Elizabeth became deathly ill:

I prayed for help to get well, but the doctor coming in, said there was no hope for me. But I dreamed that an angel came to me and said if I would go to Nauvoo and call for a Brother Cutler, that worked on the temple, to administer to me, I should be healed. But we could get no team to go. I was in despair; however, my brother was impressed to send for me, he felt that something was wrong, so he sent a boy with an ox team after me. I was so glad, that for a few moments I felt new life. But the people said I would not get a mile from town when he would have to bring back my dead body. But I said I wanted to be buried in Nauvoo, and pleaded with them to take me there, dead or alive.

So after fixing a bed in the wagon, they placed me on it; the neighbors bid me goodbye as they supposed for the last time (they were not of our faith). We went a mile and stopped the team; they thought me dying, all the children were crying. I had my senses and motioned for them to go on. We went a few miles further, stopped at a house and asked to stay all night. The woman was willing until she saw me. She said I would die before morning, and she did not want me to die in her house. Mr. Lightner told her that I would certainly die if I was left in the open wagon all night. She finally let us in. She made us as comfortable as she could and fixed me some light food; after drinking some tea, I felt better and had a good night’s rest; but she was glad when we left, for she thought I would never see Nauvoo. After traveling a few miles further, we finally reached Nauvoo. They still thought me dying. Mr. Lightner asked Brother Burt if there was an old man by the name of Cutler working on the temple. He said “Yes.” Mr. Lightner told him my dream; soon they brought him, he administered to me and I got up and walked to the fire, alone. In two weeks I was able to take care of my children.

Mary Elizabeth eventually travelled with her family to Utah and settled in Minersville in Southern Utah. She lived to be 95 years old and was the last of Joseph’s wives to die. Before she died, she had a vision of the prophet, as had been promised to her by Heber C. Kimball before he died:

Suddenly I saw just outside the door three men. They stood about two feet from the ground. These men were the Prophet Joseph, his brother Hyrum and Heber C. Kimball. Joseph stood in the middle with an arm around each of their shoulders. They were bowing and smiling at me … Now I was looking into those clear blue penetrating eyes as I had done years ago when he had answered my many questions about the Gospel … I looked around, pinched my arm to see if I was dreaming. As they were still smiling and bowing … thought I would shake hands with them. They saw my confusion and understood it and they laughed, and I thought Brother Kimball would kill himself laughing. I had no fear … Trembling with joy, I arose, took a step forward and extended my hand. They began fading away as the going down of the sun.

In perhaps her last public speech, at BYU in 1905, she said:

But let me tell you this gospel is going to spread, and you young men who are going on missions, give your hearts to God, for He said, “Young man, give me thy heart.” And if you do give Him your hearts and pray to the heavens above the spirit of God and the Holy Ghost will rest upon you. If the great soul that rules in heaven and on earth, and the inspiration of the spirit comes down and rests in your bosom you will be able to speak the light to the people and you will gain a great reward. Just speaking of yourself in your own strength the spirit is withdrawn. You will have no power that will reach the heart. It may tickle the ear, but you must have the power of the Almighty. You must have the angels to be your companions and rest upon you. Let them be your guide in health and trouble. May you ever drink of the waters of intelligence that flows from the throne of God. God Almighty will guide you and direct you and you will walk in the paths of truth and you will receive your reward as His servants for the good deeds you have done on this earth.


  1. I admire her for her courage and steadfast fidelity to the truth, no matter the circumstances and no matter the consequences. Though her life was one horrific trial after another, she never wavered in her testimony or her dedication to the Church. I’m glad I haven’t had her challenges, but I hope I can demonstrate just a little of her determination.

    I know it’s a long post. I won’t blame you if you don’t want to wade through it, but if you choose to, please let me know your thoughts on her life and her example. Anyone who can shed more light on her life from other historical sources, I welcome any information you have.

  2. Mark IV says:

    Thanks, MCQ. What a remarkable person!

    If I did my math right, she would have been about MIA Maid age when she and her sister hid the sheets from the Book of Commandments. The courage and loyalty they displayed demands my respect.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    A great tribute, MCQ!

    The story about the Book of Commandments explains why an original BoC is among the rarest and most expensive of all Mormon collectibles. It’s kind of a “touch of the master’s hand” thing; not only are these few precious volumes rare, but the story of the risk and courage of these two young girls makes the reason for the scarcity of these volumes leap to life.

  4. Indeed, a great tribute. Thanks, MCQ.

  5. What a remarkable story. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. J: You are one of those I thought might have additional information about her. Anything to add (or even subtract)?

  7. isn’t Mary the one with whom JSJ invoked premortal associations? I seem to remember from her autobiographical comments such a report.

  8. You’re right smb! Here it is:

    “Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in hell should never get me from him. I was created for him before the foundation of the Earth was laid. “

  9. That Adam was a clever man. Good for him.

  10. Thanks for this post, MCQ. I’m particularly grateful because I too am a descendent of Mary Elizabeth (my grandfather on my mom’s side is a Minersville Carter; perhaps I’m related to your wife). I had not ever heard of her 1905 BYU speech. What a treasure. I think I’ll have it printed and framed to give my sons when they go on their missions…

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    MCQ #8, I tried using that exact same line on a girl I was infatuated with, but in my case it didn’t have the desired effect. Maybe it’s my lack of piercing blue eyes…

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    MCQ, have you see this page of resources?

    The first link there is Todd’s entire chapter on her from In Sacred Loneliness, included by permission from Signature Books.


  13. Kevin: #11: I thought of that too, the beginning of a long line of preexistent reminiscences in the service of romance. I wonder what the percentage is on that line working. Probably inversely proportional to the distance from the BYU campus.

    #12: I have seen that link and it’s great, with the exception that her Autobiography has been edited. It’s actually very hard to find the unexpurgated version, in my experience (although I have a typescript of it). It’s interesting that all the parts that are edited out have to do with her marriage to Joseph. I wonder when it was decided (and by whom) that it was necesary to hide that information.

    Jeremy: Hey cuz! My wife is descended through the Carters as well, I believe. Check out the page Kevin linked to, and if you need a copy of her unedited autobiography, let me know.

    Hellmut: I’ve often thought that Adam easily saw through the ruse that Joseph came up with in pressuring him into baptism, but it’s never been clear to me exactly why he was never baptized. He clearly loved Joseph and other members of the church at that time. Mary Elizabeth says repeatedly of him that “He looked too much on the acts of men, rather than the priciples of the gospel.”

  14. That’s interesting. Thanks, MCQ. I was actually thinking about his decision to accept an out of town job. It was an elegant way to remove his wife from Joseph without having to kill anyone.

  15. MCQ, I can’t do better than Compton’s chapter. Her Autobiography is in the Susa Young Gates Collection at the Utah State Historical Archives, and Hardy includes a a good portion of it in his recently released Doing the Works of Abraham, one of my favorite pieces is the poignant words of Brigham Young, speaking of her angel, “he Said he would give anything to have seen what I had.”

  16. Hellmut: There was never any enmity between Adam and Joseph that I know about. By all accounts I have read, they were very good friends. In my view, the story of Joseph trying to get Adam to be baptized is the story of the Prophet’s great love and concern for Adam. He was very frustrated by the fact that Adam would not accept the gospel.

    J: Thanks, that BY quote is great.

  17. Great post, MCQ. She reminds me so much of some of my wife’s ancestors as I read their journals. What commitment and dedication.

    I was struck by her description of her husband (last sentence of #13). So many people can’t reconcile the gap between the beliefs and practices (the humanity) of both prophets and average members, but it’s fascinating to read of someone who obviously saw and recognized that gap and remained faithful despite it. I have heard it called the inability to condemn in others what one sees in one’s self. It sounds like both Mary and Adam shared that quality, and I salute them for it.

  18. That may well be, MCQ, but healthy men do not tolerate that other men marry their wives.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    Hellmut, I guess by similar token healthy people wouldn’t tolerate polygamy, either. And yet these issues exist in the Church, and people manage to believe in it nonetheless! For some people that is the acme of folly; for others, such as myself and MCQ, it is the essence of faith.

  20. I am sorry, Steve. Please, read my remark in the context of the discussion about Adam Lightner’s attitudes.

    Of course, I don’t know what he might have thought. I am speculating that accepting a job far away was a clever way to deescalate the situation when Joseph Smith married Adam’s wife.

  21. Hellmut: One could also say that healthy married women do not marry another man! What caused these otherwise healthy people to take these seemingly irrational actions? That’s the heart of the question and it doesn’t apply to just polygamy, there’s a whole host of irrational actions being undertaken by otherwise healthy people, then and now. What causes it?

    Maybe the Spirit of God. Maybe people really do see angels and have revelations.

  22. Remember, MCQ. I am refering to Adam Lightner who was a non-member. I totally understand why believers would extend themselves to fulfill their religious obligations.

  23. Maybe he loved his wife and liked Joseph, was convinced there was no sexual relationship involved and was willing to put up with a peculiar practice involving his wife and a good friend that he thought had little impact on his own relationship to his wife and that good friend. Seems more likely than a lack of mental health, given his wife’s obvious devotion to him.

  24. When I read this post here is my take on the polyandry involved….

    It seems like a dynastic sealing to me.

    Good topic MCQ.

  25. I think so too, Ray. I am just speculating if the marriage was part of Adam’s motivation to move his family out of Nauvoo. It would have been an non-aggressive response and elegant response.

  26. Yeah, Hellmut, others have speculated that the reason for leaving was that Adam wanted out of the situation, but FWIW, I don’t see evidence of that. Mary Elizabeth is pretty unambiguous about the fact that Adam couldn’t find any work in Nauvoo but could in Pontoosuc. Also, even though Adam wasn’t a member, it’s not out of the question that he had some testimony of Joseph’s calling. It seems as though Adam had problems with others, but Joseph was one of the Mormons he liked. That said, your analysis may be right on, Hellmut.

  27. Just opened the Friend with my kids today, and on page 2 President Faust shares the story of Mary Elizabeth and Caroline saving the pages of the Book of Commandments. Nice timing. (He doesn’t mention any marital history, however.)

  28. President Faust and I seem to always think alike.

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