Great-Grandmother Zina: A More Personal Portrait

“Great-Grandmother Zina: A More Personal Portrait,” Ensign, Mar. 1984, 35

Great-Grandmother Zina:

A More Personal Portrait

For almost as long as I can remember, portraits of my great-grandmother, Zina D. H. Young, and one of her daughters, Zina Young Card, were proudly displayed in my mother’s bedroom.

“They were noble women,” Mother would tell me, “each a leader in her own day.” Mother’s name was Zina Card Brown, and she felt a keen responsibility in carrying on the name of Zina. “They were women of destiny,” she would solemnly emphasize.

I could only gaze in wonder at the elegant portraits. Just what did it mean to be a Woman of Destiny? I was fairly certain that it must be quite romantic and that it probably had something to do with grey silk brocade and lace “caplets”.

Great-grandmother’s life was so entwined with the history of the Restoration that many portions of her life story are familiar to students of Church history. For great-grandmother—along with her parents, brothers, and sister—heard of the gospel from Hyrum Smith, when he and David Whitmer visited Watertown, New York, in the spring of 1835. They visited Watertown again in the late summer, and the Huntington family opened their home to the two missionaries. The following spring, when Joseph Smith, Sr., visited the converts, he advised William to sell everything he owned and join his new friends in Kirtland, Ohio. The Huntington’s conversion was absolute, their dedication unconditional. Wholeheartedly they followed the Saints from Kirtland, through the Missouri persecutions, on to Nauvoo, and eventually to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Zina was first married to Henry Bailey Jacobs, and gave birth to two sons. Later, she married Brigham Young and gave birth to his daughter, Zina Presendia. She also reared Brigham Young’s four children by his wife Clarissa Chase when Clarissa died. “They were never anything but my own,” she lovingly declared.

Zina witnessed that historic meeting in which Brigham spoke with the voice and appearance of the martyred Prophet, a confirmation to the assembled congregation that he was indeed the Lord’s appointed spokesman to His church. “All witnessed the transfiguration,” she testified. “I closed my eyes. I could have exclaimed, ‘I know that is Joseph Smith’s voice!’ Yet I knew he had gone.” (Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom, New York: Tullidge & Crandall, 1877, p. 327.)

A close friend of Eliza R. Snow, Zina attended the second meeting of the fledgling Relief Society organization, and forty-five years later, she succeeded Eliza as general president. Some have called these two women the “head and heart of the women’s work in Utah.” Another prominent woman explained: “Sister Snow was keenly intellectual, and she led by force of that intelligence. Sister Zina was all love and sympathy, and drew people after her by reason of that tenderness.” (Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911, p. 21.)

Although she abhorred worms, Zina faithfully tended cocooneries at the old Forest Dale Farm as part of her prophet-husband’s silk manufacturing enterprise when Brigham Young embarked upon home industries.

For all the impressive stories, though, this noble woman who was my great-grandmother remained for many years essentially a mystery to me. Looking down from her portrait, she seemed to wear a Mona Lisa mask. How I wished she could speak, to tell me what feelings lay behind her thoughtful composure.

Zina Y. Card

But it was not until after the death of grandmother Zina Y. Card that my serious interest in great-grandmother Zina was aroused. I sat on the floor with my mother and watched as she opened the old red tin bread box—a veritable treasure chest that had belonged to great-grandmother, had been cherished by grandmother, and was trustingly handed down to my mother. I was an impressionable fourteen years old, and I marveled as mother read bits from letters written by some of the former Presidents of the Church. Together we read headlines from the Deseret Evening News announcing the death of Brigham Young. We inspected William Huntington’s license to preach, dated 3 September 1835, and his certificate of Church membership, which bears the signatures of Joseph Smith, Frederick G. Williams, Hyrum Smith, and William Clayton.

Mother showed me many other precious documents, including some of great-grandmother Zina’s diaries, lifting each one carefully out of the bread box. “But I don’t know what to do with them. They are so sacred to me,” she whispered, as she wiped tears from her cheeks. So she put them all back and closed the lid. And the box disappeared.

In 1966 Mother suffered a massive stroke, which took her speech and left her paralyzed. That year I went up to decorate Mother’s home for Christmas, and, since Mother could not tell me where to find the decorations, I poked around the basement looking for them. The balls and tinsel eluded me, but I found something far more important—the red tin bread box.

So it is from the contents of the red tin bread box that a more accurate likeness of great-grandmother has gradually emerged. Over the years, as I have pored over these priceless records, it has seemed that we have been walking toward each other, diminishing the time and space which once separated us.

I have learned that she was cherished for her quiet generosity. Not possessed of worldly goods, hers were gifts of time and strength and wisdom, lovingly dispensed. As a pioneer midwife, she ushered scores of babies into mortality, with the resulting happiness her only recompense. “Aunt Zina,” as many called her, was an angel of mercy, with homespun potions for the sick and with faith sufficient to help those who desired assistance from heaven. With Eliza R. Snow, she organized Relief Societies, Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Associations, and Primaries throughout the territory, sharing a power of intellect she acquired through a lifetime of faith, obedience, and sacrifice.

Her character was shaped by the chisel of experience. Now when I behold her portrait, I see a gentle spirit of refinement, with head held high because it was so often bowed.

One of the most precious papers in the red tin bread box was Zina’s brief autobiography, a sort of “pencil-sketch portrait” of her own life. But even this summary account gives an intriguing glimpse of the personality behind the persona. “In my earliest reading of history,” she recalled, “I used to muse while watching the consuming back log in our old fashion fireplace why I could not have been born in a day when something was going on in the nations of the Earth, not that I wished to see distress, but some enterprise.” (Autobiography of Zina D. H. Young, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, p. 2.)

At the time when Zina was wishing for “enterprise,” as she called it, she was a girl living with her parents in a comfortable story-and-a-half stone house on a three-hundred-acre farm in Watertown, New York. Her father, William Huntington, Jr., had cleared the land himself. And he and his wife, Zina Baker, with their large family enjoyed a life that was peaceful, fairly prosperous, and—as Zina apparently thought—a little dull.

By the time young Zina Huntington reached her midteens, however, she and her whole family had plunged headlong into one of American history’s most dramatic enterprises—the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the subsequent exodus of the early Saints.

Actually, Zina was only eleven when her family’s part in this great drama really began. On a cold November evening in 1832, as they finished their usual evening musicale (each playing a different instrument—Zina the cello), a knock came at the door. When the door was opened, a strange old gentleman (“in old-fashioned clothes,” notes a family account, “and carrying a bundle on his arm”) asked for a night’s lodging. After supper, as the family read their customary chapters from the New Testament, Zina’s mother commented that they would like to hear the gospel in its fulness, as explained by the Savior.

“The stranger [who never identified himself] immediately took up the subject and began explaining the scriptures and quoting the sayings of the Savior in what seemed to them a new light and clearer than they had ever thought of before. … The stranger filled them with awe and reverence, such as they had never felt.” (Reminiscence of Zina Y. Card; document in possession of the author.)

The Huntington family believed that this marvelous stranger was a messenger sent in answer to their prayers of inquiry. And when Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer visited the Huntington home 2 1/2 years later, preaching a gospel that coincided exactly with the stranger’s teachings, the family was prepared to accept the reality of the Restoration. William and Zina listened, prayed, believed, and were baptized.

But young Zina, only fourteen at the time, did not accept the gospel on the strength of her parents’ faith. Indeed, her own personal conversion came in an equally impressive way:

“One day on my return from school,” she later recalled, “I saw the Book of Mormon, that strange, new book, lying on the window sill of our sitting-room. I went up to the window, picked it up, and the sweet influence of the Holy Spirit accompanied it to such an extent that I pressed it to my bosom in a rapture of delight, murmuring as I did so, ‘This is the truth, truth, truth!’” (“How I Gained My Testimony of the Truth,” The Young Woman’s Journal, April 1893, p. 318.)

Zina’s personal writings document a lifelong commitment to the truth that so delighted her as a young girl.

Another striking manifestation prompted her baptism: “At prayers I had presented to me a heavenly vision of a man going down into the water and baptizing someone. … I felt it was a testimony that the time had come for me to receive baptism.” (The Young Woman’s Journal, April 1893, p. 318.)

Zina’s record reveals that her knowledge of spiritual things was never secondhand. Immediately following her baptism, she received the gift of tongues, a gift of the Spirit that she used on occasion throughout her life. And, as her patriarchal blessing promised, she witnessed the ministering of angels:

“On one occasion I saw angels clothed in white walking upon the [Kirtland] temple. It was during one of our monthly meetings, when the saints were in the temple worshipping. A little girl came to my door and in wonder called me out, exclaiming, ‘The meeting is on the top of the meetinghouse!’ I went to the door, and there I saw on the temple angels clothed in white covering the roof from end to end. They seemed to be walking to and fro. … I realized that they were not mortal men. … This was in broad daylight in the afternoon. …

“When the brethren and sisters came home in the evening, they told of the power of God manifested in the temple that day, and of the prophesying. … It was said. … ‘That the angels were resting down upon the house.’” (Tullidge, Women of Mormondom, p. 207.)

On another occasion in the Kirtland Temple, Zina and her sister Presendia heard angels singing: “While the congregation was … praying, we both heard, from one corner of the room above our heads, a choir of angels singing most beautifully. They were invisible to us, but myriads of angelic voices seemed to be united in singing some song of Zion, and their sweet harmony filled the temple of God.” (Tullidge, Women of Mormondom, p. 208.)

Likewise, Zina’s testimony of Joseph Smith was founded on firsthand experience:

“On the 10 [November 1836, just after the Huntington family had sold their property at a great loss in order to join the Saints in Kirtland] I saw the Prophet’s face for the first time. He was 6 feet, light auburn hair and a heavy nose, blue eyes, the [eye]ball ful & round. … When he was filled with the spiret of revilation or inspiration to talk to the saints his countinance would look clear & bright. … When warning the saints of approaching danger if we forsook the path of truth & right … it was truly affecting and any one that ever heard, I should think, could never forget.” (Autobiography of Zina D. H. Young, p. 4.)

And Zina never did forget. Her confidence in a living prophet, and her own continuing search for the voice of the Spirit, sustained her through the following years of sorrow and privation. Her brother Oliver noted in his diary, with a trace of goodnatured irony, the loss of the family fortune: “When the [Kirtland] bank broke we were broken and as poor as the best of the Mormons; well, we expected to become poor but not quite so quick.” (History of Oliver Boardman Huntington, 1842–1900, typescript, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, p. 27.)

In another diary entry, Oliver describes the source of the Huntington family’s willingness to endure:

“I used to delight in religious conversation … among the family, and we … obtained the gift of tongues, all of us, and Zina the gift of interpretation, and we all became exceedingly happy even in the midst of our scarcities and deprivations. In the midst of our poverty in Kirtland none of us complained nor murmured against any of the authorities of the church or against God; neither was the faith of any one lessened; but as to the work of God, all was joy and content and satisfaction. When I say this I … tell the unbent truth before God. In the ten years travel with the church I never heard father or mother utter the first expression of doubt or show the least wavering of mind, or lack of unlimited confidence in the prophet.” (History of Oliver Boardman Huntington, p. 28.)

Zina did record, rather matter-of-factly, some of the family’s considerable struggles to follow the Lord’s direction. The Prophet Joseph revealed that the Saints were to leave Kirtland for Far West, Missouri, for example. So the Huntingtons left their valuables, which, recorded Zina, “left us bare as a sheered sheep.” Arriving at Far West at the height of persecution in the area, they left six weeks later for Adam-Ondi-Ahman. Finally, when they reached Commerce, Illinois, in late spring of 1839, the whole family fell victim to cholera:

“In a few days all our prospects were blighted, our mother dead, ourselves all sick and our crops going to waste, weeds choking them. … None attended [mother’s] funeral but John and William. I was so sick that I noticed nothing hardly. … We were a pitiful sight and none to pitty us but God and his prophet. …

“There O God, witness the scenes we have past. All sick and hardly able to get a drink of water, and God only knows how we lived or on what we lived, … for we were none of us able to work hard. We had a cow that gave milk.” (History of Oliver Boardman Huntington, pp. 42–43.)

For a time, Zina was inconsolable at her mother’s death. Yet another spiritual experience confirmed her faith. As she paced the floor, almost brokenhearted in her loneliness, she heard her mother’s voice: “Zina, any sailor can steer on a smooth sea, when rocks appear, sail around them.” She paused and cried, “O Father in heaven, help me to be a good sailor, that my heart shall not break on the rocks of grief.” A sweet peace stole over her sorrowing soul, and never again did she give way to such heart-rending grief. (“Mother,” The Young Woman’s Journal, Jan. 1911, p. 45.)

When Joseph Smith died in 1844, the family’s confidence in the Lord’s prophet extended to Brigham Young. Almost on the eve of their expulsion from Nauvoo, Zina was married to President Young. Just a few days after this marriage, Zina wrote a vivid account of what following a prophet entailed for the faithful:

“9th Feb. Clear and cold. We left our house, all we possessed, in a wagon. Left many things standing our house unsold for most of our neighbors were as ourselves on the wing. Shall I ever forget standing on Major Russels porch seeing Tomas Grovers wagon had sunk on a sand bar, the Brethren taking the little ones from the wagon cover, the bows just peeped above the water. At the same time the bells were ringing, the Temple was on fire and we leaving our homes for the wilderness trusting in God like Abriham. … After we had crossed the river I sent back … to get a little more thread and a few needles not knowing when we should again have the opportunity.” (Diary of Zina D. H. Young, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, p. 13.) (The fire referred to was not the fire that later gutted the temple. This was a smaller fire caused by an overheated stove pipe in an upper room of the temple. See History of the Church, 7:581–82.)

Another diary entry reveals the secret of Zina’s remarkable composure in the face of adversity:

“Camped on Shugar Creek and here we found many dear ones, some comfortably fixed up … and others too sad to relate were it not that we knew it to be the work of God we were engaged in and He would bring us off victorious through all our hardships and toils.” (Diary of Zina D. H. Young, p. 13; italics added.)

So continues Zina’s understated chronicle of the trials she endured.

As I have searched after a truer picture of my great-grandmother’s personality, this fact has emerged as central. The trials she endured could not touch her devotion to the gospel, for she knew it to be the work of God. And that knowledge sustained her through a long and eventful life, a life as full of joy and service as sorrow and loss. Near the end of her life, she wrote her testimony, a crowning statement of her life’s meaning:

“Before my maker I wish to bear a faithful Testimony that this is the work of God & each year it is more precious.” (Autobiography of Zina D. H. Young, p. 8.)

  • Mary Brown Firmage, mother of four, is an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple.

Two “noble women”: Zina D. H. Young, seated, and her daughter Zina Young Card.

Illustrated by G. Allen Garns