“A Halfpenny and a Pearl,” Ensign, Sept. 1996, 23
In the spring of 1840 in Lanark County, Ontario, Canada, Latter-day Saint missionaries taught 24-year-old John Borrowman the gospel of Jesus Christ. He knew it was true as soon as he heard it. But with his testimony came his first of other significant sacrifices for the gospel.
John sought his father’s advice about joining the Church. William Borrowman was unyielding in his determination to prevent his son from seeking baptism. After more than two full days of discussion, William said that if John chose to join with the Latter-day Saints, he would lose his inheritance—the family farm. As the oldest living son, John was the rightful heir to this farm where all his life he had worked side by side with his parents, siblings, and (since his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage) his stepmother, stepbrothers, and stepsisters. Worse than that, John knew he would lose his father’s companionship as well—a devastating thought to a 24-year-old who loved his family.
Though facing this difficult decision, John remained thrilled with his new religion. For him the light of the gospel had burst on the world like a sunrise, revealing that all men could find salvation. So in spite of the sorrow he felt because of his father’s opposition and the loss of a valuable inheritance, John was baptized on 7 June 1840.
Like the merchant in Matthew 13:45–46 [Matt. 13:45–46] who sold all that he had to buy the pearl of great price, John too gave up all that he had to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He moved in with the family of one of his older sisters and stayed there until 1843, when he immigrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, to join the main body of the Saints.
While in Nauvoo, John worked as a carpenter at the temple. Called on a proselytizing mission to Canada, he proved an able missionary. He and his missionary companion, James Park, started preaching in the small frontier community of Brooke, Kent County, Ontario, Canada. The gospel message was received enthusiastically, and in time 250 people were baptized—the equivalent of nearly an entire ward today!
The missionaries encouraged the new members to migrate to Nauvoo. Thus, in the early months of spring 1845 the new Saints prepared wagons and teams for the migration. The path leading out of their small town was little more than a sled trail, so they started cutting trees and clearing a road. The enthusiasm of the new members to go to Nauvoo was so compelling that the improved trail became known as the Nauvoo Road, a name that persists even to this day.
The band of Saints arrived in Nauvoo amid the flurry of tireless effort to complete the temple. It soon became apparent that the mobs would never allow them to live there in peace. As the temple neared completion, many of the Saints received their temple endowments, and in February 1846 they crossed the frozen Mississippi River into the safety of Iowa.
In 1846 at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the United States government made an appeal to President Brigham Young for 500 able-bodied men to form a battalion and travel to California to offer protection in the Mexican War. John Borrowman accepted the call and enlisted as a private in Company B. At a farewell devotional, President Young prophesied that the men of the Mormon Battalion would never have to face the enemy in battle—a prophecy that proved true, in spite of the odds against it. Still, the men had many struggles. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all was the mountain deserts that yielded little water and food. Starvation was a constant companion for the men of the Mormon Battalion. Yet, in spite of harsh conditions, they followed their Church-appointed leaders faithfully and with valor. As prophesied, they never faced a human enemy in battle, although they did encounter a herd of rampaging wild bulls and dubbed the conflict “the Battle of the Bulls.”
Their supplies grossly inadequate, the suffering and thirsty men cut a narrow passage (sometimes just an inch wider than the wagons) as they ascended the tortuous ravines of the barren Southwestern mountains. It was a thrilling day when they at last found their way onto the gentle slopes that led to their first view of the Pacific Ocean. At this point in their march they were able to buy beef, which temporarily filled their empty stomachs.
Then something unfortunate happened to John Borrowman—he fell asleep on guard duty because of exhaustion. He drifted off for just a few moments, but a watchful sergeant reported him. In time of war this was a capital offense punishable by death. Because the Mormon soldiers were subject to their army commanders and military law, John was immediately imprisoned. During the next few weeks, he read a friend’s copy of the Book of Mormon, which brought him a great deal of comfort.
After he was set free, it was determined that his release had been an error, and John reluctantly returned to jail. He wrote in his journal that he was lonely and uncomfortable, for “I have no bedding but my blanket and a cold, damp, brick floor to lie on” (Journal of John Borrowman, 1846–1860, Church Historical Department, 6, microfilm). When his case was heard, he was sentenced to three additional days in guard quarters, three hours each day in the cells; and $3 of his pay was withheld. Though grateful to have his life spared, he felt this was a great burden, and so he prayed to the Lord to be relieved of it. His deliverance came in an unusual fashion. When the regular army colonel was informed of the sentence of the court, he was disgusted at its leniency. Yet, he didn’t have power to overturn it. So instead he set it aside, saying it was better to have no punishment than one that was too light. John accepted this as an answer to his earnest prayers.
Upon his honorable discharge from the Mormon Battalion, John sold his horse and bought passage on a ship to San Francisco. Upon his arrival there, he found a small community of Saints who helped him find work as a laborer for $2 per day. After several months, John started east to join up with the main body of the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley. But near Sacramento he learned that some of the other members of the battalion were working at a place called Sutter’s Mill when gold was discovered there. Thus it was that John became a prospector. He recorded in his journal that he was washing from $25 to $60 of gold each day—a real fortune compared to his wage as a laborer.
Yet, when the call came from Brigham Young for battalion members to proceed directly to Salt Lake City, John and his partners immediately abandoned their lucrative careers as prospectors and started the arduous trek through the Sierra Nevada to the Salt Lake Valley. Once there, John was given a piece of land outside the city, which he energetically began to improve into a beautiful irrigated farm.
John writes matter-of-factly of his marriage in a journal entry dated 22 January 1849 (it had been 20 days since his previous entry): “I have not thought proper to write any since the second of this month … since that day I have been engaged in getting things for house keeping. [O]n the evening of the ninth I got married and moved into a little adobie house belonging to [B]rother Turbit, where I reside at present with my wife” (Journal of John Borrowman, 71).
In time, John and his wife, Agnes Park, were blessed with five children. In 1853 the Borrowmans left their prosperous farm in Salt Lake when they were called on a colonization mission to Nephi, Juab County, Utah (about 80 miles south of Salt Lake City). According to an article published in the local newspaper, John became a respected and honored citizen of that small community, serving first as prosecuting attorney, then as a municipal judge. In 1869 he was called on a second mission to Canada and left his home and family for two years. Records indicate that over the course of his lifetime, John Borrowman assisted in more than 1,100 convert baptisms.
William Borrowman never forgave his son for joining the Church. He made sure that the family members never referred to John as brother or uncle. However, John’s stepmother, Helen, corresponded with John through the years. In 1857 she wrote to tell him that his father had died and that in his last will and testament he directed that John be given—as his total inheritance—one halfpenny (the equivalent of a nickel in American coin).
Over the course of his lifetime, John abandoned his claim to a prosperous farm in Canada, gave up the sure profits of the goldfields of California, and left a developed farm in the Salt Lake Valley—all without seeming regret or looking back. Whenever and wherever the gospel called, John Borrowman, like so many of the Saints at that time, answered the call without hesitation.
In studying the life of my great-great-grandfather, I have wondered what he thought about receiving his inheritance. Yet I believe the following scripture best describes his willingness to unite with the people of the Lord:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
“Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matt. 13:45–46).
And so, for an inheritance, John Borrowman received the pearl of great price—and a halfpenny too!
Information in this article is based on the diary of John Borrowman, who lived from 13 May 1816 to 28 March 1898.