“Bathsheba W. Smith: Witness to History,” Ensign, July 2005, 34–39
On a cold February morning in 1846, Bathsheba W. Smith watered her potted flowers for the last time. She looked around the room. Only a few months earlier, she and her sister Melissa had spent happy afternoons sewing curtains. But more recently, as part of the Saints’ preparation to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, Bathsheba had willingly cleared her parlor so it could be used as a paint shop for the wagons. And now, pregnant with her third child, she was getting ready to leave Nauvoo with her husband, George A. Smith; their three-year-old son, George Jr.; and their one-year-old daughter, Bathsheba.
Bathsheba’s exodus with the Saints from Nauvoo was part of a pattern of sacrifice and obedience that characterized the 88 years of her life. Her strongest talents lay in her abilities at the loom and with the needle, and her strongest character traits lay in her devotion to husband, family, and the gospel.
Bathsheba witnessed many remarkable events in the early history of the Church. For example, not long after her family’s arrival at Far West, a battle occurred at nearby Crooked River. Elder David W. Patten of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was mortally wounded and was brought to the house where her family was staying. She witnessed his death a few days later.
At age 19, in Nauvoo, Bathsheba was among the youngest present at the organization of the Relief Society in March 1842. She also attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Nauvoo Temple. Bathsheba and her husband, George A. Smith, were among the first to receive their temple endowments and be sealed together. After the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred, Bathsheba was present when the mantle of the presidency fell upon Brigham Young. Having experienced these and so many other landmark events, she lived, appropriately enough, in the Historian’s Office in Salt Lake City. Her husband was Church historian.
A friend described Bathsheba as “a tall, stately woman, with an abundance of beautiful brown hair, dark eyes, smooth fair complexion. … I noted her superiority, her dignity of carriage, yet, with all that, she was easy to approach, lovable in manner, for she ever gave a sweet smile and a word of encouragement to little children and young people, also care and tenderness to the sick or aged. She was artistic in temperament, loved the beautiful, appreciated refinement, and always dressed in good taste.”1
Bathsheba’s conversion to the gospel was the pivotal point between the stability of her refined southern childhood and the sacrifices required of her as a Latter-day Saint. Born May 3, 1822, near Shinnston, Virginia (now West Virginia), she was the eighth of nine children of Mark and Susannah Ogden Bigler. A cheerful child, Bathsheba loved to spin, weave, and embroider with her mother and to go horseback riding with her father over their 300-acre plantation. Religiously inclined, Bathsheba was careful to say her “secret prayers,” as she called them. When Latter-day Saint missionaries knocked on the Biglers’ door, they found the entire family spiritually ready for the message of the restored gospel.
“I believed the Book of Mormon to be a divine record,” wrote Bathsheba, “and that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God. I knew by the spirit of the Lord, which I received in answer to prayer, that these things were true. On the 21st of August 1837, I was baptized.”2
One of the missionaries was George A. Smith, a cousin of the Prophet Joseph Smith. During the next six months, Bathsheba and George became friends and agreed to marry when she was older.
The Biglers’ neighbors ridiculed them for joining the Church. In the fall of 1837, Bathsheba’s family decided to join the Saints in Far West, Missouri. “On our journey the young folk of our party had much enjoyment,” wrote Bathsheba. “It seemed so novel and romantic to travel in wagons over hill and dale, through dense forests and over extensive prairies … and camping in tents at night.”3
Though the journey seemed exciting to young Bathsheba, once they were in Missouri the Biglers found that bands of angry men frequently gathered around their wagons. Bathsheba reported that they usually said, “As you are Virginians, we will let you go on, but we believe you soon will return for you will quickly become convinced of your folly.”4
But Bathsheba and her family didn’t think of their new life as folly. “In these distressing times,” wrote Bathsheba, “the spirit of the Lord was with us to comfort and sustain us.”5
The Biglers stayed only a short time in Missouri. In February 1839 they departed with thousands of other Saints for Illinois. Bathsheba gave up her seat on the wagon to those who were sick, and she walked most of the way.
Once in Illinois, the Biglers stayed in Quincy. Bathsheba and her father both became ill with malaria. She recovered, but to her great sorrow her father died. In 1840, the family moved to Nauvoo.
On July 11, 1841, George A. Smith, who was now serving as the youngest member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, returned from a mission to England. He and Bathsheba married 14 days later.
Bathsheba had grown up in a beautiful home where she learned the art of southern hospitality from her mother, who had come from a well-to-do family. After her marriage, Bathsheba set up housekeeping five different times that first year in dwellings that were shabby compared to her childhood home. Nevertheless, the newlyweds knelt by their bed and dedicated themselves to God and thanked Him for bringing them together after being separated so long. Their love was warm, but the house “smoked and was open and cold.”6
Eventually George built a comfortable, two-story home. He and Bathsheba were so anxious to move in before the birth of their first child that they set up their bed in an unfinished room. Twelve days later, on July 7, 1842, their son George Jr. was born.
Two months later, George Sr. was called on a mission to the eastern states. Bathsheba’s words to George in one letter were typical: “I look at your portrait which I never forget. It hangs back of my bed and is the last thing I see and the first in the morning. Oh, it is such a comfort to me. It always looks pleasant and kind as you do and seems to say when I feel bad, ‘Cheer up, all is well.’ … When the shades of night fall upon it, it does look so much like you that it makes the tears fall fast.”7
In 1844, Bathsheba heard the Prophet Joseph’s stirring words during his visit to a Relief Society meeting. “His voice trembled very much,” she wrote. “He said: ‘According to my prayer I will not be with you long to teach and instruct you.’”8 On June 27, a mob killed him and his brother Hyrum. Bathsheba wrote to her husband of the event: “It pains me to write such a painful tale, but the Lord has comforted our hearts in a measure.”9
After the Martyrdom, the Apostles, including George, returned to Nauvoo. On August 14, 1844, Bathsheba gave birth to their daughter, Bathsheba.
Again the Saints knew they would need to leave their homes. They worked frantically to complete the Nauvoo Temple. From December 1845 to February 1846, Bathsheba served as a temple worker while thousands of Saints received their endowments. On January 25, 1846, George and Bathsheba’s two children were sealed to them. Two weeks later, the Saints began leaving Nauvoo—The City Beautiful.
“We crossed the Mississippi River to seek a home in the wilderness … taking with us but a few things such as clothing, bedding, and provisions, leaving every thing else for our enemies,” wrote Bathsheba. “We were obliged to stay in camp for a few weeks on Sugar Creek because of the weather being so very cold. The Mississippi froze over so that hundreds of families crossed over on the ice.”10
The Saints then crossed Iowa to the Missouri River, where they created a temporary refuge called Winter Quarters. “I will not try to describe how we traveled through storms of snow wind and rain, how roads had to be made, bridges built, and rafts constructed; how our poor animals had to drag on day after day with scanty food; how our camps suffered from poverty, sickness and death,” wrote Bathsheba of the Iowa trek. “… The Lord was with us, and his power was made manifest daily in our journey.”11
While they were in Winter Quarters, death struck Bathsheba’s family more than once. On March 11, 1847, her mother died. Three weeks later, on April 4, Bathsheba gave birth to a son, John, who lived only four hours.
In June 1847, many Saints left Winter Quarters for the Salt Lake Valley. George and Bathsheba followed a different course. Bathsheba remained in Winter Quarters to help others while George traveled back and forth to the Salt Lake Valley helping Saints migrate west.
Two years later, it was finally time for George to lead his family west. He widened and heightened Bathsheba’s wagon substantially. She carpeted the floor, put four chairs in the center in which to ride, and hung a looking glass, candlestick, and pincushion. Once, while fording a stream, Bathsheba’s awkward wagon threatened to wash downstream. Unruffled, she yelled, “Behold, Noah’s Ark!”12
After months of traveling, including a 36-hour snowstorm and a cattle stampede, the Smiths arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
George was often away with Church responsibilities, but Bathsheba’s younger sister Melissa lived nearby, and Melissa’s daughter Julina spent many hours playing with Bathsheba’s daughter. Melissa considered Bathsheba’s caring for Julina as a great help to her. By the time Julina was seven, she lived with her aunt but went daily to see her mother.
In 1854 George was called to be Church historian, and the family moved into the Historian’s Office—a duplex with half serving as an office and the other half as a residence. In the evenings, the family enjoyed entertaining visitors, reading, singing, playing musical instruments, and dancing. George Jr. played the flute and fife, and he and his sister played the drums. Bathsheba wrote, “They made our homes joyous with song and just their pleasure was mine; I was so proud of them and so happy with them.”13
Six years later, Bathsheba’s life was shattered when she received news that Indians had killed her son George Jr. Only three bones and a lock of hair were found to bring home for burial. Two months later her daughter married. Still deeply grieving over her son’s death, Bathsheba experienced a profound sense of loss when her daughter left home. Happily for Bathsheba, Julina still lived with her.
In time, Bathsheba’s daughter had 14 children, and Julina had 10. Bathsheba made mittens, dresses, and coats for her grandchildren. When Grandma Bathsheba came to visit carrying her flower-covered carpetbag filled with gifts, the grandchildren ran to her, shouting “Hurrah!”
In these later years of their lives, George and Bathsheba traveled together to various branches of the Church throughout the territory, where bands and children carrying banners frequently met them. This was a sweet culmination of their 34-year marriage. Bathsheba wrote: “I love my husband dearly. I believe but few in this wide world have been as happy as we have been.”14
George A. Smith died in September 1875. Bathsheba wrote of his death: “His head lay … against my bosom, good angels had come to receive his precious spirit, … but he was gone my light my sun my life my joy.”15
Bathsheba’s remaining years were filled with her grandchildren and with renewed service in Relief Society. In October 1888, general Relief Society president Zina D. H. Young selected Bathsheba as her counselor. When beloved “Aunt Zina” died in August 1901, Bathsheba was called as president.
Bathsheba believed that one of the most important things she could do as president was to serve in the temple. A friend wrote of her: “It is a lovely and an inspiring sight to see [her] arrayed in her simple white gown of home-made silk, her dark eyes still bright, her fair, delicate face crowned with lustrous bands of shining white hair, her finely-shaped head, with its rich, white lace draping, held erect.”16
Bathsheba died September 20, 1910, at the age of 88.
“When I heard the Gospel I knew it was true,” Bathsheba once wrote. “When I first read the Book of Mormon, I knew it was inspired of God; when I first beheld Joseph Smith I knew I stood face to face with a prophet of the living God.”17
Bathsheba’s testimony remained strong throughout her life. Her unfailing devotion to her husband and family served as an example to others, and her singular opportunities made her a witness to the unfolding history of the Church.