“From Misery to Joy,” Friend, Feb. 1995, 44
As a child, Brigham Henry Roberts was separated from his mother and lived with a man and a woman who didn’t love him. They wandered through the countryside and slums of England with all their belongings tied in a bundle on the end of a stick.
When he was nine years old, Henry, as he was called, walked barefoot most of the way to Utah, sleeping cold at night because he had no coat or blanket.
And yet, in spite of his early sorrows, B. H. Roberts grew up to be a dedicated missionary, a powerful orator, a noted historian, writer, and politician, and a great Church leader.
Six years before he was born, his mother studied the gospel and was baptized. Later Henry’s father was baptized, but he never became active in the Church.
One day in 1862 Henry’s father sent his family some money, and Sister Roberts decided to take two of her children, seven-year-old Anne and two-year-old Thomas, with her on a ship to the United States. At the time, all members of the Church were encouraged to gather to Utah. Sister Roberts didn’t have enough money to take the whole family, so she decided to go to Utah and earn enough money to send for her other two children.
She arranged for some distant relatives to take care of twelve-year-old Mary, but they refused to take Henry, who was five. A husband and wife who were new members of the Church seemed to be good people. They didn’t have any children, and they agreed to be temporary guardians for Henry until Sister Roberts could send for him.
The husband was a stonecutter and thought Henry would be helpful in carrying the buckets of sand and water that were used in stonecutting. Because of the heavy buckets carried on his head, Henry’s head sank low between his shoulders. It wasn’t until he was an adult that his head and shoulders were once again in a normal position.
His temporary “father” was often out of work, and sometimes Henry and his guardians wandered from town to town, sleeping under hedges or in haystacks. They worked at odd jobs when they could, and sometimes they begged. Their only belongings were a Bible, a violin, and a bundle of ragged clothes. They spent many nights in inns, where the husband played the violin, and his wife and Henry sang ballads. Henry sometimes stood on a table to sing, then passed his hat around for coins.
His guardians fought with each other a lot, and sometimes they wanted to be rid of Henry. Once they decided to enlist him in the army as a drummer boy. The night before he was to go, Henry heard a calm voice tell him, “If you are enlisted as a drummer boy, you will never see your mother in America.”
He had promised her that he would go to Utah, no matter what happened, so he left the couple’s cold shack and wandered about for several days. He ate what he could find and slept in doorways and empty boxes. Finally he rejoined them.
While Henry was longing for his mother, she was thinking constantly of him and Mary. In Utah she worked long hours, sewing, tailoring, and making hats. After three years she had earned enough to send for her children.
But Henry could not be found! He was nine years old by the time Church leaders in England found him. On April 30, 1866, he and his sister Mary boarded the sailing ship John Bright with about seven hundred other Latter-day Saints.
The voyage was a mixture of terror and fun. Violent storms brewed at sea, lasting as long as three days. Other days were calm and cloudless. On those days the passengers sometimes sang, danced, and played games on the deck. Henry often played marbles with other children when the ship was steady enough for the marbles to stay in the ring. He and Mary ate food they had brought with them, such as bread and pickled fatty bacon that had turned green.
After the ship landed in New York on June 6, Henry and Mary still had a long way to go. They travelled to Nebraska by boat and train, often riding in cattle cars. The bedding and equipment sent by their mother were not waiting for them in Nebraska, so on July 13 they set off in a Church wagon train with only the clothes on their backs.
To make matters worse, Henry lost his wooden clogs when he crossed the Platte River. Not wanting to wait for the rest of the wagon train to reach the river, Henry got up early and left by himself—something he knew he was not supposed to do. When he reached the river about noon, he was tired and fell asleep. When he woke up, he saw the last of the wagons pulling up on the other side of it.
He shouted, and William Henry Chipman, the captain of the company, told him to swim across the river. Taking off his heavy coat and wooden clogs so he could swim, Henry plunged into the water. When the current carried him downstream, Captain Chipman rode his horse into the water. Henry grabbed a stirrup and held on while the horse swam across.
He was safe, but he had to walk across the remaining plains barefoot. His feet became black, hard, and cracked from the journey; blood often oozed from the cracks. Sometimes at night Mary cried in sympathy as she pulled spines of prickly pear cactus from his feet.
Near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, the Saints lost many cattle in an Indian raid and had little food, but a relief train from Salt Lake City kept them from starving.
When Henry and Mary entered Salt Lake City on September 15, 1866, it had been more than four years since they had seen their mother. Henry walked proudly at the head of the train, his clothes in tatters, his hair sticking out in all directions. In honor of the occasion, he was wearing a pair of boots, many sizes too large, that he had discovered in a burned-out pony express station.
His mother was nowhere to be seen. When the company halted for the last time, Henry sat on a crate in a wagon, heartsick, watching the happy reunions between loved ones. At last he saw a woman in a red and white plaid shawl approaching. He went to her and said, “Hey, Mother.”
“Is that you, Henry?” she asked. “Where is Mary?” Mary was hiding inside a wagon, ashamed of her ragged clothing. The family was finally reunited. However, there was sad news. During her journey to Utah, Sister Roberts had watched her baby, Thomas, weaken and die. She had buried him in a donated breadbox coffin along the way.
When Henry arrived in Utah, he couldn’t read or write, but he learned very quickly. Brigham, as Henry was now called, helped to support his family by farming, herding cattle, training horses, prospecting, mining, and blacksmithing. One night he and a friend shot a 550-pound (250-kg) grizzly bear. They sold the hide, and Brigham used his share of the money to help pay for his education at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). He finished his two-year course of study in one year, graduating in 1878 at the head of his class.
Brigham, or B. H. as he was often known in later life, went on to achieve great things. He served missions in the United States and Great Britain. He presided over the Southern and Eastern States Missions. He wrote many books, including the six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church. He became famous for his eloquence in preaching the gospel. He served in the First Quorum of the Seventy and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The poor boy sleeping in doorways, yearning for his mother’s love, had grown into one of the most loved and respected men in the Church.