Church History
31 The Shattered Threads of Life

“The Shattered Threads of Life,” chapter 31 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 31: “The Shattered Threads of Life”

Chapter 31

The Shattered Threads of Life

Man in striped prison uniform

On a cold day in January 1879, Ovando Hollister took a seat in John Taylor’s office. Ovando was a tax collector in Utah Territory who sometimes wrote articles for a newspaper in the eastern states. After the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on the George Reynolds case, the newspaper wanted Ovando to learn what John, the Church’s senior apostle, thought about the decision.

John did not usually grant interviews to reporters, but since it was a government representative asking, he felt obligated to make known his views on religious freedom and the Supreme Court ruling. “A religious faith amounts to nothing unless we are permitted to carry it into effect,” he told Ovando. The court’s decision was unjust, he explained, because it restricted the Saints’ right to practice their beliefs. “I do not believe that the Supreme Court of the United States nor the Congress of the United States has any right to interfere with my religious views,” he said.

Was it worth continuing the practice of plural marriage, Ovando asked, if it meant constant opposition from the government?

“I would respectfully say we are not the parties who produce this antagonism,” John said. He believed the United States Constitution protected the Saints’ right to practice plural marriage. By passing an unconstitutional law, John reasoned, Congress had created whatever tension existed between the Church and the nation. “It now becomes a question whether we should obey God or man,” he said.

“Could you not consistently surrender polygamy,” asked Ovando, “on the ground that there is no prospect of changing the opinion and law of the country against it?” He did not think the Church could survive much longer if it continued to resist the antipolygamy law.

“We leave that with God,” said John. “It is His business to take care of His Saints.”1

That spring, at Brigham Young Academy, Susie Young started each school day at eight thirty in the morning. Students met in a two-story brick building on Center Street in Provo. They ranged from young children to women and men in their twenties. Most were not used to school being held daily and starting on time. But Principal Karl Maeser insisted on punctuality.2

Susie loved being at the academy. One of her classmates, James Talmage, was a recent immigrant from England with a passion for science. Another, Joseph Tanner, worked at Provo’s wool mill and had persuaded Principal Maeser to start evening classes for factory workers.3 The mill’s president, Abraham Smoot, led the academy’s board of directors. His daughter Anna Christina taught the younger students part of the day while pursuing her own studies. Her younger brother Reed also attended, preparing for a career in business.4

Principal Maeser nurtured his students’ love for the gospel and for learning. Brigham Young had asked him to make the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants standard textbooks at the school. Students took courses in gospel principles alongside the usual academic subjects. Each Wednesday afternoon, Principal Maeser called the students together for a devotional. After a prayer, they would bear testimony and share what they were learning in class.5

As he had done years earlier when teaching in the Young home in Salt Lake City, Principal Maeser urged Susie to develop her potential. He encouraged her to write and reminded her to aim for a high standard in her work. He also entrusted her to help take the official minutes of the devotionals.

Since Utah had few trained educators, Principal Maeser often recruited teachers from among his older students. One day, while walking home after school with Susie and her mother, Lucy, he had stopped abruptly in the middle of the road.

“Does Miss Susie understand music well enough to give lessons?” he asked.

“Of course she does,” Lucy replied. “She has given lessons ever since she was fourteen.”

“I must think of that,” the principal said.

Within a few days, Susie had started organizing the academy’s music department under Principal Maeser’s direction. Since the academy had no piano, she bought one that she and her students could use. Once she had a classroom, James Talmage helped her schedule teaching hours, rehearsal times for concerts, and individual lessons for her students. She now spent most of her time as a music teacher.6

As much as Susie enjoyed the academy, she still struggled to come to terms with her divorce. Her son, Bailey, was with her in Provo, but her ex-husband had sent her daughter, Leah, to live with his family at Bear Lake, more than 150 miles to the north. Susie worried that she had made a mess of her life, and she wondered if she had ruined her chances for happiness.

Lately, though, she had begun exchanging letters with Jacob Gates, a friend from St. George who was serving a mission in Hawaii. At first their letters were no more than friendly, but she and Jacob had begun to confide more in one another. Susie shared her regrets about her first marriage, her joy in the academy, and her longing to do more with her life than teach music classes.

“No, Jake, I ain’t going to make a schoolma’am,” she told him in one letter. “Hope to be a writer sometime. When I learn enough.”

After the term ended, Susie planned to go to Hawaii with Zina Young, one of her father’s widows whom she called her “other mother,” to visit Relief Societies. She hoped to see Jacob while she was there. Though she feared that life had passed her by, she still had faith that Heaven was mindful of her.

“God is good,” Susie wrote to Jacob, “and He will help me to pick up the shattered threads of life and mend them into something useful.”7

After a four-day train ride, George Reynolds arrived at the Nebraska state prison, about nine hundred miles east of Salt Lake City, to serve his two-year sentence for bigamy. Inside, the guards confiscated his possessions, including his clothes and temple garments. After he bathed, they cut his hair short and shaved off his beard.

He was assigned a cell and given a coarse shirt, a pair of shoes, a cap, and a blue-and-white-striped prison uniform. Three times a day, Reynolds was marched with the other prisoners in silence to the food table, where he would retrieve his meal and then return to his cell to eat alone. After a few days, prison officials gave back his garments, and he felt grateful that his religious beliefs were respected at least in this regard.

For ten hours a day, six days a week, Reynolds worked as bookkeeper in the prison’s knitting shop. On Sundays, he attended a short religious service held for the prisoners. Once every two weeks, prison regulations allowed him to write his wives, Mary Ann and Amelia. He asked them to write as often as they could but to keep in mind that their letters would be opened and read before they were delivered to him.8

After a month, Reynolds was moved to the territorial prison in Utah, a transfer George Q. Cannon had lobbied for in Washington, DC.9

In Ogden, Reynolds’s family embraced him as he switched lines and boarded the train for Salt Lake City. His younger children did not recognize him without his beard.

“Be assured there are many worse places in the world than in prison for conscience’s sake,” Reynolds later wrote to his family. “It cannot take away the peace which reigns in my heart.”10

That summer, in the southern United States, twenty-two-year-old Rudger Clawson and his mission companion, Joseph Standing, were preaching in a rural area in the state of Georgia. Rudger, a former clerk in Brigham Young’s office, was a relatively new missionary. Twenty-four-year-old Joseph, on the other hand, had already served one mission and now presided over the branches of the Church in the area.11

The region where they worked had been devastated by the American Civil War, and many people there were suspicious of outsiders. Since the decision in the George Reynolds case, the region had become more hostile toward Latter-day Saints. Preachers and newspapers were spreading rumors about the elders, and mobs were forcing their way into the homes of people they suspected of harboring “Mormon” missionaries.

Joseph was terrified of being caught by a mob, knowing they sometimes tied their victims to a log and whipped them. He told Rudger that he would rather die than be whipped.12

On the morning of July 21, 1879, Rudger and Joseph saw a dozen men ahead of them on the road. Three of the men were on horseback, with the rest on foot. Each man carried a gun or club. The elders paused as the men regarded them silently. Then, in one swift motion, the men threw off their hats and charged at the missionaries. “You are our prisoners,” one man shouted.

“If you have a warrant of arrest, we would like to see it,” Joseph said. His voice was loud and clear, but he looked pale.

“The United States of America is against you,” one man said. “There is no law in Georgia for the Mormons.”

With guns drawn, the mob led the missionaries deep into the surrounding woods. Joseph tried to talk to their leaders. “It is not our intention to remain in this part of the state,” he said. “We preach what we understand to be the truth and leave people to embrace it or not.”

His words had no effect. The mob soon split up, and some of the men took Rudger and Joseph to a place beside a spring of clear water.

“I want you men to understand that I am the captain of this party,” said an older man. “If we ever again find you in this part of the country, we will hang you by the neck like dogs.”

For about twenty minutes, the missionaries listened as the men accused them of coming to Georgia to carry their wives and daughters off to Utah. Many of the rumors in the South about the missionaries were based on highly inaccurate ideas about plural marriage, and some men felt honor bound to protect the women in their families by any means necessary.

The talk ended when the three riders arrived at the spring. “Follow us,” said a man with a rifle.

Joseph sprang to his feet. Were they going to whip him? One of the mobbers had left a pistol on a stump, and Joseph snatched it up.

“Surrender!” he shouted at the mob.

A man to the left of Joseph stood up and shot him in the face. Joseph stood still for a moment, reeled around, and collapsed to the forest floor. Smoke and dust billowed up around him.

The leader of the men thrust a finger at Rudger. “Shoot that man!” he cried. Rudger looked around him. Every man with a gun had it aimed at his head.

“Shoot,” Rudger said, folding his arms. His eyes were open, but the world seemed to go dark.

“Don’t shoot,” the leader of the mob called out, changing his mind. The other men lowered their weapons, and Rudger stooped down beside his companion. Joseph had rolled onto his back. He had a large gunshot wound in his forehead.

“Isn’t this terrible that he should have shot himself?” said someone in the mob.

What had happened was murder, not suicide, Rudger knew. But he dared not disagree with the man. “Yes, it is terrible,” he replied. “We must send for help.” No one in the mob moved, and Rudger grew anxious. “You must go, or you must send me,” he insisted.

“You go and get help,” a man told him.13

On Sunday, August 3, John Taylor gazed at ten thousand solemn faces from the pulpit of the tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Behind him the stands were draped in black cloth and adorned with floral arrangements. Men ordained to the priesthood sat together as quorums while other Saints filled the remaining seats on the floor and in the gallery. Near the stands, in full view of the congregation, was Joseph Standing’s casket, decorated with flowers.14

After the mob released him, Rudger Clawson had found help from a friend living nearby and sent a telegram to Salt Lake City reporting Joseph’s murder. He had then returned to the murder scene with a coroner to retrieve his companion’s body, which had been disfigured by more bullets in his absence. A week and a half later, Rudger brought the body back to Utah by train in a heavy metal box. News of the murder had spread quickly to all parts of the territory.15

John shared the Saints’ outrage and sadness. But he believed they should feel proud as well as sorrowful. Joseph had died righteously in the cause of Zion. His murder would not stop the work of God from moving forward.16 The Saints would continue to build temples, send missionaries throughout the world, and expand Zion’s borders.

Under Brigham Young’s leadership, the Saints had established hundreds of settlements in the western United States, spreading outward from Utah to neighboring Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Idaho. During the last year of his life, Brigham sent two hundred colonists to settle along the Little Colorado River in northeastern Arizona.

More recently, at John Taylor’s call, seventy converts from the southern United States had joined Scandinavian Saints in settling a town called Manassa in the neighboring state of Colorado. In southeastern Utah, a large company of Saints was crossing the land’s deep canyons to make a home along the San Juan River.17

John knew the principles of truth would continue to fill the world, despite the unhallowed hands that tried to strike them down. “Men may clamor for our property; they may clamor for our blood just as much as men have at any other time,” he declared, “but in the name of Israel’s God, Zion will go on and prosper.”18

Wind blew across taro fields as Zina and Susie Young rode a carriage over the high mountains dividing the island of Oahu. Zina and Susie were on their way from Honolulu to Laie, the gathering place for Hawaiian Saints. The road down the far side of the slopes was so steep that an iron rod had been installed along one side to keep travelers from falling. And it took the help of two men pulling on a strong rope to steady the carriage as it descended into the green valley below.19

The Church was now well established on the Hawaiian Islands, with roughly one in every twelve Hawaiians a Latter-day Saint.20 When Zina and Susie arrived in Laie, Saints greeted them with a banner, music, and dancing. They sat their visitors down for a welcome meal and performed a song they had written especially for the occasion.

As she settled in for a two-month stay, Zina met Saints who were, like her, gray-haired pioneers. Among them was Relief Society president Mary Kapo, the sister-in-law of Jonathan Napela, the steadfast Hawaiian missionary and Church leader. Earlier that summer, Napela had passed away on Molokai, firm in his testimony, just two weeks before his wife, Kitty.21

Zina loved her time with the Hawaiian Saints. She and Susie met often with the Relief Society and young women. At their first meeting, the Hawaiian sisters brought a melon, a small bag of sweet potatoes, a cucumber, some eggs, a fish, and a cabbage. “I thought the donation was for the poor,” Zina wrote in her journal, “but they were tokens of friendship for us.”22

One evening, some Saints gathered at a home to hear Jacob Gates, Susie’s missionary friend, play “O My Father” on an organ Zina had bought for the Saints in Laie. As she listened to the Hawaiians sing, Zina thought of her friend Eliza Snow, who had written the hymn in Nauvoo so many years ago. The hymn taught about Heavenly Parents and other truths Zina had first learned from the prophet Joseph Smith. Now the hymn was being sung in an altogether different part of the world.23

Three days later, Susie and Jacob took a trip up the canyon together. Susie had written Jacob a short love letter two weeks earlier while he spent the day away from Laie, attending to missionary work.

“I am thinking of you now, away up in the hills,” she wrote. “Are you wishing, like me, that work had not to be done today, that we might talk over the future and express in a thousand ways that in our minds?”24

While Susie and Jacob courted, Zina planned to commemorate the second anniversary of Brigham Young’s death with the Hawaiian Saints. On August 29, Church members throughout Laie marked the occasion with her and Susie. Young boys and girls decorated the meetinghouse while Relief Society sisters purchased beef for a feast and other Saints dug a pit to cook the meat.

Zina appreciated their efforts. They were honoring not only her late husband, she felt, but also the principles he had worked to establish among the Saints.

The following Sunday, Zina helped to organize a new Relief Society with thirty members. She and Susie departed the next day. As they traveled farther and farther from the island, Zina asked Susie if she was glad to be heading toward home. Susie felt torn. She was eager to see her children again, but she also longed to be with the man she now hoped to marry.

“I wish I could do myself up in an envelope and be sent to you,” she wrote Jacob during the voyage. “I cannot see you now, and all I can do is to sit and dream and dream of the happy past and the blessed future.”25

Meliton Trejo was living in southern Arizona when he received a call from President Taylor to serve a mission in Mexico City. It had been over three years since Meliton had bidden farewell to the first missionaries heading to Mexico. While on their journey, the missionaries distributed hundreds of copies of Meliton’s translation of Book of Mormon passages. Church leaders soon began to receive letters from readers of Trozos selectos asking for more missionaries.

Meliton had proven himself through his work on the translation, and now he prepared himself to accompany James Stewart and newly called apostle Moses Thatcher on the journey to Mexico’s capital.

The three missionaries met in November in New Orleans, where they boarded a steamship to Veracruz. From there, they traveled to Mexico City by train.26 The day after they arrived, they were met at their hotel by Plotino Rhodakanaty, a leader of a group of around twenty believers in Mexico City. Plotino, a native of Greece, welcomed them warmly. His letters to President Taylor had been instrumental in persuading the apostles to send missionaries to the city.27 While Plotino waited for them, he and other unbaptized converts had started a newspaper about the restored gospel called La voz del desierto (The voice of the desert).28

Later that week, the missionaries went to a quiet olive orchard just outside the city, and Moses baptized Plotino and his friend Silviano Arteaga in a warm, spring-fed pool. “All nature was smiling around us, and I believe angels were rejoicing above,” Moses wrote in his journal.29

Within a few days, Meliton had baptized six more people. The missionaries organized a branch and began to hold meetings in Plotino’s home. They taught each other the gospel and administered to the sick. Moses called Plotino to serve as branch president, with Silviano and another recent convert, José Ybarola, as counselors.

After careful planning and prayer, the missionaries decided to translate Parley Pratt’s Voice of Warning and other Church tracts. Joining the Church sometimes carried a cost, as Plotino learned when he lost his job as a schoolteacher for refusing to deny his new faith. But the small branch was growing, and missionaries and converts alike felt that they were taking part in something momentous.

Meliton, James, and Plotino finished the translation of Voice of Warning on January 8, 1880. A few days later, Moses wrote to President Taylor, reporting the progress of the mission.

“We shall avail ourselves of every opportunity to secure useful knowledge and at the same time do all we can to extend the knowledge of the truths of the gospel,” he assured John. “And we believe the Lord has and will continue to help us.”30