Church History
36 The Weak Thing of This World

“The Weak Thing of This World,” chapter 36 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 36: “The Weak Thing of This World”

Chapter 36

The Weak Thing of This World

wildflowers on prairie

On July 29, 1887, Wilford Woodruff stood with George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith at the window of the Church president’s office in Salt Lake City. Together, they watched John Taylor’s funeral procession slowly make its way through the city. Throngs of people lined the streets as more than a hundred carriages, buggies, and wagons rolled past. Emmeline Wells expressed what many Saints felt when she wrote that President Taylor “was a man the people might always be sure of as a leader and of whom they might also be justly proud.”1

Only the threat of arrest kept Wilford and the other two apostles from stepping outside to pay their respects to their friend and prophet. Like most of his quorum, Wilford rarely appeared in public to avoid being arrested for polygamy or unlawful cohabitation. When his wife Phebe passed away in 1885, Wilford had been at her bedside. But he did not attend her funeral three days later, fearing he would be captured. Now, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve and the senior leader of the Church, Wilford had become even more of a target for the marshals.

Wilford had never aspired to lead the Church. When he received the news of John’s death, the burden of responsibility weighed heavy on his shoulders. “Marvelous are Thy ways, O Lord God Almighty,” he had prayed, “for Thou has certainly chosen the weak thing of this world to perform Thy work on the earth.”2

Wilford assembled the Twelve a few days after the funeral to discuss the future of the Church. As had been the case after the deaths of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the quorum did not immediately organize a new First Presidency. Rather, in a public statement, Wilford reaffirmed that in the absence of a First Presidency, the Twelve Apostles had the authority to lead the Church.3

Over the next several months, the apostles accomplished much under Wilford’s leadership. Although the Manti temple was nearly ready to dedicate, the larger and more ambitious Salt Lake temple was still far from complete. The original plans for the temple had called for two large assembly halls to occupy the building’s upper and lower floors. While on the underground, however, John Taylor had considered a new floor plan that would eliminate the lower assembly hall, providing much more space for endowment rooms. Now, Wilford and the Twelve consulted with builders on the best way to carry out these plans. They also approved a proposal to finish the temple’s six towers in granite rather than in wood, as originally intended.4

Wilford and other Church leaders quietly prepared to make another attempt at Utah statehood as well. Since efforts to arrest Church leaders had prevented the Saints from holding general conference in Salt Lake City for the past three years, the Twelve also negotiated with local marshals to allow Wilford and apostles who had not been charged with polygamy or unlawful cohabitation to come out of hiding and hold conference in the city.5

As the apostles met together, Wilford noticed discord beginning to arise in their meetings. Several new apostles had been called to the quorum since Brigham Young’s death a decade earlier, including Moses Thatcher, Francis Lyman, Heber Grant, and John W. Taylor. Now each of them seemed to have serious misgivings about George Q. Cannon. They believed he had made many poor decisions as a businessman, politician, and Church leader.

Among their concerns was George’s recent handling of a Church discipline case involving his son, a prominent Church leader who had committed adultery. They also did not like that George had made decisions on his own for the Church during John Taylor’s final illness. Nor did they like that George was advising Wilford on Church business, even though the First Presidency had been dissolved and George had returned to his place among the Twelve. In the minds of the junior apostles, George was acting out of self-interest and excluding them from the decision-making process.6

George believed he had been misjudged, however. He admitted to making small mistakes from time to time, but the accusations against him were false or based on incomplete information. Wilford understood the immense pressures George had faced over the last few years, and he continued to express trust in him and depend on his wisdom and experience.7

On October 5, the day before the general conference, Wilford gathered the apostles together to seek reconciliation. “Of all men under heaven,” he said, “we should be united.” He then listened for hours as the younger apostles again aired their grievances. When they finished, Wilford spoke about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor, each of whom he had known and worked with closely. As great as these men were, he had seen imperfection in them. But they would not have to answer to him, Wilford said. They would answer to God, who was their judge.

“We should treat Brother Cannon with consideration,” Wilford said. “He has his failings. If he did not, he would not be with us.”

“If I have hurt any of your feelings,” George added, “I humbly ask your pardon.”

The meeting ended after midnight, with the opening prayer of general conference only hours away. Despite George’s plea for forgiveness, Moses Thatcher and Heber Grant still believed that he had not adequately answered for his mistakes, and they told the brethren they did not yet feel reconciled.

In his journal, Wilford described the evening in three short words: “It was painful.”8

Around this time, Samuela Manoa guided his canoe over the teal-blue water of Pago Pago Harbor. Behind him, the craggy mountain peaks of Tutuila, a Samoan island, rose into the sky. Just ahead, a large sailing vessel sat at the harbor’s entrance, waiting for a local sailor to help pilot the ship safely through the reefs.

A resident of the neighboring island of Aunu‘u, Samuela knew the harbor well. When his canoe finally reached the waiting ship, Samuela called to the captain and offered his help. The captain threw a rope ladder over the side of the ship and welcomed Samuela aboard.

Samuela followed the captain to his office in the lower deck. It was early in the morning, and the captain wondered if Samuela might like to cook some ham and eggs for himself before navigating the harbor. Samuela thanked him and was given old newspapers to light a cooking fire.

Samuela could read a little English and saw that one of the newspapers came from California. As he placed the paper in the fire, a headline stood out amid the flickering light. It was an announcement of a conference for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Samuela’s heart leaped, and he snatched up the paper and put out the flames.9

The date of the conference had long since passed, but Samuela was more interested in the name of the church than the event itself. This church was his church, and now, for the first time in years, he knew it was still thriving in the United States.

As a young man in the 1850s, Samuela had been baptized by Latter-day Saint missionaries in Hawaii. In 1861, however, Walter Gibson had seized control of the Saints’ settlement on Lanai and told Samuela and others that the Church in Utah had been destroyed by the United States Army. Unaware of Walter’s fraud, Samuela had believed him and supported his leadership. When Walter sent him and another Hawaiian Saint, Kimo Belio, on a mission to Samoa in 1862, he had accepted the call.10

Samuela and Kimo were the first Latter-day Saint missionaries to Samoa, and they had baptized around fifty Samoans during their first few years there. But mail service was unreliable, and the missionaries struggled to stay in contact with the Saints in Hawaii.11 Since Church leaders in Utah had not issued the call to open a mission in Samoa, no new missionaries were sent to assist Samuela and Kimo, and the congregation of Samoan Saints dwindled.12

Kimo had since died, but Samuela had remained in Samoa and made it his home. He married and started a business. His neighbors continued to know him as the Latter-day Saint missionary from Hawaii, but some of them had begun doubting the existence of the church he claimed to represent.13

Samuela had long wondered if Walter had lied to him about the destruction of the Church in the United States.14 Now, twenty-five years after coming to Samoa, he finally had a reason to hope that if he wrote to Church headquarters, someone might respond.15

Clutching the newspaper, Samuela hurried to find the ship’s captain to ask for help writing a letter to Church leaders in Utah. In the letter, he requested that missionaries be sent to Samoa as soon as possible. He had been waiting for several years, he wrote, and was eager to see the gospel preached once again among the Samoans.16

By the fall of 1887, Anna Widtsoe and her two sons, John and Osborne, had lived in the northern Utah town of Logan for nearly four years. Anna’s sister Petroline had also joined the Church in Norway and come to Utah, settling in Salt Lake City, eighty miles to the south.17

Anna now worked as a seamstress, putting in long hours to make enough money to support her boys. She wanted her sons to be schoolteachers, as their late father had been, and she made education a priority in their lives. Since fifteen-year-old John worked at the local cooperative store to help earn money for the family, he could not attend school during the day. He instead taught himself algebra in his spare time and took private lessons in English and Latin from a British Saint. Nine-year-old Osborne, meanwhile, attended the local grade school and excelled in his studies.18

A few years before the Widtsoes arrived, Brigham Young had donated land for a school in the area similar to the one he had established in Provo. Brigham Young College opened in Logan in 1878, and Anna was determined to send her sons there as soon as they were ready, even if it meant that John could no longer work at the store. Some people thought she was wrong to emphasize education over manual labor, but she believed that developing the mind was as important as developing the body.19

Anna also ensured that the boys participated in Church programs and meetings. On Sundays they attended sacrament meeting and Sunday School. Osborne attended the ward Primary during the week, and John attended Aaronic Priesthood meetings on Monday evenings. As a deacon, he had chopped firewood for widows and helped take care of the stake tabernacle, where the ward held its meetings. Now, as a priest, he met with the bishopric and other priests and visited a few families every month as a “ward teacher.” John also belonged to the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association.

Anna attended Relief Society meetings on Thursdays. The Saints in Logan were from all over the United States and Europe, but their faith in the restored gospel bound them together. It was common in local Relief Society meetings to hear women speak or bear testimony in their native language while others interpreted for them. Anna learned English after a year of living in Logan, but with so many Scandinavian Saints in the area, she had many opportunities to speak Norwegian.20

At her Church meetings, Anna came to learn and understand more about the restored gospel. She had not been taught the Word of Wisdom in Norway, and she continued to drink coffee and tea in Utah, especially when she had to work late at night. She struggled for two months without success to give up these drinks. But one day she walked briskly to her cupboards, pulled out her coffee and tea packages, and threw them into the fire.

“Never again,” she said.21

Anna and her sons also participated in temple work. She and John had witnessed President Taylor dedicate the Logan temple in 1884. A few years later, John was baptized and confirmed for his father, John Widtsoe Sr., in the temple. On the same day, he and Osborne were also baptized and confirmed for other deceased relatives, including their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Anna and her sister Petroline then went to the temple and received their endowment. Anna returned to be baptized and confirmed for her mother and other kindred dead.

The Logan temple had become precious to her. The heavens had seemed to open on the day it was dedicated, rewarding her for all the sacrifices she had made to come to Zion.22

For much of 1887, Eliza Snow’s health was fading. Now eighty-three years old, the beloved poet and Relief Society general president had already outlived many of the Saints of her generation, and she knew her death was coming. “I have no choice as to whether I shall die or live,” she reminded her friends. “I am perfectly willing to go or stay, as our Heavenly Father shall order. I am in His hands.”

Eliza’s condition worsened as the year wore on. Zina Young and other close friends watched over her constantly. At ten o’clock on December 4, 1887, Patriarch John Smith visited her bedside in the Lion House in Salt Lake City. He asked her if she recognized him, and she smiled. “Of course I do,” she said. John gave her a blessing, and she thanked him. Early the next morning, Eliza passed away peacefully with her brother Lorenzo at her side.23

As a leader of Latter-day Saint women, Eliza had organized and ministered to Relief Societies, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations, and Primaries in nearly every settlement in the territory. She had also presided over women’s temple work in the Endowment House for more than thirty years. In each of these settings, Eliza had inspired women to employ their talents in helping God save the human family.

“It is the duty of each of us to be a holy woman,” she had once taught them. “We shall feel that we are called to perform important duties. No one is exempt from them. There is no sister so isolated, and her sphere so narrow, but what she can do a great deal toward establishing the kingdom of God upon the earth.”24

In the December 15 issue of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline Wells honored her as an “Elect Lady” and “Zion’s Poetess.” “Sister Eliza has ever been brave, strong, and unflinching in the positions she has held,” Emmeline wrote. “The daughters of Zion should emulate her wise example and follow in her footsteps.”25

The following April, the Saints sustained Eliza’s friend Zina Young as the new general president of the Relief Society. Like Eliza, Zina had been a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.26 When Eliza became general president of the Relief Society in 1880, she had chosen Zina as her counselor. Over the years, the two women had worked, traveled, and grown old together.27

Zina was known for her loving, personal ministering and powerful spiritual gifts. For years she had presided over the Deseret Silk Association, one of the Relief Society’s cooperative programs. She was also an experienced midwife who served as the vice president of the Deseret Hospital, a hospital the Relief Society operated in Salt Lake City. Though she accepted her new calling with some trepidation, she was determined to help the Relief Society thrive as it had under Eliza.28

Shortly after receiving her call, Zina traveled north to Canada to visit her only daughter, Zina Presendia Card. Before his death, John Taylor had asked Zina Presendia’s husband, Charles, to establish a settlement in Canada for polygamous Saints in exile.29 Until now, illness and the winter season had prevented Zina from visiting her daughter. But Zina Presendia was expecting a baby, and Zina wanted to be by her side.30

Zina arrived in Cardston, the new Canadian settlement, just as the wildflowers were beginning to bloom. Surrounded by fields of swaying grass, the town seemed perfectly situated to flourish.31

Zina could see that her daughter was flourishing as well, despite years of hardship. Widowed at age twenty-four, Zina Presendia had raised two young sons on her own for several years before the younger boy, Tommy, died of diphtheria at the age of seven. Three years later, she married Charles as a plural wife.32

Although Zina Presendia was unaccustomed to frontier living, she had made a comfortable home in a small log cabin. She had covered the cabin’s rough-hewn interior with a soft flannel fabric she had made herself, each room a different color. Once spring arrived, she also tried to keep a fresh bouquet of flowers on the dining room table.33

Zina Young spent about three months in Cardston. During her stay, she met regularly with the Relief Society. On June 11, she taught the women that Cardston had been held in reserve for the Saints of God. There was a spirit of union among the people, she said, and the Lord had great blessings in store for them.34

The day after the meeting, Zina Presendia went into labor. Zina was by her side, both as a midwife and as a mother. After only three hours of labor, Zina Presendia gave birth to a plump, healthy girl—her first daughter.

The baby’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother had all been named Zina. It seemed fitting to name her Zina as well.35

Even before Samuela Manoa’s letter arrived in Salt Lake City, the Spirit had been working on Church leaders to expand missionary efforts in Samoa. Early in 1887, apostle Franklin Richards had called thirty-one-year-old Joseph Dean and his wife Florence to serve a mission to Hawaii. When he set them apart, he had instructed them to take the gospel to other islands in the Pacific as well, including Samoa.36

Joseph had been sent to the Pacific partly to protect him and his family from the marshals. He had fulfilled a mission to Hawaii with his first wife, Sally, ten years earlier. After returning to the mainland, he had married Florence as a plural wife and later served time in prison for unlawful cohabitation. Prosecutors continued to hound Joseph until he and Florence left for Hawaii. Sally, meanwhile, remained in Salt Lake City with her and Joseph’s five children.37

Joseph wrote to Samuela several months after arriving in Hawaii, and Samuela soon replied, eager to assist in the work.38 In May 1888, a few months after Florence gave birth to a boy they named Jasper, Joseph sent a letter to Samuela, notifying him that he and his family would be coming to Samoa the following month. A short time later, Susa and Jacob Gates threw a going-away party for the Deans, and Joseph, Florence, and their infant son set out for Samoa soon after.39

The first leg of their 2,000-mile trip was uneventful, but their steamship’s captain had no plans to travel to the island of Aunu‘u, where Samuela lived. Instead, he stopped the ship near Tutuila, about twenty miles west of Aunu‘u.

Joseph knew no one on Tutuila, but he searched anxiously for a leader among the people who had come to meet the boat. Spotting a man who appeared to be in charge, Joseph thrust out his hand and said one of the few Samoan words he knew: “Talofa!”

Surprised, the man returned Joseph’s greeting. Joseph then tried to tell him where he and his family were headed, speaking in Hawaiian and emphasizing the words “Aunu‘u” and “Manoa.”

Suddenly the man’s eyes lit up. “You Manoa’s friend?” he asked in English.

“Yes,” Joseph said, relieved.

The man’s name was Tanihiili. Samuela had sent him to find Joseph and his family and transport them safely to Aunu‘u. He led them to a small open boat with a crew of twelve other Samoan men. After the Deans climbed aboard, ten of the men began rowing them out to sea while two others bailed water and Tanihiili steered. Struggling against stiff winds, the oarsmen maneuvered the boat up and over threatening waves until they brought it safely into the harbor at Aunu‘u.

Samuela Manoa and his wife, Fasopo, greeted Joseph, Florence, and Jasper on the shore. Samuela was a thin man, much older than Joseph and rather frail. Tears stained his weather-worn face as he welcomed them in Hawaiian. “I feel greatly blessed that God has brought us together and that I can meet His good servant here in Samoa,” he said.

Fasopo took Florence by the hand and led her to the three-room house they would all share. The following Sunday, Joseph preached his first sermon in Samoa to a house full of curious neighbors. He spoke Hawaiian, and Samuela translated. The next day, Joseph rebaptized and reconfirmed Samuela, as the Saints sometimes did at this time to renew their covenants.

A woman named Malaea was among those gathered to watch the ordinance. Moved by the Spirit, she asked Joseph to baptize her. He had already changed out of his wet baptismal clothes for the confirmation, but he put them back on and entered the water.

In the weeks that followed, fourteen more Samoans were baptized. Filled with hopeful enthusiasm, Joseph wrote to Wilford Woodruff on July 7 to share his family’s experience. “I felt to prophesy in the name of the Lord that thousands of the people would embrace the truth,” he reported. “That is my testimony today, and I believe I shall live to see it fulfilled.”40