“Inspiration at the Divine Fountain,” chapter 42 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 42: “Inspiration at the Divine Fountain”
In early January 1892, Zina Young and Emmeline Wells met in Salt Lake City with other members of the Relief Society general board to plan a “jubilee” commemoration of the Relief Society’s fiftieth anniversary. The board wanted Latter-day Saint women throughout the world to join in the celebration, so they sent a letter to every Relief Society in the Church, encouraging them to hold a jubilee of their own.1
After extending “a heartfelt greeting” to all sisters, the letter asked the presidency of each Relief Society to invite their members and priesthood leaders to the local jubilee and to appoint an organizing committee to plan the event. Each celebration was to begin at ten o’clock in the morning on March 17, the day the Relief Society was first organized in Nauvoo, and unite two hours later in a “universal prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God.”2
Zina relied heavily on Emmeline to help organize the jubilee in Salt Lake City to everyone’s satisfaction. And by the beginning of March, Emmeline was steeped in planning. “I am trying to do what is possible toward the preparations for the jubilee,” she wrote in her diary. “I am more busy than ever.”3
The Relief Society board planned to hold the Salt Lake City jubilee in the tabernacle. For decorations, they wanted to hang large portraits of Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Zina Young behind the pulpit.4
Since Emma Smith, the first president of the Relief Society, had stayed in Illinois and joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, some people believed hanging her portrait in the tabernacle was inappropriate. When debate grew intense, Zina asked President Wilford Woodruff his view on displaying the portrait. “Anyone who opposes it,” he said, “must be very narrow-minded indeed.”5
On the day of the jubilee, all four portraits hung on the tabernacle organ pipes. Beside them was a key-shaped floral arrangement symbolizing the key Joseph Smith had turned to women in 1842.6 Zina and Emmeline sat on the stand with Bathsheba Smith, Sarah Kimball, Mary Isabella Horne, and other women who had advanced the Relief Society’s mission over the last fifty years. Thousands of Relief Society members were crowded into the tabernacle. Many men were also present, including Joseph F. Smith and two members of the Twelve.7
Zina opened the jubilee, mindful that women across the Church were celebrating the occasion. “O that my words could be heard by all people,” she said, “not only by you my brethren and sisters in this tabernacle and throughout Utah, but that they might be heard and understood by all the people of this continent, and not only this continent but the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the islands of the sea.”
“As sisters of this organization, we have been set apart for the purpose of comforting and consoling the sick and afflicted, the poor and distressed,” she added. “If we continue to do these things in the spirit thereof, the Lord, at the time when He comes to make up His jewels, will approve of us.”
“What does this woman’s jubilee signify?” Emmeline asked the congregation at the close of the meeting. “Not only that fifty years ago this organization was founded by a prophet of God, but that woman is becoming emancipated from error and superstition and darkness; that light has come into the world, and the gospel has made her free; that the key of knowledge has been turned, and she has drunk inspiration at the divine fountain.”8
Around this time, Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University, visited Salt Lake City on a tour of the western United States. Charles was impressed with the small group of Latter-day Saints who had come to Harvard the year before, and he had accepted an invitation to speak in the tabernacle.
Seven thousand people attended the short speech. Charles championed religious liberty and praised the Saints’ hard work and industry, comparing them favorably to the early English settlers who founded Harvard.9 Later, after the Salt Lake Tribune and other newspapers criticized his favorable view of the Saints, Charles went on to defend them.
“I think they should now be treated, as regards their property rights and their freedom of thought and worship, precisely like Roman Catholics, Jews, Methodists, or any other religious denomination,” he declared.10
Sitting in the audience were Anna Widtsoe, her sister Petroline, and Anna’s fourteen-year-old son, Osborne. Nearly a year had passed since John, Anna’s older son, had gone to Harvard, and Anna was impressed with the distinguished speaker who thought so highly of the Latter-day Saint students there.11
The Widtsoes were now living with Petroline in the Salt Lake City Thirteenth Ward, which had enough Scandinavian Saints to make testimony meetings a multilingual occasion. Osborne worked at the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution store on Main Street while Anna and Petroline worked as dressmakers. Osborne and his mother also attended weekly lectures at the local stake academy.12
During the first weekend in April, snow fell in Salt Lake City as though it were the middle of winter. The morning of Wednesday, April 6, was bright and clear, however, as Anna and Osborne joined over forty thousand people on and around Temple Square to see the capstone of the Salt Lake temple fitted into place at the top of the east central spire. The dome-shaped stone was designed to support Cyrus Dallin’s twelve-foot sculpture of an angel, which would be fastened to it later that day. Once the capstone and angel were in place, the exterior of the temple would be complete, leaving only the interior to finish before the dedication.13
The streets surrounding the temple were jammed with buggies. Some spectators stood on wagons, climbed telegraph poles, or scaled rooftops for a better view.14 As the Widtsoes stood amid the teeming crowd, they could see President Wilford Woodruff and other Church leaders on a platform at the base of the temple.
After a band played and the Tabernacle Choir sang, Joseph F. Smith offered the opening prayer. Church architect Joseph Don Carlos Young, the son of Brigham Young and Emily Partridge, then shouted down from scaffolding at the top of the temple, “The capstone is now ready to be laid!”15
President Woodruff moved to the edge of the platform, looked out at the Saints, and raised his arms high. “All ye nations of the earth!” he said. “We will now lay the topstone of the temple of our God!” He pushed a button, and a current of electricity released a catch that dropped the capstone into place.16
Afterward, the Saints gave the Hosanna Shout and sang “The Spirit of God like a Fire Is Burning.” Apostle Francis Lyman then stood before the crowd. “I propose,” he said, “that this assemblage pledge themselves, collectively and individually, to furnish, as fast as it may be needed, all the money that may be required to complete the temple at the earliest time possible, so that the dedication may take place on April 6th, 1893.”
The proposed date would be the fortieth anniversary of the day Brigham Young laid the temple cornerstones. George Q. Cannon called for a sustaining vote on the proposal, and the Saints raised their right hands and shouted, “Aye!”17
Francis pledged a large sum of his own money to complete the temple. Anna pledged five dollars for herself and ten dollars for Osborne. Knowing that John would want to pledge money as well, she contributed ten more dollars in his name.18
That spring, Joseph F. Smith visited the home of sixty-three-year-old James Brown. As a much younger man, James had marched with the Mormon Battalion and served a mission to Tahiti and its surrounding islands with Addison and Louisa Pratt, Benjamin Grouard, and others. While laboring on the Anaa atoll in 1851, however, James had been arrested on false charges of sedition and taken to Tahiti, where he was imprisoned and eventually banished from the islands.19 The government had forced the other missionaries to leave as well, and the mission had been closed ever since.
Now, some forty years later, Church leaders had begun expanding missionary work in the South Pacific. In July 1891, the Samoan mission had sent two young elders, Brigham Smoot and Alva Butler, to begin preaching in Tonga. Six months later, two other missionaries from the Samoan mission, Joseph Damron and William Seegmiller, renewed missionary work in French Polynesia, ministering to the long-isolated Saints in and around Tahiti.20
But Joseph Damron was unwell, and he and William had found that nearly all the Latter-day Saints in the area had joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which had sent missionaries to the South Pacific several years earlier. Both men believed the mission needed someone with more experience to lead the work in the area.21
At James’s house in Salt Lake City, Joseph F. took out a letter he had received from the missionaries in Tahiti. “How would you like to take another mission to the Society Islands?” he asked James.
“I do not wish any man to call me to any mission,” James told him.22 He was now an old man with three wives and many children and grandchildren. His health was poor, and he had lost his leg in a firearm accident years earlier. Going to the South Pacific would be a big undertaking for someone in his condition.
Joseph F. handed the letter to James and asked him to read it. He then left with a promise that he would return the next day to find out what James thought of it.23
James read the letter. The young missionaries were clearly struggling. As the only one of the early missionaries still living, James had a familiarity with the people and their language that would allow him to do much good. If the First Presidency asked him to go to the Pacific, he decided, he would go. He had faith that God would not ask him to do anything without making him equal to the task.24
When Joseph F. Smith returned the following day, James accepted the mission call. A few weeks later, he said goodbye to his family and left the city with his son Elando, who was called to serve with him.
James, Elando, and another missionary arrived in Tahiti the following month. Elders Damron and Seegmiller escorted the new missionaries to the home of a Tahitian man named Tiniarau, who provided a bed where James and his son could sleep. After the exhausting journey, James did not leave his room for days.25
Before long, though, visitors began calling. One came from Anaa and said he recognized James by his voice. Others would identify him the same way, the man said, even if they did not know him by sight. Some visitors had been born after James had sailed home, but they were still glad to meet him. One older woman recognized him and began shaking his hand so persistently that he wondered if she would ever let go. She had been on Anaa, he learned, when the French officers arrested him and took him from the atoll aboard their warship.
One evening, James met yet another man from Anaa, Pohemiti, who remembered him. Pohemiti had joined the Reorganized Church, but he rejoiced to meet James again and provided food for him. If you go to Anaa, he promised the missionary, the people there will listen to you.26
At Harvard University, John Widtsoe received letter after letter from his mother and brother in Salt Lake City. Their words were always full of advice and encouragement. “Ma says you must be careful in your chemistry,” Osborne wrote one day. “She has read of a professor losing both eyes by something exploding or something of that sort.”27
“Everything will be right with you,” Anna wrote more reassuringly. “Just dedicate yourself to doing good to everyone with all that you have and will have, so that you serve Him who is the Creator of all good things and who never tires of making everything better and more beautiful for His children.”28
When a horse-drawn streetcar first dropped John off at Harvard one year earlier, he had been awed by the school’s history and tradition. At night he would dream about acquiring all the world’s knowledge without having to worry about how long it would take to master each subject.
As he began studying for his entrance exams, which he would take in the fall, he became overwhelmed by how much he had to learn. He checked out armfuls of books from the campus library and pored over their pages. But he grew discouraged as he realized how difficult it would be to master even one subject perfectly. Could he, a poor immigrant from Norway, compete with his classmates? Many of them had received a first-class education at some of the finest preparatory schools in the United States. Had his education in Utah prepared him for what lay ahead?
Homesickness only added to John’s anxieties during those first months, and he had contemplated going home. But he decided to stay, and he went on to pass his entrance exams, including his English exam, even though English was his second language.
Now, with a year of schooling behind him, John was more confident in his studies. He lived in a rented house with some of the other young Latter-day Saint men studying at Harvard and neighboring schools. After much prayer, he selected chemistry as the primary focus of his study. A few other Latter-day Saint students were aspiring scientists, while others were studying for careers in engineering, law, medicine, music, architecture, and business. Like many college students, these young men often reveled in loud debates with each other on scholarly topics.29
In July 1892, James Talmage, a fellow chemist and respected scholar in the Church, visited Boston to research and collect laboratory instruments for a Church university in Salt Lake City.30 James’s friend and former schoolmate Susa Gates also came to Harvard to take a summer course in English.
Susa struck John as a good speaker and talented writer. She, in turn, was impressed with his refined and artistic nature, and they quickly became friends. “There is one young man here, handsome and quiet, studious and reserved,” Susa wrote in a letter to her daughter Leah, who was about John’s age. “He is of excellent character and is indeed the best scholar of them all. I think you would like him.”
“I doubt if he can dance at all,” Susa lamented, “but he has a brain as big as James Talmage’s and has to my eyes a handsome face to go with it.”31
After hiding more than two years on the underground, Lorena Larsen and her children again had a house of their own in Monroe, Utah, not far from where her husband, Bent, lived with his first wife, Julia.32 But even though Monroe was Lorena’s hometown, she did not always feel welcome there.
Throughout the Church, many plural families continued to live as they always had, confident they were doing God’s will. Some Church members in Monroe, however, believed it was sinful for a man to continue having children with his plural wives. When it became clear that Lorena was expecting another baby, some of her neighbors and family members began to openly scorn her.
Bent’s mother feared that Lorena would get her son thrown back in jail. Lorena’s sister said that a pregnant plural wife was no better than someone who had committed adultery. And one day Lorena’s own mother, who was also the ward Relief Society president, came to her home and chided her for continuing to have children with Bent.33
That evening, after Bent chopped some wood for her and the children, Lorena told him what her mother had said. But rather than sympathize with Lorena, Bent told her that he agreed with his mother-in-law. He had been talking the matter over with friends, and they concluded that a man with plural wives had no choice but to stay with his first wife and let the others go. He and Lorena would remain sealed, but they would have to wait until the next life to be together again.
Lorena could hardly speak. Since the Manifesto, Bent had told her again and again that he would never abandon her. Now he was going to be leaving her and her children on their own, and only weeks before she was due to give birth.
The couple talked all through the night. As Lorena cried, Bent told her that tears could not change the reality of their situation.34
“If I didn’t believe you thought you were doing God’s service,” Lorena told Bent, “I could never forgive you.”
After Bent was gone, Lorena prayed for strength and wisdom. Just as the sun was beginning to show over the mountains, she found Bent working in a stable behind Julia’s house and told him he had to stand by her at least until their baby was born. After that, she said, he could go wherever he wanted. God was now her only friend, and she would turn to Him for help.35
Lorena gave birth to a daughter two weeks later. When the baby was five days old, Lorena had a dream about dying and woke up in a panic. Could she trust Bent to care for their children if she died? He had provided for her and the children throughout her pregnancy, as promised. But he rarely interacted with the children, and when he did, his quick, anxious visits often left them feeling like a stranger had dropped by for the evening.
When Lorena told Bent about her premonition, he dismissed it. “It’s only a dream,” he said. Still feeling uneasy, she prayed often over the next month, promising the Lord that she would endure her trials and hardships patiently and do all she could to further His work, including temple work.36
Five weeks after Lorena’s dream, a marshal arrested her and Bent for unlawful cohabitation. The court released them on bond with the expectation that Lorena would testify in court against Bent when his trial came up later that year.
The arrest and the contempt Lorena felt from family and friends were too great for her to bear. Unsure what to do, she unburdened her soul to apostle Anthon Lund, the president of the Manti temple. Anthon wept as he listened to her story. “Walk straight ahead amid the sneers and jeers of everybody,” he counseled her. “You are all right.”37
Following the apostle’s counsel, Lorena moved straight ahead with her life. Her alarming dream, and the prayers that followed, helped her become more patient, more able to endure her trials, and more thankful to the Lord for her life. Bent also saw that his neglect caused Lorena intense suffering, and he and Lorena ultimately decided to continue with their life together, though it would never be easy.
That September, Bent pleaded guilty to the charge of unlawful cohabitation, and a judge sentenced him to serve one month in jail. The punishment was not as severe as it had been years before, when Bent had served six months on a similar charge. In fact, since the Manifesto, sentences for unlawful cohabitation were often much shorter than before. But it was a reminder that if Lorena and Bent continued their relationship, the consequences could be hard to bear.38
Still, it was a risk the couple was now willing to take.