(by Susan McCloud deseretnews.com 4-16-15)
Faith was a real and vibrant part of life for the three sisters of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Sophronia, born in 1803, had the companionship of two kind, gentle older brothers, Alvin and Hyrum. Her little brother, Joseph, was born two and a half years later on Dec. 23, 1805.
Sophronia and Joseph were close friends during their childhood, and Joseph’s tenderness toward her increased when the dreaded typhoid fever swept the upper Connecticut River Valley where they lived. Six thousand people lost their lives to typhoid fever, and every child in the Smith family was infected. Sophronia came the closest to dying, being in a dangerously low state for 89 days.
When the doctors pronounced Sophronia's case hopeless, her parents, Joseph Sr. and Lucy, clasped their hands and knelt at her bedside in prayer, pouring out their anguished appeals to God. Though it seemed the child no longer breathed, Lucy gathered her into her arms and paced the floor with her until she caught her breath, sobbed and from that moment began to recover. The other children, including 5-year-old Joseph, were watching — and feeling the faith of their parents when all had seemed lost.
Years of change, poverty and persecution followed. Sophronia was about 13 when the family was forced to leave their Vermont home in penury. Joseph Sr. had gone ahead to New York and could not help. Mother Lucy had a new baby, Don Carlos, to care for. The family paid the bills demanded of them with all they had, “the last payment being made,” wrote the Prophet Joseph, “with the drops (earrings) taken from my sister Sophronia’s ears,” according to an article about Sophronia by Joseph's descendant Gracia N. Jones at josephsmithsr.com.
As Sophronia grew, her devotion to her family never wavered. She, her mother, Hyrum and Samuel joined the Presbyterian church prior to Joseph’s vision in the grove. Before Alvin died in November 1823, he urged her to never forsake her parents. She followed this sacred counsel throughout her life.
At 23, she married Calvin Stoddard, who was a Bible student and very excited about spiritual things. Her daughter Eunice was born in March 1830, and the family made the difficult move to Kirtland, Ohio. They celebrated the marriage of her younger sister Katharine on June 8, 1830.
Tragically, little Eunice died 16 days later, on June 24, 1830.
Sophronia’s life was one of constant struggle and uncertainty — including in a spiritual sense. Her husband, Calvin, fluctuated in his spiritual consistency and dependability. Her faith, despite all, never wavered. When she was close to death with consumption, family friend Jared Carter blessed her, and with faith she told her mother that she knew she would be healed, though it would be a slow process.
When Calvin died rather suddenly, presumably from tuberculosis, Sophronia was left a widow with one little girl, Mariah. Sophronia married William McCleary a year and a half later, and their lives were very bound up with the family and the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the Nauvoo, Illinois, years. They were sealed in the temple, and it appears from letters they intended to travel West, but it never happened, according to Jones' article on josephsmithsr.com. A few years after they were sealed, McCleary seems to disappear from all the records and letters, and Sophronia became a widow again.
It is difficult to piece together the history of these three women. During the years before the Prophet’s death, each lived and worked faithfully in the kingdom, spinning, knitting, cooking, washing, fashioning carpets for the temple — all things lovingly and gently given, despite the poverty and insecurity of their personal lives.
Katharine was born in 1813 and married in 1830, but nothing akin to an ordinary life unfolded for her. In leaving Kirtland for Far West, Missouri, and after traveling in pouring rain for days, Katharine gave birth to her son in an abandoned hut, then traveled with the new infant 40 miles in the next few days to catch up with the company.
Katharine’s husband, Jenkins Salisbury, often deserted the family for periods of time in which they had to fend for themselves. He eventually became disassociated from the LDS Church and died in 1853. Katharine married Joseph Younger in 1857, but the marriage lasted only a few months.
The Smith children of these struggling sisters suffered severe persecution as they were growing up because of their connection with the Mormon prophet. This cruelty culminated as late as 1880. Katharine’s second son, Alvin, was exchanging angry words with an acquaintance and went to hit him. The man, Thomas Duff, suddenly pulled a knife and struck Alvin in the chest and in the upper arm, then drove the weapon deep into the boy’s forehead, causing his death.
Katharine became reconciled to many of her Utah Smith cousins, who visited her and the others often, and she was softened and gratified by Brigham Young’s willingness to send her several large sums of money (beginning with $200) to help build a home for her family. It was not until later years that her children became involved in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Her heart, for many years, was drawn toward the body of the Saints in Utah, and she expressed her desire to be among them, praying for “the blessing of heaven” to be with President Young “and all the church” (see “I Have a Question,” by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Ensign, March 1979). Katharine lived the longest of the three sisters. On her 80th birthday, she was described as “a tall woman, with one of those clear, pink and white complexions so charming in an old lady. Her eyes are blue and her face is a pleasant one” (see “I Have a Question,” Ensign, March 1979).
Lucy, the last child of Joseph Sr. and Lucy and named after her mother, was born in 1821, nearly 16 years after the Prophet Joseph. When her brothers Joseph and Hyrum were taken prisoner in Far West, Missouri, Lucy went with her mother to bid them farewell as they were taken away in a wagon. A cover was nailed down over the men, and they could only reach their hands out to their loved ones. Mother Smith recorded, “… the wagon dashed off, tearing my son from us just as Lucy was pressing his hand to her lips to bestow upon it a sister’s last kiss” (see "History of Joseph Smith by His Mother," by Lucy Mack Smith).
What imaginable effect could such an experience have had upon her tender sensitivities? Then this 17-year-old girl lost her shoes in the muddy crossing of the Mississippi and fainted at the excitement of hearing that Hyrum and Joseph had been released from prison.
Lucy was nearly 19 when Joseph performed her marriage to Arthur Millikin, and together this young couple cared tenderly for Mother Lucy for years following the martyrdom. Lucy also helped her mother perform baptisms in the Nauvoo Temple for her Mack family, including her beloved sisters who had died young.
The trials and experiences of daily life in those times are beyond comprehension. Arthur was severely wounded at the Battle of Crooked River in Missouri in August 1838.
Another Lucy — Lucy M. Smith, who later married Joseph's cousin George A. Smith — recalled how the Prophet Joseph, at the ferry landing in Nauvoo, “took his sister Lucy’s seven months’ old boy in his arms and sat down and wept for joy, as his sister was thought to be in a decline when she left home the year before with her husband. She was indeed the picture of health when she returned …” (see “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” The Juvenile Instructor 27, 1892).
Lucy Smith Millikin gave birth to nine children, Katharine to eight and Sophronia to two. Lucy and her husband died of respiratory disease in 1882, Lucy being just 61 years old and most likely having been infected by a sick daughter-in-law whom she had nursed.
The deep commitment of these Smith women to Joseph’s widow and to their widowed mother, their desire to stay close to their many dead who slumbered near them, the exhaustion and confusion of spirit which they suffered — these are things that cannot be imagined in attempting to look back upon their lives.
Following a visit to the family, Joseph F. Smith wrote: “Aunt Lucy said, as soon as she got hold of my hand, she felt she had been mistaken, and she greeted me warmly” (see "I Have a Question," Ensign, March 1979).
To all Utah visitors, who were welcomed warmly, and to all the curious or even hostile neighbors or strangers who questioned them, the Smith sisters maintained unwavering testimonies of their Prophet brother and of the work which he did.
It is easy to look with tender respect and admiration upon the contributions of these women — the courage, determination and gentleness of their spirits — and to be reminded, in gratitude, of the remarkable Smith family who virtually gave their lives that the Restoration might go forth.