Question: Who was Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner?

Mary joined the Church at age 12 in Kirtland, in October 1830, and so was among the very first members.[1] She seems to have been mature for her age; she had heard about the Book of Mormon, but had not even seen a copy prior to her baptism. She wrote:

About this time, John Whitmer came and brought a Book of Mormon. There was a meeting that evening, and we learned that Brother Morley had the Book in his possession the only one in that part of the country. I went to his house just before the meeting was to commence, and asked to see the book; Brother Morley put it in my hand, as I looked at it, I felt such a desire to read it, that I could not refrain from asking him to let me take it home and read it, while he attended meeting. He said it would be too late for me to take it back after meeting, and another thing, he had hardly had time to read a chapter in it himself, and but few of the brethren had even seen it, but I pled so earnestly for it, he finally said, "Child, if you will bring this book home before breakfast tomorrow morning, you may take it." He admonished me to be very careful, and see that no harm came to it. If any person in this world was ever perfectly happy in the possession of any coveted treasure I was when I had permission to read that wonderful book. Uncle and Aunt were Methodists, so when I got into the house, I exclaimed, "Oh, Uncle, I have got the 'Golden Bible'." Well, there was consternation in the house for a few moments, and I was severely reprimanded for being so presumptuous as to ask such a favor, when Brother Morley had not read it himself. However, we all took turns reading it until very late in the night as soon as it was light enough to see, I was up and learned the first verse in the book. When I reached Brother Morley's they had been up for only a little while. When I handed him the book, he remarked, "I guess you did not read much in it." I showed him how far we had read. He was surprised and said, "I don't believe you can tell me one word of it." I then repeated the first verse, also the outlines of the history of Nephi. He gazed at me in surprise, and said, "child, take this book home and finish it, I can wait."[2]

In fall of 1831, Mary left with her family for Independence, Missouri. She received the spiritual gift of interpretation of tongues:

Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer and Thomas B. Marsh often spoke in tongues in addressing the people on the Sabbath day, and I wanted to understand what they said; so I made it a subject of prayer, that the Lord would give me to understand what was the meaning of their words; for they seemed to speak with great power. One evening the brethren came to Uncle's house to converse upon the revelations that had not been printed as yet, but few had looked upon them, for they were in large sheets, not folded. They spoke of them with such reverence, as coming from the Lord; they felt to rejoice that they were counted worthy to be the means of publishing them for the benefit of the whole world. While talking they were filled with the spirit and spoke in tongues. I was called upon to interpret it. I felt the spirit of it in a moment.[3]

Question: What did Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner have to do with Book of Commandments? [Doctrine and Covenants]

Mob violence soon menaced the Saints.

Mary and her sister Caroline were the two young women who took copies of the Book of Commandments (the first publication of what we call the Doctrine and Covenants). A mob was destroying the printing office in Missouri, and the girls snatched some unbound printings:

The mob renewed their efforts again by tearing down the printing office, a two story building, and driving Brother Phelps' family out of the lower part of the house and putting their things in the street. They brought out some large sheets of paper, and said, "Here are the Mormon Commandments." My sister Caroline and myself were in a corner of a fence watching them; when they spoke of the commandments I was determined to have some of them. Sister said if I went to get any of them she would go too, but said "They will kill us." While their backs were turned, prying out the gable end of the house, we went, and got our arms full, and were turning away, when some of the mob saw us and called on us to stop, but we ran as fast as we could. Two of them started after us. Seeing a gap in a fence, we entered into a large cornfield, laid the papers on the ground, and hid them with our persons. The corn was from five to six feet high, and very thick; they hunted around considerable, and came very near us but did not find us....They [the members] got them bound in small books and sent me one, which I prized very highly.[4]

The violence worsened, and so Mary and her company resolved to cross the river to safety:

After enduring all manner of grievances we were driven from the county. While we were camped on the banks of the Missouri River waiting to be ferried over, they found there was not money enough to take all over. One or two families must be left behind, and the fear was that if left, they would be killed. So, some of the brethren by the name of Higbee thought they would try and catch some fish, perhaps the ferryman would take them, they put out their lines in the evening; it rained all night and most of the next day, when they took in their lines they found two or three small fish, and a catfish that weighed 14 pounds. On opening it, what was their astonishment to find three bright silver half dollars, just the amount needed to pay for taking their team over the river. This was considered a miracle, and caused great rejoicing among us.[5]

It is clear, then, that Mary had a number of remarkable spiritual experiences early in her life, and a strong testimony of the restored gospel.

Question: When did Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner meet Joseph Smith?

Joseph Smith came to Kirtland (prior to their move to Independence) at about the time she finished reading the Book of Mormon (i.e., around age 12):

Brother Whitney brought the Prophet Joseph to our house and introduced him to the older ones of the family (I was not in at the time.) In looking around he saw the Book of Mormon on the shelf, and asked how that book came to be there. He said, "I sent that book to Brother Morley." Uncle told him how his niece had obtained it. He asked, "Where is your niece?" I was sent for; when he saw me he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid. After a moment or two he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great blessing, the first I ever received, and made me a present of the book, and said he would give Brother Morley another. He came in time to rebuke the evil spirits, and set the church in order. We all felt that he was a man of God, for he spoke with power, and as one having authority in very deed.[6]

Mary wrote of the first meeting which Joseph held with the Saints in Kirtland:

The Smith family was driven from New York, and a small church had been organized. Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and Ziba Peterson were members. Well, I being anxious, though young, to learn about the plates from those who knew all about it, my mother and I went up to the Smith family the next night after they came to Kirtland. As I went in, there were two or three others present. They were all there, from the old gentleman and his wife to all the sons and daughters. As we stood there talking to them, Joseph and Martin Harris came in. Joseph looked around very solemnly. It was the first time some of them had ever seen him.

Said he, "There are enough here to hold a little meeting." They got a board and put it across two chairs to make seats. Martin Harris sat on a little box at Joseph's feet. They sang and prayed. Joseph got up and began to speak to us. As he began to speak very solemnly and very earnestly, all at once his countenance changed and he stood mute. Those who looked at him that day said there was a search light within him, over every part of his body. I never saw anything like it on the earth. I could not take my eyes off him; he got so white that anyone who saw him would have thought he was transparent. I remember I thought I could almost see the cheek bones through the flesh. I have been through many changes since but that is photographed on my brain. I shall remember it and see in my mind's eye as long as I remain upon the earth.

He stood some moments. He looked over the congregation as if to pierce every heart. He said, "Do you know who has been in your midst?" One of the Smiths said an angel of the Lord. Martin Harris said, "It was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." Joseph put his hand down on Martin and said: "God revealed that to you. Brethren and sisters, the Spirit of God has been here. The Savior has been in your midst this night and I want you to remember it. There is a veil over your eyes for you could not endure to look upon Him. You must be fed with milk, not with strong meat. I want you to remember this as if it were the last thing that escaped my lips. He has given all of you to me and has sealed you up to everlasting life that where he is, you may be also. And if you are tempted of Satan say, 'Get behind me, Satan.'"

These words are figured upon my brain and I never took my eye off his countenance. Then he knelt down and prayed. I have never heard anything like it before or since. I felt that he was talking to the Lord and that power rested down upon the congregation. Every soul felt it. The spirit rested upon us in every fiber of our bodies, and we received a sermon from the lips of the representative of God.[7]

Some have claimed (in error) that Joseph would teach Mary about plural marriage during this period (see discussion below).

Question: Was Joseph trying to prey on a young twelve-year-old girl?

Some have tried to see Joseph as telling Mary in Kirtland at age 12 that she was to be his wife.[8] This does not, however, seem to match her account:

The words of the Prophet that had been revealed to him always have been with me from the beginning to the end of the gospel. Every principle that has been given in the Church by the prophet is true. I know whereon I stand, I know what I believe, I know what I know and I know what I testify to you is the living truth. As I expect to meet it at the bar of the eternal Jehovah, it is true. And when you stand before the bar you will know. He preached polygamy and he not only preached it, but he practiced it. I am a living witness to it. It was given to him before he gave it to the Church. An angel came to him and the last time he came with a drawn sword in his hand and told Joseph if he did not go into that principle, he would slay him. Joseph said he talked to him soberly about it, and told him it was an abomination and quoted scripture to him. He said in the Book of Mormon it was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, and they were to adhere to these things except the Lord speak. I am the first being that the revelation [D&C 132] was given to him for and I was one thousand miles away in Missouri, for we went up to Jackson County in 1841 [should be 1831].[9]

As she says in the quote above, Joseph got the revelation regarding her, but by then she was a thousand miles away in Missouri. Her family had left Kirtland for Missouri in the fall of 1831; only after her departure did Joseph report the revelation.

Furthermore, in a private letter to Emmeline B. Wells, Mary said that she was not taught anything about plural marriage by Joseph until 1842:

As for Sister Whitney, Bishop Whitney's wife, I shall never forget her. It was at their house that the Prophet Joseph first told me about his great vision concerning me. He said I was the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife. That was in 1831. He was very much frightened, the angel appeared to him three times. It was in the early part of Feb. 1842 that he was compelled to reveal it to me personally, by the Angel threatening him. I said I would not accept it until I had seen an immortal being myself. I could tell you about this, but cannot write any more in regard to this subject.[10]

Critics have attempted to portray Joseph as a lech or pedophile, preying on a young child. They claim that he is "grooming" her for later abuse. There are several problems with such a reconstruction. A key one is that, as we have seen, Joseph's revelation regarding her did not come until she was far away in Missouri. (Newel K. Whitney was also not called as a bishop until December 1831.[11]

Question: What were the events around Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner's married life?

Mary married Adam Lightner, who was not a member of the Church, on 11 August 1835.[12]

Following the Haun's Mill Massacre in Missouri, the Missouri militia and mob came to capture, kill, or drive out the Saints:

For in the midst of sorrow, news came that the militia (besides the hundreds of the mob), were marching to destroy our city and its inhabitants. A part of the bloodthirsty mob camped near the city and placed a cannon in the middle of the road, intending to blow up the place. Then they sent in a flag of truce, demanding an interview with John Cleminson and wife, and Adam Lightner and wife. We went a short distance to meet them. We saw a number of the brethren standing around the place of meeting, well armed. As we approached, General Clark shook hands with the two men, being old acquaintances, and remarked that Governor Boggs had given him an order for our safe removal before they destroyed the place. I asked my sister-in-law what we should do about it. She replied, "We will do as you say; I was surprised at her answer, as she was the mother of four or five children, and I had but one. So I asked the General if he would let all the Mormon women and children go out? He said, "No." "Will you let my mother's family go out?" He said, "The Governor's orders were that no one but our two families should go but all were to be destroyed." "Then, if that is the case, I refuse to go, for where they die, I will die, for I am a full blooded Mormon, and I am not ashamed to own it." "Oh," said he, "you are infatuated, your Prophet will be killed with the rest." Said I, "If you kill him today, God will raise up another tomorrow." "But think of your husband and child." I then said that he could go, and take the child with him, if he wanted to, but I would suffer with the rest.

Just then a man kneeling down by some brush, jumped up and stepping between the General and myself, said, "Hold on, General," then turned to me and said, "Sister Lightner, God Almighty bless you, I thank my God for one soul that is ready to die for her religion; not a hair of your head shall be harmed, for I will wade to my knees in blood in your behalf." "So will I," said Brother Hyrum Smith, and others. The first speaker was Brother Heber C. Kimball, with whom I was not acquainted at the time. Then the General pleaded with my husband, but it was of no avail.[13]

The Lightners went to Louisville, Kentucky, but once they heard of the Saints regathering at Nauvoo, they sold what little they had and went to join them.[14]

They moved away from Nauvoo to find work, though Joseph told them they would not prosper if they did so. Mary would ultimately believe the prophet was correct. She became very ill, and her life was despaired of:

I prayed for help to get well, but the doctor coming in, said there was no hope for me. But I dreamed that an angel came to me and said if I would go to Nauvoo and call for a Brother Cutler, that worked on the temple, to administer to me, I should be healed. But we could get no team to go. I was in despair; however, my brother was impressed to send for me, he felt that something was wrong, so he sent a boy with an ox team after me. I was so glad, that for a few moments I felt new life. But the people said I would not get a mile from town when he would have to bring back my dead body. But I said I wanted to be buried in Nauvoo, and pleaded with them to take me there, dead or alive. We went a mile and stopped the team; they thought me dying, all the children were crying. I had my senses and motioned for them to go on. We went a few miles further, stopped at a house and asked to stay all night. The woman was willing until she saw me. She said I would die before morning, and she did not want me to die in her house. Mr. Lightner told her that I would certainly die if I was left in the open wagon all night. She finally let us in. She made us as comfortable as she could and fixed me some light food; after drinking some tea, I felt better and had a good night's rest; but she was glad when we left, for she thought I would never see Nauvoo. After traveling a few miles further, we finally reached Nauvoo. They still thought me dying. Mr. Lightner asked Brother Burt if there was an old man by the name of Cutler working on the temple. He said "Yes." Mr. Lightner told him my dream; soon they brought him, he administered to me and I got up and walked to the fire, alone. In two weeks I was able to take care of my children.[15]

Question: What did Joseph teach Mary about plural marriage? What did she say?

At Nauvoo, Joseph and Emma were kind to the Lightners, and Joseph worked to persuade her husband to be baptized: "The Prophet Joseph tried hard to get Mr. Lightner to go into the water, but he said he did not feel worthy, but would, some other time. Joseph said to me that he never would be baptized, unless it was a few moments before he died."[16]

Mary seems to have been prepared spiritually for the doctrine of plural marriage. She reported, "I was not sealed to him until I had a witness. I had been dreaming for a number of years I was his wife. I thought I was a great sinner. I prayed to God to take it from me for I felt it was a sin...."[17] This is yet further evidence that she knew nothing of plural marriage until Nauvoo; she would not have been mystified or felt guilty about dreaming about being Joseph's wife if she had been taught the doctrine and accepted it in 1831.

In 1842, Joseph told Mary about plural marriage. Her reaction is not that of a child who has been groomed, of a woman over-awed by the prophet's status, or someone who meekly submits. She was offended: "I have never told a mortal and shall never tell a mortal I had such a talk from a married man."[18]

I was not sealed to him until I had a witness....but when Joseph sent for me he told me all of these things. "Well," said I, "don't you think it was an angel of the devil that told you these things?" Said he, "No, it was an angel of God. God Almighty showed me the difference between an angel of light and Satan's angels.[19]

Mary clearly did not believe Joseph at first; even the prophet's appeal to a revelation from an angel is not enough for her. She was quite prepared to think that this was an evil deception:

Well, I talked with him for a long time and finally I told him I would never be sealed to him until I had a witness. Said he, "You shall have a witness." Said I, "If God told you that, why does he not tell me?"..."Well," said he, "pray earnestly for the angel said to me you should have a witness." Well, Brigham Young was with me. He said if I had a witness he wanted to know it. "Why should I tell you?" said I. "Well," said he, "I want to know for myself." Said he, "Do you know what Joseph said? Since we left the office the angel appeared to him and told him he was well pleased with him and that you should have a witness."[20]

Joseph does not hesitate to tell a suspicious and reluctant Mary that she will have a divine witness--a strange and risky act for a predator to undertake.

Mary described her search for a witness:

I made it a subject of prayer and I worried about it because I did not dare to speak to a living being except Brigham Young. I went out and got between three haystacks where no one could see me. As I knelt down I thought, why not pray as Moses did? He prayed with his hands raised. When his hands were raised, Israel was victorious, but when they were not raised, the Philistines were victorious. I lifted my hands and I have heard Joseph say the angels covered their faces. I knelt down and if ever a poor mortal prayed, I did. A few nights after that an angel of the Lord came to me and if ever a thrill went through a mortal, it went through me. I gazed upon the clothes and figure but the eyes were like lightning. They pierced me from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. I was frightened almost to death for a moment. I tried to waken my aunt, but I could not. The angel leaned over me and the light was very great, although it was night. When my aunt woke up she said she had seen a figure in white robes pass from our bed to my mother's bed and pass out of the window.[21]

Mary received a witness, and her aunt (who knew nothing of her conversation with Joseph) served as a second witness of the experience. We might argue that Joseph so bedazzled Mary that she hallucinated--a dubious claim--but he cannot have fabricated her aunt's unwitting verification.

Mary reported her experience to Joseph:

Joseph came up the next Sabbath. He said, "Have you had a witness yet?" "No." "Well," said he, "the angel expressly told me you should have." Said I, "I have not had a witness, but I have seen something I have never seen before. I saw an angel and I was frightened almost to death. I did not speak." He studied a while and put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. He looked up and said, "How could you have been such a coward?" Said I, "I was weak." "Did you think to say, `Father, help me?'" "No." "Well, if you had just said that, your mouth would have been opened for that was an angel of the living God. He came to you with more knowledge, intelligence, and light than I have ever dared to reveal." I said, "If that was an angel of light, why did he not speak to me?" "You covered your face and for this reason the angel was insulted." Said I, "Will it ever come again?" He thought a moment and then said, "No, not the same one, but if you are faithful you shall see greater things than that." And then he gave me three signs of what would take place in my own family, although my husband was far away from me at the time. Every work came true. I went forward and was sealed to him.[22]

Even the angelic vision does not suffice for Mary. She received three more (unspecified) signs which Joseph predicted. She told the same story in a letter:

As it is, I can never forget that [angel's] face, it seems to be ever before me. A few days after this Joseph asked [p. 48] me if I had received a witness Yet? I said no, he said you soon will have; for the Angel expresly told me you should Have--then I told him what I had seen, for I fully realized what I had lost by my cowardice...After receiving other Testimonies, I felt I could no longer disbelieve, and in the month of March 1841 Brigham Young Sealed us for time, and all Eternity....[23]

The weight of these witnesses convinced her, and she entered plural marriage. None of this is consistent with a woman who has been "groomed" or otherwise manipulated. She has put Joseph's claims to a severe test, and has found him justified in every particular.

Mary was a woman of considerable spiritual gifts and strength of mind. She said, near the end of her life:

But I want you to remember what I have said, that it is my testimony, as long as you live. I want to say to you as I said before that Joseph said if I was faithful, I should see greater things than the angel. Since then I have seen other persons, three came together and stood before me just as the sun went down -- Joseph, Hyrum and Heber C. Kimball. It was prophesied that I should see Joseph before I died. Still, I was not thinking about that. I was thinking about a sermon I had heard. All at once I looked up and they stood before me. Joseph stood in the middle in a circle like the new moon and he stood with his arms over their shoulders. They bowed to me about a dozen times or more. I pinched myself to be sure I was awake, and I looked around the room to see where I had placed things. I thought I would shake hands with them. They saw my confusion and understood it and they laughed, and I thought Brother Kimball would almost kill himself laughing. I had no fear. As I went to shake hands with them, they bowed, smiled and began to fade. They went like the sun sinks behind a mountain or a cloud. It gave me more courage and hope than I ever had before....[24]

Thus, her visionary and revelatory experiences were not confined to times when somehow under the influence of Joseph's charisma.


  1. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 193-94.; compare “Autobiography," handwritten, MSS B95, box 14, unnumbered folder supplementing folder 3, Utah State Historical Society.
  2. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 194.
  3. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 195.
  4. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 196.
  5. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 197.
  6. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 194-95.
  7. Mary E. Rollins Lightner, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet," Young Woman's Journal 16 (December 1905): 556-557. off-site
  8. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1994), 89.
  9. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 1, emphasis added off-site
  10. Marry Elizabeth Rollins LIghtner, Letter to Emmeline B. Wells, Summer 1905, emphasis added.
  11. "Newel K. Whitney: A Man of Faith and Service," Church History Museum (25 March 2015). It is possible that Mary could be speaking of the Whitney's with the bishop's future title, even though he was not bishop while she was in Kirtland, but the other evidence makes this improbable.
  12. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 197.
  13. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 199.
  14. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 201.
  15. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 204.
  16. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, "Autobiography," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (July 1926), 203.
  17. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 2, emphasis added off-site
  18. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 2 off-site
  19. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 2, off-site
  20. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 2 off-site
  21. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 2, emphasis added off-site
  22. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 2-3, emphasis added off-site
  23. B. Carmon Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham, 47-48; citing Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Autobiography, Susa Young Gates Collection, UHI, 18–22, 24–24-25.
  24. Mary Elizabeth Lightner, "Testimony of Mary Elizabeth Lightner," address at Brigham Young University, (14 April 1905), typescript, BYU, 3, emphasis added off-site