Mormon Pioneer Mary Lightner’s Mythic Heroism

By Sharon Lindbloom
27 June 2017

Latter-day Saint Glenn Rawson, writing for the Idaho State Journal, recently published an article, “‘I’m A Full-Blooded Mormon’: Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner.” Drawing from Mary’s autobiography, Mr. Rawson relates a story that demonstrated Mary’s “uncommon courage for her faith.” Mr. Rawson explains that near the close of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, the commander of the Missouri state military forces, General John B. Clark,

“demanded an interview with those among the Mormons who were not Latter-day Saints. Among those was Adam Lightner, Mary Elizabeth’s husband. She left this account of what happened next.

“’As we approached, Gen. Clark shook hands with the two men [Adam Lightner and John Cleminson], being old acquaintances, and remarked that Governor Boggs had given him an order for our safe removal before they destroyed the place. … 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.”’

“Upon hearing that dire announcement, Mary Elizabeth responded thus:

“’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.’”

According to Mary’s autobiography, General Clark implored her to think of her husband and child, but she was determined to “suffer with the rest” of the Mormons, and said so. Suddenly LDS apostle Heber Kimball jumped out of the bushes and declared his willingness to “wade to my knees in blood in [Mary’s] behalf,” a declaration that was quickly seconded by Joseph Smith’s brother, Hyrum, “and others.”

Mr. Rawson told Mary’s stirring story to encourage other Mormons. “With such a legacy of courage,” he wrote, “how can we ever be cowards to the faith?”

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was indeed a courageous woman, but her courage is more truthfully illustrated by the life she lived. Approximately four years after the Mormon War in Missouri ended, she became Joseph Smith’s sixth (or seventh, or possibly eighth) plural wife, though she remained married to her legal, non-Mormon husband, Adam Lightner. After Joseph was killed, Mary became a plural wife of Brigham Young, but again, remained with Adam. Mary didn’t go west with the Mormons when they left Nauvoo, Illinois. Instead, she and Adam and their children lived in various places in the Midwest until 1863, when they finally joined the Saints in Utah Territory.

Over the course of her life, Mary endured many trials. She lived through two religious wars (the Mormon War in Missouri and the Mormon War in Illinois), she was twice a plural wife, she lived many years in polyandry, she buried three husbands, she lost children and other family under tragic circumstances, and she suffered great financial difficulties coupled with feelings of being isolated and neglected by her church. Yet, according to historian Todd Compton, “she remained faithful to her religion.” Yes, Mary was a courageous woman, as were all pioneer women, but the story Mr. Rawson chose from Mary’s autobiography to illustrate that is almost certainly untrue. Remarking on this tale as told by Mary herself, Todd Compton explained, “This self-agrandizing anecdote is typical of early Mormon autobiography” (In Sacred Loneliness, 210).

In fact, a version of this story about the conflict at Far West and being willing to die with fellow Mormons can be found in History of the Church, volume 3. In the testimony of Hyrum Smith, men from the Missouri state militia

“demanded three persons to be brought out of the city before they should massacre the rest. The names of the persons they demanded were Adam Lightner, John Cleminson, and his wife. Immediately the three persons were brought forth to hold an interview with the officers who had made the demand, and the officers told them they now had a chance to save their lives, for they intended to destroy the people and lay the city in ashes. They replied to the officers, if the people must be destroyed and the city burned to ashes, they would remain in the city and die with them.” (HOC 3:410)

In Hyrum’s testimony, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner wasn’t at this meeting — nor was he — while Mary’s telling of the story has both Hyrum Smith and Heber Kimball present.

Another LDS apostle, Parley Pratt, also mentions a demand for this meeting in his testimony, agreeing with Hyrum Smith as to the identity of the three people required to meet with the officers (i.e., without Mary). But Mr. Pratt’s testimony does not indicate that the meeting actually took place in that, rather than sending out Adam Lightner, John Cleminson, and his wife as requested, they sent out Charles Rich in an effort to discover who the troops represented (HOC 3:427).

Furthermore, Mary states that this meeting with General Clark occurred at Far West, Missouri on October 31, 1838 (i.e., the day before Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders were surrendered to the militia). But General Clark was not present at Far West on October 31. He didn’t arrive on the scene until November 3 (Leland Gentry and Todd Compton, Fire and Sword, xiii).

All three of the above narratives of Mary’s story include the name of John Cleminson as one of the people present at the alleged pre-massacre meeting with Missouri military officials. It’s noteworthy that Mr. Cleminson (along with four other men) signed a letter dated November 23, 1838 in which General Clark is praised for his “respectful kind and obliging character” towards the Mormons at Far West, and for Clark’s conduct being “highly honorable” (Fire and Sword, 506). It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Cleminson would so highly praise a man who had just three weeks earlier threated to massacre all Mr. Cleminson’s Mormon friends at Far West. Mary’s story does not ring true.

In writing about Mary Elizabeth Rawlins, historian Todd Compton includes another story of courage, this one from Mary’s time in Nauvoo. When few Mormons remained in Nauvoo and non-Mormons were threatening the city,

“Mary’s brother Henry tried to rally resistance against a mob with a flag. According to a family tradition (possibly embellished into a heroizing anecdote), ‘At that critical moment Aunt Mary Lightner…stepped up and said, “I’ll carry the flag.” One of the captains came up to her, “If you and your brother and your husband and your husband’s people will come out of Nauvoo we will murder all the rest of the people.” Aunt Mary turned on her heel and cried, “Blow away, I’ll go back and die with them.”’” (In Sacred Loneliness, 215)

The stories of Mary’s confrontations with mobs and soldiers are at least highly inaccurate; more probably, untrue. Faith-promoting myths are a powerful form of propaganda that has been – and continues to be – a significant and well-used tool in the promotion of Mormonism. Whether employed to convince non-Mormons that Mormonism is true (e.g., the First Vision story), or used to convince Mormons of the validity of the LDS Church (e.g., the transfiguration of Brigham Young), faith-promoting myths sometimes wield greater influence than the truth.

Mary Lightner’s mythic heroism may seem inspiring and innocent enough on the surface, yet it promotes a distorted view of history that is utilized — by those who know better and by those who don’t — to motivate Latter-day Saints toward misguided allegiance to a false religious system. Really, there is nothing heroic or inspiring in that.