Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner is perhaps best known among Latter-day Saints as the young woman who, with her sister, Caroline, rushed to save unbound sheets of Joseph Smith’s revelations while a mob was tearing down the Church’s printing office in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri. Mary’s long life spanned most of the early history of the Church and included many notable events. She described her own life as providentially tragic and remembered it as filled with great sacrifice, struggle, and miraculous power.1
Born on April 9, 1818, in Lima, New York, just outside of Rochester, Mary Rollins was the second of three children born to John Porter and Keziah Van Benthuysen Rollins.2 Mary’s father worked on the Great Lakes and died in a shipwreck when she was not yet three. Two years before Mormon missionaries arrived in the area, the Rollins family moved to Kirtland, Ohio, to be close to family. When the elders did arrive, twelve-year-old Mary was among the first people to be baptized. Within a year’s time, the Rollins family left with many other Kirtland converts to establish Zion in Jackson County, Missouri. There Mary received the gift of interpreting tongues.3
When the Latter-day Saints left Jackson County under duress, Mary temporarily settled in Liberty, Missouri, where she met and married Adam Lightner on August 11, 1835. Adam never joined the Church, but he was a strong supporter of both the community and Mary’s affiliation. Far West, in Caldwell County, soon became the Latter-day Saints’ new gathering place, and the Lightners moved there, establishing a store in town. Though Adam was respected by those antagonistic to the Saints’ settlement, their property was nevertheless a casualty of the subsequent Mormon War in Missouri.4 Joseph Smith ultimately surrendered to state officials, who sought Adam as a witness against him. Instead of testifying, the Lightners fled the state, hoping to find refuge with relatives in Louisville, Kentucky. Unfortunately, the family they sought had moved away, and Mary and Adam struggled for food and shelter.
Eventually, the Lightners heard of a new Latter-day Saint settlement in Illinois on a bend of the Mississippi River. Mary sewed and taught painting lessons to raise money for the journey, and they settled in Iowa across the river from Nauvoo. The Lightners later moved to Nauvoo, and within days of their arrival, Joseph Smith introduced Mary to the then-secret practice of plural marriage. Joseph told her of angelic instructions on the matter, an experience which she demanded in turn. After receiving a confirmatory witness, Mary was sealed to Joseph but continued to live with Adam.5
Instead of moving west to Utah, the Lightners spent sixteen years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, battling repeated financial setbacks and witnessing the deaths of four of their ten children. Eventually, on May 25, 1863, the Lightners set off for Utah, traveling by steamboat to Omaha and then by ox team to Salt Lake.6
They settled with family, including Mary’s mother and half-sister Phebe Burk Bingham, in Minersville, Utah. When a Relief Society was organized there in 1869, Mary was its first president.7 By 1880 Adam was unable to earn a living, and he passed away in 1885. Mary lived the rest of her life in economic destitution, being supported as a widow of Joseph Smith through remittances by the Church. She frequently spoke at large gatherings, remembering the earliest days of the Church and her experiences in it.
She died December 17, 1913, and was buried in the Minersville Cemetery.
1. The most complete biographical treatment of Mary to date is in Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1997), 205–27.
2. Mary’s parents were John Porter Rollins (1789–1821) and Keziah Van Benthuysen (1796–1877). Her siblings were Caroline Amelia Rollins (1820–1856) and James Henry Rollins (1816–1899).
3. Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, was a common part of Mormon worship from the first year of the Church to the early twentieth century. Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 293–94.
4. For information about the Mormon War in Missouri, see Alexander L. Baugh, A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History; BYU Studies, 2000); Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987); Leland Homer Gentry and Todd M. Compton, Fire and Sword: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836–39 (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011).
5. Mary was sealed to Joseph Smith by Brigham Young in February 1842. She left many statements and affidavits regarding the details of this marriage. Mary E. R. Lightner, Statement, March 23, 1877, Photocopy of manuscript, Scott G. Kenney Papers, Marriott Library Special Collections, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, hereafter cited as Marriott Special Collections; Mary E. R. Lightner to John Henry Smith, June 25, 1892, George A. Smith Family Papers, Marriott Special Collections; Mary E. R. Lightner, Statement, February 8, 1902, Photocopy of holograph, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, hereafter cited as BYU Special Collections; Affidavit, February 21, 1905, copy by Mary E. Rollins Lightner, Record Book, 33, Holograph, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner Collection, BYU Special Collections; Benjamin Lundwall, comp., “Remarks by Sister Mary E. Lightner . . . B.Y.U. April 14, 1905,” Photocopy of typescript, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner Collection, BYU Special Collections; Mary E. R. Lightner to Emmeline B. Wells, Summer 1905, Photocopy of holograph, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner Collection, BYU Special Collections; Mary E. R. Lightner, Autobiography, Holograph, Susa Young Gates Papers, Utah Historical Society Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.
6. They traveled as part of the Alvus H. Patterson Company and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on September 15, 1863. “Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightener,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847–1868, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed November 29, 2011, http://mormontrail.lds.org; Compton, Sacred Loneliness, 218.
7. Compton, Sacred Loneliness, 221.