In the 1830s, Mary Presdee Phillips, a widow and midwife, was one of several hundred devout members of the United Brethren religious sect residing in the rural agrarian villages of England’s West Midlands. Despite being somewhat advanced in years, Mary resolutely decided in the spring of 1840 to leave the Primitive Methodist movement and become a Latter-day Saint. That choice and its dramatic consequences, which included migrating to America, profoundly shaped her future for the next three decades. Nearly all those years were spent living a hardscrabble pioneer life on the western frontier of the United States. Although Mary was illiterate and left no life writings, her profound faith, undaunted courage, and resilient determination distinguished her as a Latter-day Saint convert and pioneer.1
Although various sources suggest that Mary was born in December 1773, her christening occurred a year later on December 27, 1774, in the Church of England parish of Alfrick, Worcestershire. Mary’s parents were James and Mary Purshull Presdee, and she was the eldest of ten children.2
About five months after Mary’s father died in 1793, she was united in marriage at age twenty with William Phillips, of Oxenhall, Gloucestershire. The couple was married by license on December 3 of that year at St. Andrew’s Parish in the city of Worcester.3 The newlyweds settled nearby in the village of Leigh, where their first several children were born.4 William worked as a farmer and laborer to support his family, which burgeoned to twelve children. Presumably, three of the children died before reaching age twelve. The Phillipses moved frequently between rented farms in Leigh, Worcestershire; Cradley, Herefordshire; and Oxenhall, Gloucestershire, tight-knit villages located near each other but in three different counties.5 Because of incomplete records, some of William and Mary’s children’s birth or christening dates cannot be determined.6
In November 1825, William died at age sixty-two at Longley Green, near Suckley, Worcestershire. Mary, then aged fifty one, was left to care for six children under age eighteen; her two eldest daughters and eldest living son likely had households of their own. The couple’s son Edward, who was only twelve years old at the time, assumed partial responsibility for supporting his mother and several siblings by farming and blacksmithing.7
1. Church of England, St. Andrew’s Parish, City of Worcester (Worcestershire), Parish registers, 1754–1934, Microfilm, Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereafter cited as Family History Library. Mary signed her marriage entry with an “X,” indicating she was illiterate.
2. Church of England, Alfrick Parish (Worcestershire), Parish registers, 1655–1812, Microfilm, Family History Library. Mary’s patriarchal blessing given on January 31, 1853, by John Smith states she was born December (no day listed) 1773. The blessing given on February 17, 1865, by John Young gives her birth date as December 2, 1773; copies in author’s possession. Blessing of 1853 is on file at the Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereafter cited as Church History Library. Wilford Woodruff’s journal entry of November 12, 1864, states that Mary “will be 91 years old in 3 weeks.” Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983–84), 6:195–96. Mary’s gravestone uses the date December 4, 1773. See also Jeanne R. Mooney, Family Group Record for James and Mary Purshull Presdee, 1989, copy in author’s possession. A common variant spelling of Presdee is Pressdee. Family records often record Mary’s name as Mary Ann, although christening and marriage records refer to her simply as Mary.
3. Church of England, St. Andrew’s Parish, Registers, 1754–1934.
4. Jay Greaves Burrup, Family Group Record for William and Mary Presdee Phillips, 1981, copy in author’s possession; “Ancestral File Record: Mary Presdee,” NewFamilySearch, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed December 7, 2011, https://new.familysearch.org.
5. Sylvia Phillips, “Biographical Sketch of Edward Phillips,” 1889, p. 1, Church History Library. Burrup, Family Group Record for William and Mary Presdee Phillips.
6. Birth and christening information is lacking for Elizabeth, Ann, and James.
7. Phillips, “Biographical Sketch,” 1.