Saturday, October 15, 2016

Mary Wanlass and the Provo City Center Temple

Carry On

A Portrait of Mary Wanlass

            Upon a wall within the Provo City Center Temple hangs a lovely painting by Elspeth Young entitled Carry On, which depicts a fifteen-year-old girl named Mary Martha Wanlass.  She stands somewhere on the vast American plains between Missouri, her point of departure, and Utah, her ultimate destination.  Behind her in the west, the Rocky Mountain foothills beckon beneath the clouds, vaguely marking the goal toward which she has been striving for several months.  By now any food stores are presumably exhausted, so she feeds herself and her family by foraging for berries, flowers, and any other edible plants that she can find at the end of each day’s journey.  She holds in her left arm a hat turned upside down, into which she gathers her simple, meager harvest.
            The painting shows only Mary, but in the unseen family wagon lies her helpless father, Jackson Russell Wanlass, forty years old but already felled by two debilitating strokes.  Mary also cares for four small children: her eight-year-old brother, also named Jackson; her seven-year-old sister, Sarah; and two four-year-old twins, her sister Ann Jane and her brother Samuel Russell.  Mary’s mother and stepmother are no longer living.
            The year is 1863, and the season is late summer.  The family has been traveling all alone throughout the spring and summer and will not arrive until September.  Back in Missouri, the American Civil War has been raging for more than two years.  Here in this western wilderness, Mary and the other five members of her family are waging a war of their own, a daily battle to survive and to keep moving.
* * *
            Mary was born in Alston, England on May 20, 1848.  Mary’s mother, Sarah Bell, gave birth to Mary’s brother William (named after an uncle on the Wanlass side) on March 10, 1850, but he died less than a year later on February 15, 1851.  Mary’s mother passed away about five months after that on July 21, when Mary was three years old.
            Mary’s father then married Jane Bell, and different sources dispute whether Jane was Sarah’s older sister or a close friend of the family who happened to have the same last name as Sarah.  Though already in her thirties, Jane gave birth to five children.  The first of these, a little boy named John, died in infancy in 1854, when Jane was thirty-two.  The other four children, born in 1855, 1856, and two in 1858, are the four siblings already mentioned above who made the trek with Mary in 1863.
            The message of the restored gospel reached Alston in the early 1850s.  Mary’s family was among the first converts, and they wanted to gather to Zion to join the main body of Latter-Day Saints in the Rocky Mountains of Utah.  Of the Wanlasses, Mary’s uncle William was the first to emigrate from England, but before completing the journey to Utah, he took up residence in Richmond, Ray County, Missouri, probably in 1854 or 1855.
            In 1856, when Mary was eight years old, she immigrated to the United States along with her father, her stepmother, and her two siblings, Jackson and Sarah, whose respective ages were only seventeen months and six months when the voyage began.  With financial help from Mary’s uncle William, the family of five departed from England on November 18 aboard the sailing ship Columbia and sailed for a month and a half, arriving in the United States on January 1, 1857.
            From New York City they made their way to their uncle’s residence in Missouri and settled there for several years, though they never forgot that their initial goal in emigrating from England was to eventually join the Saints in the Great Salt Lake Valley.
            Mary’s father was a miner by profession, and in Missouri he took up mining coal to provide for the family.  Though Mary was still a young child at the time, reaching the age of nine in May of 1857, she helped her father with this enterprise by crawling in and out of the coal mine he had dug, pushing a homemade coal car in front of her.  She scraped her knees doing this work, and for the rest of her life, her knees were black from coal dust that had become embedded in her skin.
            The twins Ann Jane and Samuel Russell were born in Richmond, Missouri, on September 12, 1858.
            Not long before their birth, Mary’s father suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and impaired his speech.  He was only about thirty-five years old at the time.  Ten-year-old Mary and her thirty-six-year-old stepmother Jane nursed him for months, but he never made a full recovery.
            Sometime during the next four years, Jane’s health took a turn for the worse, and she gradually declined until she finally passed away on June 6, 1862, at the age of forty.  As Jane lay dying, she pleaded with Mary to take the family to Zion.  “Don’t give your father any peace until he goes to the Rocky Mountains,” she said.  At the age of fourteen, Mary became the de facto head of household, in charge of caring for a partially disabled father and four younger children.  Her brother Jackson turned seven four days after his mother’s death.  Sarah was six years old, and the twins Ann and Samuel were still just three.
            Mary must have possessed a robust and admirable stubborn streak, an iron-willed pioneer determination, because despite her young age and her heavy domestic burdens, she resolved to take herself and the other children to Utah even if she had to make the journey without her father.  She told her father of her intention, and he must have felt the strength of her resolution, because it motivated him to sell everything he owned in order to purchase a wagon, a yoke of oxen, some cows, and some provisions for the journey.  Though partially disabled, he was determined to make the journey with them.
            I don’t know when Mary’s uncle William made the trek west, but he made the journey before Mary did, and William settled in Lehi, Utah.  Perhaps William’s completion of the final move to Zion served as a motivating factor for Mary’s family.

* * *
            Mary and her family departed in the spring of 1863, sometime before May 10.  Mary’s father arranged to join a group of non-Mormon immigrants in St. Louis who were heading to Oregon.  His plan was to travel with them to Iowa, where his family could join with a company of Mormons heading to Utah.  I assume that his intention was to travel to the vicinity of Council Bluffs, then turn west and follow the Mormon Trail across Nebraska and Wyoming to reach the settlements along the Wasatch Front.
            But soon after starting the journey, Mary’s father suffered another stroke, this one coming about five years after the first one hit, and this second stroke left him bedridden in the wagon.  The family lost more than a week before they could get moving again, and by now they were too far behind to catch up.  From here on, they were largely on their own.
            When I contemplate Mary’s circumstances at that time, I wonder if she considered turning back.  She was a fourteen-year-old girl with no adult help, caring for a bedridden father, watching over four young children, managing a wagon, a team of oxen, and some cows, and even traveling during wartime across a state where several battles had been fought and where deserters and renegades roamed the territory.
            Yet Mary pressed on.
            I prefer to believe that she possessed great faith and a strong desire to join her uncle William, thereby fulfilling the family’s long-standing goal to reach Zion.  She most certainly possessed tremendous determination.  She had crossed the Atlantic with her family more than six years earlier, and maybe she felt that the final push to Utah was long overdue.  Maybe she was especially driven by the last wish of her dying stepmother.
            Then again, maybe she was just an ordinary person compelled by extraordinary circumstances to press on no matter what, because she had no other realistic options.  Maybe the family simply had nothing to return to.
            We can speculate about what Mary may or may not have been thinking when her father suffered that second stroke at the beginning of their trek, but one hard fact remains beyond any speculation: Mary pressed on.  When the odds aligned against her and reason might have urged her to turn back, she chose instead to press on.
            She didn’t even know the specifics of her route, though I assume she knew what her father had planned.  She didn’t even have a compass.  Someone had told her to head west until the clouds turned into mountains, and she took that vague direction as her guide while she and her beleaguered family plodded past the last remnants of civilization and pressed forward alone into the desolate expanses of the Great Plains.
            I assume that they must have traveled roughly along the Oregon Trail (which the Mormon Trail overlaps for long stretches), especially if they never made it to Iowa but headed west out of Missouri.
            They made a wrong turn early on and ended up crossing through hostile territory for at least part of their journey.  They saw Indians constantly, who often joined their camp at night.  Sometimes the Indians harassed and intimidated them, such as by shouting and rushing toward them and waving blankets to spook the cattle.  But the Indians never harmed them and sometimes were friendly and helpful, such as when they learned that Mary’s father was sick and brought her some rabbits and ducks to cook.
            I don’t know exactly how long it took Mary to get her family from Missouri to Utah, but it was at least four months and might have been longer.  Day by day she pressed on through interminable monotony and physical hardship and inconvenience as she gradually covered that great distance across a lonely and dangerous wilderness, eventually having to live off the land by daily foraging to keep herself and her family alive.
            At last the clouds did turn into mountains, a symbol of hope that the journey was nearing its end, but also a tremendous obstacle, for soon Mary had to drive her weary animals and battered wagon across the steepest and rockiest terrain that they had encountered so far.  In this respect, the mountains represented the most difficult part of her journey.
            After pushing through the mountains until the grade tipped downward, Mary eventually found herself in a canyon and came across a white man by the name of Fred Trane.  He happened to be from Lehi and even knew Mary’s uncle William.  He told her that she was in Echo Canyon.  This meant she was a little more than fifty miles northeast of Salt Lake City and had traveled more than a thousand miles since leaving Richmond, Missouri.  Mr. Trane pointed out a shortcut that Mary could take to reach Lehi faster.
            Sometime in September, Mary and her family rejoined the family of her uncle William, and Mary settled down in Lehi, where she resided for the rest of her life.
* * *
            Mary’s family lived with her uncle William at first, then built a small dugout on his property with his help.  The term “dugout,” also known as a “mud hut,” “pit-house,” or “earth lodge,” is apt—it basically refers to a relatively shallow hole dug out of the ground with some walls built up at its edges and a roof covering them.  This tiny dugout, along with the family wagon, served as the residence for Mary and the other five members of her family during the winter of 1863–64.
            In the spring of 1864, Mary’s family acquired a vacant lot within a few blocks of her uncle William’s home, and he helped them build a larger dugout on this property.  This “larger” home was barely twelve feet by twelve feet, hardly the size of a roomy bedroom in a modern house, and the hole in the ground for it was six feet deep.  References to mud walls, a mud fireplace, and blankets covering a window and the door to keep out the cold remind me of just how poor and rudimentary life was for some of those early Mormon pioneers when they first arrived in Utah.
            Mary’s father made a partial, short-term recovery, though his speech was never clear, he struggled to walk, and he was unable to perform much work.  He died on October 31, 1864, at the age of forty-one, a little more than a year after making the trek, and was buried in an unmarked grave whose precise location is unknown.

            Much of the information that follows comes from and probably includes errors, but it gives us at least an approximate picture of Mary's life after she made her remarkable trek.
            I don’t know exactly when Mary met her husband, but on November 26, 1866, when she was eighteen and a half years old, she gave birth to her first child, a little girl named Sarah Ann.  The father was William Lawrence Hutchings, who was born in Purtington, Somersetshire, England, on October 11, 1829.  If we count back nine months from the birth of Sarah Ann, then we can probably assume that Mary Wanlass became the wife of William Hutchings not later than February 1866, when Mary was still seventeen years old and William was thirty-six, more than twice her age.
            William had been married previously to a woman named Mary Robbins, who was born in 1840 and would have turned twenty-six in 1866.  Her death date is unknown, however, so if we assume that Mary Wanlass was not a plural wife and that William did not divorce his first wife, then we can also assume that Mary Robbins died before Mary Wanlass became William’s second wife.  William did not have any children by his first wife.  By contrast, Mary Wanlass bore William ten children.  Mary Wanlass was never married to anyone other than to him.
            Mary’s first child, Sarah Ann Hutchings, lived slightly more than a year, then died as an infant on December 8, 1867.
            Mary’s second child, a little girl by the name of Kaziah Hutchings, was born a year later on December 10, 1868, but died after only three weeks on January 2, 1869.  The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah, four months later on May 10, the birthday of Mary’s sister Sarah.
            Mary’s third child, a boy named William Eli Hutchings, was born on August 13, 1870, a little more than a year before the Great Chicago Fire.  He lived to maturity and was married three times, but never had any children.  He died at the age of sixty-eight in Ogden, Utah, in 1939.
            Mary’s fourth child, a boy named Lawrence J. Hutchings, was born in 1873, though the exact date is not known.  He lived to maturity, got married and had two children, and died on New Year’s Day in 1953 at the age of seventy-nine (unless he was born on New Year’s Day, in which case he died at the age of eighty).
            Mary’s fifth child, a boy named Richard Jackson Hutchings, was born in 1875, though the exact date of his birth is also unknown.  He lived to maturity and got married, but he never had any children.  He died in 1937 at the age of sixty-one or sixty-two.
            Mary’s sixth child was another little girl.  She was named Mary Isabelle Hutchings and was born on January 9, 1878, but she did not live to maturity.  She died on October 20, 1885, at the age of seven, when Mary was pregnant with her ninth child.
            Mary’s seventh child, a boy named Samuel A. Hutchings, was born on March 9, 1881.  He lived to maturity, got married, and had eleven children.  He died in 1931 at the age of fifty.
            Mary’s eighth child, a girl named Annie Sophia Hutchings, was born on April 2, 1884.  She lived to adulthood, got married, and had children.  She died in 1924 at the relatively young age of forty, the same age at which Jane Bell died in Missouri in 1862.
            Mary’s ninth child, a boy named Edwin Millen Hutchings, was born on April 24, 1886.  He lived to maturity and got married, but he also never had any children.  He died in 1970 at the age of eighty-four.
            Mary’s tenth and last child, a boy named John Hutchings, was born in 1889, the year Mary turned forty-one, though his exact date of birth is unknown.  He lived to maturity, got married, and had four children.  Of Mary’s ten children, he lived the longest.  He died in 1977 at the age of eighty-seven or eighty-eight.
            In sum, Mary had six sons and four daughters.  All of her sons lived to adulthood, but three of her four daughters died when they were children, two as babies.
            Mary herself died on September 13, 1907, in Lehi, Utah, at the age of fifty-nine, forty-four years to the month after her lonely, remarkable trek from Missouri.
            Her husband William passed away less than a year later on August 22, 1908, in Lehi, Utah, at the age of seventy-eight.
* * *
            Early in the morning of December 17, 2010, firefighters responded to a four-alarm fire at the Provo Tabernacle.  Despite their best efforts to save the building, the roof collapsed a few hours later, and the fire almost completely destroyed the structure, though the walls remained precariously standing.  A subsequent investigation concluded that a 300-watt lamp had been placed too close to a wooden speaker enclosure, making human error the likely cause of the fire.

            Ground had been broken in 1856 for an earlier tabernacle on the same city block.  Completed in 1861, it stood until 1919 and is sometimes called the Old Provo Tabernacle.

            The building that burned in 2010 was the New Provo Tabernacle.  Ground was broken for it in 1882, construction began in 1883, and by 1886 the building was in use, though construction continued for a decade and a half until its ultimate completion in 1898.  General Conference was held in this building in April 1886 and again in April 1887.  The Provo Tabernacle was formally dedicated on April 17, 1898, by George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the First Presidency.

            No historical evidence directly links Mary Wanlass to the Provo Tabernacle, but she might have attended meetings there.  I personally doubt that she attended General Conference on April 6, 1886, because she gave birth to her ninth child on April 24 of that year, and Lehi is about seventeen miles away from Provo.  I doubt that a pregnant woman in her ninth month of pregnancy would have made such an arduous journey just to attend that conference.  This was also less than six months after she lost her seven-year-old girl.  But I could be wrong.  Perhaps she attended General Conference in April 1887.  Or perhaps she attended other meetings there.
            After the 2010 fire, a scorched portrait of Christ was discovered in the rubble.  The fire almost completely blackened most of the portrait, but somehow the image of Christ in the center survived, an outcome that some people have viewed as a small miracle.

            Less than a year after the fire, President Thomas S. Monson announced that the Provo Tabernacle would be rebuilt as a temple.  The surviving remnants of the walls were carefully preserved and incorporated into the new structure, and the Provo City Center Temple was officially dedicated on March 20, 2016.
            The cultural celebration prior to the dedication adopted the phrase “beauty for ashes” from Isaiah 61:3 as a theme.  It symbolically describes the transformation of the fire-gutted Provo Tabernacle into the magnificent Provo City Center Temple.  I remember hearing at least one speaker in church compare the transformation of this building to the transformation that can occur in people’s lives thanks to the atonement of Jesus Christ, whose saving power claims repentant sinners.  In this way, the Provo City Center Temple takes on special symbolic meaning for many whose lives have been shattered, either by sin or by other tragedy, but who have made a spiritual trek akin to Mary Wanlass’s crossing of the plains as they have put their trust in God and have allowed Him to lead them to Christ.
            Inspired by sentiments such as these and by the circumstances surrounding the fire and reconstruction, I composed the following sonnet two months before the dedication:

Where Once the Tabernacle Burned
Now Stands a Mighty Temple

The Provo Tabernacle, loved by all,
With simple beauty graced the city center
Till fire of human error caused its fall,
And many thought that they no more would enter.
Sometimes our lives collapse because of sin.
Despair afflicts our hearts—the pain runs deep.
The Savior’s image may survive within,
But we see just a filthy, smold’ring heap.
To us God whispers, Do not mourn to see
This tabernacle gutted to its core.
If I remodel, what is that to thee?
I’ve made it better than it was before.
And as from ashes this new temple grew,
My love can build a sinful life anew.

            Two days after the dedication, I spent some time serving in the new Provo City Center Temple.  Like others who attended the temple with me, I had come to the mountain of the Lord’s house, established in the top of the mountains, the house of the God of Jacob, to learn of God’s ways and to walk in his paths (see Isaiah 2:2–3).
            Incidentally, speaking of the house of the God of Jacob, a large staircase occupies the center of this temple, and when I observe people dressed in white as they go up and down the stairs between the lower and higher levels, I think of the angels of God ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder as recorded in Genesis 28:10–22.  “Surely the Lord is in this place; . . . this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  (Genesis 28:16–17).  Through priesthood keys entrusted to the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, temple work blesses all the families of the earth by making available to them the ordinances of salvation, such as baptism and marriage.
            When I think of the word temple, I often think of the word gather, because it is the essence of God’s work to gather His people to the temple, where they can receive the blessings connected with being part of an eternal family.  Ultimately, it was to the temples established in the tops of the everlasting hills that Mormon pioneers like Mary Wanlass gathered in the nineteenth century, and it is to temples like the Provo City Center Temple that faithful modern Mormons gather today.

* * *
            The painting of Mary Wanlass hangs on a wall on a lower level of the temple, not far from the base of the beautiful staircase that I adore as Jacob’s ladder.  I pass this painting often, and I usually glance at it as I walk by.  It portrays a simple scene.  The artist has given Mary’s face an ambiguous expression free of sentimentality.  Mary appears neither happy nor sad as she goes about her daily work of survival, searching for food for herself and her family.
            She is thinking about something, but she does not reveal what, so my mind fills with questions as I look upon her and contemplate her circumstances.  Often I just feel this painting when I look at it, not sure what I should think, if anything.  It speaks to me somehow.  It resonates within my soul, and I find it deeply meaningful to me on a personal level, yet I cannot fully articulate why.
            Perhaps because I am also pressing forward on a long journey fraught with hazards.  Perhaps because I too have little chance of success without the loving hand of God to help me along.
            I appreciate the artist for the restrained and reverent depiction of Mary, because the painting does not tell me what to think, but leaves me free to experience different thoughts and feelings on different occasions as I glance at Mary’s enigmatic face and ponder what little I know about her and her pioneer experiences.
            The painting never fails to humble me.  It always softens my heart.
            If I am in a low mood and inclined to complain, I think of Mary’s many hardships throughout her life, and I am shamed into silence.  Mary was probably too busy struggling for her own survival and burying her dead along the way to think much about herself and to descend into petty, self-pitiful complaining.  She experienced so much death in her life—of her parents, of her siblings, of her own children.
            If I am in a cheerful mood, I think of my many blessings and feel gratitude for Mary’s sacrifice and her example.  I am reminded that the faithfulness of Mormon pioneers a century and a half ago played a key role in making this temple and my own blessed life possible.
            If I ever meet Mary in the next life, I’ll be interested to hear her story from her own mouth and to have her fill in details that are presently unavailable.
            I doubt that I will have much to say to her other than what I have written in this essay.  But maybe what I’ve written will be good enough for a fine conversation.
            Maybe I’ll just shake her hand and simply say, “Thank you.”

* * * * * 


                “Wanlass” is sometimes spelled “Wanless.”  The original painting of Mary is not available for public viewing outside the Provo City Center Temple.  Images of the painting were not available on the Internet when I first published this essay, but now the painting can be viewed at  All photos in this blog post were taken by me on October 14, 2016, except for those that list an Internet source beneath them.
                The facts I set forth in this account might not be perfectly accurate.  For example, in a previous draft of this essay, I stated that Annie Sophia Hutchings never had any children, because I saw no record of children in, but one of Annie's descendants later informed me that Annie did in fact have children.  I culled the facts for this essay from a handful of Internet sources listed below, but those sources are not original and do not always identify the original sources of the information in them.  They also occasionally contradict each other in some of the particulars, and I did not attempt to resolve all of those contradictions.
                These are the online sources that I relied on the most (still viewable as of October 10, 2016).  I express special thanks to Alison Coutts for referring me to the first two.

                I relied on other online sources as well, such as Google searches, various maps and articles on Wikipedia, and facts listed on several LDS sites, but I did not document them.  I cannot vouch for the absolute accuracy of all the information I perused, especially on Wikipedia.
                I identified some assertions in the main source, the source, that cannot be correct, such as the claim that the battle of Lexington, Missouri, was taking place at the time Jane Bell was dying.  Jane Bell died on June 6, 1862, but the first battle of Lexington occurred in September 1861, and the second battle of Lexington occurred in October 1864.  Perhaps a different battle was taking place, or perhaps Jane Bell’s death date was incorrect, or perhaps the memory itself is erroneous.  I don’t know.
                I also did not research the details of when Mary’s uncle William traveled from England to Missouri or from Missouri to Utah.  My primary interest was in Mary’s story, so I generally did not bother to research events that were merely tangential to her story.
                The source appears to rely on oral history passed down among Mary Wanlass’s descendants.  I believe it to be generally accurate, but as is usually the case with sources that rely on human memory, especially when they involve hearsay accounts, it’s good to maintain a smattering of healthy skepticism about some of the details.
                I have not taken upon myself the investigative task of resolving or even identifying all the inconsistencies that I came across or the questions that I had.  I have not delved into original sources, nor have I interviewed the people whose names appear as the originators of some of these sources, such as the source or the source.  In short, I have not done the kind of meticulous, in-depth historical research that would be appropriate for a scholarly article or book.  This blog post is just a rough historical sketch and might contain some errors.
                My purpose here was simply to relate the basics of Mary’s life story and to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings about the painting of her in the Provo City Center Temple.  This is basically a personal essay reflecting upon some imperfectly documented historical events.  I do not present it as a polished work of history.  Anyone relying on this personal essay as a source of historical research would be well advised to independently check the information in it by digging deeper than I did, namely by locating and examining original sources, if possible.
* * *
                As for the time period involved, at least one source states that Mary’s sister Sarah was six at the time of departure from Missouri, and her birthday is listed as May 10, so I am assuming that the group departed on their trek before May 10, 1863.  Some sources list the age of Mary’s brother Jackson  as nine at the time of departure, but shows his date of birth as June 10, 1855, which would make him seven at the time of departure, and I have chosen to accept this date for his birth because of its specificity.  One source claims that the family traveled all spring and summer and arrived in Utah Valley in September, so I am using September 1863 as the time of arrival, even though I have no idea exactly where this information originated.
                The painting shows the mountains coming into view and depicts Mary after having traveled for several months, so I am assuming that Mary is shown sometime near the end of the journey.  According to, Sarah turned seven on May 10, Mary turned fifteen on May 20, Mary’s brother Jackson turned eight on June 10, Mary’s father turned forty on July 16, and the twins turned five on September 12.  For the sake of my own convenience in setting out ages and arranging the facts in a coherent way, I am assuming that the painting depicts Mary sometime after her father’s birthday on July 16 but before the twins’ birthday on September 12.  I have no idea what the artist’s intention was regarding the specific time or place depicted in the painting.  I see the painting as an artistic representation of a story, intended to memorialize a remarkable journey and to build faith in those who view it.  I do not pretend that this painting is attempting perfect historical or geographical accuracy or specificity.
* * *
                The quotation from Jane Bell (“Don’t give your father any peace until he goes to the Rocky Mountains”), as well as most of the information about the family’s activities in Missouri and about the details of the 1863 trek, come from the source.  Most of the information about Mary’s life after she started having children comes from the source.
* * *
                For a photo of a dugout, see (I last visited this site on October 11, 2016).  I also think of the term “baseball dugout” where players sit.  The point is that a dugout is a far cry from a standard house.
* * *
                An old photograph purporting to be that of Mary Martha Wanlass as an adult can be viewed at

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