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Orson Spencer

Question: Why was Orson Spencer not able to go to the Salt Lake Valley with his six young children?

Answer: Orson Spencer, one of the great missionaries of the Church, was born in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts on 14 March 1802, son of Daniel Spencer and Chloe Wilson.

At age twelve he contracted a life threatening fever sore that left him with a limp. He entered the Lenox Academy at age of 15, then studied at Union College, graduating with honors in 1824.

Orson taught school, joined the Baptist church, and entered the Theological College, graduating in 1829 as valedictorian. He served as pastor of three Baptist churches. During this time, he married Catharine Curtis on 13 April 1830. They had eight children, two died young.

Orson was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1841. He served as an alderman in Nauvoo until the Saints were driven from Nauvoo. His wife died on the way to Winter Quarters, leaving him with six young children. In the fall of 1846, he was called to serve a mission in Great Britain and left his children in the care of his oldest daughter, Ellen, age thirteen. His second daughter, Aurelia (Rogers), age eleven, became the founder of the LDS Primary program in 1878 in Salt Lake.

Orson presided over the British Mission and was editor of the Millennial Star. Meanwhile, his children traveled across the plains in 1848 in Brigham Young’s Company and lived in a dugout after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley. Based on information in Aurelia Spencer Rogers’s autobiography, we conclude that the Bullock family helped care for the children on the journey to the Salt Lake Valley.

While in Great Britain, Spencer married Martha Knight with whom he had four children. Orson anticipated returning to Winter Quarters, in time to go with his children to the Salt Lake Valley, but later on he received a letter from President Young requesting him to stay another year. Therefore in the spring of 1848, the children prepared for their journey across the plains without him. Brother Andrew Cahoon had returned from his mission to Scotland, and through him Orson had sent money and clothing to fit the children out for the journey. He also sent the following letter: (excerpts from the letter)

      Orson Spencer teaching as a missionary in Liverpool, England.


LIVERPOOL, MARCH 25th, 1848.

“MY DEAR CHILDREN: Having a few leisure moments, it gives me very great pleasure to write to you, whom I love with the most inexpressible fondness. You are my dearest treasures upon the earth. Your mother was one of the loveliest of her sex; generous and open hearted in love to all our race…In you, my dear children, I see many traits of her lovely spirit, and also her features. From her, my own mind has received many a beautifying grace and virtue: and few could live with her as long as I did without being enriched and ennobled by such association…

“Sometimes without shoes to your feet and sometimes without bread, surrounded with savage foes, without any assurance that I will be restored to you for a long time yet to come, you may indeed often wonder why your lot is thus; and why want and orphanage and peril and a homeless pilgrimage should all come upon you at once, and that, while you are at an age so tender…

“If you go over the mountains I may not hear from you or you from me for nearly a year and a half. My dear children, I trust that God, who counsels us to walk the narrow way, will be your shield and defense, and provide for your wants and keep you all alive till we meet again, where the fury of the oppressor cannot overtake us, and the storms of heavenly indignation may pass us by in the day of great distress. If I am counseled to endure this long separation and to expose you to such privations, my prayer shall be the more fervent in your behalf, and with strength of heart and soul, I shall plead for your lives to be spared, and your minds kept unpolluted.

“Love one another and bear each other’s faults. Cherish the spirit of God by patience and kindness. Never yield to sin or do anything that you would be ashamed to ask God about or tell me of. Let no one entice you to do wrong, whoever it may be. Keep together, live together and do not separate. Be friends to one another, and caution the younger sisters and brothers against accidents, against bad conduct and bad company. Believe that God can hear and help you when you need it, and tell you many things which are necessary for you to know and do. Learn to trust in God for all good things, and to be thankful for all favors…

“My oldest daughters; on you is rolled a great responsibility, seemingly beyond your years. Be womanly, kind and patient, act the part of mother to the younger children. Teach them good principles and instruct them how to act. Avoid in yourselves the weakness and folly of youth as much as possible…Your last letter was three months and a half coming. Send your letters by mail in the quickest conveyance. If you don’t go over the mountains, write once a month without fail.

“I want you all to be very good children. I am very anxious to see you once more, but I will not disobey my lawful counselors…The Boston steamer has not arrived, consequently I must send this letter without hearing anything from you. In haste. God bless you my children. Farewell!

“Your Ever Affectionate Father,


      First home of the University of Deseret (Utah)

After being reunited with his children in the Salt Lake Valley, Orson was appointed the first chancellor of the University of Deseret, a lifelong position, and served in the first legislative council of Utah.

Orson served a mission in Prussia, then another in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1853. After Cincinnati, he was transferred to St. Louis, and served as editor of the “St. Louis Luminary.‘ He then served a mission to the Cherokee Nation, where he became ill. He returned to St. Louis, Missouri, and his condition deteriorated. He died there on 15 October 1855. He was initially buried in St Louis in October 1855. He was moved to Salt Lake and buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery in the summer of 1856.

Source: Biography from the Joseph Smith Papers,;; Letters Orson Spencer wrote to his children while in Liverpool, England, 1847-1848,

      Memorial to Orson and his two brothers in Salt Lake City Cemetery.

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