from History of Utah, Vol. 4, by Orson F. Whitney
HONORABLE B. H. ROBERTS is a personage of more than ordinary interest, not only from his official prominence aud his powers as an orator aud a writer, but also from the many stirring incidents of his eventful career. A man of courage, full of energy and vitality, he has risen by sheer force of innate ability, coupled with hard and honest toil, from the humblest walks of life to positions of honor and eminence. He is not a native of Utah, though he has lived here since he was nine and a half years of age. He was born at Warrington, Lancashire, England, an old Roman station at the head of the tide waters of the Mersey. The date of his birth was March 13, 1857.
His parents were Benjamin and Ann (Everington) Roberts; the father the scion of an old Sussex family, and the mother a descendant, on the maternal side, of an old Norfolk family. Benjamin Roberts belonged to the artisan class, and was a blacksmith at the Woolwich arsenals, while his father, William Roberts, was an independent ironmonger in comfortable circumstances. The parents of Ann Everington were tillers of the soil. A woman of strong character, intelligent though untutored, she ever possessed a love for the beautiful, the noble and refined. She mastered by her own efforts the arts of reading and writing, and has exhibited at various times in the course of her life those qualities of courage, independence and determination so conspicuously manifest in the character of her distinguished son.
Mr. and Mrs. Roberts both became Latter-day Saints, the wife preceding the husband into the Church, which she joined against his will, some time in the early ‘‘fifties.” In order to be baptized she arose and went to the seaside at three o’clock in the morning, returning home and to bed before her unwilling spouse had awakened. Afterwards, finding her wet baptismal clothing, he said to her,
“Ann, I believe thee’s been dipped.”
“Well, what of it?” was her calm reply, and the conversation ended.
When the subject of this sketch, their fourth child and second son, was born, the father wanted him named Henry, while the mother preferred the name of Brigham, after President Brigham Young. They finally compromised on both, though Mrs. Roberts virtually had her way, since she posted off to fast meeting with her infant, and there had him christened Brigham Henry.
The father gradually drifted away from the Church, and a permanent separation took place between him and his wife a short time before the latter came to Utah, which was in 1862. Acting under the advice of the presidency of the mission at Liverpool, she brought with her to the Rocky Mountains her youngest daughter, Annie, and her youngest son, Thomas, (two years old), leaving behind her eldest daughter, Mary, and her eldest living son, Brigham H., whose older brother, Benjamin, had died when he was seven. Mary was sent to live with a distant relative, while “B. H.” was domiciled in a Mormon family with whom he lived and wandered from place to place during the next four years.
The head of this family, John Gailey, was something of a preacher, though unable to read and write. His wife would read the Bible to him, and he would commit to memory the parts he wished to use, also marking them in such a way that he could readily point them out, if his accuracy were questioned. Listening to these readings, young Roberts became familiar with many passages of Holy Writ, and this was about the only schooling he received as long as he remained in England. Gailey would often take the boy with him to do the singing when he preached at street corners or in other public places, and thus the lad’s induction into the methods of the outdoor ministry came at a very early day. He remembers Gailey being mobbed on one occasion, and the delight with which he saw his coat-tails vanish around a distant corner—a signal of his escape from the hands of the ruffians pursuing him—after which he himself shouldered the chair which had served them for a stand, and triumphantly marched off home. Dragged about by these people, who in the course of their wanderings traversed the pottery districts in Staffordshire, also the midland counties, and resided successively in Birmingham, Manchester and Wolverhampton, the boy saw the extremes of poverty and squalor, and experienced the sad sensations of utter homelessness.
But better days were coming. In the spring of 1866, while at Wolverhampton, he received a message summoning him to Liverpool, there to join his sister Mary, who was then nineteen, and come with her to Utah; an opportunity being given by means of the Perpetual Emigration fund. With a glad heart he obeyed the call, for he was heartily sick of the life he was leading, and more than anxious to see his sister, and rejoin his mother and other relatives in Zion. He sailed on the “John Bright” in April, landing at New York in June, and proceeding thence with the rest of the company—upwards of seven hundred Latter-day Saints, under Elder C. E. Gillett—to the town of Wyoming, in Nebraska, where they were outfitted for the passage of the plains. Among his fellow travelers to Utah were Alfred Lambourne, the artist of to-day, and John H. Gibbs, who eighteen years later, while B. H. Roberts had charge of the Southern States Mission, was murdered by a mob in Tennessee. The company, commanded by William H. Chipman, left the frontier on the 13th of July.
After crossing the Platte, at Fort Laramie, they lost a large number of cattle, stolen by Indians. The first to discover the redskins, as they were in the act of stampeding the stock, were young Roberts and another boy, who were bathing at some distance from camp, in a shallow stream fringed with bushes, near which the cattle and horses were browsing. The Indian who took the initiative, and whom they plainly saw, though he did not appear to see them, was ferociously painted with red and yellow ochre, and frightened the animals by hissing and shaking violently a square piece of dry rawhide, which rattled ominously.
Naked, the two boys sped to camp and gave the alarm. For a few minutes consternation reigned, women screaming and children crying, while most of the men started out in pursuit of the stock, which, driven by three mounted Indians, were now in full flight for the hills. Most of the pursuers were afoot, there being but three horses left. They had barely started when Captain Chipman, a cool-headed man of experience, called a halt, and had the men corral the wagons, placing the women and children inside, and posting guards outside. He then sent three mounted men after the fast vanishing herd, most of which, tired out, gradually fell behind and were recovered, though the savages succeeded in running off about one hundred head of cattle. These they drove into a deep ravine, on the opposite side of which, as the three horsemen approached the brink, a numerous band of warriors appeared, waving defiance and daring them to come on. Against such odds it would have been madness to proceed, and so, abandoning the cattle to their fate, the men returned. Young Roberts was grief-stricken when he learned that “Old Berry.” the nigh wheel ox of the team he sometimes drove, and which had “borne him on his back a thousand times,” was one of the animals not re-taken. At South Pass the first snow fell, the boy waking up one morning under a covering of it—almost the only covering he had—where the night before he had kindled a fire between two large stones, and curling himself up, had lain down to pleasant dreams.
Mrs. Roberts had sent to the frontier money and clothing for her children, that they might make their entry into the Valley in a manner to escape notice rather than attract it by the paucity of their attire. But neither money nor clothing reached them, and they came to Utah with nothing but the apparel they stood in. By the time they crossed the Rocky Mountains, “B. H.” was “a thing of shreds and patches,” insomuch that his sister took him aside as the train reached the mouth of Emigration Canyon, and begged him not to show himself, but stay in the wagon until they camped at the place where their mother would meet them. Having delivered this injunction, she put him in at the front end of the wagon.—the ordinary “prairie schooner,” with front and rear apertures in the canvas cover,—and he as promptly crawled out at the back, and to her horror was next seen hatless, unkempt, and with all his rags fluttering in the breeze, heading the procession through the streets of Salt Lake City.
The homeless urchin’s first happy experience in Zion was when accosted by a sweet little girl, neatly and tastefully dressed, with a basket of peaches and plums on her dimpled arm, she having come out with other residents of the city, as customary in those good old days, to meet the tired immigrants and refresh them with the products of the Valley. His next joyful sensation was the meeting with his mother, who came to their camp in the Tithing Yard, looking for her children, most of their fellow travelers having already been met and taken away by relatives and friends. He immediately recognized her, and ran towards her, feeling intuitively that it was his mother, though they had not seen each other for nearly five years. The date of his arrival at Salt Lake City was September 15, 1866.
Mrs. Roberts took her children to her humble home, a little log cabin in East Bountiful, Davis County, and it was there that her son spent the remainder of his early boyhood. At twelve he went to school one winter apd learned to read, and the rest of the time, when not engaged in mischievous pranks common to boys of his age, worked around among the farmers, at; fifty cents a day, taking his pay iu produce and helping his mother to support the family. At fourteen lie went with his step-father to the Ophir and Jacob City mining districts, and passed the greater part of the three following years, working prospects on the crest of the hill above the present camp of Mercur.
During one of his visits home his mother advised him to select some occupation and settle down, and he dually apprenticed himself for three years to James Baird, a Centreville blacksmith, choosing that vocation, not from any natural preference for it, but because it hail been his father’s trade in England. He was then seventeen, and by the time he had served his apprenticeship he was twenty. Part of the agreement was that the youth should have from one to three months at school each year, and under this arrangement he attended school during the two succeeding winters, In his eighteenth year he was seized with a passion for reading, and forsaking his frivolous companionships, he plunged into history, biography and other literature. One of his favorite books was the speeches of Edmund Burke. The histories he read were those of Home, England and the United States, and the biographies were of American soldiers, orators and other celebrities. He adopted the plan of studying subjectively, a practice to which he owes not only his thorough knowledge of the themes and topics that he treats, but his recognized power and facility for massing facts in an argument.
At nineteen he drifted into religious reading, and joined a theological class, taught by Nathan Porter, of Centreville, and comprising about twenty young people of both sexes. It was the teacher’s custom to give brief lectures to the class, and filially he asked the members to do likewise. B. H. Roberts was the first one to volunteer, choosing as the subject of his address, “The duty of man in his relation to God.” It being whispered around that the “young blacksmith” was going to “preach,” and most of the people being curious to know how he would acquit-himself, the whole village turned out to hoar him. When he arrived upon the scene a jammed house greeted his astonished vision. At first he thought there must be some mistake; that a public meeting of which he had not been apprised was in session; but he was soon fished out of the obscure corner in which he had seated himself, and was informed that these people were present to hear him.
His teacher, noticing his trepidation, kindly urged him to do his best, and promised that if he failed to occupy the whole time, he himself would supplement the remarks. Thus encouraged, the youth took the stand, but on facing the congregation, which seemed to concentrate into one great eye, glaring relentlessly upon him, he found himself paralyzed, unable to move a muscle or utter a word. He stood for some moments as if petrified, a pitiable object, when suddenly a ringing peal of laughter echoed through the hall, the source of it unmistakably feminine. As a war-steed at the sound of a trumpet, the youthful and tongue-tied orator was roused into instant action by this tantalizing laugh. Defiantly-tossing his head, he braced himself, opened his mouth, and spoke with a power and fluency that astonished not only his hearers but himself. He took three-quarters of an hour, completely presenting his subject, every part of which seemed burned upon his brain and came rushing through his lips at will. The next Sunday he was called upon to speak in meeting, and after that was occasionally asked to occupy the pulpit at the Ward gatherings. This was the beginning of his ministry.
In September, 1877, he married, his bride being Miss Sarah Louisa Smith, daughter of President William It. Smith, of Davis Stake. The marriage ceremony was performed by President John Taylor at Salt Lake City. About this time he began attending the University of Deseret, and in one year (1877-8) he completed the two years course prescribed for normal students, graduating at the head of his class, and delivering the commencement day valedictory. During a portion of the school year he kept bachelor’s hall in a little log house in the Seventeenth Ward, but frequently would trudge home and back— the distance to Centreville was twelve miles—arriving at the University at nine o’clock in the morning. He had been a member of the Church by baptism—administered by Elder Seth Dustin at East Bountiful—since 18C7. A few months later he was ordained an Elder, though only ten or eleven years of age. In 1877, he was ordained a Seventy by Elder Nathan T. Porter, and became connected with the Nineteenth Quorum.
This was his office in the Priesthood when in 1880 he went upon his first mission. It was to Sioux City, Iowa, where he had as a companion Elder William M. Palmer. Having labored in Iowa and Nebraska for about nine months, he was transferred to the Southern States Mission, then under the presidency of Elder John Morgan. There he remained until June, 1882, acting during the last six months as president of the Tennessee Conference, comprising the entire State of Tennessee. When he left for home, President Morgan intimated that he would soon be called upon to return. ‘ This prediction was fulfilled, for after teaching in Bountiful during the greater part of the following winter, he broke up his school in February, 1883, in order to fulfill another mission to the South. He now became associate president with Elder Morgan, and under him had immediate charge of the mission, in which from eighty to one hundred Elders were then laboring. Twice he made a complete tour of the Southern States, attending conferences in nine of them, and superintending at Chattanooga the emigration of the Southern Saints to Colorado. Early in 1884 he came home for a few months, made a preaching tour through the Utah settlements, and while it was yet spring returned to the South.
He was next heard of in connection with the terrible Cane Creek massacre, in which two of his fellow laborers, John H. Gibes and William S. Berry,, and two equally dear friends, Martin S. Condor and J. Riley Hudson, were shot down without provocation by an infuriated mob, incited to their bloody deed by lying reports, sent out from Salt Lake City, with a view to creating anti-Mormon sentiment throughout the nation. The date of the massacre was the 10th of August, 1884. The hazardous and heroic part played by Elder Roberts immediately after the tragedy—his going in disguise, with others, to the mob-infested region, where the murdered men were buried, recovering the bodies of the two Elders and sending them to their kindred in Utah, is related in the previous volume.
In the fall of the same year he visited Colorado (to which State he subsequently piloted a number of the fugitive Cane Creek Saints), and after a pleasant meeting with President Joseph F. Smith, Elders Erastus Snow and John Morgan, came home and attended the October Conference, after which he returned to the Southern States. Acting under his direction, the missionaries in that part ceased for some time active ministerial work, pending the abatement of the agitation caused by the massacre in Tennessee. In the spring of 1885 he led a company of Saints to Colorado, and then returned to Utah, arriving here soon after the April conference.
At this conference an epistle was read from the First Presidency, John Taylor, George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith, in exile on account of the anti-polygamy crusade, and at their suggestion a committee was appointed to draft a petition to the President and people of the United States, praying for protection against the harsh and unlawful acts of the crusaders. B. H. Roberts was one of this committee, and with two others, acting as a sub-committee, wrote the “Declaration of Grievances and Protest,” which was read and adopted at a mass meeting in the great Tabernacle, where he’ was one of the speakers, May 2nd, 1885. Early in the summer of 1880, Mr. Roberts became associate editor of the Salt Lake Herald.
The following winter he was charged with violating the Edmunds law. Arrested on the 2nd of December and taken before U. S. Commissioner McKay, he gave bonds in the candidate for the Constitutional Convention. Mr. Rawlins was defeated in his race, but Mr. Roberts won, and took his seat in March, 1895. He was one of the most prominent characters in the Convention, which will be remembered for the strong fight made by him against the woman suffrage plank, which nevertheless was inserted in the State Constitution, of which he was one of the principal framers. The fall of the year found his name upon the Democratic ticket for Representative in Congress, at the special election held just prior to the admission of Utah into the Union. His Republican opponent, C. E. Allen, was elected.
In the ensuing December Mr. Roberts became editor-in-chief of the Salt Lake Herald, succeeding C. W. Penrose in that position. Having signed, at the April Conference of 1890, the Declaration of Principles issued by the General Authorities of the Church, defining the duties of its leading officials who desired to take part in political campaigns, and concerning which a divergence of view had previously existed between him and his brethren, he resigned as editor of the Herald, the management of which imposed upon him a policy to which he could not conscientiously conform. In July of that year he went upon a special mission to the large Eastern cities, accompanied by George D. Pyper, Melvin Ballard and Edwin Midgley, who were his musical assistants. Returning home in April, 1897, he engaged extensively in Mutual Improvement work, being now an aid to the General Superintendency.
In connection with the General Board he projected the “Improvement Era,” the new organ of the Y. M. M. I. A., and with others toured the northern counties in its interest. The magazine was started without a dollar of capital, and has thus far achieved a gratifying success. Mr. Roberts remained in charge of the “Era”—of which President Joseph F. Smith and himself were the editors— until July, 1899, when, having been elected to Congress, he retired for the purpose of entering upon his duties at the seat of Government. His predecessor was Judge William H. King, who was also destined to be his successor.
It was on the 14th of September, 1898, that Mr. Roberts was nominated the second time for Representative in Congress by the State Democratic Convention. He was the choice of a large majority of the delegates, and after a stormy campaign, in spite of ‘the tremendous opposition brought against him, was triumphantly elected on the 8th of November. Gentiles as well as Mormons voted for him, his heaviest majorities heing in communities almost exclusively non-Mormon, and the general returns gave him a plurality of 5,GG5 votes. The main opposition to him caiue from the Salt Lake Tribune, which, after a season of conservatism, had again become an anti-Mormon paper. Accompanied by his daughter Adah, he went East in September, 1899, to look after his political interests and take his seat in the House of Representatives at the opening of Congress in December.
Meantime a perfect tempest of opposition to the seating of Representative Roberts had arisen all over the United States, its chief sources being in Utah, where the ministers of the Protestant churches, hostile as ever to Mormonism, joined hands with disgruntled politicians, the Salt Lake “Tribune,” the New York “Journal,” and other agencies, in the inauguration of a new anti-Mormon crusade. They focused their efforts upon the Democratic Congressman-elect, making his alleged “polygamy” and that of other prominent Mormons, falsely charged, like him with aiming to restore the inhibited institution, the slogan of their calumnious and abusive campaign.
The result is well known. The National House of Representatives refused to allow Utah’s Representative to be sworn in, and referred his case to a special committee, a majority of which recommended that he be not seated. On January 25, 1900, the House, in spite of the fact that Mr. Roberts possessed every qualification prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and in spite of his ringing and eloquent protest against the outrage perpetrated upon him and the sovereign State he represented, voted by a majority of two hundred and sixty-eight to fifty to exclude him from his seat. It was a victory of prejudice and popular clamor over principle, exhibiting in a pitiable light the cowardice and bigotry of the mob-cowed, priest-ridden majority in Congress.
While it is true that Mr. Roberts was the husband of three wives, and the father of eleven children, there was no proof that he had married any wife since Statehood, or since the Manifesto of 1890, discontinuing polygamy. It was manifestly absurd to say that his election by the Democratic party of Utah—Gentiles as well as Mormons—signified a determination on the part of the Church to “thrust polygamy down the throat of Congress,” or that Utah, by permitting his election, had “broken her compact with the nation.” This compact was represented by the Enabling Act and the State Constitution, both of which prohibited polygamy—the marrying of plural wives—but were silent as to the continuance of plural marriage relations formed prior to Utah’s admission into the Union. The latter, it seems, was the head and front of Mr. Roberts’ offending- Yet all these charges were hurled against him, against the Mormon Church, and against the State of Utah, during the campaign that ended in his election and the subsequent proceedings that deprived him of his office.
But men can be useful, and even great, without going to Congress, without holding any prominent or lucrative position. It is the size of a man’s soul, the calibre of his heart and mind, that makes him great or small. Stilts add nothing to the stature, Denied the place to which he was lawfully entitled in the legislative halls of the nation, where he would have towered and shone, he turned his attention to the pursuits of literature, wielding his potent pen—scarcely second to his magnificent gift of oratory—in the field of polemics and history. Called to the position of an assistant to the Church Historian, President Anthon H. Lund, he began, early in 1901, under the direction of his chief, a documentary History of the Church, from the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, with whose autobiography it begins. The first and second volumes of this splendid work have already been issued and widely circulated, and a third volume is in course of preparation. Among recent polemical controversies in which he has figured is one with the Rev. C. Van Dor Donckt, of the Catholic Church, the substance of which forms the basis of Elder Robert’s latest book, “The Mormon Doctrine of Deity.” His voice is still heard from pulpit and platform, and wherever he speaks crowded audiences attest his continued popularity. He is withal a generous, high-minded man, warm-hearted, hospitable, and never so happy as when surrounded by and entertaining his friends.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in