Submitted by Tony Tidwell
Elvira was born November 22, 1813, in Unadilla, Otsego County, New York, the first child of twenty-one-year old Austin Cowles, from Vermont and a twenty-eight New Yorker, Phoebe Wilbur.
Soon after April 6, 1830, the date the Church was organized, the Cowles family converted. Elvira was in her mid-teens, and was not baptized until October 19, 1835, when she was twenty-two. Austin Cowles later became a supervisor on the Nauvoo City Council and a member of the stake presidency.
An apostle was not then as important as now. The office of counselor in the stake presidency was equivalent to that of a modern general authority. Austin attended high council meetings, where he shows up frequently in the minutes.
Elvira, now twenty-seven gained attention as the daughter of a prominent church leader. She lived in Joseph Smith’s home for a time, as did many of the Prophet’s wives. According to her obituary, “In the spring following (1840) she became a member of the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith where she remained a happy inmate” until her marriage to Jonathan Holmes. Elvira became a close friend of Emma Smith and a friend of other leading women of Nauvoo including future Smith wives Eliza R. Snow and Eliza and Emily Partridge. When the Women’s Relief Society was organized, Elvira was appointed treasurer.
Living with Joseph Smith’s family brought an important man into Elvira’s life when late in 1840 Jonathan Harriman Holmes became part of the household as he worked as a handyman and a bodyguard for the Prophet. Jonathan, a shoemaker, was born in Rowley, Essex, Massachusetts on March 11, 1806. He was baptized in 1832, gathered to Kirtland in 1834 where he lived with the Smiith family. He was loved by the Prophet and all who knew him. He was married to Marietta Carter by Joseph at the Prophet’s home on April 13, 1837. They had two children, Sarah Elizabeth, born on January 24, 1838 and Mary Emma, born on May 25, 1840.
In August, 1840, a mob burned the Holmes house to the ground. Marietta, who already suffered from consumption, died on August, 20; her 3-month-old baby, Mary Emma, passed away less than a month later. Joseph Smith, upon learning of the tragedy, offered to take 4-year-old Sarah into his home and asked Elvira to be her surrogate stepmother.
Jonathan and Elvira began courting at this time as Elvira continued to reside with the Smith’s in Nauvoo from 1840 to 1842. By September 18, 1842, Elvira and Jonathan were engaged. They were married December 2, 1842; Joseph Smith officiated. Elvira was now the true stepmother of Sarah Elizabeth.
On June 1, 1843, Elvira was married to Joseph Smith by Heber C. Kimball in the Kimball home with Vilate Kimball and Eliza Partridge as witnesses. It is probable that Johnathan knew of this marriage and permitted it; to his credit Johnathan never wavered in his loyalty to Joseph Smith.
Elvira’s marriage to Joseph Smith was perhaps a factor in Austin Cowles’ disaffection from the Prophet and the Church. In early 1843 Austin served as a missionary in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Upon his return to Nauvoo, Cowles played an important part in opposition to Joseph and polygamy. On August 12, 1843 Hyrum Smith read section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which revealed the doctrine of polygamy, to the High Council. Three men at the council: William Marks, Austin Cowles and Leonard Soby publicly opposed the new doctrine.
As a result of his opposition, on September 12, 1843, Austin Cowles resigned his position as a councilor in the Stake Presidency and his resignation was accepted. By the end of April, 1844, the anti-polygamy dissenters began organizing a new church. William Law was appointed president with Austin Cowles as his first counselor. Austin Cowles was cut off from the LDS Church for apostasy. On May 19, he began writing articles for the first and only issue of the nauvoo expositor. The criticisms of Joseph and the first public discussion of polygamy, appeared on June 7, 1844, with an anti-polygamy affidavit by Cowles on the second page.
The subsequent destruction of the press ordered by Joseph Smith set off a chain of events that led to Joseph’s martyrdom. Ironically, Jonathan Holmes was one who helped destroy the press, as father-in-law and son-in-law were on opposite sides. Elvira loved her father, and loved the Church, Joseph Smith and Johnathan. She was put in a difficult position.
On June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith was martyred and Elvira became partly widowed. Johnathan Holmes served as one of the pallbearers at the funeral and later helped remove and hide Joseph’s body. As her father helped precipitate the Prophet’s death, her husband honored him.
On October 11, 1844, Elvira bore her first child named Lucy Elvira. On December 23, 1844, Johnathan and Elvira received their endowments in the nauvoo temple. On February 3, 1845, Elvira was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity with Jonathan serving as proxy for the Prophet. The same day Johnathan was sealed to his deceased wife, Marietta Carter with Elvira serving as proxy.
Johnathan and Elvira, as many others, went through life together with Elvira bearing Johnathan’s children believing that in the eternities they were sealed to different people and the children born to Elvira would belong to Joseph Smith. Nevertheless, the Holmes marriage remained happy and solid.
Much of Elvira’s remaining life was bound-up in the lives of her children. Her stepdaughter and her own daughters married polygamously and from all appearances were happy. On May 12, 1866, when Elvira was fifty-two, her first biological child, Marietta, at age sixteen, married Job Welling. Job was an English convert, a tailor and a widower with two small children, Willard and Anne. Marietta and Job added eight children. Two years later, on December 21, 1868, Elvira’s daughter, Phebe, became a polygamous wife, when at age seventeen, she also married Job Welling in the endowment house in Salt Lake City. Phebe would bare Job eight children. Seven years later, on April 28, 1875, at age nineteen, Emma Lucinda, Elvira’s youngest child married Job Welling. Family tradition holds that her two older sisters persuaded Emma to accept Job Welling’s marriage proposal. In doing so, she gave up her desire to be a teacher.
In March of 1871, Elvira became sick with “exposure” probably tuberculosis, and it became apparent she was dying. According to family tradition, “During her last sickness her husband…in humility and sorrow at the thought of her passing asked her what reports she would give the Prophet Joseph.” She replied, “Only the best report. You have been a kind and devoted husband and father.”