As Sisters in Zion (Hardcover)

by Debbie J. Christensen


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This is a marvelous book that shares the story of one of Relief Society's finest. I am certain that those who are interested in the history of hymns will enjoy this book as much as I have. Along with the historian, this is a book that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Debbie Christensen has written this in such a way that even younger readers will be able to read and enjoy this history of three great women and the impact that they continue to have. "As Sisters in Zion" is a book that should find a home with many, as it has with me.
—Association for Mormon Letters

In 1852, two sisters in a small village in England responded to the message of Mormon missionaries and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Julia Hill was nineteen years old, and her sister, Emily, was only sixteen. After working and saving their money for four more years, they made their way to America and joined the Willie handcart company for the arduous journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Faced with exhaustion, starvation, exposure, and even death, they strengthened one another and intensified their resolve. Alone they would fail, but together they could succeed and live.

Emily later wrote a poem about her experience, which has been set to music and sung by Relief Society sisters all over the world. But the story of that hymn, "As Sisters in Zion," is more than the experience of two sisters. Behind this well-known song lies a fascinating, little-known story of the sisters, personal call to "comfort the weary and strengthen the weak."

  1. "As Sisters in Zion"
  2. "We'll All Work Together"
  3. "The Blessings of God on Our Labors We'll Seek"
  4. "With Earnest Endeavor"
  5. "The Errand of Angels"
  6. "Oh, Naught but the Spirit's Divinest Tuition"
  7. "To Cheer and to Bless in Humanity's Name"
  8. Other Hymns by Emily Hill Woodmansee

Product Details

  • Size:  5 x 7
  • Pages:  80
  • Released:  01/2012

About the Author

Debbie Jones Christensen is an avid reader, artist, and family historian. Born in Utah, she has lived ten years outside the United States: three years in South America as a child with her family, and seven years in Mexico City with her children and husband, Elder Craig C. Christensen of the First Quorum of the Seventy. Debbie attended Brigham Young University. She is a student of the scriptures and loves learning and ministering to others. She has four children and six grandchildren.

Chapter One

“As Sisters in Zion”

Never, never shall I forget that day, surely it was the turning point of my whole life. A few devoted worshippers of truth met together in a small house, to bear their testimony to one another and to worship God! . . . I did not even ask, “What shall I do to be saved.” “The way” was open before me, and simple and young as I was I instinctively knew that “I could not err therein.”

—Emily Hill Woodmansee

In the small town of Warminster, Wiltshire, in southern England, in 1848, there lived a young woman named Emily Hill. Only twelve years old, she was a strong, bright, and creative girl who loved to write poems and study in the family Bible. Even at that young age, she was concerned about her eternal salvation and searched the scriptures. She studied the lives of the ancient prophets, especially Isaiah, and wondered why God didn’t speak to man anymore.1

One day, a cousin, Miriam Slade, came to visit the Hill family. Miriam was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she told the family about the Church, saying that God had spoken from the heavens to a man named Joseph Smith. She invited the Hill family to attend a meeting the following Sunday. Emily’s older sisters laughed and said, “Send Em, she will tell us all about it.”2

The following Sunday, Emily sat enthralled at the message from the missionaries who were preaching, and she instantly recognized that they were talking about the same church that had been established in the days of the Savior Jesus Christ. Emily recollected: “It was indeed as though I had been brought ‘out of darkness into marvelous light,’ and I could not shut my eyes against it.”3

Of the meeting, Emily wrote, “Never, never shall I forget that day, surely it was the turning point of my whole life. A few devoted worshippers of truth met together in a small house, to bear their testimony to one another and to worship God! And He was in their midst and that to bless them. . . . I did not even ask, ‘What shall I do to be saved.’ ‘The way’ was open before me, and simple and young as I was I instinctively knew that ‘I could not err therein.’”4

Thomas Hill, Emily’s father, was a wealthy landowner and farmer, and his children were well-educated. He and Elizabeth Slade Hill were the parents of eleven children: Mary Ann (born 1823), Jane (born 1825), Alban (born 1828), Ephraim (born 1830), Charlotte (born 1832), Julia (born January 15, 1833), Frank (born 1834), Emily (born March 24, 1836), twins Esau and Jacob (born 1839, died in infancy), and George (born 1841, died in infancy). Since the three youngest boys had all died in infancy, at the age of five, Emily became the doted-upon youngest living child.

The parents had their own strongly held religious beliefs based in the Wesleyan faith and didn’t welcome the message that their daughter brought home from the missionaries. The reverends in the area pressured young Emily, saying that she “wasn’t old enough to know [her] own mind, and was altogether too young to judge of so grave a matter.”5 But Emily and her older sister, Julia, were convinced that truth had been restored, and they wanted the missionaries to baptize them. After hearing a powerful testimony of Joseph Smith, Julia exclaimed, “If ever there was a man of God I’m sure he [Joseph] is one, and I’ll be a Latter-Day Saint, too!”6

Their strict, Victorian-age parents forbade the girls to join up with the Mormons, “a sect that was everywhere spoken against.”7 To ensure the girls wouldn’t be further influenced by the missionaries, the parents had the girls watched closely by their older siblings. However, before the missionaries went away, they brought by a member named John Halliday, who bore strong testimony to the girls and gave young Emily a priesthood blessing—a blessing that would not be fulfilled until many years later. In this blessing, Emily was told that if she would remain faithful to her testimony of Jesus Christ throughout her life, she would “write in prose and in verse and thereby comfort the hearts of thousands.”8 That such a promise would be made to an obscure young woman from a small town in England was remarkable, particularly as her involvement in the Church was so severely restricted at that time.

The sisters continued to live with their family for the next four years, until 1852, when they determined to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Emily, then sixteen years of age, had a deep and burning testimony of the Restoration, and Julia, nineteen years old and of a quieter nature, held an equally strong conviction. But that didn’t make their sacrifice any easier. The sisters clearly understood that the decision to join the Church meant giving up the comforts of their home, the love of their parents, the warmth of their large family circle, and whatever security they had known as daughters of Thomas and Elizabeth Hill. They were baptized on March 25, 1852.

This act of defiance resulted in their being disowned by their parents and rejected by their entire close-knit family. The loving relationship the girls had previously had with their mother, Elizabeth, was now unequivocally torn apart. Julia, who was particularly close to her younger brother, Frank, was devastated by the family’s extreme reaction to their choice.

Emily, a headstrong young woman, respected and honored her equally strong-minded father, but she often butted heads with him. Even so, she idolized her father, and everyone said she bore a close physical resemblance to him. She referred to him as a “man of men” and “my own dear Sire.”9 Her later writings express her lifelong feelings about the alienation she and Julia experienced at the time of their conversion:

Oh! this has been one bitter cup Of many, I have had to drain.10

Throughout her life, Emily carried no hard feelings toward her father and mother and sought often to communicate with them. Of her father, she was to later write:

Dear Father, oft my heart is thrill’d

With longing till with pain ’tis sore

Would that my wish could be fulfill’d

That we could meet on earth once more.11

Her thoughts on her mother were also expressed in verse:

My Mother’s worth, my Mother’s love,

Ne’er amplified can be;

Where e’er in retrospect I turn

She is all dear to me.12

Following their baptisms in 1852, and now unwelcome in their parents’ home, Julia and Emily decided to gather with the Saints in Zion, in America. The girls took an apprenticeship to a milliner in the neighboring town of Northampton and for four years saved the money that would finance their passage to America and the arduous trek west to the Rocky Mountains. During that time they enjoyed a fond association with the English Saints, who warmly befriended them. Emily said of this time: “There for the first time I enjoyed religious freedom and there also I took my lessons of hard times; preparing me for greater hardships in store.”13

Finally, in the spring of 1856, the sisters traveled to Liverpool with their fellow Saints. There, at three o’clock a.m. on Sunday, May 4, they embarked on the ship Thornton to sail to America. Elder James Gray Willie, who had been preaching in England, was appointed by President Franklin D. Richards as the captain of the company. There were more than 760 Saints on board the ship; most were from England and Scotland, but more than 160 had traveled from Denmark and Sweden to join them.14

The sisters stood together on the deck of the ship as it was tugged out from the Bramley-Moore docks in Liverpool. As the ship moved in the dark down the River Mersey and eventually out to sea and the green English countryside receded into the distance, the young women knew they were leaving behind all they had known and loved—their parents and family, their home, their native England—all for their testimonies of the restored gospel. As they contemplated with excitement the adventure before them, they surrendered briefly to heartache and tears. Yet they remained steadfast and confident that what they were doing was right, and their strong testimonies drove them forward in hope and knowledge.

The normal trials of a sea voyage ensued. Since the captain took the ship across the northern route, sightings of giant icebergs were common, and rough waters and storms were frequent. A fire in the passengers’ galley one day caused a bit of alarm, but it was quickly extinguished. The sisters were well-liked by the other passengers, and Emily was one of the few attendees of the shipboard wedding of Allen Findlay and Jessie Ireland in the captain’s cabin.15 In all, the group experienced three births, seven deaths, and two marriages over the course of the forty-one day journey at sea.16

Their ship’s captain was a kindly man named Captain Charles Collins who treated his Latter-day Saint voyagers well during the six-week passage over the Atlantic. He must have been pleased to do so because at the conclusion of the ocean voyage, he wrote a letter to James Willie in which he said that “they are the finest body of emigrants I have ever had the pleasure to convey across the Atlantic—they have always been willing to do and act according to my wish, expressed by myself through you [Willie], and to render me any assistance that I have required from time to time.”17

Elder James Willie, who appreciated the treatment he and his party received during the crossing, observed: “I felt all the time and still feel to say ‘God bless Captain Collins.’”18 Many of the journals kept of the trip note the kind attention Captain Collins and the ship’s doctor gave to the sick and weak.

After six weeks at sea, the Thornton arrived safely at the immigration center of Castle Gardens on Manhattan Island in New York City on June 14, 1856. The company was heartily greeted by Elder John Taylor, and also by several gentlemen of the press, who wrote articles for local newspapers, praising “the general appearance and demeanor of the entire Company.”19

On Tuesday, June 17, the company traveled by rail through Dunkirk, New York. After traveling by steamboat across Lake Erie, they again boarded a train in Toledo, Ohio, where they encountered some unkind railway authorities who didn’t like the Mormons and caused them “every inconvenience in their power.”20 Despite that episode, the group continued without further incident on to Chicago.

Up to this point in their journey, there had always been food to eat, but on June 23 the Saints were delayed at a place called Pond Creek where they “had much difficulty in obtaining provisions.”21 Here, the railway bridge across the Mississippi had collapsed, forcing the company to spend another night on the train before taking a ferry across the river. Finally, on June 26, the Saints again boarded a train and took the rails into Iowa City, Iowa, where they were greeted by Elder Daniel Spencer, who had served in England as a counselor to Franklin D. Richards in the mission presidency.

Emily and Julia stayed with the other Saints in a camp just outside Iowa City until July 15. During this three-week period, the men were employed making yokes and handcarts, and the women, including Julia and Emily, were kept busy sewing tents for the journey—a task made far less pleasant by frequent soaking rains.

With a severe shortage of tents and daily thunderstorms accompanied by raging winds, their accommodations were often primitive and uncomfortable. Most of the Saints in this company had no experience with pioneer life. They did not know how to pitch a tent, build a campfire, or cook outdoors. They were also highly unaccustomed to the typical early summer Midwestern heat and humidity and the notorious Iowa mud created by the frequent deluges of rain.

These enthusiastic Saints from England, Scotland, and Scandinavia were also not fully prepared for the trials and travails of pulling and pushing a handcart over the miles of rough trails that were ahead. Coming from a relatively level elevation and the seemingly benign, gentle landscapes of their home countries, they could simply not envision the ordeal of travel that they were about to face.

Reflecting on the reality of traveling by handcart, Emily, still a proper Victorian young woman and not yet a full-fledged pioneer, wrote: “Yet, for the potent reason that no other way seemed open, and on the principle of ‘descending below all things,’ I made up my mind to pull a hand cart. ‘All the way to Zion,’ a foot journey from Iowa to Utah, and pull our luggage, think of it! . . . The flesh certainly was weak but the spirit was willing, [and] I set down my foot that I would try.”22 Her bravado may have been naïve, but she and her sister Julia soon had ample opportunity to demonstrate their pluck. It began when they met a woman named Martha Campkin.

Notes Chapter One: “As Sisters in Zion”

Epigraph: Emily Hill Woodmansee in Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret, 83.

^1. Ibid., 82.

^2. Ibid., 83.

^3. Ibid., 84.

^4. Ibid., 83.

^5. Ibid., 84.

^6. Ibid., 85.

^7. Ibid., 84.

^8. Ibid., 85.

^9. Woodmansee, “Is My Father Yet Alive?” in Abegg, Poetry of Emily Woodmansee, 197.

^10. Ibid.

^11. Ibid.

^12. Woodmansee, “My Mother,” in Abegg, Poetry of Emily Woodmansee, 277.

^13. Woodmansee in Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret, 85.

^14. “A Compilation of General Voyage Notes” in “Thornton: Liverpool to New York.”

^15. Lyman, The Willie Handcart Company, 14.

^16. “A Compilation of General Voyage Notes” in “Thornton: Liverpool to New York.”

^17. “Letter from James G. Willie—June 11, 1856,” in “Thornton: Liverpool to New York.”

^18. Willie, “Synopsis.”

^19. Ibid.

^20. Ibid.

^21. Ibid.

^22. Woodmansee in Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret, 86.

Loved This!!

by  DeAnn  -   reviewed on  March 29, 2012

I had gotten this book for my mother but thought I'd take a glance at it before she read it. Of course I read the whole thing. I was very touched by this story. It never dawned on me that single sisters braved the trek west. What I loved is that they bonded together and helped each other. It makes singing the song all the sweeter.

What a touching story!

by  Customer  -   reviewed on  February 03, 2012

Walking to work from the parking garage on cold winter mornings I sometimes reflect on the saints who walked across the country to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. They were so strong and brave in so many ways! I am grateful for their sacrifices and example to never give up. This is a story I had not heard and is so inspiring. It shows how there are opportunities to help others, even when our circumstances seem overwhelming. I love the messages of service, love, community, and family the story tells. Definitely worth reading and sharing...

Debbie, Your book so honored these women.

by  Teresa  -   reviewed on  April 14, 2012

Debbie, As a desentant of Martha Campkin I would love to thank you for so honoring these women. They do have an encredible story. Emily not only wrote the words to our favorite hymn but she and her sister lived them. Love the book and bought copies for all my daughters. Favorite line in the book was - "and they settled in Perry, UT where members of the family still reside." Yes, we are still here. Teresa Young Glover

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