WESTERN MAINE SAINTS:
An East Bethel Family (Frost)
by Jayne Fife and Roselyn Kirk
Mary Ann [Mary] Frost Stearns was a small determined woman, a widow with one child, when she married LDS Apostle Parley Parker Pratt, a widower, in Kirtland, Ohio in 1837. That decision resulted in her bearing their first child, Nathan, in a log smoke house near Far West, Missouri and being abandoned when Parley was arrested, charged with murder and sentenced to death. When reprieved, he was held in the Richmond and Columbia, Missouri jails for eight months. During that period Mary Ann [From this point, she will be simply Mary, so that she will not be confused with her daughter Mary Ann] lived with him in the squalid, frigid Richmond Jail from early December 1838 to the middle of March 1839. There she cared for Parley and their two children, Mary Ann and Nathan. During that time, she was able to smuggle Parley’s partial manuscript for The History of the Late Persecutions Inflicted by the State of Missouri Upon the Mormons out of the jail in her clothing and to a Church member unknown to the local authorities, thus risking her life.
With Parley still in jail, she was forced to leave him and then Far West, Missouri on penalty of death. Having no immediate means of transportation, she and their children were among the last to leave Missouri to join exiled church members who had gathered in Quincy, Illinois. When the small group reached a swollen creek that ran parallel to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, she got out of the carriage to lighten the load. Crossing on a narrow makeshift bridge, she looked back to see her daughter Mary Ann’s bonnet bobbing in the water. Quick action saved the child.
Later, as one of the last church members to leave Nauvoo, Illinois when the Saints were once again driven from their homes, she sadly abandoned her home and the graves of two of their small children, Nathan and Susan. Parley, with six plural wives, had already reached the Missouri River with the main body of the Saints.
Making the decision to return to her family in Bethel, Maine and rely on her own resources to support their remaining children, she continued true to the promises she made in the Summer of 1835 when she joined the LDS Church in western Maine. She late wrote, “I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ, being converted to the truthfulness of its doctrines by the first sermon I heard. And I said in my heart if there are only three who hold firm to the faith, I will be one of that number.”
Mary was born in Groton, Caledonia, Vermont to Aaron and Susan Gray Bennett Frost on January 14, 1809, the fifth of eleven children. Aaron was a descendent of George Frost, originally of Binstead, Hampshire, England, who came to coast of Maine at Winter Harbor, Biddeford Pool near the mouth of the Saco River between 1623 and 1629. George’s son John was killed during the early stages of the Indian War and his other son, William, who owned land in Saco, fled with his family to Salem, Massachusetts, where he lived until 1679 when he purchased land in Wells and returned. On May 7, 1690 William and his brother-in-law, James Littlefield, were killed by Indians who also carried away William’s son, Nathaniel.
Three succeeding generations of George Frost’s family lived in Berwick, Maine, including third great grandsons Moses and Eliot who served in the Revolutionary War. After the war, six of Moses’ children moved to Sudbury Canada, later Bethel, Maine: Moses, Thomas, Dominicus, Nathaniel, Lydia, and eventually Aaron.
Mary often told her grandchildren about her early life. One story they loved to hear was called, “Needles and Pins.” When she was a child, she had to walk a mile and a half every day to an Androscoggin River crossing where workmen waited to row a group of children across the river to a little schoolhouse. After school, the children remained until the men returned from work to row them back. While waiting, they often played near or in the boat. Sometimes they let it out into the river as far as the rope would allow and then pulled it back to shore. Once, when it struck the shore bank very hard, Mary who had been running around its edge was thrown into the water. The other children ran screaming for help. Mary was rescued and rolled on the grass as water drained out of her ears, nose and mouth. She was then carried to a nearby house, wrapped in a warm blanket, and put to bed. When she finally opened her eyes, she said, “Oh I feel so funny, just like needles and pins poking all over me.”
As Mary grew older, she became an expert in spinning, dyeing, and weaving fabric, and knitting and sewing clothing. She also learned all aspects of living on a farm. When she was 23, she married Nathan Stearns, son of Charles and Thankful Bartlett Stearns. A descendent wrote that Mary “fell in love with young Nathan Stearns who courted her for several years, beating a path through the woods to come every Sunday to see her. She had knitted him enough socks to last a lifetime by the time they were married,” which was on April 1, 1832, Nathan’s 23rd birthday.
In an autobiographical sketch written by Nathan’s and Mary’s only child, Mary Ann, in 1896 she related, “My father, a well beloved son was the one chosen to inherit the paternal homestead and to nurture and comfort the declining years of his aged parents.” Accordingly, the newlyweds settled into the Mayfield home and farm where Charles and Thankful Stearns had raised their nine children, and that is where their only child was born on April 6, 1833. Continuing her remembrances, daughter Mary Ann wrote, “My father and mother were lovers in the true sense of the meaning and she often said that she never received a cross word from him or saw a cross look on his face when turned to her, but always a smile of love and approbation. But earthly happiness is fleeting and this happy couple knew not the change that was so soon to come and that their plans so well laid were never to be realized.”
Nathan, who had recently been elected to the town council, died at age 24, only one year and five months after they were married. Their baby was 4 ½ months old. He had been working in the hay field on a sultry July day when he became ill with typhoid fever, then prevalent in the community. After being “blistered, cupped and bled” for four weeks, he died. Soon after the funeral, his wife and two sisters were stricken. For three weeks Mary lay unconscious.
“After a few weeks, when I was taken to the bedside of my mother and she was asked if she knew whose baby it was, she shook her head and when asked to look again, she still could not think, but as her eyes wandered down to the little dress she had fashioned in love and anticipation, the truth dawned upon her and she clasped me to her bosom with tears of motherly love and affection.
“With the return of memory came the great weight of sorrow that had come to my mother, and she mourned as one not to be comforted, but taking up the burden of life for my sake, she wandered wearily on – still clothed in garbs of deep mourning until two years had passed away, when the glorious light of the Gospel burst forth to illumine the souls of all who would accept its glad message.”
In the early hours of May 5, 1835, twelve newly ordained LDS Apostles left Kirtland, Ohio on a mission to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, as well as Ontario, Canada. They spent the next five months traveling singly or in changing pairs instructing and bolstering existing branches and proselyting. They taught that Joseph Smith Jr., through revelation, had restored the Church as it had been at the time of Jesus Christ.
A typical day consisted of walking, hitching a ride in a wagon, or taking a canal boat to a new village where, if possible, they made contact with a known member who could help find a meeting place for an evening’s instruction. They usually stayed overnight and in the morning moved on to another village. According to Apostle Parley Pratt, they preached, exhorted, taught, organized, blessed the sick, baptized, confirmed and ordained.
In the late summer, Apostles Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, David W. Patten, and Thomas B. Marsh spoke to a small group at Rumford Point, Maine, before moving to Bethel where they held a conference. During this time, Mary Ann [Mary] Frost Stearns and her mother Susan Gray Frost were baptized by Apostle Patten. Four other members of the family eventually became members. Mary’s daughter wrote that one of the most appealing facets of the Gospel for her mother was the redemption of the dead, for she deeply mourned the death of her beloved Nathan and the thought of being reunited with him was consoling.
There is also a reference to Mary in a biography of David W. Patten based on his journals. “While a conference was being held at Bethel, Maine, a young woman, Mary Ann [Mary] Stearns, who had been troubled for five years with an extremely aggravated case of heart disease, sent for the Elders, and upon investigation asked for baptism. David, the mouth in the confirmation, as well as in administering to her afterward for her health, made her the promise that she would be entirely restored to perfect health and soundness. She afterward became the wife of Apostle Parley P. Pratt and endured all the hardships through which the Saints were called to pass; but from that time till the time of her death in 1891 at the age of eighty-two years, she never again complained of heart trouble.”
In August 1836, six apostles, including Brigham Young, Lyman Johnson, and William McClellin, came through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They held conferences in Andover West Surplus (Newry) and Bethel. They were in the area for more than a week and strongly encouraged members to gather with the main body of the Church in Kirtland, Ohio or Far West, Missouri. In response, on August 16, David Sessions, husband of Patty Bartlett Sessions, took Mary and her three year old daughter in his carriage to Portland, Maine in the middle of the night because she was fearful of being prevented from leaving with other local converts who were “gathering” to Kirtland. She gave up the dowry left to her daughter by Nathan because the child’s guardian refused to let her “take it to the Mormons.” The next day, she joined other Maine converts and missionaries on the boat to Boston where more members had gathered to journey overland to Ohio.
Kirtland was crowded with new members. The rate of growth was amazing and had started to cause problems with non-members and members alike. During the next eight months, Mary and her daughter boarded with four different families, including Brigham Young’s and Hyrum Smith’s families. One woman, who lived with her husband temporarily in the same tiny home as Mary, wrote the following in her diary “I admired her [Mary] very much, thought her an amiable, interesting woman.” That home, belonging to Sabre Granger, was one room with a dirt cellar, small pantry and closet, as well as an outdoor stove room. Mary Ann later wrote, “During this time my mother, at one of the prayer meetings in the temple, received her patriarchal blessing and I received my childhood blessing into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Finally, they moved into a portion of the home vacated by Hyrum Smith and his family when their new home was built. The Stearns then had their own private space. Several stories about Mary survive from this time as later recorded by her daughter. The child learned her ABC’s by her mother cutting out the letters and pasting them around their fireplace. Mary also began developing her daughter’s domestic skills by teaching her, at three, to knit. Mary Ann later recorded, “I had a pair of stockings nearly done and mother wanted me to finish them by my fourth birthday. I knit very tight and mother had to knit around every other time to loosen up the stitches, but I had them done in time, and was very glad for a number of reasons – it is quite a task for a little active girl to sit down and knit very long at a time, and it was a great relief to have the job off my hands, as well as a pleasure to see what I had done.”
Nathan Stearns had been an Ensign in the Maine militia. Mary kept his blue broadcloth uniform with bright brass buttons. She often showed it to her daughter while talking about him. One day a friend told her that a Church member had been called on a mission, but was hindered by having no suitable clothing. At first she refused to even consider parting with Nathan’s uniform, but her conscience would not allow her to withhold something she had that was needed by the Church. She replaced the military buttons on the jacket with regular buttons and in tears gave the uniform to the missionary.
Another story reflects her character. Taking snuff was common in those days. Mary was in the habit of taking a pinch after dinner from a pretty snuff box given to her by her husband Nathan. After being taught the Word of Wisdom and admonished in her Patriarchal Blessing to keep it, she placed the snuff box on the fireplace mantle and sat down to read the Book of Mormon until all desire had passed.
Young Mary Ann recorded other aspects of their life in Kirtland. “During this time we were constant attendants at meetings in the temple, and I can especially remember the fast-meetings, and can recall at this day the great power and good spirit that were experienced on those occasions – and it was generally known that Father Joseph Smith (Sr.), the Patriarch, would not break his fast and partake of food till the sun went down, and I thought he was the most wonderful person to willingly go without food for that length of time, and that he must surely be like Abraham, the faithful that mother had told me so often about.”
“I remember partaking of the Sacrament of bread and wine in the Kirtland Temple, and when I would have liked more of the wine, mother explained to me that it was in memory of the blood of our Savior when he was upon the cross. After that I was always satisfied to partake of the proper quantity – and with reverence in my heart.”
Then Mary’s life had another major shift. On May 14, 1837, six weeks after the death of his wife Thankful Halsey Pratt, Apostle Parley Parker Pratt, 30, married Mary Ann [Mary] Frost Stearns, 28, at Hyrum Smith’s home by Frederick G. Williams, first counselor to Joseph Smith. Mary was described as “very tiny and very pretty.” Little Mary Ann, now 4, was dressed in her newly made white French lawn dress with tiny, blue flowers that matched her mother’s dress. They moved into Parley’s home, a block from the new temple, for six weeks.
On May 29, Parley and four other Church leaders, David Whitmer, Frederick Williams, Lyman Johnson, and Warren Parrish, were brought before the Kirtland High Council to answer charges that they had made false accusations against Joseph Smith. These charges revolved around the failure of a Church organized bank, The Kirtland Safety Society, and inflated Kirtland property prices. After the accused challenged the court’s jurisdiction, the meeting ended in confusion. No judgments were made and before a new trial convened, Parley, with Mary’s and John Taylor’s strong influence, went to Joseph and begged for forgiveness which was immediately given. According to Parley’s later assessments of Mary in letters to her parents, she was a strong calming influence on his impulsive behavior. A month later Parley, with his new wife and daughter, left Kirtland to introduce the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of New York City.