Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Conversion of Martha Elizabeth O'Neal

[One of the benefits of posting photographs with names online is that the relatives sometimes come out of the woodwork. And sometimes that leads to another story. That is exactly what happened in this case. The life of Martha O'Neal encompasses more than just her conversion. But in the interest this blog's focus I will keep it to her time in Tennessee - BCrow]

Martha was born on 14 December 1874  in Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee to Brittian Burrs O'Neal and Tennessee "Tennie" Elizabeth Rockhold. She was the sixth of nine children. She shows up only a few times in historical records in Tennessee, but does show in the 1880 US Census.

Her parents married in Georgia 1863 and had their first child in Dekalb County, Georgia shortly after the Battle of Atlanta. It is hard to imagine a more difficult time and place in which to start a family. So it is perhaps understandable that the family moved to Smyrna, Tennessee, which had come through the war in much better shape than Atlanta, Georgia. The remaining 8 children were all born in Smyrna. In 1870, the family shows up in the home of Martha's maternal grandfather in Smyrna, though there is no indication whether he invited them to join him in Tennessee, or if he accompanied them to Tennessee when they moved.

Martha age 16
When Martha was still young, her mother died from causes which no one bothered to record. Two years later her father remarried. All of the stories I have found about Martha's step mother describe her as a mean woman. One source says she kept Martha's hair short just so she wouldn't have to wash or comb it. Martha's daughter Ellen went looking for the step mother and other family members in 1925. She was told by one family member that the step mother was so mean he would not tell Ellen where to find her, or even her name.(1)

It is perhaps then not surprising that Martha took an opportunity for work which allowed to get away from home. She did house work for Richard & Sarah Vaughn. Richard was a successful physician. Sarah had joined the Church in 1881 while the couple were living in Baird's Mill. Although Richard was not a member, he had consented to Sarah's baptism, as was customary at the time, and welcomed the missionaries in his home.(2)

According to her daughter Ellen, Martha met the missionaries at her parents home probably in 1894. Two missionaries, Heber Charles Iverson and Willard Washington Bean left some pamphlets with Martha. Although she had little opportunity by then to learn to read well, she apparently knew enough to understand a portion of what she was reading which led her to attend Mormon services.

"Martha was the only one who paid any attention to them, but she carefully hid the tracts and every spare minute was spent reading them and trying to understand those printed pages. The message went straight to her heart, she knew it was the truth. Everyone mocked and scoffed at her for attending the Mormon meetings." (Tracy)

What isn't clear is whether Martha's introduction to Mormonism led her to employment with the Vaughn family, or her working in the Vaughn home influenced her interest in Mormonism. Either way, On October 14, 1894 (one record says Oct 4th), Martha was baptized by W W Bean and confirmed by W S Hunter.

"The baptismal service was held on the bank of a pond near the Vaughn home in [Murfreesboro], Tennessee. ... A crown of rowdy men, thinking to have some fun, threatened to tar and feather the Elders if they baptized that innocent girl. The Elders were frightened but put their trust in the Lord with faith that He would care for them if they did what was right. They sang a Hymn, had prayer asking God to guide and protect them, then proceeded with the ordinance. By the time thy had finished the ceremony, the mockers had all disappeared. The Lord had answered their prayer and all was well." (Tracy)

"She was now a member of an unpopular church, so all her relatives feeling she had disgraced them, turned against her and would not even recognize her when passing on the street. One day she had an errand which took her to her brother's home. He saw her coming and met her at the door. He had a large ear of ripe corn in his hand. He struck the door sill so hard with the ear of corn that it broke all to pieces, then told his sister Martha, that so long as she was a Mormon he would treat her as he had the corn if she dared to cross his threshold." (Tracy)

Because Martha worked for and lived with the Vaughn family, and the missionaries often spent time visiting them as well, she soon got to know many of the missionaries as they passed through. One in particular caught her eye.

"A group of young girls among themselves always picked out the Elders they would like to flirt with. One Elder was very bashful and had sandy red hair, so among them he was nicknamed “Reddy”. None of the girls could get “Reddy” to talk with them so Martha said, “Just you wait, I'll make him talk to me.” she was always busy working, so was out of most of the fun. One day Elder Reddy and his companion Elder A Y Duke of Heber City, stopped at the Vaughn home. It was after dinner time but the Doctor told Martha to prepare a meal for the Elders. She rushed out to the wood block and began to hastily cut wood with which to cook the dinner. Someone touched her on the elbow and said, “Here let me cut that wood for you.” It was Elder Reddy. After that Elder Reddy spent much time in the Vaughn kitchen and when he was around Martha never had to cut any wood." (Tracy)

Elder Jacklin wrote home about Martha, and the poor treatment she had received from her family after joining the church. It was Elder Jacklin's sister Lucy and her husband Charles Webb who offered to lend money to Martha so she could come to Utah. They also offered to let her live with them. Martha accepted their offer and in the summer of 1895 she went west to Utah.

When John Jacklin returned home from his mission the two were married. But that is a story for another time.

(1) The "Tennessee Marriages, 1796-1950" database shows Martha's step-mom as Nannie F. Earthman, married to Brittain O'Neal on July 08, 1883 in Rutherford County, TN. A family historian claims she was born in 1855 and died in 1910 but could not give a source. 
(2) Richard was baptized on 27 August 1896, a little over a year after Martha moved to Utah.


gscoulson said...

What an inspiring story, to have so many details about how much opposition she faced and yet pressed on in faith. She looks truly happy in her wedding photo in Utah.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks. She went on to live a much happier life, though not without its tragedies. As I work with people whose lives were lived closer to my own I am finding that there are more details with which I can work. It's great since I can see into their lives more clearly, but I also have to pick and chose which elements I include.