By great little persons, I mean individuals whose lives or actions have had important consequences.
—Jerome G. Manis, 1989
Early on the morning of 24 November 1900, an elderly man died in St. George, Utah. He had never held high ecclesiastical office within the Latter-day Saint Church—of which he had been a member for over sixty years. He had never been elected to any office nor did he achieve anything but passing regional or national fame. Yet two days after his demise, a leading Salt Lake City newspaper, the Deseret Evening News, printed a large photograph of Henry William Bigler, and the accompanying obituary lauded the old pioneer as “one of the notable characters in the history of Western America.”
What fame Bigler did achieve arrived late in life. While a younger man, he was a rather invisible part of several events, a part that later earned him a place in Western and Mormon history. As a member of the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War (1846–47), he marched across much of what later became the Southwestern United States. He was present at Sutter’s Mill in California during January 1848 when James Marshall made his nation-changing discovery of gold. In the following years, Henry Bigler played leading roles in activities which were more significant to his Mormon culture. He was among the first representatives of the Church to preach in the Hawaiian Islands, and he faithfully served as an ordinance worker at the St. George Temple from 1877–1900.
Of importance to historians, Henry Bigler was a dedicated diarist during the time he served with the Mormon Battalion, and he continued his diary entries for most of the rest of his life.During the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the existence of his diaries became known within the professional historical community, Bigler gained a measure of national recognition. The most famous American historian of the age, Hubert Howe Bancroft, corresponded with Henry Bigler on a number of occasions and seemingly put great stock in his record. According to Bancroft, Bigler was “a cool, clear-headed, methodical man” who made keen observations and diligently chronicled many important happenings in the American West’s history.
Recently, Jerome G. Manis published an essay in Biography suggesting that the contributions of “Great Little Persons” are often ignored by biographers.In Bigler’s case, H. H. Bancroft clearly recognized Bigler’s accomplishments, particularly within the scope of California history. And while devotees of Western and Mormon history can quickly recall Henry Bigler and the 1848 Gold Discovery, few would recognize how the life history of a peripheral figure like Bigler can enhance the story of nineteenth-century Mormonism and of the American West.
By highlighting three periods of Bigler’s life which he detailed but which are generally lost in historical obscurity—his early Church experiences, two missions to Hawaii, and twenty-three years as an ordinance worker at the St. George Temple—this article seeks to elucidate the historical contribution of Henry Bigler and serve as a reminder that the biographies of other lesser-knowns wait to be written.
Like many of the unsung heroes of the early Mormon pageant, Henry Bigler’s most outstanding characteristic was his commitment to the Latter-day Saint cause. Time and again he answered the call to serve his Church, often at great personal loss. Modern social science explains Bigler’s actions by positing that the day-to-day behavior of most people is dictated by attitudes or beliefs. The stronger the intention or belief, the greater and more unshakable the commitment. Eric Hoffer names those with Bigler’s characteristics a “true believer”—a dedicated, self-sacrificing individual. Two recent observers of commitment have aptly labeled an individual like Hoffer’s true believer a “partisan.”Whether best designated a “true believer” or a “partisan,” Henry Bigler and others of similar mettle were vital to the Church’s beginnings.
The logical place to begin is with Bigler’s early Church experiences. As was the case for many other early Mormons, his was an experience marked by obstacles which he had to overcome before he could accept the gospel. In the fall of 1834 Mormon missionaries first came to Harrison County, western Virginia, where the family of Jacob Bigler, Henry’s father, lived in the small community of Shinnston. Jacob’s spouse, Sarah Cunningham Bigler, was converted to the new religion. At that time, however, her stepson Henry could not believe Joseph Smith, Jr., to be a man of God. “I disliked the name of their Prophet,” Bigler recalled, “because there was a man living in our neighborhood whose given name was Jo, who was forever picking quarrels and wanting to fight somebody.”
While Bigler’s reason for immediately discounting Mormonism was a bit unique, an instant prejudice against the religion was not unusual. Leonard E. Harrington, a New Yorker who encountered Mormonism some five years after Bigler, observed that it was the doctrine which initially tempered his interest. “I was prejudiced against it,” Harrington wrote, “and it was sometime before I could sufficiently dispossess my mind of preconceived opinions to give the subject a fair investigation.”Henry Bigler would take three years before he could accept the fact that someone named “Jo” could be a prophet of God.
Since his wife had embraced the Latter-day Saint gospel, Jacob Bigler soon became interested enough to send to Church headquarters at Kirtland, Ohio, for a copy of the Book of Mormon. After reading some of it, he declared to his children that “no man of himself ever made the Book.” Following her father, Polly Bigler read the Book of Mormon and also became convinced of its truthfulness. She urged her brother Henry to study the book. Soon he also “believed it and obeyed the gospel,” seeking baptism at the hand of Elder Jesse Turpin in July 1837. Before the end of the summer, the entire Jacob Bigler family had accepted the message of the Book of Mormon.
Having joined an evangelic denomination, twenty-two-year-old Henry Bigler made his first attempt at spreading the gospel. “Soon after I joined the Church,” he wrote, “I went to see my grandfather Harvey to have a talk and try to have him to go and hear the Elders preach.” But Basil Harvey, who was himself an itinerant preacher, wanted nothing to do with the religion. Perhaps hoping to deflect the embarrassment of having had several of his grandchildren cast their religious hopes with the supposedly heretical Mormons, Harvey told young Bigler that none of this would have happened if his daughter (and Henry’s mother), Elizabeth Harvey, was still alive—a clear indication that he held Sarah Bigler responsible for the family’s conversion to Mormonism.
In 1838 Henry Bigler and other members of his family heeded Joseph Smith’s call to gather to the Latter-day Saint communities in western Missouri. At Far West he was ordained to the office of an elder. The Biglers arrived in Missouri just in time to be driven out along with their fellow believers. By spring 1839, following their forced relocation to western Illinois, Henry Bigler was set apart as a seventy by Apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball and was sent forth to preach. He and several others went to proselyte in the Ohio–western Virginia area.
His experiences shed light on early Mormon missionary activities and perhaps more importantly, upon the development of a young Mormon from an inexperienced, novice preacher into a skilled orator and defender of the faith. As Elder Bigler journeyed eastward with his companion, an equally green young man named Amos Lyon, the two had their first opportunity to preach. Since neither had ever spoken in public before, the Mormons made a poor showing. In Henry Bigler’s words, “At the close of the meeting we were advised [by those who heard them] to leave off preaching and go home for we were more fit to drive oxen.” Their preaching ability must have improved, for Bigler proudly noted the baptism of a man and his wife later that fall.
Early in 1840 Henry Bigler lost his missionary companion to marriage, but he continued with his missionary work—alone. He “baptized a few” and in a demonstration of his increasing self-confidence, even got into a debate with a Baptist clergyman. Using a local colloquialism, Bigler observed that it seemed as if his rival “came out of the little end of the horn”—in other words, Bigler felt that he had come off the better man in the contest.
Bigler served another mission in 1843–44. The primary purpose of this call was “to rebut John C. Bennett’s lies.” Bennett, once a close confidante of Joseph Smith, had fallen from grace due to his philandering and had subsequently published a virulent attack on the Mormon prophet. For this mission Henry Bigler was once again sent to the area where he had spent his youth—western Virginia. If Bigler’s experiences were common, early Mormon missionaries often labored in familiar areas. As he traveled eastward across Indiana, Henry Bigler was joined by Elder Alpheus Harmon. The two men continued on into Ohio without finding any success in their preaching. Winter was upon them now, and the cold and discouraged Elder Harmon announced that he had decided to return to Nauvoo. Henry Bigler determined to continue alone to Virginia. In this instance Bigler’s firmness in staying with his assignment may have saved his life—Alpheus Harmon froze to death while crossing the bleak prairie on his return trip to Illinois.
Later, in the northwestern Ohio community of Lima, an exhausted Henry Bigler called at a “respectable looking house” seeking lodging for the night. The inhabitant reluctantly consented to let the Mormon preacher stay. He invited Bigler to talk religion, but it soon became clear that his host only hoped “to use up Mormonism in less than no time.” Much to the host’s surprise, however, he found that Elder Bigler could not be swayed in his beliefs.
In July 1844, at Ripley, the seat of Jackson County, Virginia, Bigler learned of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. “I was in Virginia,” he recalled, “and here it was that I heard of the death of the Prophet and Patriarch.” His immediate response was anger. “I felt mad and could have fought like a tiger,” he wrote. Then, after calming down, Bigler “felt like weeping” and was overcome by a feeling of loneliness. The missionaries were soon advised to stop preaching “unless invited to do so and return home.”
In late 1845 the Nauvoo Temple neared completion, and soon the Latter-day Saints began to participate in the sacred endowment ceremony—an ordinance which Joseph Smith taught was crucial to their quest for postmortal glory. Henry Bigler received his endowment on 31 December 1845.Not many weeks later, mob pressure forced the Saints to abandon Nauvoo.
Henry Bigler’s activities of the next two years (1846–48) eventually brought recognition. Following the Saints’ exodus from Nauvoo, he joined with some five hundred other Latter-day Saint men to form the Mormon Battalion marching from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to the Pacific shores.This trek and the succeeding months when Bigler worked in northern California for Johann Augustus Sutter earned him a place in recorded history. Of the several laborers employed at Johann Sutter’s sawmill at the moment James W. Marshall found gold, only Henry Bigler made a contemporary written record of the find. “This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald [sic],” he wrote. Years later Bigler’s diary entry would be used to accurately date the gold discovery.
In the decade following his Mormon Battalion and gold discovery experiences, Bigler was twice drawn a great distance from his Utah home in missionary service for his Church. While laboring in northern California as a gold-seeking missionary during the summer of 1850, Henry Bigler, along with nine of his associates, was called by Apostle Charles C. Rich to serve a mission in the Sandwich Islands.
Bigler was initially assigned to preach on the island of Maui with George Q. Cannon and James Keeler. During the months spent with these brethren Bigler developed a lasting relationship with Cannon. Even after George Cannon became a General Authority of the Church, he and Henry Bigler apparently maintained a rather close friendship until Bigler’s death. At Lahaina, Maui, Bigler, Cannon and Keeler immediately sought an opportunity to share the gospel. After securing permission from the Protestant Rev. Townshend Elijah Taylor to use his pulpit at the Seaman’s Chapel, the missionaries prepared to deliver their message. Since thirty-five-year-old Henry Bigler was the oldest of the three and probably had the most missionary experience, he was chosen to speak. Either out of humility, forgetfulness, or insecurity, Bigler never recorded the subject of this sermon—a rare oversight for such a conscientious diarist. But James Keeler wrote in his diary that “Br. B. got up and told them that He would read a chapter in the acts [and] then spoke on the first principals off [sic] the gospel off Christ.”
Bigler experienced the strong opposition that the Mormons faced from the more established Protestant and Catholic clerics. In March 1851 he wrote of a confrontation with the Reverend Daniel Toll Conde at Wailuku, Maui. In a Sunday sermon which the Latter-day Saint elders attended, Conde vigorously denounced the Mormons. According to George Cannon, he accused Joseph Smith of being a “notoriously bad character” who pretended to see angels, lived with many wives, and was a “very wicked man.”
Over a year later, on the island of Oahu, Henry Bigler had a similar encounter with the foes of Mormonism. At the village of Waialua on the northwest side of the island, he and Elder William Farrer faced the combined efforts of a Protestant missionary and a Catholic priest. The Protestant, Rev. John S. Emerson, accused Bigler of teaching “a distorted doctrine of the bible and [being] from the devil.” Later, Emerson attacked Henry Bigler and his religion on the plural marriage issue. Writing in his report for 1853, the Protestant clergyman noted confrontations with “two Mormon priests” over this issue.
I enquired . . . in respect to their doctrines, whether they believed in polygamy &c. & whether their prophet Brigham Young had not more than one wife. They denied that polygamy was an article of their creed; & also any knowledge of Brigham Young’s having more than one wife. . . . One month later one of the same men [Bigler] called on me with a new comer. To the latter . . . I again put the question, if they did not believe in polygamy & practice it. To which he said yes with great earnestness [sic].
Now feeling that he had the upper hand, Rev. Emerson turned on Henry Bigler, reminding him that Bigler had only recently denied Mormon polygamy. Retaining his composure, Bigler replied, “O this is a new revelation, I did not know it before.”
While never a practitioner of plural marriage, Henry Bigler was a staunch defender of the principle. Not one to mention his intimate life even to the privacy of his diary, Bigler’s reluctance to take additional wives remains a mystery. Yet his commitment to his religion would seem to have made him a prime candidate. Perhaps his advanced age (forty years old) at the time of his first marriage was the reason he did not take additional wives, or perhaps economic factors or, more likely, a personal hesitation to pursue additional wives kept him from practicing polygamy. At one point he even refused to have deceased women sealed to him vicariously. Bigler preferred to let relatives like his sister Emmeline Hess, cousin Bathsheba Bigler Smith, or father-in-law Moses Simpson Emett engage in the principle of plurality. Perhaps he found solace in Brigham Young’s 1871 proclamation stating “a Man may Embrace [plural marriage] in his heart & not take the Second wife & be justified before the Lord.”Whatever the case, Henry Bigler lived and died a monogamist.
In July 1854 Bigler and those that had come to Hawaii with him four years earlier were released from their missions and sent home. During their tenure in the Sandwich Islands almost three thousand Hawaiians had accepted their message. As Henry Bigler watched Honolulu disappear beyond the horizon, he may have recalled an observation made in his diary a few months earlier: “When we landed here in 1850 [we were] ignorant of the language and among strangers . . . but now we [are] surrounded by thousands who seem to love us and are Saints.”
Back in Utah by 1855, Henry Bigler finally married and began life as a family man and farmer. Henry and Cynthia Jane Whipple Bigler took up residence in Farmington, Utah, where he share-cropped some land owned by Allen Burk. On 4 October 1856, their first child was born—a daughter named Elizabeth Jane.
But just as Henry Bigler began to enjoy the roles of husband and father, his church called once again. On 28 February 1857 as he traveled from Farmington toward Salt Lake City, Bigler chanced upon Brigham Young along the road. The church president halted his carriage next to Bigler and told him to prepare for another mission to the Sandwich Islands. Young also requested that Bigler stop by his office in Salt Lake City and leave the names of all others whom Bigler knew spoke Hawaiian. This informal call not only demonstrated President Young’s confidence in Henry Bigler, but also may offer a view of how casually at least some mission calls were issued in the mid-nineteenth century.
The sorrow Henry Bigler felt as he left his wife and young family to once again preach the gospel was great. Acknowledging to the privacy of his diary that this would be a hard trial, he was still willing to do “anything the Lord required . . . however great the cross mite [sic] be.” The ocean voyage to Honolulu was anything but pleasant for Henry Bigler. The missionaries traveled at the steerage fare, which required them to sleep in the ship’s hold and spend their days on deck. The elements reaped havoc with Bigler’s physical condition, causing him to suffer horrendously. Of his situation Bigler wrote, “It is cold and disagreeable on deck and even in bed all night my legs [are] cold not having anything to cover myself with except my coat.” As a consequence of an infection brought on by such exposure, he was left permanently deaf in one ear.
When the new elders arrived in September 1857, the current mission president, Silas Smith, decided to return home with several other missionaries. Whether the incoming missionaries had carried directions from Brigham Young to that effect or not remains unclear. But at a conference of the Sandwich Islands elders held just before the departure of Smith and the others, Bigler was nominated and sustained as the protem mission president.Why this appointment was handled as a temporary one is also unknown. Perhaps Silas Smith assumed he was released without specific instructions to that end from church authorities.
Although not a reflection upon Bigler’s efforts, Bigler’s presidency must stand as a period of disappointment in the history of the Church in Hawaii. By July 1855, less than one year after his first mission to the islands had ended, the ranks of the Church had swelled to 4,650. But during the next year the Church’s population began to shrink noticeably. A similar decline was also apparent among the Protestant congregations and seems to indicate a general rejection of Anglo-Christian values by the Hawaiians.
In order to counter this trend among the native Saints, Bigler sought to institute a reformation similar to the one occurring almost simultaneously in Utah. Church members were encouraged to reaffirm their commitment, confess their sins, be rebaptized, and strive to live more fully God’s laws.The need of such a revitalization was pointed out in Henry Bigler’s diary. He sadly noted a Sunday meeting he conducted on Oahu which was attended by fifteen or sixteen people. In 1854 he had preached to the same congregation; it had had over sixty members in good standing, but now all had “dwindled away and withered up.” The enthusiasm for the Church was at such a low ebb that on one occasion Elder Bigler felt as if he were “preaching to the walls.”
As the Utah War created fear and the tension in the capital of Mormonism, the Latter-day Saint efforts in Hawaii ceased temporarily. In November 1857 a letter arrived from Brigham Young directing all of the elders, with one or two exceptions, to return to Utah. Ironically, as the elders were about to abandon the Sandwich Islands, the reformation, which Henry had labored so hard to promote, began to bear fruit. On 7 January 1858, he attended a meeting in which many of the members were “melted down like children” as they felt the weight of their sins. Twenty-two of the native Saints were rebaptized that day.
Henry Bigler’s experiences from his two Hawaiian missions provide a great deal of insight into the mid-nineteenth-century Church in the Sandwich Islands. The difficulty of opening a foreign mission, learning the language, and establishing a church are well demonstrated during his first Hawaiian labors. The ordeal of trying to sustain the Saints’ nascent faith marked his second mission.
On 5 November 1874, personal tragedy invaded Henry Bigler’s quiet, peaceful life in Farmington, Utah, when his wife of nineteen years died. Cynthia Jane Bigler was only thirty-nine years old at her death. Bigler now faced a crisis like none he had known before. He became a single parent who was rather unprepared to deal with the grief of his children let alone his own sadness. His confused nine-year-old son Jacob “would follow [him] in and out of the house” wherever he went. Finally Bigler had to send three of his boys—aged nine, twelve, and fifteen years—to stay temporarily with friends and relatives.
Bigler’s diary entries during this phase of his life poignantly reveal a very sad, lonely man wrestling with life’s challenges. Two days after Cynthia Jane’s death he wrote, “This has been to me a lonely day, I shall not attempt to describe my feelings.” On the day of her burial he lamented the sorrow of his son Charles, writing, “My poor boy how my heart ached for him.” While alone churning butter a few days later, Henry Bigler felt that “my wife was not dead but was in the other room and would soon be in to look after the churning and take out the butter.”His is a story not only of the American West and the nineteenth-century Church, but also of family life on the American frontier.
On a Sunday evening in November 1875, just five days short of the anniversary of his wife’s death, a messenger arrived at the Bigler home in Farmington with a letter from Brigham Young. Henry Bigler had been called to Salt Lake City to work in the Endowment House.He was a sixty-year-old widower with three dependent sons still at home. Yet, by the end of the year he had “commenced to labor in the holy ordinances of the Endowment.” His work at the Endowment House continued until 30 October 1876, at which time Brigham Young stopped the ordinance work there, saying, “If the people wish to receive their endowments and sealings they must go to Saint George and receive them in a Temple.” Consequently Henry Bigler moved south.
At St. George, Bigler served as an ordinance worker in the endowment ceremony, took a second wife (Eleanor Parthenia Emett), and reared another family.His years at the St. George Temple offer a perspective from the eyes of a lay member involved with this most sacred of Latter-day Saint activities. The pride that he and his co-workers took in their callings is very clear. Most of these temple workers were in their later years and all had proven themselves as valiant supporters of the kingdom of God during earlier stages of their lives. Interestingly, several of the male temple workers—such as Bigler and John S. Woodbury—had served as missionaries to Hawaii. By the late 1870s, George Q. Cannon, another one-time Hawaiian missionary, was in the Church’s First Presidency, and he may have had some influence on these older brethren receiving the opportunity to spend their declining years in the warmth of southern Utah while still laboring for Zion’s cause.
Henry Bigler maintained correspondence with Cannon throughout these years,and there is no reason to assume that others of his former mission colleagues did not do the same. Since being a temple worker provided a small monthly stipend, assignment to St. George may well have been a Latter-day Saint version of old-age compensation for those who had given up much in the service of the Church when they were younger. At least such a hypothesis could clearly be applied to Henry Bigler.
If, as Jerome G. Manis has suggested, the life histories of the less eminent can be successfully employed to “provide more comprehensive truths and richer understanding” of history than can be garnered solely from the lives of the powerful, rich, or famous,then Henry William Bigler stands as a verification of such a thesis.