William Warner Major

by Jill C. Major

William Warner Major

William Warner Major was a miniaturist, an artist who painted photograph-sized portraits. While growing up in London, he idolized great artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds and tried to imitate their styles. Then he and his sister and brother met the ‘Mormon’ missionaries and all three families were baptized within a week of each other. Thus started a journey from London to Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley and back to London, where Major died serving his third mission.

Nine days after his death, Major’s missionary companions, William Henry Kimball and James Marsden, wrote a one-page history of their friend. This valuable resource has been re-worded, re-worked, and published numerous times, but there has been little new information about Utah’s first professional artist in over 150 years. Recent research has uncovered a 3-page journal and five letters written by Major. Because Major was a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in England and America, his activities were recorded in the London Conference Records and the Journal History. Furthermore, since Major associated, labored, nurtured, served, and sketched portraits of numerous pioneers, his endeavors were noted in their personal journals and diaries. From these sources emerge the story of a colorful, devoted, talented leader and his faithful, adventurous wife, Sarah Coles Major.

Richard Major, the brother of William, was the first to join the Church in the Major family. He and his wife, Martha Ann, were baptized on April 3, 1842. Seven days later William W. Major and Sarah Major joined the new American Church. Both families were baptized by Elder William Lewzey, a shopkeeper by trade who lived and worked in Hackney. The Major brothers and their families were members of the Theobald Road Branch, London Conference.

Elizabeth, the sister of Richard and William, also lived in London. Elizabeth and her husband John Robert Terry joined the Church as well, and became active in the same branch which the rest of the Major family attended.

London was a difficult mission. When Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith arrived in August 1840 they found the mega city 'full of evry thing but righteousness'. They baptized only nineteen people before Christmas that year. Still the work began to prosper and when they left London the Apostles called 26-year-old Lorenzo Snow to preside over the conference and act as President of the London Branch.

When the Marylebone Branch was created on July 27 1842 by Elder Snow, the first meeting of the branch was held in William and Sarah Major's apartment on 13 Quickset Row, New Road, St Pancras.

After less than four months of membership, William W. Major was called to preside as Branch President and kept a journal for three months. He recorded his first efforts to preach the gospel and his initial contacts with Church leadership:

'Proceedings and Minutes of the Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints Organized 27 July 1842 Wensday under the hand of Elder Snow Presiding Elder over the conference London. The Church the first Sunday afternoon & Even met at the Presiding Elders house 13 Quickset Row the Preaching in the Park continued increased attention...On Sunday [August] 14th preached in the Park at 11 & Baptized 4 at one[.] confirmed them in the afternoon. August 28... on Thursday Even Elder Orson Hyde Preached'

After Lorenzo Snow returned to Nauvoo, Major continued in his work with the Church as noted in his journal:

'...Brother Snow Left us Wensday Morning 19 October on his Return to America...October 23 Baptized W Warner [probably William's uncle or grandfather] & Jenkins Son. Archer our Landlord has desired us as Soon as we Can See a Room to Leave Because the people about him do not like the Sound of the Singing and Preaching.'

The Kimball/Marsden History recorded that 'Elder Major was...ordained an Elder, and sent on a mission to preach the Gospel in Reading, and throughout Berkshire, and was successful in bringing many persons into the Church.' The Newbury Branch Records demonstrate the success of Major in his missionary work. He baptized 21 people in February, March, and April 1843.

A branch was established in Newbury on June 27, 1843 and Major baptized three more people in July and August. On September 4, 1843, only one year and five months after he was baptized, William W. Major 'commenced to preside over the council meetings' of the London Conference. He continued his missionary work, baptizing an additional 12 investigators.

A conference was held in London in the Temperance Hall on Tottenham Court Road. On the first day of this conference, December 3, William Major was ordained a High Priest by Reuben Hadlock and Thomas Ward. By then the London Mission had been divided into two branches. Hadlock reported that 'The Western Branch of the Church was represented by Wm Major...'

While William continued to perform the demanding duties, he and Sarah prepared to leave their homeland, family, and friends. On February 11, 1844 William, Sarah and seven-year-old son, William Jr., set sail on the Swanton. They had lost two children, Henry and Fanny, before this time.

After they arrived in Nauvoo, he functioned as an official artist for the Church. Major’s paintings are prolific and diverse. From 1845 to 1846 Major was commissioned and paid through temple funds to paint portraits of Church leaders to be hung in the Nauvoo Temple. Working with other artists in Nauvoo, Major helped complete two large historic panoramas. Indian Chiefs living in Nebraska and the Utah Territory stood silently in front of his scrutinizing gaze and talented hand. Crying babies, squirming children, proud mothers and fathers, elderly matriarchs and patriarchs posed for portraits by the British professional. He also sketched the scenery while crossing the plains, and later, he was assigned the duty of artist on an 1852 exploration trip to Southern Utah with Brigham Young.

On Friday, April 8 1853 the appointed time for general conference arrived. This General Conference was different; it changed the lives of the Major family forever. At 10 am Brigham Young stood at the pulpit of the Old Tabernacle and called the conference to order. Jedediah M. Grant gave the opening prayer. Two thousand strong, committed voices sang and then President Heber C. Kimball, a counsellor to Brigham Young, stood at the pulpit. 'We have a number of elders who are chosen to go on missions,' he announced. President Kimball exhorted them to do their duty, then he read the list of names, which included Wm. W. Major, called to go to England and be under the direction of the Presidency in that country. Often, when an elder was called, he had no previous warning. The first he and his family ever heard of the decision was from the pulpit. It is certain, however, that since William W. Major was a member of the Salt Lake High Council and met regularly with Brigham Young, the apostles and other Church leaders, that he approved of this mission beforehand.

On arriving in London William settled in an apartment on 35 Jewin Street, which he shared with other missionaries. He kept no journal this time, but his missionary activities are mentioned in the journals of several other missionaries of the time, showing that he was active and diligent despite his fifty years.

On June 7 1854 William Warner Major took a few moments to write a letter to his dear friend, Brigham Young, summing up his time in London.

Dear Brother,

I truly rejoice to inform you of the welfare of the branches of the church in London wherein I am labouring and although my health has been very poor hitherto, yet I have by the grace of God fought the good fight and kept the field and we have the pleasure to baptize every week many promising soldiers. The devil [is] raging and firing off his big guns which I love to hear as it shows he is alarmed and uneasy and I hope while he is unbound he ever will be alarmed and do his best while we are close by. I don't care how hot the fight is or how close for I know that our weapons are almighty, all powerful and the stronger the enemy the more honor to overcome[.] the short, powerful, pithy key words which I have treasured up carefully in my brains which at divers times you have taught us I find a treasure to me in all places… I never forget you from morn till even and after I have faithfully fulfilled my mission I shall rejoice to see your face again.

I had a painful journey to here in the flesh, but rejoiced in the spirit and do rejoice in the work of doing good and declaring the truth in Jesus. I pray the God of Israel to bless you to fill you with his power that you may live long and health prosperity and happiness may attend you and fill your tabernacle is the prayer of your faithful servant and friend in Christ Jesus Amen.

W. W. Major

Also in June, from Monday 26th to Wednesday 28th, William attended a special general council of the authorities of the Church in the British Isles which was held in London. The apostle Franklin D. Richards was the presiding authority. Each of the Elders and leaders were invited to stand and give a report of their labors. On the Wednesday W.W. Major reported:

The ten Branches under my care are doing well. We have baptized thirty-four within the last three months, having a good attendance of strangers, and many earnest inquirers after truth. We have got our book debts and Hall rents nearly all paid off, and some of them were heavy. As to the Presidency at Liverpool, we always hold them in honourable remembrance, and sustain them in mighty faith and prayers.

The issue of William W. Major’s health recurs in journal entries by William Kimball in August 1854. In the Marsden/Kimball History it states,

On August 13th 1854 about three p.m., while crossing the river Thames by the Hungerford Suspension Bridge, he [William Major] was suddenly seized with chills and vomiting. Brother and Sister Scott were with him, and they took him to their own house. They sent for Brother Kimball, who was with him all night, and administered to him several times. During the night, he suffered much from cramp in his legs, and was much distressed with chills and fever.

Then in October 1854 William H. Kimball wrote his father, President Heber C. Kimball:

London, 35 Jewin St. Oct. 3.

On the 2nd inst., I went to see W.W. Major who has been ill for seven weeks, and at 7 o'clock last evening he departed this life, notwithstanding great faith and exertion on his part, as well as by many others. His last words to me were that he was not discouraged and wished me to administer to him. To the last his faith was good and he desired to return to the Valley. I have ordered him to be put into a metallic case today, so that he can be taken home if it is thought proper.

Through this bereavement I feel as lonely as though there was not a person within a thousand miles of me, but there is one thing more I must say; I never before have thought that there was so much power in the priesthood. One person who has been through the order of the Kingdom of God seems stronger to me than a thousand that have not. Bro. Major's faith was stronger than that of all others in London. I have got Elder Major and his things all ready to leave this city, and am waiting for a word from Liverpool to know what to do, as I am subject to the law by keeping him.

The news moved slowly across the world and even slower to the wild west. The Pony Express could deliver a letter from Missouri to California in ten days, but it didn't begin until April 1860; the transcontinental telegraph wasn't completed in Salt Lake City until 1861. A letter posted carrying the news of William's death on October 2 1854 had to cross over the ocean by ship, then be transferred to a mail carrier, who delivered it by crossing the plains in a wagon or by horse. The first letter that arrived announcing the death of William came in December, two months after his death.

One can imagine the picture of William's family gathered around, receiving the news that they would never again see their father, their husband. Sarah lost five children: two died in England and three died because of the suffering, cold, disease, and hunger caused directly by the persecutions of the Saints. Now she grieved over her kind and gentle husband also, away across the ocean.

On November 11, the Millennial Star printed the following poem written by John Jaques. Elder Jaques was a native of England who had been appointed to labor in the mission office at Liverpool. Later he crossed the plains in the ill-fated Martin handcart company.

On the Death of Elder William Warner Major, who departed this life Oct. 2, 1854

Again relentless death has hurl'd His fatal dart,
Another brother from this world Is call'd to part.

Not in the midst of kindred near-- No wife nor child
Sooth'd his last moments in this vale-- This Bab'lon wild.

Whilst roaming far away from home, The truth to tell
To thousands perishing in sin, The victim fell.
On all occasions he was found A genial friend,
The kind regard he's thereby won Will never end.

Faithful in all his labours here, His works remain,
And henceforth ever will increase To his great gain.
We mourn not without hope, for well we know his claim
To hold among the Priesthood still An honour'd name.

And though he's left this lower sphere, We're certain how
He labours in the spirit world For Zion now.
And by the resurrection's power, When Saints have rest,
He'll come again and reign with us, Among earth's best.

According to the Journal History, William Major's body was placed in a 'metallic case' which was later placed on the Clara Wheeler. This ship set sail from Liverpool on the 7th of December 1854. After the ship landed in New Orleans Elder E.C. Broud, Clerk of the Company on board wrote a letter dated January 25, 1855: Bro. Parsons and I … have brought with us the mortal remains of Elder W.W. Major who died while fulfilling a mission in the London Conference.

W.W. Major's body was stored for six months from January to June. That year the new jump-off place for the migration to Salt Lake City was moved to Mormon Grove, Kansas, (near present day Atchison). Seth M. Blair, who was returning from a mission to Texas, was placed in charge of a pioneer company headed to Salt Lake City. On June 1st he left St Louis and travelled up the Missouri River in company with Daniel Spencer who was in the presidency of the European Mission and had visited Major during his sickness. Seth M. Blair's journal tells about the precious cargo his company carried:

With feelings of grattitude beyond Expression I record the fact that I have fullfilled my mission & have this day left St. Louis on the Lt. Boat 'Alma' for Home... And amongst the precious po[r]tion of Our Cargo we have the remains of our beloved & worthy Saint & Martyred Servant of The Lord Elder Wm W Majors who died in London, Eng, & who was a High priest & one of the Quorum of the Circle of High Priests who mett weekley in The Temple[.] he was as a Saint[.] he died a martyr & a friend & Bro whom I loved & I hope get to mingle with his Spirit in the Paradise of God.

This is the last mention of W.W. Major's body. But this group's tragedy was described by Captain Seth Blair:

Sunday June 23rd 10 AM[.] Today I taake pen in hand to record mellancholy facts as well as other more pleasing ones. I arrived At Aitchison on the 21st and found my little company awaiting me…

We left on the 15 & haveing travelled Some 20 mi[les] the Cholera made its appearance in Our Camp on the night of Monday the 17th & in the first 24 hours we lost 12 or 13 & up to this time I presume we have lost not less than 20 & at least the 5th of our whole Strength. The Camp presenting for the last 4 days a Cholera hospital! Such a Scene as neither pen can portray or tongue describe… father & mother taken—& both buried in one grave or Side by Side leaving crying children Scattered over the Camp while the Shrieking crys [cries] & hollow groans of men & women wear [were] heard on Every Side with the Cry for help from the grave—diggers Whose toil was incessant Seemi[ng]ly night & day

In the end, one-third of the company, about 29 people, died of Cholera and were buried 20 miles outside of Mormon Grove. It is probable that W.W. Major was buried there as well.

So many of the Saints were buried at sea, or left in shallow graves crossing the plains, but William's body was transported across the ocean, up the Mississippi River, stored for 6 months, then placed on the boat called Alma on the Missouri River and sent to Mormon Grove, Kansas. This demonstrates the great love and respect the pioneers had for their leader and friend, William Warner Major.

This article is taken from much more extensive research on the life of W.W. Major, which can be found online at: https://sites.google.com/site/jkmajor/home