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All About Martha Jane Knowlton Coray

Kentucky-born frontierswoman, educator, and stalwart Latter-day Saint Martha Jane Knowlton Coray (1821–1881) lived a life that was both ordinary and extraordinary. Like many pioneer women, she was faced with the mundane and difficult job of raising a large family, finding food to put on the table in lean times, and clothing and educating her children with few resources. But two factors significantly shaped the extraordinary person she would become and the service she would render to her family, church, and community. First was her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a young woman. Second was her voracious appetite to learn and her unfailing initiative to do something with what she learned.

Though never formally schooled, Martha was an astute learner of strong intellect, and at age 10 was already teaching Sunday School. At the time of her marriage to Howard Coray in 1841, she joined him as a school teacher in Nauvoo. There she began her lifelong habit of transcribing the speeches of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders, as well as the biography of Joseph Smith as told by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith. She also served as the secretary to the Relief Society.

Martha and her husband left Nauvoo in 1846. They worked their way west to Utah, and arrived there in 1850 with six children. After a short time in Salt Lake and Tooele, the Corays took up farming in Mona but kept a house in Provo. Six more of their 12 children were born in Utah and educated by Martha in grammar, arithmetic, writing, and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because the family often suffered financially and for want of adequate food in the early years of their time in Utah, Martha developed a home industry that including making cheese, soaps, candles, and ointments like sage oil and other herbal medicines. Chemistry and geology were among her favorite subjects, and she used her knowledge of chemistry to make medicinal products and in doing mineral assays.

In addition to seeking her family’s well-being, Martha continued to educate herself and others. She became interested in midwifery practices when her daughter died in childbirth, and strived to improve practices throughout the territory. She studied the law to develop patents for her products, deal with water and irrigation rights, and represent others in legal matters using a power of attorney. When Howard was called on a mission, she took over from her husband as a teacher at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). Her daughter called her “a rapid and lucid writer, a brilliant conversationalist, and a fine speaker on a wide range of subjects.”

In 1875 Brigham Young asked her to be the first woman on the board of trustees of the fledgling Brigham Young Academy; she also became its first Dean of Women, where she advocated for female students. As a trustee, she worked to develop the school’s curriculum and kept Brigham Young abreast of BYA’s progress and struggles. She conceived of and worked to develop the Academy in a way Spencer W. Kimball would echo 100 years later, as a place where profound spiritual truths could be taught alongside science and the arts. She helped hire the educator Karl G. Maeser, who helped improve the school’s prospects and shaped so many of its students.

Martha died in 1881 in Provo at age 59. Her short years belied her impressive contributions to her family, community, and faith. Speakers at her funeral included Church President Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, and Abraham O. Smoot, and they highlighted the exemplary life this self-taught woman had lived.