ORSON SPENCER: TO BE LEARNED IS GOOD If They Hearken Unto The Counsels of God

submitted by: SUP Trail Marker Pioneer Stories January 2023

Orson Spencer portrait

If They Hearken Unto The Counsels of God

In 1850, only three years after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young named 48 year old Orson Spencer as the first Chancellor of the University of Deseret, the institution that later became what is now known as the University of Utah. But who was Orson Spencer and why was he appointed to such a prominent position?

Born in 1802, Orson was one of the most educated early members of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was a man of great academic achievement, high competence, deep devotion and great sacrifice to the Church and the cause of Christ.

As a youth, Orson grew up in Massachusetts and he loved sports. At age 14, Orson caught typhus fever and battled the sickness for nine months. For two weeks it was thought he would not survive. His sickness caused a fever in his leg and as a result he limped the rest of his life. He was a boy of delicate health but he had a brilliant mind. Orson attended upper level schools, graduating with high honors. For a time, he studied law and taught Astronomy, Hebrew, Philosophy and Mathematics.

When Orson was 27, he married Catherine Curtis, age 19. He earned a living as a Baptist minister until his brother, Daniel, shared the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ with him. Orson and Catherine were soon baptized, along with his brother, Hyrum. The three brothers and their families gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo where Orson ran a store, taught school and was even elected mayor of Nauvoo in 1845. He formed a close friendship with the Prophet Joseph Smith, which became a blessing to him all of his life. Orson was asked to write letters to U.S. President Polk and Governor Thomas Ford, telling of the persecutions the Saints were facing.

After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Orson and his brothers followed the leadership of President Brigham Young and headed west. But in freezing cold weather, his sick wife Catherine passed away at age 35. Orson turned back 30 miles to bury Catherine in Nauvoo, next to their baby Chloe who had died 6 months earlier. Orson was left with 6 motherless children, all under the age of 13.

Brigham Young called Orson to preside over the European Mission. Orson built his children a cabin, tearfully hugged each child and then set out for England. Kind relatives checked on his six children who kept house, herded the cattle, made their own clothes and fended for themselves. Food was scarce, so the children ate lots of cornmeal. Wilford Woodruff learned of the children’s situation, admired their sacrifices, and brought them flour and pork. The first winter was the hardest. The children came down with the measles. Letters from their Dad arrived from England, but the money he sent never made it. Brigham asked Orson's children if they would be okay with their Dad being gone another year. Ellen, the eldest at age 15, said, “If it is thought best, we would like it so, for we want to do it for the best.” The others agreed.

In 1848, during his 2 year mission in England, Orson wrote a series of letters, sharing gospel principles with a Reverend Crowel, which he later published under the title of "Spencer's Letters". A copy of the letters was put in the Salt Lake Temple Time Capsule in 1892 and opened 128 years later, in 2020.

Following Orson's release from his mission, he returned to his family in Utah. That is when Orson was named Chancellor of The University of Deseret, or what is now The University of Utah. He had 40 pupils. Two years later, in 1852, Orson was called again to preside in Europe. He also served a mission to Cincinnati, and was sent to preach the gospel to the Cherokee Nation, where sadly he became very ill. He returned to Saint Louis, and died there on October 15, 1855 at age 53. His remains were brought in a covered wagon by a family to the Salt Lake Cemetery.

True to the faith to the end of his days, Orson Spencer’s life is a witness to the truth of the words of Nephi who said, “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” (2 Nephi 9:29)