From 'plain' to plane: the travels of Ruth May Fox, Mormon young women leader

Traveling as an LDS young women leader in the early 20th century, Ruth May Fox spanned Utah by horse-and-buggy and the United States by airplane. Her great-great-granddaughter, Brittany A. Chapman, has studied her life in detail, and Thursday evening, Oct. 14, presented an account of Sister Fox's "well-lived" life in a lecture at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

Ruth May Fox at middle age.
Ruth May Fox at middle age. Photo: Courtesy Church History Library

"From the young girl just about to cross the plains to an impassioned leader among her peers to a seasoned member of the general board working with young women, to a fearless centenarian, she left a great impact on all in her sphere of influence, both among her posterity and the young women she was able to reach," said Sister Chapman, a historian with LDS Church History Department.

Ruth May Fox as young matron.
Ruth May Fox as young matron. Photo: Courtesy of the Church History Library

A celebrated poet, Sister Fox is perhaps best known today as the author of the well-known Mormon hymn "Carry On," (Hymns, No. 255). But in her day, she was familiar to Church members as the general president of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association from 1929 to 1937 and a member of the general board for nearly 40 years. Moreover, she was a tireless champion of the women's suffrage movement whose work helped ensure that Utah entered the union as a state in 1896 with a guarantee that its female citizens had the right to vote.

"It was part of her purpose to educate women, to help them to feel greater freedom and that equality among the genders would be 'an entrance into that golden time upon which the best thoughts of the ages have been centered,'" Sister Chapman said quoting Sister Fox's own words.

"That was the attitude with which she became part of the young women organization. She became the young women president in her ward and this was the thought she empowered young ladies. That attitude lasted through her 39-year tenure on the young women general board, which included eight years as general president."

Born in England in 1853, she was five months old when her family joined the Church. Her mother died about a year later due to complications in childbirth. At age 13, Ruth fulfilled a dream to come to Zion with her family, crossing the ocean and, ultimately in 1867, the plains to Utah with family members.

Sister Chapman read this account from Sister Fox's autobiography: "At last the long journey was ended. We had pulled up the hill out of Parley's Canyon just as twilight shrouded the valley. We could still catch a glimpse of the city below. But I confess to some disappointment as I asked, 'Did we come all this way for that?' This, however, was my first and last disappointment."

Sister Chapman commented, "This was her first big excursion across the plains. If only she could comprehend that about 70 years later, she would be flying to her destinations instead of walking."

Her travels with the YLMIA organization were intense, Sister Chapman said, because it was still a rural environment in Utah, and the organization leaders would leave families for as long as six weeks at a time to visit far-flung missions of the Church in Canada and Mexico.

Drawing from Sister Fox's diaries, Sister Chapman focused on her experiences in the YLMIA. Read one 1901 entry: Started for Vernal [Utah] for Mutual Improvement Conference. Went as far as Price. Stayed all night with President Reuben Miller. In the morning, took the stage with apostle Rudger Clawson riding about 60 miles reaching a so-called station about half-past 10 o'clock p.m. Went to bed again, getting up at quarter to three a.m. and started out again making about 70 miles and reaching Vernal at 7 p.m. I'm sure our best friends would not be able to recognize us as the roads were so dusty. I thought I should never be able to quench my thirst as we found no water on the way."

Later, however she would travel under more favorable circumstances. Sister Chapman told of Sister Fox's later visits to her homeland of England and to Hawaii

She wrote that while in Hawaii, the Latter-day Saints performed three of her songs. One of the songs, Sister Chapman said, was undoubtedly a poem that Sister Fox had composed in 1915, shortly after the announcement that a temple would be built in Hawaii, the first outside of Utah. The poem was published in the Improvement Era, the Church magazine of the day and made its way over the ocean to Hawaii, where it was set to music by a missionary named Orson Clark. When President Joseph F. Smith visited Hawaii shortly after the October 1915 announcement, he was greeted by a performance of the new song. He brought a copy of the music home and read the words to the April 1916 general conference congregation and had it sung by a quartet.

It was sung at the temple dedication and will be sung again when the refurbished temple is rededicated next month, Sister Chapman said, thanks to the work of a "history detective" named Dean Ellis who tracked down the history of the song and brought it to the attention of those who are planning the temple rededication. For the audience at her lecture, Sister Chapman played a recording of the song sent to her by Brother Ellis.

After her release from YLMIA leadership, Sister Fox remained active, Sister Chapman said. "And her travels did not end either." She displayed a Deseret News article from Feb. 28, 1957, with the headline, "Salt Laker, 103, Takes Plane to Son's Golden Wedding." The article was about Ruth May Fox.

Asked about the circumstances pertaining to the writing of "Carry On," Sister Chapman said the hymn was written in celebration of the 1930 centennial of the organization of the Church in 1830.

"They needed a robust sort of song that would rally the masses and make everyone feel excited about the legacy of the Church and the youth of the Church," she said. Organizers were not excited about submissions that had been received, so Ruth said, "It looks like I'll have to write something."

"She went away and a few hours later she came back with the text to the hymn "Carry On." And she said it must have been inspired, because there was no other way the hymn could have been written."

The music was composed by Alfred Durham. Sister Fox said it was just what she had imagined it would sound like.

"It's especially moving to me when I sing it, as I realize it was my ancestor who wrote it and it's about keeping the traditions of our forefathers," Sister Chapman remarked.

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