I Will Uphold Thee by Elspeth Young

I Will Uphold Thee


{ Caroline Rollins }
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Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

Isaiah 41:10

The story behind I Will Uphold Thee

This painting represents a moment described in the autobiography of Mary Elizabeth Rollins (1818-1913), which occurred July 20, 1833, in Independence, Missouri.  The following passage from her memoirs, published in 1926, provides the context and the content which inspired the story in the painting (punctuation has been standardized):
"In the fall of 1831, in company with [Church leaders] and their families, mother and myself, my brother, Henry, and my sister, Caroline, under the guardianship of [my uncle]...left Kirtland [Ohio] for Independence, Jackson Country, Missouri...Uncle Gilbert opened a store of dry good and groceries...A two-story printing office was also erected...One evening [Church leaders] came to Uncle's house to converse upon the revelations that had not been printed as yet, but few had looked upon them, for they were in large sheets, not folded.  They spoke of them with such reverence, as coming from the Lord; they felt to rejoice that they were counted worthy to be the means of publishing them for the benefit of the whole world...I felt the spirit of it in a moment.

Terrible were the threats against our people; we were too much united to suit the inhabitants of Missouri, and they did not believe in our religion, or our way of doing business; [and] we did not believe in slavery, and they feared us on that account...Soon a mob began to collect in the town and set fire to the grain and haystacks in the yard of Bishop Partridge.  All were destroyed.  Then they began to stone the houses, breaking the doors and windows.  One night, a great many got together and stoned our house...After breaking all the windows, they commenced to tear off the roof...amidst awful oaths and howls that were terrible to hear...Soon after, I saw Bishop Partridge tarred and feathered.  From that time, our troubles commenced in earnest.

But just before these troubles began, I went to work for Peter Whitmer, who was a tailor by trade...and Lilburn W. Boggs offered him a room in his house, as he had just been elected lieutenant governor, and wanted Peter to make him a suit for his inauguration ceremonies.  Peter did make them, and I stitched the collars and faced the coat.  Mr. Boggs often came in to note the progress of the work.  As I was considered a good seamstress, he hired me to make his fine, ruffled bosom shirts...I worked for [Mr. and Mrs. Boggs] for some weeks; during that time they tried to induce me to leave the Church and live with them; they would educate me, and do for me as if I were their daughter...but their persuasions were of no avail with me.

The mob renewed their efforts again by tearing down the printing office...They brought out some large sheets of paper, and said, "Here are the Mormon Commandments."  My sister, Caroline, and myself were in a corner of a fence watching them; when they spoke of the commandments I was determined to have some of them.  Sister said if I went to get any of them, she would go too, but said, 'They will kill us.'"

While their backs were turned, prying out the gable end of the house, we went, and got our arms full, and were turning away, when some of the mob saw us and called on us to stop, but we ran as fast as we could.  Two of them started after us.  Seeing a gap in a fence, we entered into a large cornfield, laid the papers on the ground, and hid them with our persons.  The corn was from five to six feet high, and very thick; they hunted around considerable, and came very near us, but did not find us...They got [the pages we saved] bound in small books and sent me one, which I prized very highly."

Symbolism in I Will Uphold Thee

The very composition of the painting invites the viewer inside its action, to take part in the girls' efforts to save the word of the Lord.  Like the faithful followers of righteousness in Lehi's vision of the tree of life, these young women, literally and figuratively, "held fast" to the word of the Lord (see 1 Nephi 8:30), ready to sacrifice their very lives to save precious revelations for posterity.  Just so, we must make the same resolution in our lives; proving by our actions whether the word of the Lord is written on the "fleshy tables of [our] heart" (2 Cor. 3:3).

The miraculous escape of these young women from the mob is a type for our own sojourn in mortality.  As we cling to the truth as resolutely as they did, we too will be spared; if not physically, then surely spiritually.  James E. Faust emphasized this parallel when he declared: "I believe the light of the Lord directed Mary Elizabeth and Caroline as to what to do and where to go for safety...that light shines for you, and it will guide you as it did the Rollins girls. It will keep you safe even when danger lurks."

Accordingly, the title of the painting comes from the Lord's promise as recorded by Isaiah: "Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness" (Isa. 41:10).

In the painting, Caroline is observed gently placing her stack of salvaged pages on the ground before her, smoothing them out before covering them with her person.  Protectively clutching the scriptures to their hearts, it is as though these teenage sisters expressed their devotion thus: 'You can kill me, but you will not destroy the scriptures!'  Terrified though they undoubtedly were, the gaze of Caroline is profoundly serene; she is completely absorbed by the words before her, rather than the angry mobsters in pursuit, while her sister crouches behind her, lovingly keeping watch.  Similarly, in our own lives, our attention can be fixed on the problems besetting us, or we can choose to focus our attention on the promises of the Lord, trusting that He will "uphold [us] with the right hand of [His] righteousness" (Isaiah 41:10).  Though there is tangible concern in Mary Elizabeth's face, she still commands a remarkable calm.  The expression of both girls reminds the viewer of these words of Paul:

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:35-39).

Indeed, no matter the evil which may confront us, pursue us, and even surround us, nothing can separate us from the ever-watchful eye of God.  Despite the stormy darkness behind them, both figures are touched by bright light which symbolizes ever-present Heavenly help.

The representation of the printed galley pages in the painting are faithful facsimiles, created by the artist, of the original Book of Commandments pages printed in 1833.  The printing employed a sexidecimo, work-and-turn method by which five 20 in. x 25 in. double-sided sheets yielded the 160 page volume in its entirety. Researchers believe that Mary Elizabeth and Caroline each rescued as many as 50 sheets apiece.  Accordingly, the artist depicted both sisters with a sizable stack of galleys in their hands.

Mary and Caroline's appearance and costuming are based on the fashions of their time and place.  Embellishments (for example, the extra smocking on Mary's sleeves) are evidence of Mary's fine skill as a paid seamstress at this period in her life.  The manner of the draping of the figures and, particularly, the accessories used--such as Mary's bonnet which has fallen behind her shoulders, her paisley shawl, and Caroline's lace collar, shoulder kerchief, and the exact pattern of her eyelet petticoats--are based on an American painting from the era by Benjamin West.  Mary's hairstyle is inspired by a style worn by President James Monroe's daughter, Maria, a decade earlier.

Although only barely visible to the viewer, the sky behind the figures is churning with storm clouds.  It represents the presence of the threatening mob gathering close by, and is also intended to symbolize the Lord's promise to Joseph Smith nearly six years later in Liberty Jail:  "If fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" (D&C 122:7).
© By Elspeth Young, All Rights Reserved. You may not print, copy, or reproduce this artwork or make derivative works from it without the prior written consent of the copyright holder. For permissions, please review our FAQ page.



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Project Commentaries: I Will Uphold Thee by Elspeth Young

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Since early February of this year, Elspeth has been working on a painting of Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins—two pioneer sisters who bravely saved what they could from a violent mob who destroyed the early Church's printing press July 20, 1833.  The painting depicts both teenage girls with the precious galley pages of The Book of Commandments which they salvaged while they were pursued by armed members of the mob. In desperation they sought refuge in a nearby cornfield--an occurrence Mary movingly described in her published autobiography... Read more »

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