In the 1870s when Brigham Young envisioned a school combining sacred and secular learning, he selected several educated Saints to lay its foundations. Among those asked to contribute was Martha Jane Knowlton Coray.
Martha Jane was born in Kentucky in 1821 to Sidney Algernon and Harriet Burnham Knowlton. The family later moved to Illinois, where in 1840 they heard George A. Smith preach the gospel. Martha led the family in baptism. Her great admiration for the Prophet was later described by her husband, Howard Coray, who wrote, "I have frequently heard her say, that [the Prophet] was the greatest miracle to her she had ever seen; and that she valued her acquaintance with him above everything else."
Howard also recorded his first impression of Martha: "I discovered at once that she was ready, off hand, and inclined to be witty; also, that her mind took a wider range than was common for young ladies of her age." The two were married on Feb. 6, 1841.
After Howard worked as a clerk for the Prophet, the couple began to teach school in Nauvoo. In January 1846 they received their endowments in the Nauvoo Temple, leaving the city with the Saints that same year. To earn money for the trip to Utah, the couple worked for several years in Iowa, where Howard farmed and Martha tended a ferry. They entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1850. Their daughter, Martha Lewis, recalls her mother's sharp wit during the journey in the following memoir:
The gold rush to California was on and many curious people came by asking dozens of annoying questions. One time a man came up to mother with curiosity written on his face, but before he could say anything, she started out rapidly with "I'm David Crockett's aunt. I came from the East and I'm going to the West. I think that man over there died with the small pox." This seemed to suffice his curiosity, for he walked away and without a word. I suppose he wondered what was the matter with mother.
Once in Utah, Howard worked as a tithing clerk in Salt Lake City before they moved to Provo in 1857. When her husband homesteaded a ranch in Mona, Juab County, in 1871, Martha continued to reside in Provo in order to fulfill her commitments to the community. She participated in Church activities, including Sunday School and Relief Society functions, and wrote for the Woman's Exponent. She distilled herbs and liniments, marketing her products from Nephi to Ogden. Although most of her products had medicinal value, Martha also produced "Lightning Cage Oil," reputed to be stronger than Hartshorn. A slight whiff would render any assailant helpless, gasping for breath. She held the power of attorney for several court matters, and her journal entries and letters demonstrate her knowledge of the law.
Martha's journal also records the commitment she had to the education and personal improvement of her 12 children. She wrote of their progress: "All are studying very hard at arithmetic, every leisure hour. Donny read 6 pages and finished his book. Will and Sid began to study; got 5 parts of speech." And she continued to improve her own mind, writing, "Nellie and George came from the city and brought my books, Walter Scott and Herodotus."
As a teacher, Martha often faced the frustrations created by a lack of stability, tuition collection, and a general indifference of the public to education. Financial difficulties also plagued her as she served on the board of trustees at Brigham Young Academy. In an editorial published by George Q. Cannon, she complained about the lack of support given to the academy, stating that the school was struggling to accomplish the "greatest good with the smallest means" and that its success was due mainly to an "unflinching trust in God." She finished with a call to "Israel" to pay more attention to how close principles of "faith, honor and a deep desire for general intelligence cling to the scholar even after leaving Brigham Young Academy."
Despite these trials, Martha continued to champion educational causes throughout her life. In a letter to Brigham Young, she asked, "Does not the deed require the sacred book mentioned to be taken up as a study in the same way as the sciences mentioned?" She further wrote, "My principle of education has been--God's laws of religion first--Man's laws of honor and morality second--Science of every attainable kind and as much as possible but lastly in forming a permanent base for character and hope of future salvation."
The Woman's Exponent eulogized Martha with these words:
Very early in life she evinced a character in a degree somewhat rare for one of her sex--that is, of decidedly doing her own thinking; hence, before adopting any principle of religion, law, or politics, whether proposed by father, husband, priest, or king, she must clearly see and understand for herself the righteousness and consistency of the matter.