(by Dennis B. Horne)
In 1910, Elder Orson F. Whitney met Mary Laura Hickman, sister of Josiah E. Hickman, who lived in Benjamin (Utah County), Utah. This was a fateful meeting that grew into a non-physical, platonic friendship for a decade. Orson and Laura spent many an hour together reading poetry. He fell in love with her but she rebuffed his hopes. As her brother Josiah put it in his diary, “He thinks the world of Laura”—which was an expression that in that day usually meant being in love. But Laura had no interest in courtship and marriage (and she never did marry anyone). If Elder Whitney had married her (ostensibly as a plural wife), he would have been excommunicated, so it is advantageous that she wasn’t interested.
Laura was a member of a prominent latter-day saint family that was well-educated for that generation. And this is the plot and the rub: She herself had gone east to obtain more education than was available to her at home and had returned deeply disturbed in her mind about science and religion. Atheism, skepticism, and doubt had conquered her for a time, but she had survived and returned to the faith of her family and fathers; the Restored Church of Jesus Christ.
Elder Whitney wrote a book-length poem-romance novel about her experiences and his helping her regain her testimony and faith—but without mentioning her by name. We only know Laura to be the “heroine,” in the book, because her brother Josiah Hickman mentioned it. In his diary he wrote, “He [Elder Whitney] is . . . starting a novel based up[on] his experience here . . . Outside of his Elias it is the best and lengthiest poem he has written. . . . The poem is based upon Laura’s life, etc.”