Elizabeth Smart | Faith, Survival, and Resilience, Part 1
feature image by dan winters
We are honored to feature an interview with Elizabeth Smart as the first installment of our Story of Faith feature this year here at The Small Seed. Many, if not all, of us are familiar with the harrowing experiences that Elizabeth faced as a child. Here, Lizzy Jensen has a chance to talk with Elizabeth about her experiences, her faith and how that faith sustained (and still sustains) her. This interview will post in two parts over the next two days, and Part 2 will include reader-submitted questions.
Q: When did you first feel like you had faith? What were your early memories of recognizing God?
Elizabeth: Faith has always played a prominent role in my life. From as far back as I can remember it was my parents teaching me how to pray, taking me to church, Sunday School teachers giving lessons from the scriptures, and the primary songs. One Sunday School lesson I remember in particular taught that if you ever needed Heavenly Father’s help He would be there for you, all you had to do was ask. I must have been about 7 years old at the time of this lesson. I think I remember it so well because of an experience I had at my grandparents ranch only a few days later.
One of my favorite things to do is horseback riding, and every summer was filled with going to my grandparent’s ranch and riding. I remember waking up early one morning and asking my grandpa to take me out for a ride. He quickly agreed—probably knowing that I wouldn’t give up if he didn’t say yes—and we went down to the pasture where the horses were grazing. He told me, “You can ride any horse you want but you have to catch him.” I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to ride the new horse that my grandparents had purchased that summer. We got back to the tack barn, saddled and bridled up, and then met up on the trail with other cousins who had joined us. We started up a steep trail and then came upon a look-out place. My grandpa turned and told us that before going on we needed to give the horses a rest. In my 7-year-old mind that meant “get off, let them lie down and take a nap.” So I jumped off the horse’s back, but as soon as I had cleared the saddle that horse spun on the spot and took off running down the trail, lickety-split. As he was new he had no loyalty whatsoever. Although my grandpa went running after him calling for him to come back, the horse was long gone.
Huffing and puffing, my grandpa climbed back up to where we all waited and said, “Alright, Elizabeth, you need to go find that horse.” I never dreamed anyone would ask me to head off on my own to find the horse, but I timidly turned and headed down the trail. As it was early summer the grasses and wildflowers were more than overgrown, and the trail completely vanished to my 7-year old view. I quickly became overwhelmed as my overactive imagination saw wolves and bears hiding behind every tree, bush, and shrub.
When I was about to reach the height of my desperation I remembered the lesson I had been taught in Sunday School, that I could ask Heavenly Father for help any time I needed him. So I decided to try. I remember kneeling down and praying for help, praying that I could find my way back, and praying that I would be safe from any wild animals. After my prayer I remember feeling calm and safe, and knew if I would just keep looking I would find the path and my way home. Not only was I lead to the path but Heavenly Father sent another horseback enthusiast to pick me up and take me back to my grandparents. For me that was really the first time that I knew for myself that Heavenly Father knew and loved me and would always be there for me. I never realized just how much that lesson would mean to me in my life ahead.
Q: Can you tell us about that terrible night, what happened and what were your thoughts in those early days of being abducted?
Elizabeth: The very early hours of June 5th were the scariest that I have ever experienced. I went to bed as I always did, next to my younger sister Mary Katherine. I then remember waking up to a voice saying, “I have a knife at your neck, don’t make a sound, get up and come with me!” At first I thought it had to be part of my imagination, this couldn’t really be happening to me. This sort of thing only happened to other people, not me. When the voice repeated, “I have a knife at your neck, don’t make a sound, get up and come with me!” it then registered that this was really happening.
I remember being led through my house, through my back yard and into the mountains. Every step seemed to worse than the last. I remember praying harder than I had ever prayed before. I begged Heavenly Father to protect me, to help me find a way to escape, to make all of this a nightmare that I would wake up from. I remember being worried that maybe Heavenly Father had given me an opportunity to escape and I had missed it. The following nine months were the most difficult I have ever experienced; if only the word nightmare could adequately describe it. I remember praying every day for my family, that they would be safe, that I would one day see them again, and that they would never forget me.
Q: Were you able to feel God’s love for you, even during this terrible experience?
Elizabeth: I remember only days before being kidnapped, my other grandpa had passed away. At the time I felt like it wasn’t fair that he died, I wasn’t ready for him to be gone. But then during my kidnapping I remember feeling like he was there watching over me and I realized that he could help me more and be there for me more from where he was. That was just one way that Heavenly Father sent comfort to me.
Q: Did you see any miracles in the midst of your trial?
Elizabeth: One memory so special to me happened not long after I had been kidnapped. My two captors didn’t want to go down for water. It was a long hike to where a small spring bubbled up out of the ground, not to mention it was a very difficult climb back up to where we were hidden. Especially in the early days of my captivity my captors where very careful of staying hidden and any movement (going to get water) could attract attention. There were helicopters and airplanes flying over us daily. Sometimes they were so close the tent would shake from the wind the helicopter blades created. On this particular occasion it had already been about a day since I had been given any water and Utah summers are HOT! We all must have been dehydrated at that point. But my captor still didn’t want to go down. He said we would make it through the night and then early in the morning he would make the hike and bring back water. It was such a long night, it felt like I was in a sauna. I remember waking up multiple times to a dry and parched throat. Morning could not come quickly enough!
However, the last time I woke up I remember looking around and there right by my head was a cup. It was one of the cups we used every day. There was nothing special about it other than the fact that it had not been by my head when I went to bed, and when I looked inside the cup I saw it was full to the brim with water. I remember sticking my finger inside just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and sure enough it was cool, wet, water. I remember drinking the water and feeling its coolness run down the inside of my parched throat. Nothing had ever tasted so good. I knew that the small cup of water was a miracle, and a reminder to me that God had not forgotten me or left me alone. I knew that he was there watching over me. And all I had to do was keep going and He would make sure everything would turn out alright in the end.
Q. What did you do to hold onto your faith during this trial?
Elizabeth: For me my faith was everything, if I didn’t have faith then I didn’t have anything, and would have completely lost all hope. But holding on to faith and believing that I would see my family again even if it wasn’t in this life, and believing in a kind and loving Heavenly Father who would always be there for me helped me so much. And because I was taught from such an early age about how we are all children of a loving Father in Heaven when my captors started telling me that everything they did to me was commanded by God I could never believe them because they were hurting me and that wasn’t the Father in Heaven I had been raised to know.
Q. Is there anything specific you remember doing to cope with your fear?
Elizabeth: Maybe this sounds a little bit silly but I remember thinking of other people I admired and I thought about how they might act and I just pretended to be the person I imagined I could be.
Q. At any time during your incredible journey, especially while being held captive, did you ever struggle with feeling like Heavenly Father had abandoned you, like "why would He let this happen to me?" If so how did you deal with this?
Elizabeth: I never felt abandoned but I remember there were times when I would question why he would allow these things to happen to me when I felt I was innocent and this wasn’t fair. So truthfully after allowing myself to wallow in self-pity for a bit I would find things to be grateful for, like I was still alive, I had the best family anyone could ever ask for, I had been raised with a knowledge of God and the atonement. Many times it was just small and simple things like it was sunny, or there was water to drink, or food to eat, or I was left somewhat alone for an hour or two.
Q. What kept you fighting for life when hope was near gone?
Elizabeth: I had decided almost from the get-go that I would do whatever it took to survive, because I had something they couldn’t take away from me—I had my family’s love. And that was worth surviving for. Because maybe nobody else would ever like me or want to have anything to do with me, but my family would still be my family and they would love me and that was not only enough to survive for but it was worth surviving for.
Q: Tell us a little bit about when you were rescued. How did it happen and what are your thoughts looking back on it now.
Elizabeth: Perhaps the biggest miracle of all was the day I came home. I remember being picked up on State Street in SLC. We had just hitch-hiked back from California. I remember the police officers finally taking me to the station. I remember the door flinging open and my dad running into the room and looking at me and then grabbing me into a huge bear hug. I remember seeing my Mom again for the first time and thinking she looked just like an angel.
All of these moments in and of themselves are miracles, but the biggest miracle of all was the fact that it was because of everyday people who kept their eyes open and didn’t give up on me that brought me home. The prayers, searchers, the sacrifices, and a couple of phone calls made on March 12, 2003, that brought me home. I know that I was brought home through the power, grace, and mercy of God. I know he heard the many thousands of prayers that were said by me and others. I know that when we place our faith in God, and in His Son, Jesus Christ all things can be turned for our good.
Q. Looking back, how do you now view your trial?
Elizabeth: I don’t regret what happened to me, I would never want it to happen to me, but I don’t regret it either. I’m grateful for it because of what it taught me. For the testimony it gave me that God exists, knows, and loves each one of us. And we can turn to Him in any situation or stage of life. I’m grateful for the people it’s allowed me to meet, and the organizations it has allowed me to work with, and the change that I’ve been able to see begin to take place.
Q. How did your faith impact how you felt about yourself after this experience?
Elizabeth: Because I had been taught from as far back as I can remember that I am a child of God and that he loves me and will always be there for me, I came home still with a sense of self-worth—not tons—but still some and through continued faith and learning of the gospel that sense of worth continued to grow.
It’s like the hymn Come thou Fount of Every Blessing, where in verse two it says,
Hither by thy help I’ve come, and I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God, He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of Elizabeth's Story of Faith feature, including answers to reader-submitted questions.
Elizabeth has recently released a new powerful and inspiring book, Where There's Hope, about what it takes to overcome trauma, find the strength to move on, and reclaim one’s life. It is both an up-close-and-personal glimpse into her healing process and a heartfelt how-to guide for readers to make peace with the past and embrace the future. She attended Brigham Young University, studying music as a harp performance major, and married her husband Matthew in 2012. They now have two beautiful children. You can connect with Elizabeth on Instagram @elizabeth_smart_official or her website at www.elizabethsmart.com.