“because there was not any missionaries near us?: Latter-day Saint Worship Patterns in the American South

By May 27, 2009

What follows is a portion of the paper I presented at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association last week in Springfield, IL. The paper focused on the religious lives of Latter-day Saints in the American South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My aim was to move narratives of the LDS experience in the South beyond analyses of missionaries who served there and the persecution and violence they encountered; to explore the lives of those Saints who were baptized but didn’t migrate West. One of the most interesting aspects of the lives of these “un-gathered” Saints was their patterns of worship.

While a burgeoning system of stakes and wards with quorums, female relief societies, and organizations for teenagers and children developed in Progressive-Era Utah, such a system largely ceased to exist beyond the Mormon corridor. Latter-day Saints in the South instead were organized into geographically defined conferences, which, from an institutional standpoint, had more to do with assigning missionaries to a particular area than they did with organizing Saints in these peripheral regions into any sort of recognizable ecclesiastical unit. There were no stake presidents or bishops to oversee the temporal and spiritual welfare of the southern Saints. Mission president John Morgan outlined the ideal system in an 1883 article:

The Mission is divided into Conferences, each State being a Conference, which is in turn subdivided into Districts. One Elder presides over the entire Mission, and each Conference has a presiding Elder who directs the labors of the Elders traveling in the various Districts. … The honest in heart come forward and are baptized, a Branch is organized, one of their number selected to preside over it, and the missionaries pass on to a new field.[1]

This ideal was rarely achieved. Instead, there were infrequent visits from traveling elders, scattered reports in periodicals, and tracts left behind aimed at keeping the Saints as strong in the faith as possible under the circumstances. By 1890, there were only ten reported branches in the Southern States mission, despite membership numbering over 1,000. Even as converts increased in the first decade of the twentieth century (numbering over 10,000 by 1905), the number of formally-established branches remained low.[2]

Because visits from missionaries were few and far-between, worship among southern Saints was typically sporadic and inconsistent. It appears that most often the only Mormon worship these Latter-day Saints participated in occurred when Elders passed through their town. The Elders would stay with a family of converts in the region they were visiting, and over the course of the next week conduct semi-large meetings (usually held in open spaces or rented meeting halls) meant to attract both other members and interested others. Additionally, they would bless children, baptize and confirm converts, and administer to the sick. Where a large enough group of Saints existed to form a Sunday School, worship took shape around its meetings. While Saints would gather to discuss the gospel, sing hymns, and bear testimony in these Sunday Schools, the meetings were in certain key respects liturgically lacking. Even in those areas where a Sunday School was organized, for example, the Lord’s Supper was only administered when Elders with the appropriate priesthood authority were present-only once or twice a year in some instances.[3]

It may very well have been the spiritual experiences enjoyed by gathered Latter-day Saints in the South for missionary conferences and cottage meetings when the Elders were in town that sustained Mormons who would go an entire year (and sometimes more) without seeing another Latter-day Saint. Most interesting, however, is that many Mormons would supplement their Mormon worship by attending other denominations’ worship meetings in between visits from the itinerant elders. In an extreme example, Elder John Willis Henry noted in his diary that he and his companion made contact with a woman who had joined the church in 1844, “heard an Elder preach” once in 1848, but “never saw any more Elders until 1896.” “Grandma Cartwright,” as Henry called her, had since joined the local Baptist church. “She says she never would have joined the Baptist church but thought our church had left her for good,” he wrote. Nevertheless, she reassured the Elders, she “never believed any other doctrine than ours.”[4] 

While the experience of Sister Cartwright is exceptional in many respects, the impulse to continue worship outside the Mormon Church was not unusual at all among southern Saints. Nelson Albert Henshaw and his family, who had converted to Mormonism in Louisa County, Virginia in the early twentieth century, “walked fourteen miles on a dirt road to Fork Baptist Church” in an effort to maintain some form of Christian activity while the elders were away.[5] Elma Catherine Stanley, also a Virginia convert, likewise “walked three miles to a Baptist Church because there was not any missionaries near us.”[6] John Franklin Westmoreland, meanwhile, began attending a Mormon Sunday School organized by lay Latter-day Saints near his South Carolina home as a boy of 15 because “it was handy” but was “baptized in the Baptist Church” before Mormon Elders with authority to baptize came to visit the small Sunday School a year later.[7]

I am open to any and all feedback here, but am especially interested in discussing further how the worship of these southern Saints challenges broad generalizations about Mormons in this era. How does their experience on the periphery of Mormondom alter our understanding of LDS history (that has generally focused almost exclusively on those Saints near the center of the Mormon corridor)?


[1] John Morgan, “‘Mormonism’ in the Southern States,” The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 45, No. 23 (June 4, 1883): 354.

[2] Mary Elizabeth Stovall (Richards), “Orthodoxy versus Nonconformity: The Mormon Experience in Tennessee and Mississippi, 1875-1905,” Unpublished paper written for History 747 course at University of Chicago, 6; available in Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[3] See Mormonism-The First Hundred Years, 1873-1973: A History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia (Richmond, VA: 1987), 191.

 [4] John Henry Willis, Missionary Journals, 27 September 1898; available in Church History Library. Thanks to Ardis Parshall for this reference.

[5] A History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia, 322.

[6] “A Biographical Sketch of Elma Catherine Stanley,” private copy in my possession.

[7] Columbia, South Carolina Stake Fortieth Anniversary: October 19, 1947 to 1987 (n.p., n.d.), 224-25

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very nice work. What strikes me about your work on this subject is how similar the patterns you describe are to what the Shakers experienced when they “moved west” (meaning Kentucky, southern Ohio, and Indiana) beginning in 1805. They faced a particularly challenging task because, in their villages in the East, the architecture and physical presence of buildings did a great deal of cultural and religious work. Because it took nearly 20 years to get villages built in the West, the Shakers had to devise other mechanisms to do the work that the buildings did in the East. There is a great deal for me to think about here, and I think I would like to cite your paper in my book if you can get a copy to me.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 27, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  2. Your paper was excellent, and I was greatly honored to participate in the session as moderator. What is interesting to me is how Methodist it seems to me. The idea that the Lord’s Supper was administered by itinerant preachers and then only rarely under a conference hierarchy. It almost feels anachronistic. Very fascinating stuff.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 27, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  3. Thanks for this. Any chance I could get a copy of the whole paper? As a more-or-less permanent Tidewater resident, I’ve been trying to gather information on the history of the church in Virginia. This looks like good stuff.

    One question I would have — one that you may have answered in the full paper — is whether there were local priesthood holders and why they didn’t administer ordinances. Was it a distinction between branches and unorganized groups of members, or was it a distinction between missionaries and Southern members.

    A second question — and again one that you may have answered — is what sorts of theological stories were told about these non-Utah groups of Saints. Did they see themselves as awaiting a final gathering to Utah? Building up the Kingdom where they lived? Participating in a kind of pre-Kingdom Mormonism centered on Christian primativism? For example, at what point in time did branches, conferences, districts, etc. come to be regarded as proto-wards and stakes?

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 27, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  4. Steve, that is an interesting parallel. I assume you address this in your diss./forthcoming book?

    Steve and Nate, I’d be happy to pass along a copy of the paper. Just don’t expect much. My presentation was/is a very preliminary analysis based on limited primary sources. As soon as I finish my thesis, I’d like to expand this paper into something publishable. Which means looking at more sources (there’s tons of missionary diaries I haven’t consulted yet) and contextualizing it all within what is going on in southern religion at the time.

    Nate, re: your first question. It’s difficult to say. It appears that oft-times, priesthood leaders simply weren’t ordained in a given area. The reasons are not entirely clear, though. There was a distinction made between branches and unorganized groups of members, yes. Usually that had to do with whether or not the missionaries ordained anyone before journeying on.

    Re: your second question. That’s even more difficult to say, because there is a real scarcity of primary sources written by these members. I’ve recently come across a few, though, and hopefully they’ll be helpful in teasing out those issues.

    Re: your final question (at what point in time did branches, conferences, districts, etc. come to be regarded as proto-wards and stakes?) … my impression is that came into being in the first half of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1890s and with increasing emphasis in the first decade of the 20th century, mission presidents began telling missionaries it was no longer necessary to encourage converts to migrate to Utah. There was still some confusion about this as late as the 1950s, though. But my sense is that as members felt less compelled to “gather” to Zion, there ecclesiastical units became more permanent and came to be seen as proto-wards and stakes.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  5. J., thanks for the kind words and for your help with the session. And I agree that the system outlined above is strikingly similar to early American Methodism. It’s worth noting that while Methodists at this point had largely settled down into permanent congregations, holiness and Pentecostal preachers still favored the itinerancy and employed a similar system to the Mormons—this is another point I’d like to tease out further and perhaps turn into a separate paper. As I mentioned in my presentation, Mormons were sometimes mistaken for holiness Christians and vice-versa (see also here for one interesting example).

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  6. It would be interesting to compare notes on my research in the Philadelphia area though I don’t have much information after the Utah war. What was going on in the 1850s was interesting though, there were a handful of functioning branches in Delaware and New Jersey during that period.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 27, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

  7. Christopher,

    Very interesting, thanks. Your research results are similar to those that I have arrived at in the case of nineteenth-century Finland, although my picture is not as fleshed out due to the lack of sources. It seems that also here there was “excessive” reliance on the missionaries, with no stable church activity materializing otherwise: the imported faith never outgrew its imported character. The problem was further compounded by the small membership number, as isolated small pockets of believers were scattered over the entire country without a functioning branch.

    Comment by Kim Östman — May 27, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  8. Congratulations to Chris for a great paper and presentation.

    On the question of when mission units became proto-stake units… I conjecture, based on my work with southeastern Texas, that the idea of permanent dispersed units didn’t become general or solid until the diaspora (1920s-40s). Before that, I think (again, conjecturally) that the idea was more like: we’ll set up dispersed units and gathering places, but if it doesn’t work out, the members will move to Utah.

    As an example: in 1916 a drought wiped out the Mormon group at Little Utah/Jozye (about 150 km north of Houston). Most went to the Mormon corridor, even though there was a formal church colony in north Texas (Kelsey) and a populous branch at Williamson in southeastern Texas (several km east of Beaumont) and a growing group of saints in Houston.

    On the other hand, in the first decade of the 1900s many of the faithful saints in southeastern Texas had already immigrated to the Mormon corridor and then went back to the South. I imagine that they were thinking in terms of permanent settlements—but whether as an organized part of Zion or just as scattered saints living the gospel is not clear. (One fellow, upon reaching the Texas border returning from an Arizona Mormon settlement, fired his gun, kissed the ground, and swore never to leave Texas again. I don’t know where he ended up, but some of his children eventually went to Kelsey and others back to Arizona.)

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 27, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  9. Steve and Kim, thanks both for weighing in. In her response to the paper at MHA, Ardis Parshall noted that the experience of the southern Mormons paralleled in many ways that of Saints in other peripheral regions.

    Kim, I know you’ve published extensively Mormonism in Finland, but is there one paper in particular that you would recommend I read that gets at the issues raised here?

    Steve, I’d like to compare notes sometime, though as I noted above, my notes on this aren’t very extensive at this point.

    Thanks for the further info, Ed.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  10. Chris, thanks for this. I wasn’t able to attend your session for obvious reasons, but even if I had been able to, I knew that I could just get a copy from you later 🙂

    This is great stuff. Having been raised in a stable Church area, most of us have, it’s easy to take standard organization for granted. It really adds to our understanding to see how “outside” cultural and religious forces inform Mormon worship. I’ve been seeing as much with the early Mexican members.

    Comment by Jared T. — May 27, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  11. Ed, that’s a great story. Every time I pass the border out of Texas it’s a sad momement and I look forward to when I can come back.

    Comment by Jared T. — May 27, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  12. Nate, have you looked at the Latter Day Saint’s Southern Star? It’s available in its entirety in Google Books (two volumes). A search for “Virginia” in the Southern Star results in a dozen or twenty references in each volume. (It’s kind of a “better than nothing” source.)

    Thanks for the write-up, Christopher. Very interesting. Certainly much more can be done to document the history of the church and the lives of members in the Southern States. I have been blogging a lot about John Morgan recently and have noticed quite a few visitors to my blog who arrive by googling “Southern States Mission” or names of missionaries who served in the mission. Since my materials about the Southern States Mission are almost entirely from the Southern Star (here’s one about Virginia and the Cowley-Barnett Mission, for example), it appears that there is some demand for more information. I would certainly like an exhaustive history, although I recognize the limitations of the available sources.

    Comment by Researcher — May 27, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

  13. Excellent, Researcher. I’ll have to spend some time on your blog reading through what you’ve put together when I have more time. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  14. Great talk, Chris. The whole session was great.
    You might touch base with that law professor that did the Appalachia presentation in the race session that Margaret Young.

    Comment by smb — May 27, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  15. Chris:

    I have a great case study for you if you’re interested (unless you’ve already found it). John Shrout was one of the first members in KY, and he never came West. It was said that if the Mormons could make a decent man out of John Shrout, they had something going for them. My good friend is his descendant. Let me know if his story is of interest to you.

    Comment by Russell — May 27, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  16. I’m definitely interested, Russell. Please contact me via email with more information.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  17. Researcher: Thanks for the heads up on the Southern Star, which I had not heard of.

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 27, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

  18. Great paper, Christopher. Very interesting topic. When you mention approaching Mormon history in the South from a perspective other than “what did it mean to Utah?”, it reminds me of when I used to teach in YM. The boys would often complain that the Sunday school lessons had too many pioneer stories or stories about planting sugar beets and other agriculture. In spite of the fact that most of the world is either unfamiliar with the Utah strain of Mormonism or has repudiated it, I’m glad to see a growing trend of scholars who are interested in defining areas of Mormon history on their own terms. It makes the church seem so much less like the Borg.

    Comment by DKL — May 27, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  19. Re #9: Unfortunately I don’t have anything on that published yet. I deal with the matter a little bit in my dissertation manuscript, so I can send you some pieces of it later if you’d like.

    Comment by Kim Östman — May 28, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  20. Thanks, DKL. I agree.

    Kim, I’d very much like to get whatever you’d be willing to send whenever you are able to. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 28, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

  21. Have you read Ruth Knight Bailey’s Lost Tribes: Indian Mormons in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia? (This may be related to the Appalachia presentation smb refers to above.) In this case, the local priesthood issue was complicated by these Mormons of partly Indian ancestry being classified “colored” (and later “black”) by the local government.

    Comment by Alf O'Mega — May 28, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  22. Alf, thanks for the tip. Bailey presented her research at MHA (that is was smb was referring to) last week. I chatted with her briefly and exchanged contact info.

    Comment by Christopher — May 28, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  23. I think I understand what you are looking for now. I have been focused on my research I haven’t taken to the chance to see what happened at MHA conference yet. I see there was some very interesting stuff. Maybe I’ll make it next year.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 13, 2009 @ 12:06 am

  24. […] the peripheral regions were perhaps even more immune to and unaware of such changes. As I recently argued at MHA, worship among Mormons in the South during this era maintained a continuity with Mormonism […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Revisiting: Mormonism in Transition: a history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 — June 18, 2009 @ 4:15 pm


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