George U. Hubbard. When the Saints Came Marching In: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Denton, Texas 1958-2008. Denton, Texas: Tattersall Publishing, 2009. x + 326 pp. $15.00. Hardback, ISBN: 978-0-9679775-3-9.
[I’ve gotten purchase information requests. Please contact the publisher, Tattersall Publishing. Thanks!]
At the outset, George Hubbard, author, long-time Denton resident, and early convert, is clear that his book is meant to be not just a chronicle of prominent events in Denton Church history, but a tribute to pioneering members and a celebration of Denton Church life in preparation for the 50th anniversary of Denton’s Church organization. He writes of the spiritually uplifting nature of the project and expresses his hope that other readers will find the book similarly inspiring. Frankly, knowing this, I felt at ease and was able to sit back and enjoy the book, not having to worry that the author was trying to hustle me with some potentially convoluted or dubious argument. And I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the book and believe Hubbard succeeds in his goals.
Hubbard divides his narrative into growth phases. The first three chapters comprise Part 1, “In the Beginning” and contain a brief sketch of the state of Church organization in the 1940s in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. This section also introduces the reader to a few key families and LDS students who attended Denton’s two colleges (now universities). This section culminates with the establishment of the first formal LDS organization in Denton—a Sunday School in 1959.
Part 2, “The Formative Years,” comprises chapters 4-10 and follows the Denton Church through branch organization and chapel construction to the formation of the Denton ward in 1967. Part 3, “The Development Years,” comprising chapters 11-18 explores the development of the Denton ward from 1967 until its first division in 1975. Part 4, “The Growth Years,” covers chapters 19-23 and ends with the organization of the Denton Stake in 1992. Part 5, “The Expansion Years,” is the final chronological section and comprises chapters 24-27. This section follows the expansion of the Denton Stake and its units through 2008.
Part 6, “Cutting Across The Time Periods,” uses chapters 28 and 29 to tell additional stories of members and conversion stories who lived in Denton. Hubbard observes that, “Although a major focus of this book has been on the large collection of church members with outstanding leadership skills that the Lord brought together in Denton to nurture the Church during its early years, the Church in Denton has also been blessed with thousands of members who have served in less visible callings and who have made the Church what it is” (251). The seventh and last part, “Church growth in Denton’s Neighboring Cities” (chapters 30-32) give brief sketches of church organization in neighboring Decatur, Gainesville, and Lewisville. Six appendices provide some useful historical data including chronologies and lists of church leadership.
Each chapter contains a variety of personal accounts, likely gleaned from oral interviews or personal writings, which give a great deal of voice and life to the text. The book also contains a wealth of photographs of the members discussed as well as of activities and reproductions of fliers, programs, and pamphlets relevant to the narrative. Though the book does tend to center around prominent families and events in ecclesiastical development, the author is quite successful in integrating stories of more “rank-and-file” members and in chronicling the social aspects of Mormon life in Denton. Hubbard discusses cottage meetings, positive interactions with other local Churches, and “spaghetti dinners and frog leg dinners” among other activities. In raising money to build their meeting house, local members sold frog legs and other concessions during the County Fair and other events (the frogs being provided by the branch’s Boy Scouts!). Other elements that figure prominently throughout the book are athletic events as well as musical and dramatic presentations. One bishop mused, “I have seen roadshows from California to Washington, D. C., but in Denton they are done right. Denton is the Broadway of the Mutual roadshow” (102). He also provides accounts of spiritual manifestations attending such events as the Dallas Temple dedication.
A recurring theme expressed in the book is concept of the Church as family. Several times the author talks about “the unifying effect of the various activities of the day and how they strengthened the bonds that Church members already had for one another” (92). “Without exception, those who are still available speak with sincere nostalgia of the love and enjoyment they experienced during those development years in the Denton Ward. They were years of love, activity, spirituality, and enjoyment…Kaye Calabrese, who joined the Church in 1969 remembers the feeling that the Denton saints were ‘one big, happy family’…[and] the enjoyment of potluck dinners almost every week” (87). The author frequently notes how church members forged a community of the faithful though social events and service.
A local history such as this, also allows for some interestingly candid glimpses into interactions between local and general leadership. When the ward bishop was released in 1973, Ell Sorensen was called to go to Dallas and meet with Apostle LeGrande Richards, “It turned out to be a very unusual and memorable meeting. Instead of being his usual jovial self, Elder Richards was all business. ‘Let me see your recommend,’ he said. Brother Sorensen pulled out his temple recommend. ‘No, your recommend to be bishop.’…Brother Sorensen had never heard of such a document…Elder Richards was not amused…[Elder Richards got a stake presidency member on the phone] ‘What’s the idea of sending this man down here without a recommend to be bishop? How do I know that he doesn’t drink or smoke or chase bad women?…When I go home and report to the brethren, if I get excommunicated for not following proper protocol, it’s your fault.’ And with that he hung up the phone and proceeded to ordain Brother Sorensen a bishop” (85-86). Colorful anecdotes like this sprinkle the text.
As I read, I detected an interesting dynamic in how members in Denton conceived of themselves in relation to other Mormons who were largely from the Intermountain West. On one hand, Hubbard refers often to these individuals as “life-long members of the Church” who enter the narrative at pivotal moments to provide “gospel maturity.” On the other hand, Hubbard identifies local members (largely converts) as having a wealth of faith, grit, and determination. For example, Hubbard identifies John and Margaret Porter as “the founders of the LDS Church in Denton.” The Porters were Texas natives who converted to the Church in nearby Fort Worth in 1958 before moving to Denton in 1959 and being instrumental in establishing the first Sunday School organization. Hubbard praises the Porters for their enthusiasm and hard work, noting that, “Although it was the Porters who were called to be the leaders, it was the Arringtons and the Melchoirs who provided the experience and gospel maturity that were sorely needed. The Lord truly provided” (56).
Hubbard subsequently writes, enthusiastically about the Eliesons, “life-long members of the Church,” and for almost two pages describes their friendships with prominent Church leaders such as Bruce R. McConkie, Melvin J. Ballard, David O. McKay, Gordon B. Hinckley, M. Russell Ballard and others. “Such was the measure of the family who decided to make the Denton area their home. It was as though a portion of Heaven had come down to become a nurturing father and mother to the Denton Saints,” Hubbard writes. As the book proceeds, though the reader sees convert families such as the Porters join the ranks of mission presidents and area authorities, the aura of veneration surrounding “life-long” members never falters.
Interestingly, though holding established Church conventions and leaders in high regard, there is one prominent and recurring source of tension between local leadership and “Salt Lake”: the Church Building Department. Construction on the first meeting house in Denton lagged in 1961 because Denton’s branch leadership could not agree with the Building Department about the roof’s design. Additionally, the Building Department wanted three separate phases of construction to begin at different periods of time. The local leadership wanted the first two phases completed simultaneously. Providentially, because of a local family connection with First Presidency member Henry D. Moyle, Branch President John Porter was able to speak with him in Salt Lake City about the delay and a few days later “John got a very cooperative phone call from the Building Department” (60). The first two of three phases were completed simultaneously in 1964.
In 1973 the ward had grown to necessitate the third building expansion. Upon hearing that the Building Department planned to use drywall for the interior walls instead of brick (as the two earlier phases had used), then-Bishop Ragsdale argued for brick construction. “The Church has to be economical in the use of its funds, and dry wall construction is cheaper than brick,” he was told. Ragsdale responded, “We will accept the drywall construction and get the next phase built. Then after it is built and dedicated, we will tear down the dry wall and replace it with brick. And we will use our tithing money to do it.” After a brief huddle, the Building Department representatives concluded, “You will get your brick” (82). Unbelievably, at least two other instances involving the construction of the Dallas Temple and the Denton Stake Center result in some sort of difference between Denton leaders and the Church Building Department—both of these, like the two former, resulted in the Building Department capitulating to the desires of the Denton leadership. Unfortunately, the text takes this willingness to defy “Salt Lake” in this context (while not thinking to do so in other contexts) for granted and never really explains the dynamic. Perhaps further investigation could yield interesting observations about this relationship.
Probably the largest deficiency, given the historical nature of the book, is the lack of footnotes. A lengthy list of “persons consulted” does appear in an appendix as well as a list of a handful of publications (mostly privately published) and scrapbooks, but there is no clear connection between the text and these sources. Additionally, there are sources alluded to in the text that are not represented in this list of sources consulted. This is not really surprising given the book’s origin and purposes, but to help remedy this deficiency, I would urge the author to collect and arrange his research materials and donate a copy to a local university or archive for the reference of future researchers.
Additionally, it is apparent that the book was written to Dentonites or at least to those with a presupposed familiarity with the Denton area. In one especially vivid example, while discussing the location of a 1967 residence, Hubbard writes, “They [the Arrington family] lived temporarily in a small house just west of Art Cooper (where the Turners now live) while building a new home just east of Art Cooper.” Current residents will likely know where “The Turners” live and longer-time residents might even know where Art Cooper lived, but this description might not provide much aid to anyone else. Clearer identifications and more maps would have greatly enhanced the experience for an outside reader.
All told, I believe this history will appeal not only to local residents but to a wider Church membership. It, and books like it should also not be overlooked by historians of 20th century Mormonism. Hubbard touts the unique nature of the development of the Church and the Mormon experience in Denton. Not taking away from the truly unique elements of the story, I found that many of the themes discussed in this book corresponded with similar themes that have surfaced in my research of the Church in South Texas, right down to pronounced conflicts with the Church Building Department, which “just didn’t understand” how to build a building in South Texas. To what extent were these and similar themes common to other regions of Texas, of the South, or beyond? Histories like this can help historians discover and explore such questions.
I hope that many similar works will be produced at the local level all over the Church. Such efforts involve the recovery and preservation of the voices and stories of Church members from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and often result in the accumulation of a wealth of primary documentation. Because of this, I can’t help but see historical efforts like this as win-win for those seeking to find spiritual fulfillment in Church history and those who would seek to understand the Church’s history through academic frameworks (whether or not the latter includes the former). When those efforts can break beyond the often monotonous droning of fact recital and provide a fresh, interesting narrative, as this book does, it is all the better.