Southwestern States Mission: Deaths of Children and Parents at Home

By December 9, 2012

In previous posts I wrote about the deaths of missionaries; in this present I will treat the deaths of missionaries? family members. As before, I will focus on how the missionaries narrated the deaths in light of their Mormonism and on how the deaths influenced mission administration. Next week I will conclude this mini-series on death with a discussion of missionary reactions to the deaths of prominent church members.

I begin with Rulon Duffin, President Duffin?s two-year-old son, who had an infected bone in his face. In early March 1900 missionaries prayed for Rulon at a  priesthood meeting and, in subsequent weeks, Duffin received two letters mentioning Rulon?s health. [1] On April 17, the day after Duffin was appointed mission president,

I learned, from reading the Washington County News, of the death of our dear little son, Rulon, on the 12th of this month. This is a sad blow to me, but He who doeth all things well knoweth best, and I pray that I may submit to the will of my Heavenly Father without murmuring. ?What a trial this will be to my dear wife. [2]

I do not know why a newspaper reached Duffin before a letter or telegram. The diary does not mention Rulon again until the following October when Duffin went to Utah for general conference and visited his family.

My meeting with my dear wife was at the same time one of joy and sorrow — joy to meet my loved ones after a year?s absence, but sorrow in missing our dear little son, Rulon, from our circle. But we do not complain, for God knows what is best. [3]

There is one other instance of a missionary?s child dying. In January 1902 Elder Jones noted ?that Pres. A.B. Randall had been called home on account of the death of his six-year-old daughter.? [4] Randall had completed two years as a missionary in October 1901 so his departure, though unscheduled, was not untimely. [5]

President Duffin?s ?dear mother,? Mary Fielding Duffin, died 1905 Sep 18. [6] He ?[felt] very sorrowful about not being present at mother?s bedside when she died, but my duty calls me here and I must not shrink from that.? [7]

I am aware of two cases when missionaries left the field on account of a parent?s death:

I received a telegram from Prest. Ed. H. Snow. of St George Stake that Elder Forsha’s mother was sinking very fast and desiring his release accordingly he left for his home Tuesday night?. On account of the death of Elder Andrew Peterson’s father and serious illness of his mother he was released to return home. Both of these brethren have been faithful and efficient in their labors. [8]

The ?Southwestern States Mission? series (homepage) examines mission life in (mostly) Texas around 1900.

[1] Rulon Duffin (1897 Jun 30 ? 1900 Apr 10) was two and a half years old. ?My little boy Rulon, who is afflicted with dead bone of his face was prayed for?, also my mother,? and a third person (1900 Mar 04). At the same priesthood meeting Duffin was called as District President. March 15 he received a ?letter from home stating that Rulon was well in body, but his face was about the same.? April 06 he received a letter from Mission President Jack, calling him to the mission office; Jack?s parting line in the letter was, ?Pleased to learn that your little son is getting along nicely.?

[2] ?This has been a day of sorrow to me. I learned, from reading the Washington County News, of the death of our dear little son, Rulon, on the 12th of this month. This is a sad blow to me, but He who doeth all things well knoweth best, and I pray that I may submit to the will of my Heavenly Father without murmuring. Our sweet little boy has been a sufferer since last Sept. with eyersipelis in his face, causing a portion of his cheek bone to decay. My wife had an operation performed, by Doctor Middleton, a short time ago to have the dead bone removed. Rulon, was getting along nicely, when he took cold, which changed to the croup and pneumonia, and terminated in his death. What a trial this will be to my dear wife. May our Eternal Father comfort her, and give her strength to bear this trial? (Duffin, 1900 Apr 17 Tue). Erysipelas is a bacterial infection of the skin that can spread to bones. The day before learning of Rulon’s death, April 16, President Jack read Duffin a letter from the First Presidency, calling Duffin as mission president. The letter?s benediction asked God ?to preserve you and yours from the hands of all your enemies, and from every evil, during your absence?? (Duffin, 1900 Apr 16 Mon). A very brief genealogical search suggests Rulon died April 10 rather than April 12.

[3] Duffin, 1900 Oct Wed. I don?t know why Duffin did not visit home until October. It was customary for mission presidents to return to Utah twice per year anyway for conference. Further, President Jack was still in the mission and could have simply delayed his departure a few weeks.

Also: perhaps it is mere coincidence, but I find only a handful of references to temple work for the dead in the diaries, three (ie, most) of which come from Duffin?s diary in the months after Rulon?s death. I find no other instances of Duffin explicitly addressing work for the dead. I am not familiar with temple policies in 1901, but under 2012 policies, Rulon would have been classified a child ?born in the covenant? who died under age eight and would not receive any ?work for the dead.? If 1901 policies were similar and if there was a connection between Rulon?s death and Duffin?s speaking topics, it was (probably) indirect. ?I spoke upon the word of wisdom, tithing, apostasy & restoration, Joseph Smith, revelation, work for the dead, and judgments, gospel as applied to our lives today.? (Duffin, 1901 May 23 Thu); ?Last night I spoke to a full house on the work for the dead.? (Duffin, 1901 Sep 16 Mon); ?Sat. night I spoke on the work for the dead.? (Duffin, 1901 Nov 17 Sun).

Looking forward through the diary, if Duffin made a special observance of or was particularly tender on Rulon?s birth or death anniversaries, I don?t notice it in the diary. His wife?s (Mary Jane Grainger ) birthday was Jun 29, one day before Rulon?s birthday. On account of general conference, Duffin was often with his Utah family in early- to mid-April and, on account of malaria, Duffin sometimes spent part of June in Utah.

[4] The information was second-hand: he received ?word from Elder Anderson at Italy [Texas] certifying that Pres. A.B. Randall had been called home on account of the death of his six-year-old daughter. It was a great shock to him and the rest of us. We were sorry to see him leave because he was a faithful elder and a loving companion.? (Jones, 1902 Jan 12 Sun). Duffin?s diary is spotty the early part of 1902; it makes no mention of Randall (or almost anything else other than the preparation of the Book of Mormon manuscript).

I have not searched anywhere except the diaries in this study, but I am aware of an almost contemporary missionary whose child died: a biographical sketch of Elder Joseph A Cornwall in the Southern-States mission newspaper mentions that “Since coming down he has been called to mourn the loss of one of his children.” It makes no mention of whether he went home for a time or not. (“Our Conference Presidents, Elder J. A. Cornwall,” The Latter Day Saints Southern Star, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Vol 1, No 10, p 73, 1899 Feb 04. Personal aside: Elder Cornwall’s son, Marvin Jay (1896 Jul 23 – 1897 Jan 18), died six months before Elder Cornwall baptized my great-great-grandmother, Ella Sophronia Barksdale, 1897 Jun 13, the first in my family to join the church.)

[5] Duffin recorded an Alfred B Randall of Yuba City, Arizona, entering the mission with him (1899 Oct 14 Sat). Mission lengths were not standardized or pre-set, but two years was pretty typical, so much so that later that year Apostle AO Woodruff preached against it: ?there is no such thing as a two years mission, and Elders should not look for release until it comes? (Duffin, 1902 Nov 17).

[6] Duffin mentions his mother at various points, including: she ?was prayed for? at the same priesthood meeting as Rulon (Duffin, 1900 Mar 04 Sun); Duffin invited her to spend the summer with his Utah family (Duffin, 1904 Apr 2 Sat); ?Our dear mother is enjoying fairly good health for one in her advanced years.? (Duffin, 1905 Mar 19 Sun); ?While at Toquerville we tried to persuade our dear mother to come to Provo and live with us, so we could take care of her the rest of her life? (Duffin, 1905 Mar 24 Fri). Note that this last invitation made somewhat free with the ?us? since Duffin was still on a mission and living in Missouri.

[7] On Sept. 25 While at Kansas city I received the following telegram: Provo, Sept. 25, 1905: “Grandma passed away on the eighteenth. J. Franklin Duffin. I had previously had a telegram from Brother Hezekiah stating that mother was critically ill and that he would leave for Southern Utah to see dear mother. I feel very sorrowful about not being present at mothers bedside when she died, but my duty calls me here and I must not shrink from that. I was not at home when father died. Dear mother has been a good, true mother to her children. (Duffin, 1905 Oct 9 Mon). Duffin also disposed of his mother?s estate: ?Since coming to Toquerville I have been very busily engaged selling property belonging to mother’s estate, and selling brother William’s property. ? I did not sell mother’s home as I found no purchaser. ?? (Duffin, 1905 Oct 19 Thu).

[8] Duffin, 1901 Nov 9 Sat. Note that Duffin was approximately twenty years older than Forsha and Peterson; Duffin?s mother was (relatively) elderly and he, unlike the younger Elders, had no minor siblings. The only other instance I?ve found of a missionary?s relative dying is Elder Folkman, who noted the unanticipated death of an aunt but made no further comment on the matter. ?I received a letter from Clarrissa which was very welcom. In it she told me about the death of Aunt Mary which was a great surprise to me.? (Folkman, 1900 Jan 07 Sun).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Oh, so sad. This reminds me of several posts on Bessie’s blog, Ancestral Ties. It’s so very tragic to lose a child at any time, but being on a mission means that there’s a good chance the person can’t be present for the mourning rituals, which would tend to complicate what can be an already complicated grieving experience.

    John Morgan lost a child while he was serving as president of the Southern States Mission, but he was able to return home for the funeral.

    He had just returned to Chattanooga after taking some emigrants to Colorado when he received news that one of his daughters was ill. He got on the train for Salt Lake City and as he traveled across the country he received telegrams in Memphis and Kansas City telling him about her worsening condition and then about her death.

    He said:

    Received a telegram at 1 p.m. that my dear little Flora was dead. She was born on the [19] day of [September] 1882 and died at 11:05 a.m. on the 1st inst. A bright, beautiful child that my love and affections clung to as strong as the bonds of death, but we had to give her up for the time to claim her in the morning of the first Resurrection.

    My heart seems almost broken at the thought that I could not be with her.

    And here’s one other story about the death of a missionary’s child. This is from the point of view of the missionary’s sister, writing to him in New Zealand after his three-year-old son died in an accident. (Mellie Groesbeck Morgan Letter to Joseph S. Groesbeck, 1890) Oh, it’s all so sad. Bessie put that letter on her blog after my sister lost her daughter in a similar accident, and although it’s been more than two years now, we all still have such tender emotions about her death.

    Comment by Amy T — December 9, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

  2. One of my companions lost her father a week or two before we were transferred to be companions. I’m afraid I was very little — even no — help to her. I was barely hanging on myself, and I had no idea how to help her, nor was their any concern expressed from mission headquarters. Sister N. spent most of that month in bed, and I spent most of it at the table, reading Les Miserables. Neither of those options were available to traveling elders — I wonder how they coped.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 9, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

  3. I’ve seen some missionaries in Tennessee describe how they or their companions dealt with death at home. Their reactions ran the whole spectrum.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — December 9, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

  4. Amy, Ardis, and Bruce: Thank you for your comments and the additional information.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 9, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

  5. My grandmother died in March 1949, about six months before my father finished his service in the Canadian Mission. A few months before her death, he was able to travel back to Arizona to see her. I don’t know how common that was in those days, or if it’s ever permitted for young missionaries now.

    If it was an exception even then, perhaps it was granted because my dad had already spent three years separated from his mother during his military service during and following World War II. But I’d be interested to know if there were others who were able to travel home mid-mission to visit dying relatives–and if there were any standard policies for such situations.

    On a mostly irrelevant tangent, my dad said the trip home was by air–in noisy, uncomfortable, un-pressurized DC-3 aircraft that made a dozen stops between Toronto and Arizona. The trip back was by train–quiet, comfortable, elegant.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 10, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  6. Mark: thanks for sharing.

    I don’t know what the policies are or have been about missionaries temporarily leaving the field.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 16, 2012 @ 9:45 am


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