Monday, March 16, 2015

Family Lore about Abraham Church: Baptism

The most elusive prize of the life of Abraham Church was whether or not he was baptized into the LDS Church. (Spoiler alert: I still don't know) There are lots of people who say that he was, often with an air of confidence born from repeating it so many times that it must be true; but with out any evidence except the words of another person who would have no way of knowing.

It is perhaps B. H. Roberts who is the most to blame for this assumption. Roberts did not know Abraham Church and could not have known first hand whether he had been baptized. But he is perhaps the source for the confidence of others. His statement that Abraham had been baptized was made in his Autobiography written in 1933. Speaking about Robert Church one of Abraham's sons, B. H. Roberts said...

"He was a well-beloved member of the Church and baptized when a lad by the prophet Joseph Smith. His father [Abraham Church] had taken himself and his two sons, this Robert Church and Emmos Church, his brother, to see the prophet, and this had resulted in all three of them being baptized by him as aforesaid in the Mississippi River." (Autobiography, p 129, 1933)

Sadly, Roberts was casual about several of the specifics in his Autobiography. It is rife with obvious mistakes and mis-remembered details. I won't give a laundry list here, but in 1884 B. H. Roberts eulogized on Robert Church's untimely death. His details of their conversion are slightly different, with no mention of Abraham's baptism.

"He accompanied his father on a visit to Nauvoo, where he was baptized in the Mississippi River by Apostle Orson Hyde. I do not remember the year in which this occurred, neither do I know the year of his birth nor the place of his nativity." (Deseret News, 10 September 1884, Correspondence)

Without reliable evidence, my initial thoughts have always been "No, he didn't get baptized." Family Search shows a baptism date in 1871, twenty years after his death; and oddly on the same day his son Isaac Emmons Church was baptized. That by itself isn't proof that it didn't happen earlier or during his lifetime; just proof that in a church which prides itself on record keeping we do this one poorly. People performing proxy baptisms used to have themselves re-baptized first. This date could have been Emmons' re-baptism in the temple followed by his proxy baptism for Abraham.

The date is very close to the August 1871 dates that Haden W. Church performed proxy baptisms for many of the founding fathers. Haden had apparently camped out in the Endowment House doing a slough of proxy work. But he does not appear to have done the work for his own father in August. Or if he did, he didn't tell his brother. Or maybe Haden officiated on the 12 October 1871 proxy baptism. We just don't know. But if anyone would know whether Abraham Church had already been baptized during his lifetime it would have been Haden. Why? Because he spent years preaching out of his father's home. But I get ahead of myself.

According to Haden's own wife, in perhaps 1840 or early 1841 missionaries visited the Church family. When they sang their first song, Haden knew that they were speaking the truth and desired to know more of their message. He journeyed to Nauvoo, Illinois to learn more.  While there, he met the Prophet Joseph Smith who baptized him on 5 April 1841. Sound familiar? It is easy to see how stories could get crossed in multiple tellings.

As I noted last week, in late 1841, Abraham Church subscribed to the Times and Seasons. He did so by letter, the remittance arriving some time between August 15th, 1841 and January 15th, 1842. So we know that Abraham knew about the church and was interested enough to buy a subscription to a church newspaper. Furthermore we know that at least one of his sons joined the Church during his lifetime, and that other sons might have done so too, possibly on a trip to Nauvoo that he went on as well. Honestly the evidence is stacking up, but it is at best circumstantial.

In 1843, Elders John Brown and Haden Church were preaching in Tennessee and stopped at the home of Haden's parents. Brown wrote in his journal that Haden Church was the only member of the Church in his family at the time. Here was there in 1843 and 1844. He returned in 1855, and in the 1860's and 1870s. He went back to his home quite a lot. Even while he preached in the surrounding area, he would leave his companion to go back and preach at his childhood home. Haden's persistence paid off. Eventually all of the Abraham's children entered the waters of baptism. But in the meantime, in 1851, Abraham died. With no contemporary mention of his joining the Church.

In 1875 at the death of Haden Church, Henry G Boyle, his companion, wrote a letter to Brigham Young in which he describes the family situation.

"He was interred by the side of his father and mother, near the house where he was born and raised. I was with him to the last. There are five brothers and three sisters of the deceased, all living near here, all members of the Church, and who did all in their power to bestow upon him all the care and attention that his case required." (Deseret News, 20 October 1875, Local and Other Matters)

I know what you are thinking. Why accept this story of Abraham's children's conversion and not accept B. H. Roberts' claim of Abraham's conversion? This is where you have to evaluate your sources. B. H. Roberts' story that Abraham Church was baptized into the LDS Church was at best a second hand late recollection. Boyle's  description was possibly first hand and likely contemporary.

So I continue to search. Somewhere in a missionary journal there may yet be an account of Abraham's baptism.

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