Monday, January 11, 2016

Memphis Mormons in 1916

As a proselytizing destination Memphis had been comparatively ignored for the first 60 years of the LDS movement. Yes, Wilford Woodruff preached there in 1835 (part 1 & part 2). And Elders Head and Paden organized a branch somewhere in Shelby county in 1840. It was short lived. Before 1845 the branch was gone. But other than that the city was left alone. Several missionaries stopped there on their way to somewhere else. Being along the river meant every passenger boat passing had to stop there. But it was just a way station.

After the Civil War it wasn't much different. There was always some other place the missionaries were headed to. The latest example was in 1897 when some new missionaries arrived by train in Memphis, met mission president John Morgan at the station and received their assignment elsewhere in the Southern States. They toured the city, but didn't bother preaching.  Knowing President Morgan he probably picked Memphis just because that was where he had negotiated a cheaper train fare that month. Writing in 1903, Ben E. Rich said "Headquarters of the mission have been regularly established at Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia." so it may have been more than once.

But that would soon change. From 1900 to 1902 missionaries assigned to the North Alabama Conference would cover northern Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis was "obviously too far" from all the action in the Middle Tennessee Conference to send missionaries. So why not let the missionaries already working in north Mississippi go there. Out of sight, out of mind.

There were a few baptisms. John Wilson may have been the first. But just as efforts were picking up pace, the Southern States mission was split.  Tennessee (and some other states) was carved out from the Southern States Mission and put into the newly formed Middle States Mission. Never heard of the Middle States Mission? You're not alone. It didn't last long. A year later the new president of the Southern States Mission, Ephriam H. Nye, died from heart disease. Lacking a replacement the two missions were merged together again. But in the shuffle, Memphis was made the responsibility of the Tennessee missionaries again.

Funny thing though. Memphis was on fire!! Metaphorically. Yes, there were baptisms just like in other places, but people also moved there who had joined the Church elsewhere (see just one example here). Of all the places in the Middle Tennessee Conference, local members in Memphis began taking on responsibility for missionary work. Yes, that happened elsewhere too, but not in the numbers they did in Memphis. In other places there might be a local branch president, but he served for 20 years because there was no one else to pick from. In Memphis there were at least half a dozen. Today a branch needs 7 Melchizedek Priesthood holders to form. They had that many before 1916.

The Decatur St Church of Christ
(currently used by the Oxford Church
World Outreach) was sometimes loaned
to the LDS missionaries for services
including at least one baptism in 1916
The earliest hint of a modern branch at Memphis was in 1909. Baptisms had been performed for nine years, though it was in February of 1909 that a regular Sunday School began meeting. On March 31 1915 there was a re-organization of the branch presidency completely filled by local Elders. Later that year a full Relief Society presidency was organized with two secretaries made up of all local members which in 1916 began selling quilts to raise funds for the branch. In 1916 there were at least two dozen active hardworking members, not counting children of record, and certainly several more of varying activity levels.

In 1916 they had not yet built a chapel in which to meet, and so were using the facilities which other churches kindly shared. The Decatuer Street Christian Church was one I know of (today called the Decatur-Trinity Christian Church and in a new location since 1969). In later years they would raise funds for the building of a chapel.  The Memphis branch eventually grew into several wards in two different stakes and supports a temple.

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