A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS IN THE STATE OF ALABAMA
[For more than a decade, the following information was provided to new missionaries assigned to labor in the Alabama Birmingham Mission.]
Welcome to the Alabama Birmingham Mission! You are following in the footsteps of some of the most dedicated and highly successful missionaries to ever serve in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Admittedly, when one thinks of early Mormon pioneer history, the word “Alabama” does not immediately come to mind. It is even possible that you felt a sense of disappointment when you received your call to the Alabama Birmingham Mission. Please allow us to recount for you a relatively unknown, untold, and thus heretofore unappreciated story regarding the contributions of early Alabama Mormon pioneers to the establishment of the restored Church.
Did you know that members of the Church with significant Alabama connections:
Presented herein is a short summary of the contributions and sacrifices of these faithful members of the Church.
- Proselyted side by side with Wilford Woodruff
- Endured the Missouri persecutions
- Fought at the Battle of Crooked River
- Helped to rescue Joseph Smith from an attempted kidnapping
- Labored to construct the Nauvoo Temple
- Marched in the Mormon Battalion
- Participated in Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company
- Fought with Lot Smith’s raiders in Echo Canyon
- Colonized “Dixie” in southern Utah?
The First Missionaries
The first missionary to labor in the State of Alabama was 22-year-old Lysander Davis, a native of Vermont who preached at the courthouse in Montgomery on October 7, 1839. He was traveling alone, passing through Alabama on his way to South Carolina. There were no baptisms resulting from his brief encounter with the citizens of Alabama who labeled him as “one of Joe Smith’s fanatics.” Elder Davis also became the first Mormon missionary to labor in the states of Georgia and South Carolina. After serving his mission in South Carolina, he married a young woman from there and moved to Wilcox County, Alabama, where he raised a large family and lived out the remainder of his days.
The first successful missionary in Alabama, at least from the standpoint of baptisms, was Elder Benjamin L. Clapp, himself a native of Huntsville, Alabama. Elder Wilford Woodruff baptized Benjamin Clapp in Kentucky in 1835, after which Clapp teamed as a member missionary with Woodruff on 15 different occasions. Clapp’s home and Clapp’s father’s home in Kentucky were havens for Elder Woodruff and the sites for some of his amazingly successful cottage-meeting preaching.
When Elder Clapp first came to Alabama as a missionary, he and his young family had already suffered through the Missouri expulsion, and he had fought at the Battle of Crooked River in 1838. Following the battle, Benjamin Clapp and Joseph Smith’s younger brother Samuel narrowly escaped a pursuing Missouri mob. Their escape was made possible only through the intervention of a blinding snowstorm. They were enabled to avoid starvation and reach safety in Illinois with the timely assistance of a band of friendly Indians.
A Prepared Investigator
In 1839, Elder Clapp and Elder John D. Hunter were sent from newly-founded Nauvoo to inaugurate missionary work in the state of Mississippi. While on this maiden mission to Mississippi, 25-year-old Elder Clapp crossed over into Perry County, Alabama, and searched for a relative by marriage, the brother-in-law of Elder Clapp’s older sister. On March 3, 1840, Elder Clapp baptized that 35-year-old relative as Alabama’s first convert. His name was Samuel Turnbow. Samuel Turnbow had been especially prepared for Elder Clapp’s message by a marvelous vision seven years earlier, experienced on the same night as a massive meteor storm. Also, Samuel Turnbow’s father, on his deathbed, had counseled Samuel to await a church led by a prophet and twelve apostles.
During the year 1846, Samuel Turnbow and his family migrated from Alabama to Nauvoo, buried an infant child in Mt. Pisgah, Iowa, and constructed a log cabin in Winter Quarters, Indian Territory. The next year, they experienced the birth of a baby girl in a temporarily halted wagon box on the plains of Nebraska, and triumphantly entered the Salt Lake Valley in the fall as part of the first general waive of Mormon pioneers to reach the Salt Lake Valley. Samuel Turnbow’s Alabama-born son, John Gillenroy Turnbow, would later ride with Lot Smith’s raiders in Echo Canyon to repel Johnston’s Army.
Subsequent missionaries followed a pattern established by Elder Clapp which continues to this day, passing back and forth between Mississippi and Alabama on a regular basis with remarkable success. Elder Clapp ultimately served three successful missions to Alabama and Mississippi, baptizing approximately 150 people. He baptized at least two men who became participants in Brigham Young’s historic vanguard pioneer company, James Wesley Stewart and Joseph Lazarus Matthews. Elder Clapp baptized George Washington Hill, the famous Mormon missionary to the Shoshones who was married to Alabamian Cynthia Stewart of Tuscaloosa County. He baptized James Madison Flake of Mississippi, the father of William Jordan Flake, who is half the namesake for Snowflake, Arizona.
Elder Clapp was ordained by Brigham Young as one of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy in 1845. He served as President of the Texas Mission in 1855. Elder Clapp is the only native-born Alabamian to become a general authority of the Church.
In 1843, Elder James Brown, who later became a captain in the Mormon Battalion and who is considered the founder of Ogden, Utah, organized the first two branches of the Church in Alabama. Elder Peter Haws assisted Elder Brown in the effort to build up these two new Alabama branches. The two branches were the Sipsey Branch in the northwest part of Tuscaloosa County where the well-to-do George Stewart family lived, and the Boguechitto Branch in the Hamburg community of south Perry County where the Turnbow and Arterberry families lived, as well as the Utley brothers, Samuel and Little John.
Hardened Hostility and Hearty Hospitality
Later that same year, 1843, missionaries John Brown and Hayden Church arrived from Nauvoo. When Elders Brown and Church reached northern Tuscaloosa County where Elders James Brown and Peter Haws had recently labored, there was a mob of from sixteen to eighteen men patrolling the rural neighborhood during the evening hours, threatening to lynch any Mormon missionaries. Undeterred, Elders John Brown and Hayden Church worked their way south to Perry County where they enjoyed a warm welcome and a steady harvest, including baptizing the first African-American slaves into the Church in Alabama. Subsequent missionaries would experience the same contradictory extremes, hardened hostility and hearty hospitality.
Conversion of An Amazing Slave
One of the most amazing convert stories in the history of the Church is the story of slave Samuel Chambers, born in Alabama and baptized in Mississippi in 1844 at age 13. Illiterate and without Church direction for more than 26 years, he remained faithful and committed to joining the main body of the Church in Utah. Following the grant of his freedom at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, Samuel saved for a five-year period the money he earned from repairing shoes and other personal labors. Then in 1871, he and his wife Amanda purchased an ox cart and migrated to Utah where he became a very prosperous vegetable farmer and a faithful tithe payer in his ward. He often bore a powerful testimony in the classes and meetings that he regularly attended.
Whatever Happened to Elders Brown and Church?
Elders John Brown and Hayden Church both married converts whom they taught during their mission to Alabama and Mississippi. Elder Church, a native of Tennessee who had been baptized by Joseph Smith, married Sarah Ann Arterberry of Perry County. Church would later serve in the Mormon Battalion and fulfill a mission to England. In 1875, while in the midst of serving his third mission to the South, Elder Church died as a result of illness.
Elder Brown, also a native of Tennessee, became the primary hunter in Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company, was one of the first Mormon pioneers to see the Salt Lake Valley, set a record for the longest horseback journey to the Salt Lake Valley, crossed the plains numerous times as a wagon company leader, served as Church emigration agent, fulfilled a mission to England, was elected to the Utah territorial legislature, and faithfully served as bishop and mayor of Pleasant Grove, Utah, for more than 20 years. His daughter Amy Brown Lyman served as the General Relief Society President of the Church.
First Multi-unit Conference
The first multi-unit conference of the Church in Alabama was held on February 10, 1844, presided over by Elder John Brown. This conference, held at the Sipsey Branch (57 members), included representatives from the Boguechitto Branch (43 members) and a branch from Mississippi, the Buttahatchy Branch (23 members).
Later that same month, Elders John Brown and Hayden Church organized the Five Mile Branch in northern Perry (now Hale) County where the Jeduthan Averett family lived. After serving as branch president and migrating to Nauvoo, Jeduthan Averett became a member of the Mormon Battalion. Another Mormon Battalion member, George Wesley Adair, was a native of Alabama and a convert of Mississippi.
Second Multi-unit Conference
On April 12, 1844, the Sipsey Branch hosted another multi-unit conference. Elder Benjamin Clapp presided. This conference was reported in the Nauvoo newspaper, Times and Seasons, in the very same issue that reported the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Conference delegates were encouraged to migrate to Nauvoo to assist with the completion of the temple. In addition to Jeduthan Averett, among the nine local brethren in attendance at this conference was George W. Stewart of the Sipsey Branch. He would later die in route while attempting to migrate to Nauvoo. It was his son, James Wesley Stewart, who faithfully served as a member of Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company. George W. Stewart’s widow, Ruthinda Baker Stewart, would pioneer the settlement of Ogden, Utah. Two of their other sons, George and William, married in Utah two of the daughters of Jonathan Browning, the famous gunsmith.
Another attendee at this April 1844 conference was James Madison Flake. He contributed his slave Green Flake to the vanguard company. Green Flake would be the first person to drive a wagon into the Salt Lake Valley.
In June 1844, Elder Absolom Porter Dowdle, himself a native of Franklin County, Alabama, baptized John D. Holladay and several of his family members and slaves. The Holladay family lived in Marion (now Lamar) County and became the nucleus for the short-lived Marion Branch of the Church that was organized in early 1845. The Marion Branch disintegrated when the Holladays departed for the Salt Lake Valley in March of 1846, accomplishing the longest wagon trek of any Mormon family migrating to the Salt Lake Valley. They took a 600-mile detour through Pueblo, Colorado. The family arrived in the valley on July 29, 1847, only five days after Brigham Young. Holladay, Utah, is named for Alabamian John D. Holladay, its first bishop.
In 1845, convert John D. Holladay, Jr., the 19-year-old Alabama-born son of John D. Holladay, made the 700-mile journey to Nauvoo where he lived for several months, working in the stone quarry and on the roof and tower of the temple. Three years later, John D. Holladay, Jr., explored southern Utah with Parley P. Pratt. In 1851, he was part of the colony sent by Brigham Young to found San Bernardino, California. There he served as City Marshal. After returning to Utah in late 1857 during the advance of Johnston’s Army, John D. Holladay, Jr., served as the captain of an Indian-fighting militia, fought in the Black Hawk War, was president of the Santaquin Cooperative Store that he co-founded, served as a district school trustee, led a company of 350 pioneers across the plains in 1866, fulfilled a two year mission to his native South from 1868-1870, served as Vice-President of the United Order in Santaquin in 1874, was Deputy Sheriff of Utah County for two years beginning in 1876, served as a delegate in 1895 to the Utah Constitutional Convention, and served as Bishop of the Santaquin Ward
Following a common practice for early missionaries, Elder Absolom Porter Dowdle married one of his converts, a daughter of John D. Holladay named Sarah Ann Holladay. On November 15, 1847, they became the parents of the first child born in Sugar House, Utah. During the arduous trek west, Elder Dowdle served as branch president of a company of Alabama and Mississippi converts who were wintering in Pueblo, Colorado. This Utah-bound colony actually traveled a year in advance of Brigham Young’s vanguard pioneer company as far as Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, and helped to save three sick detachments of the Mormon Battalion during the winter of 1846-1847. Elder Dowdle later served in 1856-1857 as President of the Australian Mission.
Little Bear Creek Branch Organized
In October of 1844, Elder John Brown and Elder James W. Cummings organized the Little Bear Creek Branch in Franklin County. The Russellville Branch, 16 miles to the north, had been organized previous to this. Elder James W. Cummings and another companion, Elder James Butler, had also previously organized the Cypress or Lauderdale Branch near Florence, Alabama. Elder Cummings would later serve in the Mormon Battalion.
Alabama’s First Mission President
On October 8, 1844, Brigham Young assigned Abraham O. Smoot, a native of Kentucky who was raised in Tennessee, as Alabama’s first mission president. He had an Alabama connection. President Smoot’s mother-in-law, Esther McMeans, was an Alabama resident. She was living in Alabama in late 1842 when she traveled to Tennessee to visit with her daughter whom she had not seen in 12 years. On January 28, 1843, during this extended visit, Esther McMeans was baptized in Tennessee by her son-in-law, missionary Abraham O. Smoot.
On November 3, 1844, President Smoot received a parting blessing from Apostle John Taylor who had recently recovered from gunshot wounds suffered in the Carthage Jail. President Smoot, who brought his family with him to Alabama, arrived in the state on December 19, 1844. Although sent specifically to build up a permanent stake of Zion, President Smoot’s original assignment was drastically changed due to the escalating mobocracy in Nauvoo. President Smoot was instructed to strongly urge the Alabama members to gather with the main body of the Church in Nauvoo.
President Smoot presided over a conference of the Church held at the Sipsey Branch in northwest Tuscaloosa County on February 15, 1845. Five Alabama branches were represented: Sipsey Branch with 43 members; Boguechitto Branch with 44 members; Five Mile Branch with 22 members; Little Bear Creek Branch with 22 members; and Cypress Branch of Lauderdale County with 15 members. (The Russellville Branch was not represented.) While in Alabama, President Smoot expended most of his labors in teaching and strengthening the local leadership and membership.
Another Branch Organized
President Smoot served as mission president of the Alabama Conference until May of 1845 when he returned to Nauvoo, taking with him many Alabamians and approximately 50 horses and mules to assist members in Nauvoo who were already planning to evacuate the much-harassed city. The horses and mules were obtained from members Williams Washington Camp and wife Diannah Greer Camp, who had real estate holdings in Tuscaloosa County and Weakley County, Tennessee. Prior to his departure from Alabama, President Smoot organized the Marion Branch where the Holladay family lived.
Abraham O. Smoot subsequently filled many important responsibilities for the Church. In 1847, he led a company of pioneers west that included within it several Alabamians, became the mayor of both Salt Lake City and Provo, served missions in England and Hawaii, was instrumental in the establishment of Brigham Young Academy, founded important business enterprises, and served in the Utah territorial legislature. His son Reed Smoot became an apostle and United States Senator.
With the addition of the Marion Branch in 1845, the total number of branches of the Church in the state of Alabama prior to the Civil War was seven. They were the Sipsey, Boguechitto, Five Mile, Cypress or Lauderdale, Russellville, Little Bear Creek, and Marion Branches. There were approximately 175 members in Alabama at the end of March in 1845.
Request for Religious Asylum Ignored
On April 30, 1845, President Brigham Young sent a letter to the governor of Alabama, Benjamin Fitzpatrick, asking for the state to provide religious asylum for the heavily persecuted Church. In his letter, President Young wrote in reference to the members in Nauvoo: “Some of us have long been loyal citizens of the state over which you have the honor to preside.” There was no responsive letter offering refuge.
Scores of faithful members of the Church heeded the counsel of their Church leaders to gather to “Zion.” More than 20 families in Nauvoo had direct connections to Alabama. Many of these families suffered the tragedies that were common in those times of severe persecution. A notable example of supreme sacrifice is the Samuel Utley family of eight, original members of the Boguechitto Branch of south Perry County. The mother and four children died in Winter Quarters, and the father Samuel Utley died during the trek west. Only two orphaned children survived to complete the journey to the valley where they were cared for by Alabama’s first convert, Samuel Turnbow, who had been a neighbor to the Utley family in south Perry County seven years earlier. Another Alabamian, Robert Dowdle, the father of missionary Absolom Porter Dowdle, died from hardships and exposure suffered in Winter Quarters.
In the early formative years of the Church, other Alabamians who were faithful members of the Church were buried on the muddy plains of Iowa, in frigid Winter Quarters, on the side of the trail in route to Utah, and in the promised Salt Lake Valley not long after their arrival.
Today, the countless descendants of these early members of the Church with Alabama connections are on the whole dedicated contributors to the building of the kingdom, latter-day saints who have sung in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, served missions across the globe, and faithfully filled callings and assignments in numbers untold without fanfare or accolades.
Consequences of Failing to Heed Warnings
Early Alabama members of the Church who failed to heed the warnings of Church leaders to sell their lands and gather with the main body of the Church suffered a double penalty.
1.They were left without ecclesiastical direction by a church headquarters consumed with regrouping and colonizing the west. None of Alabama’s seven branches of the Church survived the general exodus west.
2.Those who remained in Alabama suffered through the turmoil, ravages, and heartbreak of the Civil War, and the long-term economic devastation that came in its aftermath. Church members who remained in Alabama lost whatever pre-war wealth they had accumulated.
Post-Civil War Missionaries
Only a handful of missionaries served in Alabama and Mississippi in the first years following the Civil War. It was ten years after the Civil War, 1875, before the Southern States Mission would be established, and Alabama and Mississippi would again become a focal point for renewed missionary activity. This time period was characterized by increased opposition, often in the form of physical violence. A defeated, sensitive South was more prone to organized violence as a means of dealing with any institution perceived as an outside influence. Mormon missionaries, although from the west as opposed to the north, were looked upon as religious carpetbaggers. Federal laws and public opinion denouncing polygamy added a sense of justification to the increased persecution. However, unlike the surrounding states of Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Mississippi, no members or missionaries of the Church are known to have been murdered in Alabama by anti-Mormons.
Mission Presidents Lead Migrations
Until the turn of the 19th century, it was common for converts from Alabama to gather to western states in small migratory groups led by Church leaders, sometimes mission presidents completing their terms of service. Shortly before the turn of the century, after a change in Church policy, a branch was organized in Magnolia, Alabama. There stands in rural Magnolia today a sturdy wooden chapel constructed by the members in 1913.
Montgomery Starts Sunday School
A Sunday school consisting primarily of sisters was organized August 22, 1911, in Montgomery. By 1930, membership in the state had reached 2,561 with branches in Bradleyton and Magnolia, and with sister-dominated Sunday schools in Bessemer, Birmingham, Camden, Clayton, Decatur, Dothan, Elkmont, McCalla, Mobile, Pine Hill, Selma, and Sneed. Branches were eventually organized from these Sunday schools. In 1937, an east-west boundary was drawn through the Alabama District, dividing the state into the Alabama and North Alabama districts.
Changing Attitudes and Military Influence
Attitudes toward the saints improved with the passage of time. In 1940, the Montgomery Branch staged a pioneer parade that attracted thousands. Many LDS servicemen were stationed in the area during and after World War II, thus adding strength to the branches. A chapel was completed in 1955 in Montgomery, and the branch grew more rapidly after that. Statistics for the sixties indicate an even higher growth rate for Alabama than the high of the previous decade. The Alabama Stake (later renamed the Huntsville Stake) was created in 1968, largely a result of the influx of members sent to the area by the military and NASA.
Growth Brings New Mission
The 1970’s brought about a doubling of the Church’s membership in the area. The First Presidency announced the formation of a new mission, the Alabama-Florida Mission, in 1971. New stakes were created that decade: Birmingham (1975), Montgomery (1975), and Mobile (1978). The Alabama Birmingham Mission was established on January 1, 1979. The first mission president was transferred from politically tumultuous Iran where the Ayatollah had replaced the Shah. The Bessemer and Dothan Stakes were created in 1982 and 1986 respectively. Membership in Alabama in 1974 was about 7,800, increasing to about 14,000 in 1980 and to about 20,000 in 1989, when the 150th anniversary of missionary work in Alabama was commemorated with special events in Montgomery.
The first temple to be located in the mission boundaries was announced for Birmingham on September 11, 1998, and dedicated on September 3, 2000, by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
There are approximately four million people living in the mission boundaries with approximately 30,000 being members. The mission is comprised of five stakes: Bessemer, Birmingham, Huntsville, and Montgomery Alabama Stakes and the Tupelo Mississippi Stake.
The southern mission experience has greatly strengthened the Church. The missionaries who served here through the decades developed testimony, power, and leadership ability. In fact, eleven of the first twenty-three apostles of the Church served as missionaries in the South. Growth continues today as similarly valiant servant’s labor in an area that, according to the Encyclopedic History of the Church, “has seen more religious persecution than any other LDS mission.” This persecution has strengthened the righteous resolve of thousands who have had the opportunity to serve in what you will come to feel is the greatest mission in the world.
Again, we heartily welcome you to a most challenging, and yet a most rewarding, experience. This we can safely promise, you will never be the same again. May God continue to abundantly bless you for all that you have done and all that you will yet soon do to build up His kingdom in a very special place, Alabama and Mississippi (and, as of 2005, a small southern portion of Tennessee), the territory of the Alabama Birmingham Mission.
[This history was researched and written by 7th generation Alabamian John E. Enslen, the first convert in Wetumpka, Alabama (1973)]
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