LETTER TO ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM MISSION PRESIDENT JAMES AND SISTER SHARON TATE
[Below is a reply letter I wrote on November 27, 2007, to a fairly new mission president, President James R. Tate, who was called to serve as president of the Alabama Birmingham Mission. Brother Tate was a Washington, D.C., attorney at the time of his call, and he and his wife Sharon are natives of Georgia. When I wrote President Tate, I was serving as Branch President of the Siem Reap Branch in Siem Reap Cambodia.
My letter mentions the futuristic letter penned by Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone which was placed in the cornerstone of the Atlanta Georgia Temple at the time of its dedication. A 2020 article authored by Christopher J. Blythe in the Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship relating to the contents of Elder Featherstone’s letter and my donation of a copy of the letter to the Church History Library in Salt Lake City can be found at the following address:
NOTE: Article will open in a new tab/window.]
November 27, 2007
Dear President and Sister Tate:
The extreme length of this e-mail reflects the marvelous excitement we felt in receiving your first newsletters today. Sister Enslen and I deeply appreciate being on your mailing list. Please don’t delete us. We have longed for more information regarding the progress of the Alabama Birmingham Mission. Except for a short span of time when I served as Ward Young Men President to help get our bishop’s two boys on missions, I had 12 consecutive years as a counselor in the mission presidency, serving under Presidents McKell, Webb, Peterson, and Johnson. I also recommended my replacement (Brother Greg Robinson) to President Johnson after he asked me for a recommendation. Because of your kindness, we now feel like we will be getting regular and reliable information, for which we are most grateful.
Sister Tate, you are an excellent writer! Did you grow up in Georgia? Sister Enslen is at least a 6th generation Georgian herself, being a native of Hart County in northeast Georgia. I also have numerous Georgia ancestors, including “Cousin" John Thrasher who is considered by the Georgia Historical Association to be the founder of both Atlanta and Norcross. (Atlanta was Thrasherville, then Marthasville, then Terminus, then Atlanta.) When you have the opportunity, we would like to hear more about you, Sister Tate, and please don’t be bashful when you send the information. Of course, we are equally interested in President Tate. We find it very easy to love people with southern roots.
I can also attest to the authenticity of the visionary statement of Elder Vaughn G. Featherstone. I was present when he first read the statement. My recollection is that the statement was part of a letter that was placed in the Atlanta Temple cornerstone, and I was at a meeting wherein he read the letter. At the time, I was first counselor in the Montgomery Alabama Stake Presidency. Elder Featherstone was either the Area President or in the Area Presidency, I don’t recall for sure which. My journal will likely reflect more information, but it is locked up in America right now.
I suspect we are very near to the 1,000,000 members of the Church in the South if you add up the membership in the Old Confederate South, consisting of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida (with the most members), Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. (And that doesn’t count Maryland.) However, I suspect that we have quite a ways to go to become the highest baptizing part of the country. I think the highest rate of baptisms in the United States is currently coming from Hispanic populations. But Texas and Florida, as well as others, will continue to increase in Hispanic-based conversions.
Your trip to Tuskegee interested me. I had the privilege of creating that branch when I was stake president. One of the early branch presidents was David Oryang who lives in D.C. When I set David apart as branch president, the Spirit told me that he would bear testimony to many nations. I think that will yet come to pass if he remains faithful. Do you know David?
David and his family were converted in Tuskegee by an African-American missionary named Peter Johnson. Peter spoke fairly recently to the BYU students about the experience at a BYU devotional. His talk is on the BYU website last I checked. Anyway, my daughter and her family just completed a year of being transplanted members in Tuskegee. My son-in-law, Patrick Pinkston, invited Peter Johnson to come to Tuskegee and talk to the young men there. He accepted and did so. Hopefully that unit will someday put on its beautiful garments.
Did that Birmingham lawyer that you met prior to your coming to Alabama ever join the Church? Wasn’t his name Balch? I graduated from law school at University of Alabama with Sammy Balch of Birmingham, maybe a relative.
You are blessed and wise to be using President Reid Giles. He will prove to be of great benefit to the mission. Please give him my regards when convenient.
I enjoyed reading of the excellent finding plans you have underway. Our prayers will be with you. We never forget home for a minute (especially my wife). She and I were the first two people to join the Church in our town of Wetumpka back in 1973. We are glad you are making no small plans. One year when I was stake president, we baptized 240 new members. If 5 stakes could do that consistently, it would produce 3 new wards a year, and before long you would have new stakes. So 240 per stake per year is not a dream; it is something that has actually been done before, and it can be surpassed, of course.
It is easy to get the idea that the ordinary members are not doing anything, based on the lack of any visible results. I have felt that way before. And of course, they (and we) could do better, but I know that many of our members have burned out at least some of their Baptist neighbors trying to get them to take the restoration seriously. The Baptist are competitive by nature (a product of pride), and they become defensive about suggestions that they change their religion. (I am wondering if Mitt Romney’s candidacy is giving us more credibility along with the increased visibility. We are out of the information loop over here in Cambodia.) The members are going to respond positively to your great leadership, and they will re-double their efforts.
May God bless your noble souls for all that you are and all that you do. Thanks for giving your precious time and effort to our fellow Alabamians. There are some good people ready to be found in Alabama. Did you know that the resolution in the U. S. Senate to allow Utah to become a state was introduced, and argued vehemently, by Alabama Senator Joseph Wheeler, who led the charge at San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War? Did you know that it was an Alabamian who introduced the bill in Congress to carve out Utah as a separate territory after the Mexican War because there was a separate religious group there? Did you know that the longest wagon trek of any family to Utah was achieved by the Holladay family of Alabama, for whom Holladay, Utah is named? I could go on, but will not risk boring you further.
Our experiences here are certainly different than our experiences in Alabama. We have our own set of challenges, but finding families to teach is not one of them. They come to us. We could have people taking lessons in our home everyday were it not for all of the administrative duties that I have as branch president, which reminds me—I need to get back to tithing settlement.
Although we have not yet met you, Sister Enslen and I send you our love and best wishes. We are honored to be on the same team with you. Merry Christmas, and may it be a white one at the fonts in Alabama.
Elder John E. Enslen
Siem Reap, Cambodia