“because there was not any missionaries near us”: Latter-day Saint Worship Patterns in the American South
What follows is a portion of the paper I presented at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association last week in Springfield, IL. The paper focused on the religious lives of Latter-day Saints in the American South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My aim was to move narratives of the LDS experience in the South beyond analyses of missionaries who served there and the persecution and violence they encountered; to explore the lives of those Saints who were baptized but didn’t migrate West. One of the most interesting aspects of the lives of these “un-gathered” Saints was their patterns of worship.
While a burgeoning system of stakes and wards with quorums, female relief societies, and organizations for teenagers and children developed in Progressive-Era Utah, such a system largely ceased to exist beyond the Mormon corridor. Latter-day Saints in the South instead were organized into geographically defined conferences, which, from an institutional standpoint, had more to do with assigning missionaries to a particular area than they did with organizing Saints in these peripheral regions into any sort of recognizable ecclesiastical unit. There were no stake presidents or bishops to oversee the temporal and spiritual welfare of the southern Saints. Mission president John Morgan outlined the ideal system in an 1883 article:
The Mission is divided into Conferences, each State being a Conference, which is in turn subdivided into Districts. One Elder presides over the entire Mission, and each Conference has a presiding Elder who directs the labors of the Elders traveling in the various Districts. … The honest in heart come forward and are baptized, a Branch is organized, one of their number selected to preside over it, and the missionaries pass on to a new field.
This ideal was rarely achieved. Instead, there were infrequent visits from traveling elders, scattered reports in periodicals, and tracts left behind aimed at keeping the Saints as strong in the faith as possible under the circumstances. By 1890, there were only ten reported branches in the Southern States mission, despite membership numbering over 1,000. Even as converts increased in the first decade of the twentieth century (numbering over 10,000 by 1905), the number of formally-established branches remained low.
Because visits from missionaries were few and far-between, worship among southern Saints was typically sporadic and inconsistent. It appears that most often the only Mormon worship these Latter-day Saints participated in occurred when Elders passed through their town. The Elders would stay with a family of converts in the region they were visiting, and over the course of the next week conduct semi-large meetings (usually held in open spaces or rented meeting halls) meant to attract both other members and interested others. Additionally, they would bless children, baptize and confirm converts, and administer to the sick. Where a large enough group of Saints existed to form a Sunday School, worship took shape around its meetings. While Saints would gather to discuss the gospel, sing hymns, and bear testimony in these Sunday Schools, the meetings were in certain key respects liturgically lacking. Even in those areas where a Sunday School was organized, for example, the Lord’s Supper was only administered when Elders with the appropriate priesthood authority were present-only once or twice a year in some instances.
It may very well have been the spiritual experiences enjoyed by gathered Latter-day Saints in the South for missionary conferences and cottage meetings when the Elders were in town that sustained Mormons who would go an entire year (and sometimes more) without seeing another Latter-day Saint. Most interesting, however, is that many Mormons would supplement their Mormon worship by attending other denominations’ worship meetings in between visits from the itinerant elders. In an extreme example, Elder John Willis Henry noted in his diary that he and his companion made contact with a woman who had joined the church in 1844, “heard an Elder preach” once in 1848, but “never saw any more Elders until 1896.” “Grandma Cartwright,” as Henry called her, had since joined the local Baptist church. “She says she never would have joined the Baptist church but thought our church had left her for good,” he wrote. Nevertheless, she reassured the Elders, she “never believed any other doctrine than ours.”
While the experience of Sister Cartwright is exceptional in many respects, the impulse to continue worship outside the Mormon Church was not unusual at all among southern Saints. Nelson Albert Henshaw and his family, who had converted to Mormonism in Louisa County, Virginia in the early twentieth century, “walked fourteen miles on a dirt road to Fork Baptist Church” in an effort to maintain some form of Christian activity while the elders were away. Elma Catherine Stanley, also a Virginia convert, likewise “walked three miles to a Baptist Church because there was not any missionaries near us.” John Franklin Westmoreland, meanwhile, began attending a Mormon Sunday School organized by lay Latter-day Saints near his South Carolina home as a boy of 15 because “it was handy” but was “baptized in the Baptist Church” before Mormon Elders with authority to baptize came to visit the small Sunday School a year later.
I am open to any and all feedback here, but am especially interested in discussing further how the worship of these southern Saints challenges broad generalizations about Mormons in this era. How does their experience on the periphery of Mormondom alter our understanding of LDS history (that has generally focused almost exclusively on those Saints near the center of the Mormon corridor)?
 John Morgan, “‘Mormonism’ in the Southern States,” The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 45, No. 23 (June 4, 1883): 354.
 Mary Elizabeth Stovall (Richards), “Orthodoxy versus Nonconformity: The Mormon Experience in Tennessee and Mississippi, 1875-1905,” Unpublished paper written for History 747 course at University of Chicago, 6; available in Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 See Mormonism-The First Hundred Years, 1873-1973: A History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia (Richmond, VA: 1987), 191.
 John Henry Willis, Missionary Journals, 27 September 1898; available in Church History Library. Thanks to Ardis Parshall for this reference.
 A History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia, 322.
 “A Biographical Sketch of Elma Catherine Stanley,” private copy in my possession.
 Columbia, South Carolina Stake Fortieth Anniversary: October 19, 1947 to 1987 (n.p., n.d.), 224-25