excerpt – Against the Grain
I began writing my autobiography about 1984 as a project to acquaint my children with aspects of my life and their family heritage about which they might be unaware. My professional life has swung back and forth between building construction and teaching, with other stints in the Mormon mission field, school principal, military service, the administration of the Peace Corps, author, and university administration. All of these ventures have been challenging and interesting and, I hope, productive and worthwhile.
If this book had remained only a family project, I still feel that it would have been fully worthwhile, but two friends asked to read it, then strongly urged me to revise it for a larger audience. Their unexpected encouragement and a keen sense of the challenges involved prompted me to make the effort. I have stood at intriguing and sometimes contradictory frontiers—at the border between manual labor and the academic toil of research and writing, at the intersection between being a story-teller and a fact-seeker, at the crossing between consistent participation in Mormon congregational life and personal agnosticism, on the divide between deep-rooted idealism and hard-headed practical skepticism, and among the parental paradoxes of being a protective and loving father who protects best by equipping his children for hard times and loves them best by releasing them to their own lives. Perhaps there are patterns in my own life that will help others of my generation understand themselves, and help those of later generations to understand the forces that produced mine.
I have had the great good fortune, not available to everyone, to give my life to my loves. The first of those loves—in terms of time, if not in terms of priority—has been my work. If I were to look at myself from the outside, I would probably first characterize myself as an always-busy, energetic man who has lived by the maxim, “See what needs to be done and then do it.” Carrying out this maxim has required some creative imagination, a willingness to work hard, and a high sense of duty toward the responsibilities I have undertaken. Sometimes impatient with others’ slowness to respond, especially when I was younger, I hope I have mellowed somewhat as maturity and better judgment have taught me additional lessons.
My driving nature has taken me to a number of different activities, most of which have rewarded me financially and brought me a certain amount of public recognition and validation. There is no question that my work has been one of the great loves of my life. But these activities have also taken me away from the true core of my life—my family. I have always been available to and involved with my children, but I know that they have not always come first in my attention. Too often I have let my ability to provide comfortable and stimulating opportunities for them substitute for expressing the tenderest feelings of my heart for them.
One of my greatest rewards as a parent is to see the close and loving relationship that our four children, Karen, Linda, David, and Steven, have with each other as adults. They get together as often as they can, communicate by phone or fax, and provide a solid combination of thoughtful critique and enthusiastic cheerleading for each other. This blood loyalty has survived moves and marriages, the addition and subtraction of in-laws, and the demands of careers and parenthood. With delight, I see the same loyalties building between and among our grandchildren.
Perhaps I did a better job of communicating my love to Betty, my companion and partner in fifty-eight years of marriage. I became who I am now because she accepted me for what I was. I could not have asked for a more loving or supportive wife, a more skilled and creative homemaker, and a more intelligent and caring mother. These qualities could have left her merely a sugary centerpiece, however, and Betty was a real person, a whole person, and a strong person. She was adaptable to new conditions, conservative in financial matters, stoical during difficult times, and endlessly interested in new places, new ideas, and new growth.
My fourth love is my country. The United States is still the hope of the world. I volunteered as a soldier in World War II. I take citizenship as a duty very seriously and taught that expectation to my children and students. Democracy, for all its failings, is still a shining example for other nations to see and emulate. My passionate love of history and my passionate outrage at the failings of the United States are both rooted in my ineradicable love for this country.
My final love is for my individual freedom—for the independence to think and act as I decide. These pages reflect that hunger for latitude and longitude in the wide boundaries of action which I have always sought and tried to protect. Sometimes my independence has crossed the border into coolness or aloofness—and I have suffered the consequences—but it has always been my choice. I have never regretted taking the steps which have assured me that independence. Perhaps that quality will be my legacy, together with the productive and happy lives with which my children will honor themselves and their parentage.
MISSIONARY TO THE MOUNTAINEERS
On April 3, 1934, Heber J. Grant, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent me a memorable letter saying that I had been “recommended as worthy to fill a mission, and it gives us pleasure to call you to labor in the East Central States.”
I had some hesitation about going on a mission, believing that it might be more important to finish my undergraduate college degree first. My father’s emphasis on finishing my education was unchanged; but he also felt frustrated that he had never had the opportunity to serve a mission, although his two older brothers had. I sensed how keenly he wanted me to have the opportunities that he lacked. I finally said to him that if he was willing to support me financially for two years as a missionary, I would agree to go. He agreed.
He was somewhat chagrined to hear me say in my farewell speech to the Fourth Ward congregation that I could not stand up like some members and declare that I knew beyond a doubt that the gospel was true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. I continued that I might at some future date receive such a testimony but that at that time I could not. My father should have recognized in me a chip off the old block.
When I arrived in Salt Lake City in late June 1934 to enter the LDS Mission Home located on the Temple Block on State Street, for ten days of orientation before my departure for Kentucky, I was a pretty naive young man from a small town who, like most LDS missionaries of the time, had a lot to learn about the big wide world. Out of a group of fifty-six missionaries who were there to receive a cram session in the principles of the Mormon gospel, five of us were destined for the East Central States Mission, which then included Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. We traveled by four different railroads, stopping off for one day in Chicago to visit the Century of Progress Exposition where Ripley’s Believe It or Not seemed to be the most memorable exhibit, as far as I was concerned. I was carrying Minister’s Certificate No. 21725 which certified that I had been ordained a minister in the LDS church and which invited “all men to give heed to his teachings as a servant of God, and to assist him in his travels and labors, in whatsoever things he may need.” We reached the mission headquarters at 927 Fourth Street, Louisville, Kentucky, on July 15, 1934, after paying twenty-five cents cab fare from the railroad station for all five of us.
Our mission president was James Mercer Kirkham, the oldest brother of LDS church authorities Oscar A. Kirkham, who would be ordained one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy in 1941, and Francis W. Kirkham, a prominent Mormon educator and author of books on Mormon history and theology. James was born November 18, 1872, in Lehi, Utah, to James Kirkham and Martha Mercer Kirkham, one of his three wives. James M. was forced to shoulder the burden of helping raise his brothers and sisters when his father died suddenly.
Kirkham was sixty-two and had been appointed president of the East Central States Mission in 1934, just before I arrived, and served until 1937. He and his wife, Kate Woodhouse Kirkham, were the parents of nine children, and he had made his career editing the Deseret Farmer (later the Utah Farmer) and, after it was acquired by the Deseret News, as that paper’s assistant manager.1 Sister Kirkham was a gifted musician, a talent that added considerably to the happy mood at the mission home. President Kirkham and I hit it off from the very first.
The next day, a Monday, one of the experienced elders at the mission headquarters decided to subject us to a baptism of fire by taking us to downtown Louisville to hold a street meeting. After we had found a spot near a busy street corner and had carefully placed our hats on top of our Bibles on the sidewalk, an elder named Backman looked the five of us over, fixed his eye on me, and announced, “The tallest one can speak first.” I delivered a short sermon on the Articles of Faith, according to my diary.2 The confidence I had gained as a public speaker in my high school and college classes really helped at that critical juncture. At least I was not in the same predicament as a frightened missionary when President Kirkham called on him at a public conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was a member of the audience. Grasping the pulpit to keep from falling, he quavered, “I wish I was home and that my mother was here.” He then sat down.
This occasion was one of the few when being tall conferred some kind of beneficial distinction on me. Perhaps because I spent so much of my childhood miserably conscious of being shorter than most of my classmates, I tend to think of myself as being quite normal physically and hear “witticisms” like “How’s the air up there?” with a twinge of surprise (as well as annoyance). My father, who was six-foot-three himself, early instructed me to rejoin, “Well, at least I don’t have to stand on a stool to kick a duck in the ass.” He may have used this comeback; I never have.
After I had spent five days in Louisville, Kirkham sent me to work among the hills and coves of the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. Everyone in the headquarters seemed to pity me for being sent to such a godforsaken place. My own feelings at the time were mingled apprehension and anticipation, because East Tennessee District was considered the “pits” of the mission.3 However, I knew that Kirkham was not trying to “punish” me and chose to regard it instead as a test of my mettle. In retrospect, I’m actively grateful for his decision. I not only survived but came to enjoy the mountaineer people and to appreciate their culture. My experience there with the Scotch-Irish stock of the Martins and the Coys and their fascinating traditions going unbroken back to the days when Daniel Boone pioneered the land on the other side of the Cumberland Gap strengthened my resolve to become a historian.
The modern revolution introduced by the New Deal had not yet touched the coves and hollows of the thick forest. Some of them were still living like their nineteenth-century ancestors, in log cabins with dirt floors, cooking over fireplaces, sometimes lacking even outhouses. When Mother Nature called, a stranger might be invited to visit the nearby cornfield, although it could be embarrassing when the chickens would follow you into the patch. One night we stayed with a miller whose grist mill dated back to the 1840s. I was astonished one day to see a yoke of oxen hitched to a cart and listened with much interest to solemn warnings that sweet potatoes should be dug only in the dark of the moon, that pigs should be killed in the last of the full moon, and that a person would surely come down with the flu if he or she should put his or her hands in newfallen snow.
Almost always the mountaineers were hospitable. If we came suddenly on a cabin in a clearing, we were invited to dine and spend the night. I learned to love persimmons, apples cooked in new molasses, and, of course, cornbread, and sweet potatoes. Within four months I had gained fifteen pounds, reaching my mature weight of two hundred pounds.
We enjoyed the common salutation, “You’ns come over and see wee’ns,” with its appropriate response, “Us’ns will.” The dialects were straight out of Abraham Lincoln’s time with “heerd” for “heard” and “fit” for “fought.” The old saw that “I raised a sight, sold a heap, and have a right smart left” would not have raised any eyebrows in Clay County.
We often got lost in the dense forest. Because of my building experience, I was particularly interested in the varieties of trees and once compiled a list of twenty-seven varieties, including eight different kinds of oak.
One of the principal reasons for missionary reluctance to serve in East Tennessee was the comparative scarcity of Mormons to whom a homesick or hungry missionary could turn for help and comfort. There were only two organized branches in the whole eastern half of the state. The Chattanooga Branch had no chapel. At Northcut’s Cove a small frame chapel was tucked in a fold of the forest.
There were Saints scattered among the hills and coves, many of whom had not seen any Mormon elders for several years, but though few and far between, they were staunch and colorful. At Bristol we roomed and boarded for the winter of 1934-35 with Brother and Sister James Salley. Salley was a World War I pensioner because of permanent damage to his lungs caused by mustard gas. He and the much-younger Sister Salley had two daughters and a son, all under ten. They took good care of us; it was a fortunate arrangement for two Mormon elders.
Near Gainsboro my missionary companion, Parley Joseph Harker, and I called without warning at the cabin-and-lean-to kitchen of a home where the wife was a member. We found corn shucks and beans scattered all over the floor. A hen was laying an egg in the straw tick of the unmade bed. Two more chickens were on the table pecking at some old cornbread. The lady of the house immediately shooed us into the log cabin’s front room. When we finally returned to the kitchen for lunch, everything was in order except for the disgruntled hen which flew up to the bed and began scratching around on the quilt trying to locate her usual nesting place.
Uncle Billy Sapp, a member at Speedwell, regaled us with the story of how he had caught two rattlesnakes with his bare hands and sold them to a man for twenty dollars. The following summer when a carnival came to Speedwell, Uncle Billy insisted that two of the snakes in its displays were the ones he had caught and that they knew him. The next morning, after he had come to know Harker and me better, he invited us out into the forest behind his house to see his moonshine still. It was a beautiful sight with its copper coils and tubs of mash.
The Mormons in the hills of eastern Tennessee were often under attack by people from other churches. Near Bybee on November 6, 1934, I wrote, “Went around & visited about 4 families of Saints. At Luther Talley’s found a boy 21 yrs. old, just been married two days, reading & studying Book of Mormon. Found this to be case all over the community. The sectarian Ministers have been jumping on the children of the Saints. They have to study so as to defend `Mormonism!'” Obviously, I didn’t see this as all negative.
But except for these sparsely scattered members, a Mormon missionary was on his own in this no-man’s land, under constant threat of being challenged by a fire-eating “Hard-Shelled” (primitive Calvinist) Baptist preacher or an even more fearsome Church of Christ or Campbellite evangelist. The Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee was the very buckle of the Bible belt. Religion was entertainment and politics as well as spiritual nourishment. The Bible was the literal word of God written by God himself in the best King James English. Preachers were expected to know the New Testament by chapter and verse, and proof-texting was the only acceptable method of religious discourse. I still have my pocket-worn New Testament with its Mormon proof-texts colored by a red pencil. I faithfully committed them to memory in preparation for combat with ministers of other faiths.
Of my nine months in the Tennessee mountains, Parley Joseph Harker was my companion for the first four months. He was from Lewisville, Idaho, just north of Idaho Falls, a hard-working farm boy of about twenty with a high-school education and a shrewd, down-to-earth approach to missionary work. Conscientious and industrious, he set me on the right track to become a successful protagonist for my faith.
About a year after his mission was over, he married Rhoda Steed of Salt Lake City, one of the lady missionaries. Her father, we heard, was an underground polygamist. They settled on the Harker farm in Lewisville, Idaho, raised a large family, and were rather prosperous citizens. In the late 1950s I heard from another former missionary that they had sold their farm and moved to Enterprise, Utah, near the Arizona border. There Parley had joined a Mormon splinter group and apparently become a polygamist. After our missions, rumors had circulated that Sister Steed was a closet polygamist, so I felt that she had converted her husband. He telephoned me a few years ago, and we had a pleasant conversation without, however, mentioning the taboo subject.
After four months as Harker’s junior companion, I was made a senior companion and assigned to work with Clarence Meldrum, a college-educated Salt Lake City boy perhaps a year older than I, very likeable, and always willing to go the extra mile. We got along famously. I spent the summer and early fall of 1934 proselyting without purse or scrip in White and Clay counties in rural Tennessee with Harker and the winter with Meldrum working in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia. The boundary between the two states ran down Bristol’s main street. We spent most of our proselyting time tracting from door to door and holding evening “cottage meetings” in the homes of friendly investigators.
Old Sister Noe, a tubercular, lived just a block from us in Bristol, alone and in very unsanitary conditions. Meldrum was sure that if he kept teaching her she eventually would ask for baptism. I warned him several times to stay away from her, but the missionary urge was strong in him. While I was robust and corn-fed and suffered no more than fallen arches from the incessant walking, he became frail, fell ill often that winter of 1934-35, and was frequently racked with coughing. Within a few years of his return to Salt Lake City after his mission, he was dead of tuberculosis, a martyr, I believe, to his missionary zeal. His death will always haunt me.
To save money, we usually hitchhiked, a practice which today might seem both too indecorous and too dangerous for ministers. It was neither in the 1930s. People, for the most part, willingly gave us rides, although we were sometimes passed up five or six times for every ride. We usually stationed ourselves about a block apart, knowing that a driver would be reluctant to pick up two strangers. When the “behind” person got picked up, he would ask the driver to pick up the “before” person. If the driver refused, the stranded missionary would just have to keep trying. Once, when I was given a ride and asked the driver to pick up Harker, who was standing ahead, the man did so but later told us that “he hardly ever picked anyone up & if he did it was only one. He said he couldn’t explain why he picked both of us up.” We, of course, knew that the spirit of the Lord had striven with him. When you are engaged in the work of the Lord, it is easy to ascribe to him every speck of help. After all, weren’t we more interesting to him than the sparrows, whose every fall, the scriptures assure us, he observes?
My journal reports that on July 26, 1934, Harker and I traversed the thirty-six miles from Chattanooga to Laager, Tennessee, by walking two miles, riding fifteen, walking three, riding five, walking three more, riding six, walking three, and riding the final eleven. This break-down adds up to forty-eight miles, not thirty-six. As a missionary, my arithmetic was faulty, but not my sense of suffering for a noble cause. On another long day of such travel, we finally broke down and hired a man for seventy cents to take us the final eight miles. Four miles later his tire blew out. We had to walk the last four miles, arriving at our destination at 2:00 A.M.
On some days the rides were not forthcoming, and we walked far more than we rode. My October 31 entry notes that we walked eleven miles carrying our “stick-grips” (small suitcases) loaded with religious tracts. “My arms nearly pulled off from carrying grips,” I complained. Coming to the Powell River just above the Norris Dam, then under construction, we hired a young girl to row us across the stream in a make-shift rowboat for ten cents. On one fifty-mile trip, a man driving a coal truck let us wedge into the cab. When we noticed that he had a gun with him, he informed us that he had already been held up twice, once by the notorious Clarence Bunch gang and that, in addition, he had broken the leg of a man “who was out to get revenge.” I had many interesting rides during those travels and, incidentally, found a few opportunities to preach Mormonism to my captive audience.
We spent a lot of time on the road because President Kirkham, in a conference in Knoxville on August 24, instructed all the missionaries to stop visiting the Saints so much. He outlined a plan for each set of elders to work a rural county depending on people’s hospitality for food and lodging until cold weather set in. I promised myself that I would never sleep in a hayloft or in the woods, walking all night, if necessary, to avoid such undignified and tramplike behavior. And I never did, although it took a certain amount of grit to wake up some Christian in the middle of the night and ask for a bed.
On August 27, I recorded, “Asked about 10 places for nights lodging. Finally found lodging at Ernest Phifers, 1-1/2 mi. from town [of Sparta in White County] an old war veteran. Gave us fine supper & fine bed.” On September 9 we “got to Ravenscraft [a coal-mining town] & tracted about 50 houses asking for place to stay. After dark finally sat down in front of gate – Mr. Clouse, who had turned us down once came & asked us to stay.” On another evening a hospitable Tennessean, after an interesting evening’s conversation, just pointed to the door of a bedroom and said we could sleep in there. It contained two beds with a sleeping man in each. I awakened one and asked if he would mind moving into the other bed. He was willing so Harker and I had a bed to ourselves. In a similar but more rewarding incident, our host for the evening, an Eli Mays, directed us to a room which held seven empty beds. I chose the longest one and had a very comfortable night.
Sometimes the food was not the best or most plentiful. I shall never forget a large bowl of steaming-hot white field corn, cut off the cob and boiled, which one lady placed in the center of the table. That’s all there was. But there was plenty, and it was one of the best meals a lanky Mormon missionary ever had. On another occasion we ate with a family of Saints in a one-room log cabin with a lean-to kitchen, both of them dirt-floored. The cabin was clean and the floors well swept, but the meal consisted of wild raspberries and cornmeal cakes made with water. I looked at the three skinny, undernourished children and didn’t have the heart to eat more than one small cake and a few berries.
Traveling without purse or scrip can be a humbling experience and good training in initiative, perseverance, and understanding human nature. I learned an old missionary song which describes being turned down for lodging. One verse offers an excuse often given by a reluctant host:
I tell you friends we’re crowded.
My wife is sickly too—
Yes, it’s true we’re crowded,
But I’ll tell you what to do.
Go on to the next house,
It’s only a half a mile.
The people, they are wealthy,
And they’ll greet you with a smile.
Seed ticks in the woods, bedbugs, unsanitary conditions, and dirty food were minor irritations we learned to take in stride, but a few of the elders suffered serious illness. In October 1934 I was assigned to work with Elder Max Chapple of Spanish Fork, the youngest child and only son in a family of seven. He was ill when I joined him and got steadily worse. Ten days later I called in the doctor, who diagnosed him with typhoid fever and recommended that we get him to the hospital in Louisville. By then elders Harker and Gerald Larsen had arrived in town. The three of us carried Chapple on a cot to the station, put him and the bed in the baggage car, and sent Larsen with him to the hospital. We later learned that his fever was a severe case of homesickness and that he probably would have died if we had not taken this extreme action. I never learned whether he completed his mission. I have met others like him in the army and in the construction business, in which a psychological malady becomes a life-threatening physical one. “You’ll never learn any younger” can be carried too far, but so can loving protectiveness.
One real advantage to traveling without purse or scrip was the financial savings, a crucial factor given my father’s financial situation. I kept a detailed record of my weekly and monthly expenses in special account books furnished by the church which reveal that my entire twenty-four-month mission cost my parents $582.75 or $24.28 a month. In September 1934, the first full month of serving without purse or scrip, I spent only $10.30: meals, $2.80; room rent, $1.40; laundry, $1.50; clothing $2.15; postage, $.55, and sundries, $1.90. (By this time, I had learned to add.) On some days, we had to take turns staying in our room all day sans trousers while they were being cleaned of Tennessee’s red mud and pressed for ministerial service again. Most of the people with whom we dealt were as poor as we.
One night Harker and I stayed with a deputy sheriff of White County whom I described as the “raggedest officer I ever saw.” While tracting in Bristol one day, I met a woman whose drunkard husband had abandoned her and a small son. I gave her fifty cents to help out. At another home in Bristol, I left twenty cents to buy some medicine for a woman who was ill. These were hard times. It is no wonder that I was amazed and disgusted to learn that one notorious missionary had been spending $60 a month in extravagant living. In self-righteous indignation, I wrote in my diary, “Some Elders seem to be out for a good time rather than missionary work.”
The basic work of Mormon missionaries is usually that of “tracting” from door to door, that is, knocking at a door and offering the resident a religious tract or pamphlet which describes the general message of Mormonism. The hope, of course, is that the man or woman at the door will be interested enough in you or the tract to invite you in for a conversation. Most often such invitations are few and far between. In the country districts Harker and I usually took turns going up the long lane to the farmhouse or log cabin while the other remained seated on his upturned stick grip memorizing New Testament verses. Invitations to stop and talk were much more numerous in the rural areas than in the cities where urban life and more “sophisticated” citizens wanted little to do with the Mormons and their polygamy-tainted doctrines.
Tracting in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, was a hard, cold, and mostly unrewarding experience, but we drove ourselves to it for six hours a day—from 9:00 A.M. to noon and from 1:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. each day Monday through Friday. I did my best to submit honest weekly reports of tracting hours, refusing to pad them while staying home in a warm room as too many missionaries did. Besides, Kirkham seemed to have an uncanny way of discerning, despite his infrequent visits to each pair of missionaries, who was really working. Except for our weekly reports to the district president who sent them on to Kirkham, our other contacts were occasional mission conferences or a happenstance visit from an apostle. We were mostly on our own, a far cry from the rather rigid structure of today’s missionaries.
Sometimes the reception at the door was anything but friendly. On two occasions women spat in my face, and on another a man threw some apple peelings in my face, a less obscene declaration of rejection. On another occasion Elder Meldrum and I were both invited into a home where the woman of the house assured Meldrum that he was going to hell. After more conversation she finally amended this prophesy: There might be a chance for Meldrum, but I was destined for the very depths of hell and would suffer on my bed of affliction. I don’t remember being very upset; in fact, I rather enjoyed the exchange for adding interest to the monotony of tracting.
The week of February 22, 1935, in Bristol is fairly typical. We spent twenty-four hours tracting, three visiting investigators, three visiting Saints (there was only one member family in the entire city), twenty-six hours in study, and twenty-three in other missionary activity. During that week I also visited 364 homes, had twenty-eight invitations into homes, had 105 conversations (many while standing at the door), and gave away thirteen pamphlets and 399 tracts. If nothing else, we Mormons are prodigious recordkeepers! It may have something to do with the precept in a well-loved Mormon hymn which I sang frequently as a child: “Angels above us are silent notes taking / of every action.” Well, I had notes of my own!
The most rewarding experiences from tracting for me, as an incipient historian, were the very interesting people I met who had little concern for my gospel message but who freely shared unusual perspectives on life and the universe. Harker and I were enthralled by old Joe Copeland who proved from the Bible that he was going to live forever and fervently believed it. Meldrum and I listened entranced as eighty-year-old B. F. Vance explained his theory of “Cellular Cosmology,” that the earth is a hollow sphere in which all mankind are incarcerated. John Swenson Gannen displayed and explained his perpetual motion invention but carefully held back the key secret part which made it work.
I also filled pages of my diary with flavorful stories that various individuals told us, some of them no doubt apocryphal. For instance, an Irishman who had never been to church visited a congregation one day and heard the preacher invite the members to stand up and testify for Jesus. When no one accepted the offer, the son of Erin arose and exclaimed, “I don’t know this man Jesus you’re talking about, but I’ll stand up for anyone who hasn’t any more friends here than he has.” More apropos of Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains was the missionary story of encountering bedbugs one night in a strange bed. The two elders got up twice, lit the lamp, and shook the quilts to scare the bugs away, but found that they came back again as soon as the lamp was blown out. The third time the visiting elders took a jar of molasses standing in the corner of the room and, after scaring most of the bedbugs away from the bed, poured a wide ridge of molasses all around the four-poster and went back to bed. They soon heard a strange noise and, lighting the lamp again, observed that the few remaining bedbugs in the straw mattress were carrying straws down to the floor to construct bridges across the moat of molasses so that their less courageous relatives could get back to feast on the pure-blooded Mormon missionaries.
More interesting than tracting were the open-air street meetings which we held whenever we could get permission from the small-town authorities. One Saturday afternoon Harker and I held a street-meeting in Palmer, Tennessee, a coal-mining town, and I recorded in my journal, “They were certainly a bunch of tough miners,” a definite understatement.
Another Friday afternoon, while waiting for an LDS religious conference to begin, four of us were walking down the main street of Knoxville on the way to visit a family of Saints when all at once an Elder Pocock, a rather eccentric man, placed his Bible on the curb with his hat upon it and shouted at the top of his voice, “People of Knoxville, we have come to preach repentance to you.” We were all involved in a street meeting before we knew it and without any permit to do so. A crowd gathered, and soon two policemen interrupted the meeting with a warning that we had better be on our way. I tried to stay away from Pocock after that. Later on Pocock was assigned to work alone in rural Virginia because he wanted it that way and because no one else would work with him anyway. He began to proselyte in an African-American community and eventually converted and baptized an entire congregation of about 150, including their minister. This was at the time, of course, when African-American males were not allowed to hold the Mormon priesthood, a practice which was reversed in June 1978 when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve reversed the policy. I never learned what the church officials in Salt Lake City in 1935 did about their new members or Pocock.
When Harker and I were in White County, we received permission to hold a series of four street meetings in the court house square of the county seat, Sparta. The first two meetings went fairly well with a few interested listeners, but the third was a disaster. Only two people stayed around, an old man who was deaf and a boy playing mumblety-peg. The next day I recorded a real faith-promoting incident: “Yesterday, when we held the street meeting, we forgot to call on the Lord to help us before we left. … Today we prayed for aid before holding the meeting. The benches were absolutely empty when we started, & when we got through, they were just packed & many took tracts away with them.” I became so used to street meetings in Tennessee that I introduced them to the North Carolina missionaries later on, much to their embarrassment and downright fear. They had never participated in such conspicuous public exercises.
In rural areas we always tried to get permission to hold meetings in court houses and school houses. There seemed to be no constitutional questions at the time about separation of church and state. Tennesseans just naturally took for granted that almost any public building was acceptable for a religious service. During the summer and fall of 1934, Harker and I held two meetings in the Grundy County court house at Altamont. We were invited to preach twice in the schoolhouse at Dry Creek, once at the Newhope schoolhouse about two miles from Moss, and once in the Red Boiling Springs schoolhouse. At Newhope about 125 people showed up, and at Red Boiling Springs we were allowed to announce our meeting to all the children in each room. The Newhope meeting was marred when someone threw a rock through an open window and cut one of the male members of the congregation on the cheek. At once a tall man in the front row went outside and there were no more stones thrown. To the Cumberland mountaineers of the time, any kind of free diversion, especially if it were of a religious nature, brought a little interest into their lives.
Meldrum and I held no street meetings in Bristol, but we received permission to preach at a series of meetings, first at the Enterprise Car Shops and, after interest began to lag there, at the High Rock Knitting Mills. At both places we held forth every Monday noon for a half hour while the employees ate their lunches at their work benches. The second time we met at the car shops, I announced that the following Monday I would explain the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. We had a sell-out crowd that day with about 200 men crowded into the room. On our fourth visit to the knitting mills, we were told that would be our last engagement because we were keeping the 200 young women from their work. The real reason was that the superintendent had returned from a long vacation and learned that a couple of Mormons were preaching in his shop. He was opposed to such shenanigans.
At that time missionaries usually baptized the children of members. Although they were not reported as “converts,” their statistics probably still helped paint a rosier picture of our efforts than otherwise. Harker, in the memorable month of August 1934 alone, baptized eleven such youngsters in Grundy County.
As a snatcher of brands from the burning, I was a complete wash-out. I could not bring myself to pursue an investigator aggressively until that person either threw us out or succumbed to baptism. If I were to serve under the hard-sell missionary programs of today, I should probably be sent home within a couple of months as a complete failure.4
I can really claim only one complete conversion in my entire mission. I met Verne Fueston, a shoemaker, on November 27, 1934, while tracting, and he shut the door in my face. Two weeks later I met Mrs. Fueston at a cottage meeting in the home of another couple, and she invited us back. From then on we were welcome visitors. On January 2 the Fuestons, since I had not extended them an invitation, asked if they could be baptized. As I reported to my diary, “My first real converts,” and, finally, my only ones. I baptized Mr. Fueston and his young son, Junior, four days later; a week later Meldrum baptized Mrs. Fueston.
I recall that we were suspicious of enthusiasm; and instead of snapping up the eighty-eight-year-old Civil War veteran who asked for baptism the second time we met him, we backed off. We were just not convinced that he knew what he was doing. On the other hand, we decided to accept seventy-three-year-old Mrs. Camper of Bristol as a member. She had been investigating the gospel for several years and finally let it be known that, if we’d buy her a dress and some shoes, she’d be baptized. Let me now quote my diary entry for December 18, 1934, to describe this unique ceremony:
Sunny day. So decided to baptize Sis. Margaret Delilah Julina Oakley Whitaker Hill Camper, age 73 yrs. Spent 2 hrs. in morning making a dam in a creek over by car shops. Used rocks & also corn stalks which we pulled from a near-by field. Was very muddy. Elder Meldrum & I bought her a new dress, pr. shoes, & underclothes = cost $4.00. She was baptized in her other dress & shoes. Hired taxi & went down to creek about 2:00 P.M. Elder Meldrum performed ceremony. Water was cold & had skim of ice on top. Ordinance went all right till she hit the water. Then she threw off Elder Meldrum’s hands. She was then lying flat in water, completely submerged except for her face, so Meldrum used both his hands & pushed her face under. Then he stood looking at her & finally reached down & pulled her up. She almost strangled. Elder Meldrum afterwards said that his mind was blank concerning all that happened. She was first person that he had ever baptized. However, nothing serious happened & baptism didn’t hurt Sis. Camper a bit. When she came up out of the water, she said she felt as happy as could be.
I should add that I almost jumped into the stream to save our new member from drowning when Meldrum just stood looking at her submerged in the water.
However, even though I can’t describe myself as a red-hot proselyter, I was definitely a zealous defender of the faith. In my second month as a missionary, I experienced a transformation on September 18, 1934. I met a man while tracting in White County who began attacking the Mormon church as untrue and especially Joseph Smith as a whoremonger and an evil man. All at once, as I recorded in my diary, I “bore my testimony to him; certainly had Spirit of Lord with me.” As I look back at that event, it is hard today to determine whether the emotion I felt was a sudden increase in faith or anger in my own defense. But from then on I cast aside all inhibitions and threw myself into the work. Occasionally, as in reporting a meeting of January 7, I “certainly felt the Spirit of the Lord tonight & bore my testimony with tears in my eyes.”
Bible-bashing, or debating the scriptures with combative ministers of other faiths, matching chapter and verse, provided much of the energy of my convictions. My first contest took place in September 1934 at Doyle, Clay County, when a Nazarene woman preacher argued for a life above sin and “had me all twisted up.”
But my most disastrous confrontation occurred near Moss, also in Clay County, when a driver pulled over to the side of the road, introduced himself as the Reverend Campbell of the Church of Christ, and invited Harker to share the pulpit with him next morning at the revival he was holding in Moss. He outlined the procedure. Harker would take thirty minutes, then Campbell would take thirty minutes. Harker agreed, and we tracted on to Red Boiling Springs, just over the line in Macon County, where we met Charles B. Wood who had sold a patent on a “stop-loss pocket” to ZCMI in Salt Lake City and proved very friendly. He was visibly upset when he learned that Harker had promised to speak at the revival and warned us to expect trouble.
Reverend Christian, the Church of Christ minister at Red Boiling Springs, had invited us to stay overnight with him. Like two innocent lambs, we spent the evening discussing the Bible with him while he explored our weaknesses. I was puzzled why he asked us whether we were married. I learned the reason the next morning.
Promptly at 10:00 A.M. in the Moss chapel, Harker opened up with a fine, hard-hitting sermon on the necessity for divine authority that, in my opinion, should have left the reverends Campbell and Christian speechless. When Campbell took the pulpit, he immediately asked each of us if we were married. We both said no. He then announced his text, Titus 1:5-6: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.” The Reverend Campbell then explained to his delighted crowd that because we were not married, we certainly could not be elders and that henceforth he would address us as “Mr.” Harker and “Mr.” Madsen. We had been set up! For the next hour, conveniently forgetting the thirty-minute limit, Reverend Campbell skillfully and effectively destroyed us and our church. He was witty, satirical, obviously well-trained in the scriptures, and a master of debate. His congregation laughed at every sally and, as I glumly recorded that night, “We were never so humiliated before in our lives.” We were laughed out of the community; our missionary labors ended as far as Clay County was concerned.
But our discomfiture had not ended. The next morning we hurried to Celina, the county seat, to pick up our mail before speeding away from our disaster. Reverend Campbell came in just as we were leaving the post office; and Harker, lacking the good sense to let sleeping dogs lie, at once engaged the minister in scriptural combat. It took Campbell only about fifteen minutes to effectively destroy Harker a second time, and we left amidst the jeers of the crowd who had rapidly gathered to watch our second disgrace. The whole affair was a good seasoning for our psyches. To this day I can quote Titus 1:5-6 without missing a word.
Later in Bristol I had a more successful engagement but only because the two “Holiness” preachers who challenged me did not have the polished background and training of the Reverend Campbell, although they could expound the scriptures. The affair took place at an evening cottage meeting Meldrum and I held. The reverends Curtis, who were brothers, challenged the Mormon concept that hell is not a place of literal burning. They pointed out that the rich man who had not been charitable to Lazarus prayed for Abraham to send Lazarus with a single drop of water to cool his tongue “for I am tormented in this flame.” It seemed rather plain that I was denying the Bible, and I did not have an answer. The crowd enjoyed my discomfiture. In desperation I announced that I would have an answer at the next meeting scheduled a week from then. But as we left I had no idea how to meet the argument of the Holiness ministers.
The next morning I wrote a hurried letter to Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, the acknowledged Mormon theologian, and asked if his secretary could send me a book or some literature which might help me out of a difficult predicament. Like a miracle, on the afternoon before my second confrontation with the reverends Curtis, the postman delivered James E. Talmage’s The Vitality of Mormonism, price 75 cents. Items 16 and 17 dealt with the subjects, “Heaven and Hell” and “In the Realm of the Dead.” It was an answer to prayer. Talmage, with appropriate passages of scripture, explained that there was a temporary resting place for deceased spirits in “Paradise” where sinners like the rich man could receive instruction, repent, and eventually leave the torment of the flame, to await the final judgment day when all souls would be assigned to one of three places of glory.
After my sermon of explanation, the two ministers arose and walked out in silence leaving us the freedom of the neighborhood. But it had been a close call. Oddly enough, their chief annoyance with us was that we didn’t charge anything for holding our meetings. We didn’t even pass the plate.
There were lesser confrontations. One minister ran two blocks to engage me in open discussion on the street. An interested crowd gathered as we sparred for an hour. My diary entry crowed, “First Preacher whom I have defeated in debate. I surprised him & he soon had to leave.” About a week later, feeling my oats, I intervened in a street argument between an African American who was arguing that there were three personages in the godhead, and a Baptist minister, who held there was only one. When I asked him if Christ was praying to himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, he answered, “That’s Christ’s business,” and hurriedly left. On March 7, 1935, in Bristol, I held forth for about an hour with two ministers who were conducting a revival with the express purpose of attacking the Mormons, and especially their doctrine of “eternal progression”—that it is possible for any man, through righteous living and engaging in ordinances performed by proper priesthood authority, to reach the status of a god accompanied by his righteous wife or wives.5 In my diary I made a great point of explaining that only the righteousness and truthfulness of my cause allowed me, a twenty-year-old only seven months a missionary, to stand up to two well-trained and older ministers.
In one other incident, Lester Parks, a well-to-do businessman in Kingsport, Tennessee, whose wife, named Utah, was a Mormon, arranged a private debate in his home between me and his Baptist minister. To the winner would go the soul of Lester Parker. I prepared carefully for the meeting; but fortunately, the minister had more sense and canceled his appearance.
A lighter side of our missionary labors was singing. Harker had a splendid tenor voice, I sang melody, and together we sang often and late to anyone who would listen. We always carried a pocket-size Songs of Zion, from which we sang an opening and closing hymn at each meeting we held. I remember at a preaching service at Newhope school house in Clay County, the 125 people present did not stir after the closing prayer. After a couple of minutes of uncomfortable silence, a gentleman on the front row stood up and asked us if we would mind singing a few more hymns. We obliged by singing for a solid hour, and I believe the congregation would have stayed another hour if we had been willing to continue. We had several offers of lodging for the night from the people. Three days later and a few miles farther on down the road, a man who had attended the Newhope meeting parked his Model T, pulled from his pocket a long grocery purse, extracted two dimes, and offered us ten cents apiece if we would sing two hymns. He especially wanted to hear “Redeemer of Israel.” We stood on the dirt road and gladly sang, but declined to take pay.
Two lady missionaries, Rhoda Steed and a Sister Thomas, who spent the winter of 1934-35 working in Kingsport, attended missionary meetings in Bristol one evening. We had sung several times as a mixed quartet. On Sunday evening we four visited the evening service at a nearby Presbyterian church and sat down on the back row. The minister came down and anxiously asked if we were the mixed quartet he was expecting. We weren’t, but when the other singers failed to put in an appearance, we filled in with hymns, to the gratitude of the minister and the pleasure of the congregation.
I kept in touch with the family primarily through faithful letters from Mother. Dad often added a postscript but seldom penned an entire letter. My grandfather Madsen occasionally wrote, usually enclosing two dollars. I was his first grandson to serve a mission, and he seemed to take a special interest in me. Like many missionaries, I was sometimes negligent in keeping my parents informed, a lack of consideration I regret today.
My nine months in Tennessee were filled with unforgettable experiences that introduced me to a world very different from my Idaho hometown. I grew up a lot during that period, made some mistakes, learned something from them, and took on the role of a missionary with energy and commitment.
1. James Mercer Kirkham: Highlights of His Successful Life (Salt Lake City: n.p., 1961), 77 pp.
2. Brigham Dwaine Madsen, Diary, July 2, 1934-July 18, 1936, in two volumes; hereafter cited by date in the text.
3. Mormon missions are subdivided into districts. At the time Tennessee was split into West Tennessee and East Tennessee, while North Carolina was separated into East and West districts.
4. In the Mormon missions of my day and for a century before, missionaries were very much on their own with great freedom to set their own course and to decide on how to spread the gospel message. Beginning during the 1950s and continuing to the present, missionary schedules are tightly controlled, they memorize (or at least follow in close paraphrase) a rigid plan of lessons leading to baptism, and are often assigned a monthly quota of converts. Too many missionaries can’t meet these requirements, feel they are failures, and return home prematurely, traumatized by these hard-sell methods which, nevertheless, have boosted LDS membership to over ten million adherents.
5. Mormons do not accept the traditional Protestant view of heaven that the righteous, now promoted to the status of angels, enjoy the presence of God in a tranquil and peaceful paradise. LDS people foresee an active work place in the hereafter where resurrected beings, still organized in families, continue to progress. The highest form of exaltation—godhood itself—is reserved for married couples who together will create and people other worlds with their spirit offspring.