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'Faith to Persevere'

Southern States Mission is highlighted in lecture series

“Throughout the late 19th century, missionaries serving in the South encountered every imaginable situation in their travels,” Heather Seferovich said at the Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square on Nov. 14.

The lecture titled “Faith to Persevere — The Southern States Mission, 1875-1898,” explored the journals and letters from missionaries who served in the South during the reconstruction period of the United States. Sister Seferovich’s research was designed to get a glimpse of the life of a 19th century missionary, including Southern climate, diet, preaching, hospitality and hostility.

Brigham Young organized the Southern States Mission in 1875 when he assigned eight men to fulfill a mission to the American South, Sister Seferovich explained. Some of the missionaries who served during this era went on to become future Church leaders. Those included: Karl G. Maeser, John Morgan, LeGrand Richards, B.H. Roberts and George Albert Smith.

Elders who served in the South had to adjust to the climate, diet and customs as about 71 percent serving were from Utah, she explained. Elder John H. Gibbs wrote the conditions in his journal: “I tell you it is hot, hot, hot. I take off my shirt at night and when I drop it down it drops like a dishrag and remains wet all night.”

Sister Seferovich explained that the elders’ main mode of transportation was walking between one to 20 miles a day, without purse or scrip, and, “the 19th century Mormon missionaries believed they were to depend on God’s mercy and the generosity of the people they encountered for food and lodging. Many Southerners proved to be hospitable hosts.”

These circumstances produced powerful faith in the missionaries. “The great majority of men with few exception cannot exercise the same faith when provided with plenty of money as can the poor humble servant of God who feels he is no better than his Master,” Sister Seferovich said.

This type of travel and lodging was also an effective missionary tool by meeting with the families intimately. Through her research, Sister Seferovich found that the missionaries managed to receive enough food and slept indoors more often than outdoors.

The subjects the missionary taught included the following: the Fall, the Apostasy, the kingdom of God, faith, repentance, the Holy Ghost, the necessity of baptism, the Book of Mormon, the Articles of Faith, the Restoration of the gospel and the organization of the Church.

Missionaries serving in the Southern States Mission while Elias S. Kimball was mission president (1894-1898) at Lookout Mountain, Tenn.
Missionaries serving in the Southern States Mission while Elias S. Kimball was mission president (1894-1898) at Lookout Mountain, Tenn. Photo: Photo courtesy of Church History Library

One of the incidents Sister Seferovich recounted was that of John Morgan and a “miraculous healing that occurred.” Elder Morgan was preaching to a congregation and noticed some members were missing from a family he was acquainted with. They were unable to make the meeting because their son was sick. Elder Morgan said he had a message for them. They traveled all night to the house and arrived at 3 a.m. The sick boy had actually died several hours previously. Elder Morgan prayed, blessed and raised the boy back to life. The boy went to school the following day and the teacher couldn’t believe it was the same boy sitting on the fence, after hearing that he passed away the previous night.

However, with Southern hospitality came Southern hostility and violence. Sister Seferovich explained that the hostility ranged from written threats and harassment to physical assault, to forced expulsion and even to attempted and actual murder.

“Elders were certainly not oblivious to the dangers they faced; however, their faith overcame their fears. Elder B.H. Roberts said in a letter, ‘The Lord can care for me equally as well in Georgia as he can in Utah,’?” said Sister Seferovich.

B.H. Roberts served as a missionary in the Southern States Mission and later on became the president of the First Council of Seventy.
B.H. Roberts served as a missionary in the Southern States Mission and later on became the president of the First Council of Seventy. Photo: Photo courtesy of Church History Library

There were many instances of elders being blessed when facing mobs, most escaping near-death experiences.

Missionaries from the Southern States Mission.
Missionaries from the Southern States Mission. Photo: Photo courtesy of Church History Library
Sister Seferovich speaks during the Nov. 14 Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series titled, "Faith to Persevere  The Southern States Mission 1875-1898."
Sister Seferovich speaks during the Nov. 14 Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series titled, "Faith to Persevere The Southern States Mission 1875-1898." Photo: Photo by Michael Ann Mckinlay

Sister Seferovich read from a record by B.H. Roberts about the dangers he faced: “Whenever dark clouds have arisen and times have looked troublous, when men have gathered around us with hatred pictured on their faces and murder in their hearts, I have thought my mother has prayed for me this morning, all is well.”

Overall, during the 1875-1898 period 1,760 elders baptized 3,839 people in the South. However, Sister Seferovich said, the number of baptisms would have been higher if some didn’t postpone baptism, which was common back then.

“Nineteenth century missionary life was physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing. ... Their examples of hard work, diligence, duty, courage, faith and perseverance are inspiring,” Sister Seferovich concluded.

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