Remembering roots at Memphis dedication

BARTLETT, Tenn. — The Memphis Tennessee Temple was dedicated in this suburb of northeast Memphis April 23, a little more than 165 years after Wilford Woodruff preached in western Tennessee; it appears to have been his first sermon to a large number of people.

Elder Woodruff was the first to bring the gospel message here, arriving in Memphis on March 27, 1835, after being ferried across the Mississippi River from Arkansas. Since his companion had returned home, he was alone, penniless, dirty and weary from his three-month-long journey. He had traveled by foot all the way from Liberty, Mo., except for a 150-mile stretch by canoe down the Arkansas River to Little Rock.

Elder Woodruff, who later was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and the fourth president of the Church, went to Josiah Jackson's inn where he preached to a large crowd for an hour and a half. He later described it as "one of the best sermons of my life." (Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal, 4th ed. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News], quoted by Francis M. Gibbons, Wilford Woodruff — Wondrous Worker, Prophet of God, Deseret Book Company, 1988, p. 19.)

Accounts of Elder Woodruff's missionary labors, and those of other stalwart missionaries and converts in the South were spoken of during the temple's four dedicatory sessions. Coupled with the Easter messages of Christ's resurrection, their legacy spread, as it were, a spiritual feast before the 5,029 members attending the dedication.

President James E. Faust, second counselor in the First Presidency, presided and offered the dedicatory prayer for the 80th temple. Also participating were Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve; Elder Gordon T. Watts of the Seventy; and Elder James E. Griffin, an Area Authority Seventy. Sisters Ruth W. Faust, Connie W. Watts and Marlena J. Griffin attended with their husbands.

In what many described as "nearly perfect" weather, Frances Novarese, 74, stood in eager anticipation for the first session to begin at 9 a.m., having arrived before 7:30 a.m. Her father, C.P. Maynard, was the first president of the Memphis Branch when it was organized March 31, 1915. "There were only 17 members in Memphis when he was called as branch president," Sister Novarese said. "To see what the Church here is today — well, you can only imagine what my feelings and thoughts are. I'm too emotional. I can't talk."

Donald B. Spencer moved from Oxford, Miss., to Memphis in 1944, at the age of 17. He refers to himself as an "old timer" in the Church in Memphis. He is a font of historical information, having researched Church history in the Mid-South, Memphis in particular.

Although Wilford Woodruff came here in 1835, Brother Spencer said that no record has been found to indicate extensive missionary work in the city until the early 1900s. "It would have appeared that since Memphis was a river town and much traffic went back and forth that some stop-overs would have given those en route an opportunity to preach the gospel," he said. "The state of Tennessee did furnish a number of converts who migrated to Far West, Mo., late in 1836. A group of Mississippi Saints went into the Salt Lake Valley with the first body of pioneers. Arkansas had some baptisms as noted on the records in 1835.

Brother Spencer spoke of "tragic events" that occurred in the Mid-South, including the murders of Elder Parley P. Pratt in Van Buren, Ark., in 1857; Elders John Henry Gibbs and William Shanks Berry and two local members, J.R. Hutson and Martin Conder in Lewis County, Tenn., in 1884. "Many are the accounts of denial of water, food or shelter from the elements simply because a person was a Mormon. A little chapel that was dedicated at Sarah, Miss., in 1917 was burned by a mob. Members rebuilt the chapel. There were threats by mobs and being chased, tarred and beaten. Actual accounts of these have been repeated by our ancestors who knew of the events," Brother Spencer said.

Despite difficulties and persecutions, the Church continued to grow. There are some 15, 970 members of the Church in the temple district that include parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. A second temple in Tennessee is to be dedicated in Nashville on May 21.

For the most part, a spirit of goodwill toward the Church and its members hovers over the Mid-South today. "You read about challenges when the Church starts to build temples," said Elder Griffin, who served as coordinator for the open house and dedication committee. "Brigham Young talked about the 'bells of hell' ringing when a temple was started. We expected opposition and troubles when the temple was announced for Memphis, but that didn't come. For the most part, we were treated with a spirit of kindness and helpfulness by the people here."

Founders of Memphis regarded the Mississippi River as the "Nile of America." They named the city on the bluff Memphis, after the ancient capital of Egypt. The name means "place of good abode."

While some early missionaries and members of the Church might have doubted the aptness of the name, members today agree that this is a "place of good abode." Especially since a temple has been dedicated here.

You can reach Gerry Avant by E-mail at [email protected]