The Southern States Mission

The Southern States Mission

This article originally appeared in Pioneer Magazine, 1970 Vol.57 No.1

The American South was a significant region for Mormon missionary work in the nineteenth century, and it was one of the largest missions. Missionary service often entailed leaving families— either wives or parents—traveling without purse or scrip, and confronting a new country, language, or culture, all with no formal training. Southern States missionaries, in particular, needed to possess courage, boldness, tenacity, and a strong commitment to their religion so they could enjoy the good times and endure the bad.

Statistically speaking the typical elder who served in the South in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century had been born in Utah, lived in northern Utah at the time he received his mission call, was ordained a missionary in his twenties, held the office of seventy in the Melchizedek Priesthood, and labored as a missionary for approximately two years.1

The average age of the entire LDS missionary force between 1849 and 1900 was 22 years old, but missionaries in the Southern States tended to be slightly older. Of the 1,664 elders who listed complete data for birthdates the average age was 27.5 years. The ages of Southern States missionaries ranged from a low of 13.9 to 67, producing a 53-year span in ages.2

was the youngest missionary. Miles was born in Mink Creek, Idaho, on June 4, 1878. He was set apart for a mission to South Carolina on April 8, 1892, at age 13. , , and J. D. Kilpack Jr. illustrate missionaries who were also ordained at young ages. They were set apart as missionaries at age 15, 16, and 17 respectively. Conversely, H. B. M. Jolley held the distinction of being the oldest Southern States Mission Elder. Jolley was born October 11, 1813, in Pitt County, North Carolina, and was set apart for a mission to that state on October 25, 1880, at age 67.3

The encounter between Church members and the inhabitants and culture of the South varied between 1830 and 1861. Many Mormons traveled to the South to share the gospel with their relatives. However, Southern missionary activity completely ceased during the Civil War and only a handful of elders preached in the region between 1865 and 1874 from the Civil War to Reconstruction. Southerners had not fully recovered from their social turmoil before the LDS Church formally established its Southern States Mission in 1875.

During and after this time some Southerners acted xenophobically, despising those they considered foreigners and often persecuting them. Many more tended to distrust foreigners but still treated them cordially. It is not surprising that the Southerners greeted Mormon missionaries, mostly Westerners, with derision and hostility, considering them as spiritual carpetbaggers. It took time and effort of the missionaries to finally build a good repore with the people of the South.

Throughout the late nineteenth century, missionaries serving in the South encountered every situation imaginable in their travels. In spite of the abundant hospitality extended to missionaries by the majority of Southerners, a small, unorganized minority disrupted church services and persecuted the elders. This persecution occasionally escalated to whipping, and in a few tragic instances, even included murder. As a result, the Southern States Mission swiftly acquired a reputation with Church members in the Great Basin for violence. However, nearly all missionaries who served in the South noted Southerners’ polar nature: those who were friendly and would share their last crumb of bread, who would risk their lives defending the elders from their zealous neighbors, and those who were hostile, who acted as predators and actively persecuted them. The elders received extraordinary kindness, apathetic indifference, and reprehensible brutality, each in varying degrees. The American South was both a hospitable and, occasionally, a hostile host to LDS missionaries.


In 1867, LDS Church leaders officially resumed missionary work in the South, when several men were called on missions at the April general conference. Brigham Young called to act as mission president, since he was familiar with the region’s culture. (Brown had converted to the Church in his native Tennessee in 1843.) Brown had an interesting dream on April 2, 1869, while he presided over the Southern States Mission.

“I was in a very large field of watermelons. There were a great many melons and some of the largest I ever saw. They appeared to be three feet long. There had been a heavy frost that killed the vines, and they were effected [sic] and beginning to decay. I saw on the side of a large one something protruding. On examination it proved to be a serpent’s head in a torpid state. I saw two or three others and told my companion to draw one of them out. . . . It was alive, but stupid. It was said that there were a few small melons in the field that were good if they were hunted up.”

Brown then gave the following interpretation to his bizarre dream.

“The field is the United States. The melons are the people. The heavy frost is the late civil war and its consequences. The small melons are the honest in heart. The sleepy serpents are the opposite spirits that reign in the hearts of the people, especially the would-be great ones, which spirits are now held in restraint, hence we have liberty to preach unmolested at present.”4

Indeed, LDS missionaries went unmolested for another decade, and these early years were an era when baptismal rates were exceedingly high for the small missionary force.


Nineteenth-century LDS missionary life was not for the fainthearted. The men suffered long and toiled hard. The Southern heat and humidity plagued new elders who were not accustomed to them. Elder John H. Gibbs explained the conditions:

“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, sweat cant describe it.”5

Traveling in extreme heat and humidity, often on half-empty stomachs, also reduced missionaries’ normal vitality and stamina.

The South’s sweltering climate fostered large insect and reptile populations, other unhealthful features of the region. Elders from the West often made particular notations of fleas, ticks, and snakes in their journals. For example, Elder Gibbs explained to his wife that Tennessee

“is blessed with insects. . . . We can pick them off all most any time in the day.”6

Elder Moses W. Taylor found fifteen fleas on his body, but his companion fared much worse:

“Bro  Church looked like he had been covered for his skin was so blotched that you could not find a clear place large enough to put your finger on.”7

Some missionaries used humor to describe these unpleasantries. Elder John M. Fairbanks playfully described his battle with fleas:

“Persecution raged high last night . . . but I faught manfully and succeeded in killing six of the company . . . [which] was composed entirely of flees.”

Fairbanks later summarized his activities:

“Spent the evening . . . in athletic exercises with the fleas, they would bit and jump and I would kick & scratch.”8

Similarly, Elder devoted an entire journal entry to insects:

“Bro. Morrell reports all well in the lower part of the state [Mississippi]. . . . He also reports that they have some friends that stick close to them, he draws the Photo of some as follows . . . and wants to know if I recognize any of them, and says I can get any size or color I want if I will just send in my order, and they will send me a live sample.”9

Many elders, particularly those in the swampy areas of South Carolina and Tennessee, became infected with malaria. Some cases were so acute that missionaries either asked or were instructed to return home. Of the 237 elders who left the mission because of sickness between 1877 and 1898, chills and fever seems to have been the most common culprit.10 Victims commonly complain of fever, chills, headaches, and weakness. To alleviate such symptoms, nineteenth-century remedies prescribed quinine and guanidine.

Once people became infected with malaria and survived the initial attack they commonly suffered relapses months or even years later. Yellow fever also took its toll on several Southern States Mission elders. Symptoms include a jaundiced coloring, fever, headaches, backaches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes internal bleeding. After initial infection, many patients recover and retain a lifelong immunity, but an unlucky five to ten percent die within two weeks of contracting the disease.11

Because missionaries tended to travel without purse or scrip, they wandered from house to house, rarely spending more than one night in the same place, unless Church members or relatives hosted them. Because elders’ regular itineraries necessitated constant travel, missionaries typically walked between one and twenty miles a day, occasionally more. Even though Southerners were hospitable, missionaries could not idly wait to receive their help; they had to request it. However, asking for food and lodging required a lot of nerve, and not a little desperation. Hunger pains helped Elder rationalize the situation:

“‘The laborer is worthy of his hire.’ [D&C 84:79] And upon further reflection, I readily perceived that the true gospel of Jesus Christ, involving the principle of salvation, which I was authorized to offer the woman, would more than offset the value of the food given a thousand times. Thus reasoning, I felt perfectly justified in boldly asking for something to eat.”12


Southern States Mission elders encountered both prejudice and persecution. Prejudice inhibited missionary work and evangelization. Persecution often involved bodily harm; but to some missionaries, persecution was an external validation that they were doing God’s work. Historically, the American South has been characterized by a predisposition for violence. Intense persecution against LDS missionaries was particularly pronounced in the American South for more than three decades. A hierarchy of persecution existed which escalated from written threats, to verbal harassment, to physical assaults, and, finally, to attempted murder and murder itself. Missionaries could never predict which threats would be acted upon; constant uncertainty and anxiety characterized their Southern sojourn. Between 1879 and 1898 five missionaries were killed in the Southern States Mission, and countless others were beaten or physically abused by mobs.

Written Threats

[Elders] periodically received written notices and threats. Occasionally individuals authored such notes, but more often groups of people met together and drafted the documents. While the majority of notices went unsigned, a small percentage included authors’ signatures. Only a few groups listed the actual names of those who participated. More often notices were signed “Concerned Citizens,” “KKK,” or with fictitious names such as “Judge Lynch.”

Although a few notes were hand delivered, quite often written notices were deposited conspicuously along missionaries’ paths. Some were left on the road; some were nailed to trees; and others were tacked on church doors. From time to time, local newspapers, mostly weeklies, even published some of the written notices. The majority of written notices contained creative spellings revealing the individuals literacy or lack thereof.13

The case of Elders James T. Lisonbee and John M. Fairbanks illustrates those notes written by groups. Lisonbee received a notice to leave the area while he was serving in Mississippi in 1877.

“We have decided to grant you ten days to leave our country and to carry with you as many of your deluded followers as want to go through and those that stay shall be protected in all their liberties that any other citizens enjoyes.  The above has been written after mature deliberation and a failure to comply will be sufficient to lay waste and deluge this country in blood. What we have written we have written. —Many Citizens.”

Elder Lisonbee and his companion soon left the county and traveled south to visit some of his relatives “and to Preach.”14

Elder Fairbanks received a written notice to leave the country in which he was laboring. The letter asserted that Mormonism was demoralizing and illegal. Then the note demanded that he and his companion leave “as soon as they can ride walk or crawl away never more to return.”15

Verbal Harassment.

Elders received a steady diet of verbal harassment and threats while serving in the South. Both random individuals and organized groups heckled Mormon missionaries. Some threats were clearly hollow and were used solely to intimidate the elders; others were given as formal warnings to avoid potential abuse in the future; still others appeared to be promises when third parties—local citizens—intervened, frustrating mobs’ violent plans by preventing them from harming the missionaries.

Elder W. Scott and his companion were roused from bed at night by a noisy, vicious mob late one Saturday night. The mob included half a dozen men who threw rocks at the house, fired their pistols, and yelled “like demons.” After a few minutes the disorderly crowd retreated from the host’s property; however, they continued yelling and shooting their guns throughout the night. Elder Scott, explaining the events to fellow missionaries, wrote that he was able to sleep in spite of the perilous situation. Assessing the situation for his audience, he poignantly penned,

“Ala is raging. Hell is boiling. The believers are afraid, saints tremble.”16

Elder Parley P. Bingham and his companion endured a similar experience. One evening while they were reading quietly in their host’s house, a sixty-man mob— a number estimated by Bingham—surrounded the property. The host walked outside and counseled with the disorderly crowd. When they demanded to talk to the missionaries, the host forbade the elders to go out or the mob to enter. This enraged the rabble, who then notified the elders to leave the county by sunrise or

“they would deal roughly with us. They then left the house, whooping and yelling and discharging their guns.” The missionaries temporarily ignored this threat and preached their scheduled meeting the following day. Threats continued to circulate, and by the end of the week both men “deemed it best [to leave the area and] to go back among our friends.”17

When violence erupted at night the scenario followed a standard pattern. A disorderly, and sometimes drunken, crowd would seize the elders, and sometimes even yanked them from their beds. The rabble, armed with guns, clubs, withes, and ropes, would then march to a dark secluded wooded area where they abused the missionaries. In the majority of cases elders reported that the horde initially intended to kill them; but in almost every incident at least one mob member got cold feet, hesitated, and persuaded the group that several lashes would suffice if the elders promised to leave the area by a specific time or date—usually the following morning.

Elder and his companion received violent treatment. He reported that one hot summer day a horde seized the missionaries. They marched “all day through sand ankle deep,” traveling fifteen miles. When night came all slept out in the woods. The following morning they marched ten additional miles. When the crowd reached “a very lonely spot,” each elder received twenty-two lashes. Mob members then destroyed all their Church literature. After the “ceremony,” the rabble escorted them to the depot and deposited them on a train for Utah. Elder Carter and his companion traveled only as far as Columbia, South Carolina, where they disembarked and then walked fifteen miles to a friend’s house.18


Only four elders were murdered between 1867 and 1898. Joseph Standing, the first missionary to be murdered in the Southern States Mission, labored in Georgia in 1879. He and his fellow emissaries endured many threats and in some cases fled certain areas for their lives. As a result, he had written to the governor nine days before his death, explaining the injustices heaped upon the missionaries and reporting how local officials had “apparently winked at the condition of affairs.”19

On Sunday, July 21, 1879, a rowdy twelve-man mob apprehended him and his companion, Rudger Clawson, on a public road. After a few hours of derogatory exchanges, violence erupted and Standing received a bullet in the face, leaving him unconscious, but alive. A short time later, Clawson was finally allowed to leave to find help for his wounded companion. In his absence, the disorderly crowd emptied their guns into Standing’s body, no doubt attempting to protect the individual murderer by implicating the group. When the case came to trial three months later, the Georgia jury returned a verdict of not guilty.20

Five years after the Joseph Standing murder, two more missionaries were killed in Cane Creek, Tennessee, in what became known as the Cane Creek Massacre. Four months before the shocking event, Elder J. Golden Kimball recorded,

“The idea prevalent here [in Tennessee] is, that there is no law for a Mormon and they can kill us and nothing would be said about it.”21

Violence finally erupted on Sunday, August 10, 1884, in Lewis County, Tennessee, when a masked mob raided a meeting just as it was to begin. A local Saint and man of the house, James Condor instructed his sons to retrieve their guns. Within a few brief minutes two missionaries, John Henry Gibbs and William S. Berry; two local church members, and ; and the mob leader, David Hinson, lay dead. By the following day, newspapers across the South were reporting the incident. The acting mission president, B. H. Roberts, instructed elders throughout the South to temporarily stop their work and lie low. The horrific event at Cane Creek produced similar reactions among Southern States Mission elders: trepidation, anguish, and concern for the fate of the mission.22

The last of the missionaries to be killed before 1898 was Alma P. Richards. During summer 1888 he labored in Mississippi by himself and was last heard from in August. Mission president William Spry then organized a search for him. Almost a year later, missionaries discovered what they believed to be his bones beside a railroad track. Historians have followed his journey through Jasper and Clark counties but then can find no trace of his whereabouts until his bones turned up in Meridian, Lauderdale County. The cause of Richards’s death has never been firmly established.

After nearly twenty-five years of intensive missionary work by 1,689 elders, LDS Church membership in the South reached an all time high of 10,000 in 1900.

Nineteenth-century missionary life could be physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. To endure such circumstances would require a person to have unyielding belief in his religion, exceptional courage, and a strong sense of commitment and purpose. The men serving missions in the South matured—both emotionally and spiritually—through the course of their work; many also developed a deep love and respect for Southerners, as well as stronger faith in their religion.


  1. See Heather M. Seferovich, “History of the Southern States Mission, 1875, 1898” (MA thesis, BYU, 1996), chap. 3.
  2. The youngest missionaries were 13.8, 15.2, and 16.4. Although these could be anomalies, the more likely explanation is that the missionary record contains incorrect data.
  3. The record contains the following note under Jolley’s name: “Filled short mission and visited relatives. Jolley was released February 22, 1881, after serving four months. Other missionaries were close to Jolley’s age but served longer missions. Some of these include Edwin W. East, who served at age 61, and John R. Holt and Joseph Argyle, who both served at age 60.
  4. John Brown, Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown (Salt Lake City: John Zimmerman Brown, 1941), 284.
  5. John H. Gibbs to Louisa Gibbs, June 12, 1883, Harold B. Lee Library (HBLL), BYU, Provo, Utah.
  6. John H. Gibbs to Louisa Gibbs, Apr. 21, 1883, HBLL.
  7. Moses W. Taylor, Journal, July 4, 1890, HBLL.
  8. John M. Fairbanks, Mission Diaries, Mar. 22, 1883, HBLL.
  9. Charles Flake, Diary, Apr. 12, 1884, HBLL.
  10. See Missionary Record, Books B & C; Southern States Mission, “Historical Records and Minutes,” and “Record of Missionaries in the Southern States Mission, 1877–1898,” reel 1, Church History Library (CHL).
  11. John Duffy, “The Impact of Malaria on the South,” in Disease and Distinctiveness in the American South, ed. Todd L. Savitt and James Harvey Young (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1988), 29–33; Mary E. Stovall, “‘To Be, To Do, and To Suffer’: Responses to Illness and Death in the Nineteenth-Century South,” Journal of Mississippi History 52 (May 1990): 95–109; Jo Ann Carrigan, “Yellow Fever: Scourge of the South,” in Disease in the American South
  12. Rudger Clawson, Papers, 34, Archives, Marriott Library (ML), U of U, Salt Lake City.
  13. David Whittaker has suggested that some of these misspellings may have been deliberate. Such flagrant misspellings would help hide the people’s true identities.
  14. James Thompson Lisonbee correspondence, Feb. 1877, CHL
  15. John M. Fairbanks, Mission Diaries, Feb. 3, 1883, Special Collections, HBLL
  16. W. Scott to Brothers Daniels, Taylor, and Packer, Sept. 6, 1881, in John Morgan Papers, ML
  17. Parley P. Bingham, “The Missionary Field: Lively Experience in the South—Futile Threats, Mar. 10, 1887,” Journal History.
  18. Hyrum Carter Diary, July 13–14, 1893, CHL.
  19. William Whitridge Hatch, “There Is No Law”: A History of Mormon Civil Relations in the Southern States 1865–1905 (New York: Vantage Press, 1968), 41–42.
  20. Edward L. Ayers explained that jurors often acquitted the accused because they feared being in similar circumstances. “Each juror feels that he might, on leaving the court, find himself in the same position as the accused, and he acquits.” Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South (New York: Oxford, 1984), 17.
  21. J. Golden Kimball Diary, Apr. 5, 1884, ML.
  22. See B. H. Roberts, “The Tennessee Massacre,” Contributor 6 (1885): 16–17; Gene A. Sessions, “Myth, Mormonism, and Murder in the South,” South Atlantic Quarterly 75 (spring 1976): 212–25; and Marshall Wingfield, “Tennessee’s Mormon Massacre,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 17 (Mar. 1958): 19–36.
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