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A Real, Live Mormon in Boston, 1879

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 16, 2008

Benjamin Franklin Cummings (1855-1918), with only two or three years of formal schooling in his past, began his journalistic career as a pre-teen manual laborer in the pressroom of the Deseret News. His natural abilities and willingness to read and observe won him promotion through the ranks of reporter, editorial writer, advertising manager, and state editor at the Deseret News; he later founded the Logan Leader. One of his three LDS missions was as editor of the Central States’ newspaper, the Liahona. Cummings also virtually invented the professional research and recording of genealogy so far as it was known among the Latter-day Saints, and was well respected among New England’s genealogists. He traveled widely in pursuit of genealogical materials. This letter was written on one such research trip.

While engaged in genealogical research in Boston, some months since, I took a furnished room in a respectable lodging house, and ate my meals at any restaurant that came handy.

By the way, Boston abounds in small, clean, tidy restaurants, where the prices are exceedingly reasonable and the food is prepared and served in a neat and cleanly manner.

I had endured this life a fortnight and it was becoming unbearable. I had no one to converse with or even speak to. I would frequently meet other lodgers in the corridor or hall, but Boston etiquette forbade even a bow until a formal introduction had taken place, or close contact forced an acquaintance.

I resolved upon a change, as I had several weeks to remain in the “hub,” and they would be unspeakably tedious without more society. I decided to take board in a private family, and so set out to find a place that would suit. I knew about what streets to pass through to find what I wanted. Many families in various parts of the city add to their income by taking one or more boarders or lodgers, and a surprisingly large portion of the inhabitants, including many refined and well-to-do people, live in lodgings.

The fact that the family wants a boarder or lodger is announced by a placard hung in the window. The price for a furnished room, kept in order for the lodger, is from two to four dollars per week, board three to four dollars additional, in most respectable families, and the fare given at that price is excellent.

I soon approached a house whose outward appearance indicated quiet and respectability, in the window of which was the placard. I rang, was admitted by a servant and conducted up stairs to look at the room. It was cozy, and I told the landlady I would take it, and next morning removed my effects thither.

At noon, while the family and two or three boarders were at dinner, I was passing the dining room door; going out, when the landlady opened it, stopped me, and, apologizing, asked my name again, as she had forgotten it.

In reply I gave her my card containing my name and address, “Salt Lake City, Utah.” She took the card back to the table, when a gentleman boarder, whom all knew by the initials of “M.D.,” took the card and read it aloud, exclaiming in amazement; “My goodness, he’s a Mormon!” Then came a scene – afterwards fully described to me. The card was passed around the table with such exclamations as: “A real Mormon!” “Is it possible!” “Wonder how many wives he’s got!” while one rigidly pious and elderly lady declared it scandalous to have a “Mormon” in the house. The landlady persisted that “he looked like a gentleman anyhow,” while the head cook, a very intelligent lady, and very liberal in her religious views, at once declared her joy at having an opportunity to get acquainted with a “real, live Mormon, as she had read so much about them.”

I had taken the room but had not engaged board, and soon after returning in the evening, I heard a tap on my door. lt was “M. D.,” who asked me if I would not join the family and a few boarders in a “pop corn party,” in the dining room. I readily assented, and spent a most enjoyable evening. By the blessing of the Lord I made a good impression upon all present, and at their request became a boarder, and as one of the family. All the inmates of the house, except the elderly and extremely orthodox lady, became very friendly and cordial. I remained an inmate of the house about two months, in the meantime explaining my religion to those who made inquiries respecting it, and removing much prejudice from their minds. “M.D.” and I became room-mates and the firmest of friends, and, though he has not yet embraced the gospel, he possesses many sterling traits that won my regard.

The scene at the dinner table, with the various exclamations, and comments then expressed, was often related to me after I became intimate with the family, and all declared a “live Mormon,” to be a vastly different kind of a creature from that which their imaginations had led them to picture him.

[B.F. Cummings, Jr., "A 'Live Mormon' in Boston, 1879," The Contributor 1 (1879-80), 112-113]



16 Comments »

  1. Very interesting story. “If you want to study a Mormon, I’m a living specimen.”

    I had some ancestors who joined the church in England and made it to Boston before the wife had some major health problems and they ran out of money. They stayed there for three years and it was no where near as nice as Cummings’ experience twenty years later. It sounds like they were living in the slums and had an extremely difficult life. The record says that George Q. Cannon told them to leave for Utah because the wife might die on the trail but she would certainly die if they stayed in Boston. (She didn’t die.)

    Is B.F. related to Cummings chocolates? A favorite of my grandmothers.

    Comment by Amy T — May 16, 2008 @ 9:10 am

  2. Is B.F. related to Cummings chocolates?

    Yes! The candy company was founded by Victor Clyde Cummings; B.F. was his uncle. (Not that I knew that before you asked — Google and FamilySearch are magic.)

    I’ve done a little work on converts who reached NYC and had to stay there for a few years. They had a little bit of a church support structure there in the 1850s and ’60s. No idea what there might have been in Boston, if anything. It’s on my radar now, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2008 @ 9:35 am

  3. How fun!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 16, 2008 @ 10:43 am

  4. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Sometimes peoples’ reactions to learning of my Mormonism are so emphatic that I really wonder what they have heard about the church.

    I’m not familiar at all with the 19th century Boston Mormon experience, but if Cummings’ associates had travelled sixty or so miles down the coast and out onto Cape Cod, they could have found a non-polygamous, pre-Brighamite holdout group in Dennisport.

    In the New York Times, 1897 Mar 13: “One of Cape Cod’s curiosities is a little band of Mormons living at Dennisport. They have attracted hardly any attention, even from their nearest neighbors, for peculiarity of religious belief is too nearly normal in rural New England to create much comment unless the eccentricity interferes to an annoying degree with the rights, comforts, or crotchets of other people. This the sort of Mormonism that exists in Dennisport does not do….”

    According to the article, the group dated from 1840, had a “well-kept church in which regular services are held,” sent out proselytizing Elders, and “[w]hen Brigham Young became head of the sect and made plural marriages an essential feature of its system, the Cape Cod Mormons revolted, and, true New Englanders as they were, declared the innovation a heresy and went their decent way, alone but not lonely, and comfortably assured that only they were orthodox.”

    Comment by Edje — May 16, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  5. Edje — I’ve just hunted around a little to find your Dennisport colony. It looks like they became RLDS following an 1866 visit by an RLDS missionary. Poking around a little further, I found obituaries for some of the LDS-turned-RLDS at Dennis, and cross-checked them against the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, and was able to correct and complete the entries for three who trekked to Utah then returned to Massachusetts (the Pevey family). I may be able to find more with a few more minutes’ checking.

    See what a little collaboration can do!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2008 @ 11:49 am

  6. Interesting anecdote. Cummings also wrote several interesting letters on his experiences for publication in the Deseret News.

    Comment by Justin — May 16, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  7. Is this Cummings related to the B. F. Cummings who taught French at BYU?

    Comment by Mark IV — May 16, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  8. Kevin, glad you found Keepa again. I need to find a way to make it a habit for you.

    Justin, I’m just discovering how much Cummings did write, and how well. I think he may be one of those relatively minor figures who merits being revived in our memory.

    Don’t know, Mark IV, although since there were at least three BFCummings in a row, it may be a name that got passed on to yet another generation. I don’t know anything about the French teacher to be able to learn more about his roots.

    Incidently, the Pevey family who was identified for the pioneer database descends from a grandmother Lucy Cummings. I don’t immediately see a link between Lucy and B.F., jr., but if they are related, what a way for this conversation to have gone full circle.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  9. “all declared a “live Mormon,” to be a vastly different kind of a creature from that which their imaginations had led them to picture him.”

    Truman Madsen’s daughter, Mindy, worked in the Harvard Freshman Dean’s office in the mid-late 80’s. I heard her express this basic sentiment multiple times about people she met who found out she was Mormon.

    I had similar experiences in Alabama, and I still have them here in Ohio. It’s interesting that after all these years, so many people still have no clue what a Mormon really is.

    Comment by Ray — May 16, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  10. Sometimes *I’m* not always sure what a Mormon really is.

    But yeah, I think you’re right. I remember being asked in high school, in Missouri, if Mormons could dance, or drink milk, or wear jeans. And those are just the odd ideas they bothered to ASK about. Then in Las Vegas a few years later, there was the coworker who told me with a straight (well, disgusted and self-righteous) face some ugly and disgusting activities she “knew” went on in Mormon temples, because her pastor had told her so.

    There’s only one thing worse — letting someone know you’re a Mormon because you think it’s pertinent for whatever reason, and having that person neither know nor care what you’re talking about.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  11. Had we made the connection that we both went to highschool in MO before and I just forgot?

    This is a great letter. The discussion about independent Mormon congregations in the east is a fascinating one. I seem to remember several anecdotes about them. Wasn’t Greg Kearny from a small town in Maine that was like a third Mormon but didn’t join the Utah Church until the 20th century or something?

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 16, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

  12. J., I don’t know that we have talked about Missouri, since I didn’t realize you had lived there — we’re bound to see each other at MHA, so let’s share where and when then. It was a terrific place to have home study seminary during the church history year, I tell you.

    I’m not familiar with Greg Kearny. Sounds like a story I want to hear.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

  13. Truly delightful, Ardis! Thanks so much for your wonderful stories.

    The favorable curiosity of Cummings’ fellow boarders somehow jogged my memory of mission days near Paris forty years ago. We elders made a practice of separating Church work from “professional” connections – such as getting our hair cut. I guess we felt that a coiffeur was captive audience, so it would hardly do to force a discussion on him. So one day, the man finally found the courage to ask, so defferentially,

    “Monsieur, it is not any of my business, but may I inquire your business here in France?”

    “Why, we are missionaries of l’Eglise de Jesus-Christ des Saints des Derniers Jours.”

    “Ah, mais oui! Les Mormons.”

    He continued clipping for a minute, then ventured once again, even more defferentially, like the most gracious waiter in a posh restaurant,

    “Monsieur, obviously you are not here in my shop to discuss your church, but I was wondering . . .”

    Never in two years had we heard such a remark! Not in France . . .

    “. . . what are some of your distinguishing doctrines?”

    We stopped by soon afterward with a Book of Mormon. Fairly attractive, in dark brown or white, with the Friberg painting of Christ descending to the Nephites, on the front cover, if memory serves.

    “Here you are Monsieur! We hope you will enjoy reading this.”

    “Why, thank you. How much is the price?”

    “Deux francs, cinquante” (about fifty cents)

    “Ah! mais non! It is much too fine a volume to pay so little. Here are ten francs. I will not accept your book for less.” So we took his two dollars, in awe. Never did this happen. Not in France.

    Our coiffeur would meet many more real, live Mormons, making them a little more presentable as they rode their bikes through the wind and the rain, and knocked on doors all morning, and all afternoon, and into the night. He would not convert, of course, but he was very nice to us. This was France.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — May 16, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  14. When I grow up, I want to write conversation like Rick Grunder.

    Delightful story, Rick, and I can confirm that curiosity like your barber’s didn’t happen in southern France, either. Some curiosity toward us as Americans, perhaps, but not toward us as Mormons.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  15. - blushing –

    No, really, Ardis, don’t beg me. I couldn’t possibly . . . Well, if you insist, but only one more story, lest this become a thread jack. Of course it does mention Mormons, and food, so I guess it’s alright . . .

    At my first assignment, in the Paris suburb of Asnieres, my companion and I walked to a little grocery store each morning for our milk, and perhaps a yogurt. The proprietor had been selling food to Mormon missionaries for years, and he was always good for a pleasant conversation. And best of all, unlike 99% of French grocers, this gentleman carried a very special product on his top shelf, just for us: Quaker Oats.

    This esoteric American breakfast food was pronounced (of course) “Quaaahkehr O-wat.” The grocer was quite amused at this strange product, and how it was prepared and served. He would even partake of Quaaahkehr O-wat himself, on occasion.

    So one morning, we arrived at the store to discover, on that top shelf, an even more splendiferous reminder of home: “Kohhhrn Flack”!

    “Alors” we exclaimed, “ce n’est PAS possible!” “This cannot BE! By what miracle did you procure Corn Flakes?”

    “Ah, messieurs,” replied the disconsolate grocer, sorry to disappoint his young American friends. “I must not sell you the Kohhrn Flack. They are not good, I assure you. I boiled up a batch this very morning . . .”

    Comment by Rick Grunder — May 16, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  16. In his charming 1879 essay, B.F. Cummings used the term “hub” to describe Boston of the period. A small aside on this subject, s’il vous plait Monsieur Le Rick.
    The Boston-centric term “hub” was coined in 1857 in one of the early episodes written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., M.D. for the serial titled “The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table” which started in the November 1857 inauguaral issue of James Russell Lowell’s magazine “The Atlantic Monthly.” The popularly of Holmes’s “autocrat” essays was such that they quickly ensured the survivability of Lowell’s magazine (an earlier one had failed) and soon made “The Atlantic Monthly” the most widely read publication of its kind in the world. In the “Autocrat” series Holmes recorded the fictive prattlings and travails of a group of Boston rooming house denizens, especially those of one rather stuffy gentleman (perhaps a Harvard professor — both Holmes and Lowell then taught there)who had an outrageously parochial view of Boston’s importance, dubbing it “the hub of the universe” in one of his monologues over eggs. (The phrase casught on immediately and Boston became known as the “Hub City” or the “Hub.”) Holmes, by the way, was the Pop of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Civil War hero and Supreme Court justice. In the inaugural issue of “The Atlantic Monthly,” Holmes, Sr. published a poem that touched on the Utah War, although this subject did not find its way into the table talk of the “Autocrat” series as I remember them.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 17, 2008 @ 12:25 am

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