Some interest lately has been expressed about church experiences in the South. This report of a missionary experience gives some suggestion of both Southern missionary work and local member life in the early 20th century.
Whenever the Lord asks His servants to perform a task, He always opens the way. Not only has this truth been given by modern revelation, but also it has been proved thousands of times by the experiences of humble missionaries in every land.
The case I’m about to relate is an example. There were four of us, Elders C.A. Thompson, Elmer Heninger, John A. Wallis, and myself, who met at Christmas time in Montgomery County, Virginia, well back in the Allegheny Mountains. After an enjoyable holiday week with saints and friends, we received assignments, for which we were waiting. Elders Thompson and Wallis were to go to West Virginia: Elder Heninger and I were to work our way east, tracting and preaching as we went, until we reached Charlotte County, well down in the tidewater section over two hundred miles away. This was a long trip. Our course as outlined was off the beaten trails, almost entirely among strangers; and it was mid-winter.
January broke cold and clear. The peaks glistened with snow, and the mountain streams were gilded with ice, but each day grew warm enough to make the roads and trails thoroughly muddy. Under these conditions Elder Heninger and I bade goodbye to the others and started on our journey, following a course through heavily mountainous country along the dividing line between Floyd and Carrol counties. This region though inhabited by many wonderful people, who were God fearing and friendly, was nevertheless a rendezvous for many lawless characters, who distilled their own liquor and often disturbed whole neighborhoods with their drunken escapades.
I mention these facts merely to stress the humility with which my companion and I trudged along the mountain roads, frozen hard in the morning, but soft and miry in the afternoon. We found ourselves near the close of the first trying day, growing chilly, as the sun dropped from sight, leaving our wet shoes and trouser bottoms to freeze. According to established custom, we knelt down in the woods and offered prayer, after which we began to seek a place to spend the night. A number of mountain homes refused us entertainment, but eventually, as it was growing dark, we came to a home by the bank of a beautiful, though not very large river, which at this point made its way through a gap. The rugged mountain slopes came down almost to the water’s edge, and there seemed little room for a homestead, yet here a sturdy American family was living in comfortable independence.
“Yes, sir, you gentlemen can stay,” said the man, who with his boys was tugging at a log to get it up to the door of the house. “I never turn down preachers.”
“Thanks, we will appreciate it very much,” we both assured him. Then, to our amazement, they shoved the log through the door, rolling it across the floor into the largest fireplace I had ever seen.
A few minutes later, after meeting other members of the family, we were sitting before the fire, holding out our wet feet to warm and dry. We enjoyed a good supper, after which we sat and talked to the family until bed time, when we retired, feeling certain we had been guided to this very home by a Power higher than ourselves.
The following day, after we had walked miles farther, the weather changed, and it began to rain. Now, mountain storms are often severe, especially in winter, and this one was no exception. Again, we were beginning to wonder where we might spend the night, dry our clothes, and satisfy our vigorous appetites.
Then, a most unusual thing happened. A sharp turn revealed a peaceful little dell surrounded by the mountains. A neat, white cottage was set well back from a picket fence close to the side of the road. Down the path hurried a lady, smiling and addressing us.
“Oh, I’m so glad you came. I prayed that you would. We’ve never wanted to see some Elders so badly before.”
“Some — some Elders,” I stammered. “Do — do you — ”
“I’m Sister Ayres; weren’t you coming to my place?”
“Yes, you may be sure we were, but we didn’t know it, for we didn’t know you were here.”
She held open the gate and we hurried through, for it was still raining. What a wonderful feeling to know that we again were going to be in out of the storm, and that we had found one of our own good Latter-day Saints with whom to stay, especially since the following day was Sunday, and we looked for a period of rest and worship. The Lord again had guided our inexperienced steps.
But as we soon learned, our plans were to be very much disturbed, although we had been brought from the storm into the warmth and comfort of a Latter-day Saint home. At the house, we met Sister Ayres’ daughter, and her two sons who were visiting her from out in the middle west, all excellent young people who made us feel very much at home.
But a shadow had fallen on the little home. Only a few hours before, the young lady, who was married, had come home to her mother because her husband, under the influence of liquor, had denounced her bitterly for having faith in the Mormon church; a quarrel had followed, and she had left.
“What can I do?” she asked sorrowfully. “He gets more abusive all the time because of my faith in the gospel.”
This was a hard question for two very young Elders to answer; yet we understood clearly how Satan worked to stir up hatred and strife in such cases. We advised patience, and long suffering, together with faith, knowing that often those most violently opposed to the church have been touched by the spirit of the Lord, and have later become devoted members, even as Saul of old, who persecuted the saints.
The rain settled down for the night. After supper, the young lady was called out to the front gate, where she stayed for perhaps half an hour talking to someone in the dark. When she returned, we learned it was her husband, who demanded her immediate return. But she refused, thinking it would do him good to wait until he was better disposed. Incidentally, she had mentioned our presence in her mother’s home; and at this, he had become furious, declaring it was a Mormon plot to break up his home; and in leaving he made dire threats against us, according to her story.
We were assured, however, by all the members of the family that the man was not dangerous and the mood would work off gradually. The next morning we looked out into a world of mud and rain, a fact which made our comfortable stopping place and good friends doubly appreciated. We talked, sang songs with the family, and finally held a sacrament meeting with those who were in the house; but about ten o’clock, the angry young man returned to the front gate, this time with several companions, and called his wife out. There were more bitter words, and threats. The men were armed. As the arguments grew in intensity, they began shooting toward the house, while according to the lady’s later report, they vilified us in the most terrible language imaginable. Finally, they left. She hurried in, much agitated, to inform us they were going after other men, and would be back to drive us out. That they were still drinking was much in evidence, and their mood was growing worse.
To our amazement, Sister Ayres’ boys drew guns from their own pockets to back up their assurances that those men would never cross their threshold to do us harm. “They’re just drunk. They won’t do anything,” said one.
“If they do, we’re ready for them,” said the other.
“Why do people want to be so mean,” sighed good Sister Ayres, a shadow falling across her face, as her eyes seemed to behold events not of the present moment. Then, we learned for the first time that her husband, an officer of the law, had been shot and killed standing in the very door through which we had entered by just such a group of men as those threatening us. This had happened only a few years before.
For several hours we waited, hoping the trouble had passed. Perhaps the angry husband was just trying to impress his wife, and failing to do so, would let the matter drop — at least for the time being. About mid-afternoon, however, voices sounded through the woods where the road came around the point, and in a few moments, a dozen or fifteen men, some on horseback, some afoot, all armed with guns, made their appearance.
The family would not listen to our going out to try to talk to them. Again it was the young lady — above all else not afraid of her husband — who went out and tried to get them to leave. But this time, there was no use in arguing. They had come to issue an ultimatum. We must leave within a half hour. After delivering this, they retreated, for some unexplained reason, back up the road, disappearing around the point.
Elder Heninger and I realized we were in a very difficult position. If we stayed, it might bring violence, even death, if not to us, to some member of the family. If we left the house, we were exposing ourselves completely to our avowed enemies. But the decision had to be made quickly. We made up our minds to go, even against the protests of our loyal friends, each silently asking the Lord for guidance.
The woods were ominously silent, and the clouds were hanging low, though the rain had stopped, when we went out into the muddy road, and hurried as fast as we could in the opposite direction to the one the men had taken. After a mile or two we began to breathe freely. Then, we came to a fork, and didn’t know which road to take. Destiny has often done strange and wonderful things at the forks of a road. Such seemed to be the case here. While we waited, and wondered, a man suddenly put in his appearance.
“Take the road to the right,” he said pointing. We obeyed. He went on, disappearing beyond a turn. But a moment later we hesitated, neither of us feeling right about our course. A strong premonition impressed us to return. We discussed the matter, then retraced our steps and took the left road. Hours afterward, when it was quite dark, and we had put another large mountain between us and the community we had left, we knocked at the door of another lonely home where we were taken in and permitted to stay until the storm was over. Again we knew the Lord had guided our steps.
[Ezra J. Poulsen, “From the Journal of a Missionary: The Two Roads,” The Instructor, March 1946, 126-129, 149.]