Jens Leslie Stevenson’s life had a touch of the international: Born in Utah in 1890 to an English father and a Danish mother, he accompanied his family on their move to Alberta when he was about 12.
Whatever his ethnic or national heritage, Jens was thoroughly Mormon. Called as a missionary in 1917, he reported to the Eastern States Mission on February 1 and was assigned to work in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was then a center of anti-Mormon sentiment, and on two occasions Jens was jailed briefly for preaching the gospel. That didn’t discourage him, according to elders who knew him. Nor was he intimidated by the frequent calls to “Work or Fight!” – the slogan that seemed to be on everyone’s lips as the United States geared up to join World War I.
The first call for the American military draft in the Great War required all men between the ages of 21 and 31 to fill out registration cards on June 5, 1917. The parents of many Mormon missionaries and out-of-state students of any religion registered their sons in their home towns, where they maintained permanent addresses and where draft boards knew the circumstances of each man. Jens’s family, however, residing in Canada, could not take care of this chore for Jens, so he reported to the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania draft board on June 5, filled out the form and identified himself as an ordained minister of the gospel.
On October 15, Jens was drafted. He applied for 5-A exemption as a minister, but the Pittsburgh draft board was unmoved. His deferment was denied, and Jens was required to report to Virginia’s Camp Lee for military training.
He so reported. But although Private Stevenson was required to lay aside the suit of a missionary for the uniform of a soldier, Elder Stevenson considered himself called still to be a missionary. In one military camp after another, up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, Jens spoke of his religion whenever an opening offered, maintained his standards as a Latter-day Saint, and sent a weekly report of his missionary labors to Elder V.S. Pingree, president of the West Pennsylvania Conference.
To his parents he wrote:
Now that I am in the army for good, I am here to do my best and to show the world that the Latter-day Saints are the light on the hill, not under a bushel. Every ‘Mormon’ boy (at least that is the way I feel) is a wonder to all the men. I do not know what it is to use tea, coffee, tobacco or liquor, or to have a smoke. I do not know what they taste like. When we get hard tack to eat, I am almost tempted to take some tea to soak it in, for not always is water to be had. Then I think ‘He that breaketh the least commandment,’ etc. So I brace up and so far have not yielded.
To President Pingree he wrote:
I had the privilege of speaking to a crowd of soldier boys on Sunday. The next morning a lieutenant asked me if I would talk to the boys if a ‘Song Service’ was held. This is the way an opportunity opened for me. I tried to show them that the Lord would not forget us if we would seek His aid and let Him know that we wanted help from Him. We had a fine little gathering.
I am truly thankful for the Gospel, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to try and explain it to others. It is the ‘pearl of great price.’ Last night two officers came to our tent and I had a very good Gospel conversation with them.
I am more than pleased to receive the [Deseret] News and Liahona[: The Elders’ Journal]. I received a fine letter from President [Walter] Monson [president of the Eastern States Mission] and I hope the Lord will bless me so that I can live up to what he said in the same.
Private Stevenson became Corporal Stevenson, and in early 1918 he and the rest of Co. F, 319th Infantry, 80th Division, U.S. Army, sailed for France. At least his unit’s motto – Vis Montium – “Strength of the Mountains” – had a familiar ring, although it referred to the Blue Mountains rather than the western Rockies. They landed in France on June 8, trained briefly with the British Third Army, then headed for the front lines to take part in the Somme Offensive.
On October 8, the 319th’s position in the Argonne Forest came under heavy fire. Seeing one of his comrades lying wounded in the open, Jens voluntarily left shelter to crawl to the wounded man. While trying to dress the man’s injuries, Jens was killed by machine gun fire.
Almost six months after his death in France, Corporal Jens Leslie Stevenson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in action, second only to the Medal of Honor as a citation for valor.
Elder Jens Leslie Stevenson has never been released from his mission.