It was hot on that day in September 1893 when two elders – Nicholas Miller (age 39, from Manassa, Colorado) and Benjamin LeBaron (age 33, from Mesa, Arizona) – passed along the rural road near Gadsden, Alabama, looking for people willing to accept their religious tracts. Neighbors had been warning neighbors all along their route in those foothills at the southern end of Appalachia that the Mormons were coming. Most wouldn’t even respond to the elders’ knock, and those few who did answer their doors turned away without offering the water that both men would have welcomed.
John the Baptist Gayler (age 35, still living in the very neighborhood where he had been born) had also heard that the Mormons were coming, but it wasn’t in his nature to turn away a thirsty man. He reached out to shake Elder Miller’s hand, and without breaking grip he pulled the missionary into his home.
“The first words I ever spoke to a Mormon elder,” he would later like to say, paired with a chuckle, “were ‘Come in!’”
As the elders rested and drank their fill, they explained the Articles of Faith to John and his wife Margaret (age 32, from Benton County, Tennessee). They left three tracts with the couple, then continued on their way, promising to call again.
The Gaylers were interested enough in the tracts to stay up reading late into the night. By morning, both had decided they wanted to be baptized when the elders came again. They waited for the promised return visit. And waited. And waited some more. The missionaries didn’t return for five long months; when they did, they found the Gaylers still eager, and baptized them on March 13, 1894.
Word spread fast. At dusk that evening, John saw a crowd of his neighbors approaching the house. Some of them were carrying leather whips.
“We came to talk to the Mormons,” one said.
“Come in and talk to them,” John replied agreeably. “It won’t be healthy to try anything else.” And he stood aside, his shotgun cradled in his arm, to let them enter.
That wasn’t the last time John and Margaret protected missionaries – they eventually hosted some 500 elders in their home – nor the last time he arranged for his neighbors to talk with Mormon elders. “Many is the time,” he said, “I’ve sat and held a gun while the elders preached.”
John himself became a particularly effective missionary, memorizing and quoting scripture at a lightning pace. “If they can’t keep up with me, they can’t tell when I make a mistake!”
He had a witty answer for every challenge his neighbors raised. When asked why joining the Church was necessary, on top of living a good Christian life, he said that “the only ones who were saved from the flood were those who got on board the ark.”
Since the Gaylers never moved west but stayed at home to raise their daughters and work their farm, they also worked on growing the local church. Times changed, and the old hostilities faded. Some of their neighbors were converted, and over time, the two Gayler daughters and their husbands, with their combined eleven children, followed by twelve children in the next generation, along with those neighbors, filled the Gadsden Branch chapel.
Margaret died in 1928. John retired from his farm labor and grew dependent on a cane. He liked to sit in a rocker on his porch and greet visitors, whom he entertained with his stories and his stunts, like balancing his cane on one thumb. “To the casual passer-by who saw him lounging on the porch,” wrote one reporter who met him in 1942, “he looked like any other superannuated southern farmer. But Grandpa Gayler was different. You could tell that.
“His conversation was alive with wit and rich with philosophy, reflecting a full, contented life. In spite of the wrinkles which creased his face and the slight stoop which bent his back, he was not mired in the rut of old age. It was evident from his sense of humor and the mischievous twinkle in his eye that he had managed to maintain a fresh perspective on life.”
“Son,” he declared, “life wouldn’t be worth livin’ without the Church. It’s one thing that gives me satisfaction in my old age. I know it’s true, and I have known it ever since the day those first elders visited me forty-nine years ago.
“The gospel is like a feast,” he said. “It is laid out on the table for you. All you gotta do is he’p yourself.”
John the Baptist Gayler continued “he’ping” himself – and anyone else who would listen – until his death on November 23, 1945. He and Margaret represented a new breed of Latter-day Saint who extended the borders of Zion by nurturing the Church in their own neighborhoods.