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John the Baptist Gayler: “Come In!”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 14, 2008

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.



18 Comments »

  1. I love stories like this. I know they are out there. Thanks for sharing them.

    When did the church policy officially change about gathering to Zion? Was it all at once or did it just evolve over time?

    Comment by BruceC — August 14, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  2. BruceC, they started encouraging people to stay during the last quarter of the 19th century — but it was a mixed signal because they kept arranging Mormon emigrant companies from Britain, if on a much smaller scale than before. About 1893 there were some more pointed requests, mostly based on the lack of economic opportunities in Utah. They renewed that “we can’t provide work for you” call to stay home in the 1930s. There was a big wave again after the end of World War II, and my SLC ward still has a sizable portion of those who emigrated here specifically to be near church headquarters. I think I’d call the just-before-1900 call to stay home the official call to change, but one which has had to be repeated until it has been (mostly) followed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2008 @ 8:32 am

  3. While Jean-baptiste is fairly common in France, you definitely don’t come across the anglicized version that often. This is a wonderful story and important for the development of the Church in the South.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 14, 2008 @ 8:36 am

  4. “Many is the time,” he said, “I’ve sat and held a gun while the elders preached.”

    Wow. Talk about inviting the spirit in a powerful way.

    Ardis, this is right up my alley, and right in the time period I’m looking at. I’d be interested in your source here, if you don’t mind sharing.

    I’ll also not that Gadsden is only about a hundred miles from Nauvoo, AL.

    Comment by Mark IV — August 14, 2008 @ 9:38 am

  5. Who is that Mark B? It isn’t me, and, frankly, it’s a bit disconcerting to have someone else commenting with the same name.

    On another issue, it’s interesting that the two specific calls to “stay put” you mention in your comment #2 came during times of economic crisis. The Panic of 1893 is considered the worst economic depression in the U.S. to that time, and I suppose I don’t need to comment on what was happening in the 1930s. I’ve long contended that immigration is largely driven by economics, and it seems that the brethren, unwittingly of course, agree with me.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 14, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  6. Sorry, Mark B and Mark IV — Mark IV asked for an edit in the way his name appeared in #4 and I mixed who was who when I looked at the email addresses. It’s straight now, I hope. I hope.

    it seems that the brethren, unwittingly of course, agree with me

    Ha! I know a few commenters who would have omitted the “unwittingly.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2008 @ 11:03 am

  7. Whew! I’m glad that got cleared up!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 14, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  8. When Mark B. speaks, the debate is over.

    You can’t say that about Mark IV.

    Comment by Mark IV — August 14, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  9. Migration is often motivated by economic issues. I think sometimes we look at the 19the Century European LDS migration to the Utah only in terms of religious devotion. That was a major factor, but I suggest there were also economic factors as well. Many of the European immigrants were from economically depressed areas of Europe and were part of the growing working class. If you read of the deplorable conditions of the working class brought on by the industrial revolution it makes it easier to understand how one might be attracted to the Church along with its teachings of gathering in Zion. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    The immigration policy has evolved over the years. Most significantly during the period from 1890 to 1930. Nevertheless, there was a surge of immigration after World War II. They could be close to the Church HQ (and hence not feel like “outsiders”) and could have economic opportunities the US afforded which Europe did not in the immediate post-War era.

    There is still, I’m afraid, a sense among mission-field LDS to gather in UT. Out here many see having a connection to UT seems to somehow make you a better Mormon.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 14, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  10. Re #9 – Steve C, While I have seen what you are describing I have also seen some members with no connection to Utah complain about how “transplants” from Utah come in and tell them how they are doing things wrong. To be honest I can’t say their reaction is baseless. There are a large number of young (20 something) families that move into the area and procede to “fix” the local ward. And then, after finishing grad school, move on. Not that some things don’t need fixing, but it’s like they want the church to be even more uniform and monolithic than it already is.

    Sorry for the threadjack…

    Comment by BruceC — August 14, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  11. You’ve earned an occasional threadjack by your steady commenting … but I hope not to host a Utah bash/defense party …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  12. Bruce I’ve seen that too although a lot of “fixing” is improving inefficiencies. However it’s also the case even in Utah that when a new leader (often RS or Primary) is called they commence to “fix things” which can also annoy people if the leader is a move in. (I think most Elders are more laid back and don’t particularly care although when you get a guy who decides to have everything done the way he wants it can get annoying)

    My point being I’m not sure this is a Utah – outside Utah thing. Rather it is the fact that some people are micromanagers and overly anal about details that don’t matter. And when that happens in places with long time members and more transient members it causes tension.

    Comment by Clark — August 14, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  13. Mark Before beat me to it, but I was struck by the following quote:

    “Many is the time,” he said, “I’ve sat and held a gun while the elders preached.”

    Having lived in Alabama, that resonated deeply with me.

    Ardis, have I said how much I love these posts? If not, it’s hard to express how much I do.

    Comment by Ray — August 14, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

  14. Wow I had no idea the church had been in Gadsden that long ago. I live in Birmingham and never knew anyone Mormon the whole time I was growing up (or not well enough to know they were Mormon, at least). I met my first Mormon IRL when I called the missionaries and told them I wanted to take the discussions and be baptized. That was in 2001. Then I found out they aren’t so rare around here as I thought.

    This is so awesome! And it’s still true, a shotgun is quite a handy tool to have around the place. While I’ve known miscreants in my day who have no respect at all for an angry girl, they nearly all seem to have a great deal of respect indeed for an angry girl with a shotgun. I’m proud of John the Baptist Gaylor. =)

    Comment by Tatiana — August 14, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

  15. Bruce C and Clark: I know what you mean about “outsiders” moving in to fix things. I grew up in a small unit (and still live in a small unit) and it always seemed there were families moving in from larger units (not necessarily from Utah–I don’t intend this to be a Utah v. Anti-Utah comment). When a family would move in from a larger unit they usually got called into some sort of leadership position whereupon they would begin to correct the errors of our ways. Sometimes it was useful, other times not.

    I find this story of John the Baptist Gaylor insightful as to how the Church developed in the South. Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 15, 2008 @ 8:40 am

  16. Thank you, Ardis! I’m printing this off to send to my missionary son, serving in a neighboring southern state.

    Comment by Coffinberry — August 15, 2008 @ 8:55 am

  17. Nice, Coffinberry! I’m watching out all the time for stories about individual church members living normal Mormon lives at times and in places besides the usual, and will post ‘em as I find ‘em.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 15, 2008 @ 9:54 am

  18. Thank you for posting this. To me this story, particularly as you wrote it, bridges the gap between the founding stories of the Church, that sometimes seem almost too incredible, and the stick-to-it reality that I see today. While I have not experienced the shocking scenes Brother Gaylor described, which required stark heroism, I have seen simple miracles revealed by simple obedience over the course of years. I love your description of how the Church grew around Brother Gaylor. I hope that I can contribute to its growth in this corner of the vineyard. His story inspires me to keep on going, to serve more diligently. The gospel is a feast. “He’p yourself,” indeed.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — August 16, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

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