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New Leadership for the Washington, D.C., Branch – 1929

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 29, 2008

Today, a branch organized without local priesthood leadership – with children organized into Primary and women into Relief Society, but with no functioning priesthood quorum, no assignments or leadership roles for the men who attended church regularly – would be remarkable, if it existed at all. Yet outside the western Mormon region, that was the norm until surprisingly far into the 20th century: Men in branches in the Midwest, or the eastern states, or in the South, or along the Pacific coast, or outside of the U.S., might serve as local missionaries or teach Sunday School or be MIA officers, but there were noorganized quorums and no responsibility for local administration.

The first elders’ quorum organized outside the intermountain west was that of Chicago, sometime in the late 1920s; I have not yet found enough about that quorum to write about it. The second such quorum, however, in Washington, D.C., leaves enough mark on history to see how those men conceived of their quorum duties.

The Washington quorum was organized on 6 October 1929, under direction of the Eastern States mission presidency headquartered in New York City, with four men selected as presidency and secretary: Reed Walker, Merlo J. Pusey, J. Herbert May, and Arlo B. Seegmiller. I haven’t yet dug into the biographies of all four men, but those I do know were western men temporarily in Washington for education, business, or government assignment.

These four men were left entirely on their own to decide what their duties as a quorum would be. The branch presidency would still be made up of transient missionaries with no stewardship over local members as we think of it today – missionaries’ duties were to proselytize, to preach and hold meetings, and visit scattered members annually if they could, but the welfare of individual members or the building up of a local church was really outside the scope of their work. So Elders Walker, et al., invented their duties, adapting the model they had known in the west.

First, they decided they would take full charge of the sacrament each week – not the meeting itself, but the blessing and passing of the sacrament, along with preparation and cleaning up.

Next, they assumed responsibility for blessing the sick and asked local members to let them know when they were needed, rather than looking for the traveling missionaries. They appointed a standing committee among the quorum members to be on call to visit the homes of the sick.

They took charge of the Sunday evening MIA meeting, turning it into a hybrid MIA-Priesthood meeting. The elders conducted the opening exercises, organized genealogy training for the women who might come, and convened the men as an elders’ quorum to work out the details of their most ambitious plan: block teaching, or as we know it now, home teaching.

The only block teaching these young men had ever known was that of the western states, where visits were literally made by blocks, since virtually everyone in their home communities was LDS. The situation that faces every elders’ quorum outside of today’s Mormon strongholds was completely new to them: branch members in Washington, D.C., were scattered all over the district. There could be no walking up and down the street calling on many families in an evening, or even visiting farm by farm as it was done in rural Utah. They would have to travel a distance to each home, making individual visits over a number of days or evenings, rather than making a single sweep through an assigned district. And they would have to do it with a limited number of men who were already, for the most part, carrying double loads as both students and employees.

Second Counselor May took charge of the project. He divided the city into districts, appointing a captain over each. The captains were asked to appoint teachers who lived in their districts, whose first duties would be to find out exactly who and how many Saints did actually live in Washington. By calling on known members, following leads from home, and compiling the first correct record of branch members, the teachers discovered 20 additional Saints whose membership records had not yet been sent to the branch, and for whom the quorum assumed responsibility.

The teachers held monthly meetings at which some “outstanding member” – and in Washington, they had many such to draw on – would teach a lesson, which the teachers would then carry to their assigned homes. In January 1930, the elders called at 76 homes. In February, the number of visits had grown to 151. Average monthly visits for the first year (I’m drawing on an end-of-year report for that year and I do not have numbers beyond that) topped 110 – {ahem} evidently the keeping of statistics was an early and enduring plague duty.

Enthusiasm among the men of the branch continued to grow, as young men were encouraged to prepare themselves to be advanced to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Sacrament meeting attendance climbed. Home teaching numbers remained high throughout the first year. The quorum raised money to send as a Christmas present to two men serving as local missionaries, and began efforts to hold regular cottage meetings to introduce friends to the full time missionaries.

All these duties and activities may seem obvious to us today. The reports from 1929-30, though, evidence a real tentativeness, a feeling-the-way uncertainty. I like that. It suggests a line upon line thoughtfulness, a willingness to adapt and try something new. The fact that it doesn’t seem at all new to us is also reassuring – they pretty much got it right the first time.



15 Comments »

  1. Interesting stuff, as usual!

    I wondered if I could find something about the priesthood organization in the Brooklyn Branch, so I looked quickly through the Brooklyn Chapel 1919-1940 Anniversary Book, and found the following:

    The first record of an Elders Quorum presidency is from 1930, when Percy L. Myer, Willy Reske and Friedrich Radichel served. I wasn’t able to find any earlier listing of quorum officers in the Ward History (a chronology of events from 1920 to 1940).

    There are some hints as to priesthood activities:

    On February 1, 1925, a conference of the Brooklyn Branch was held. Among the speakers were the superintendent of the Sunday school and president of the Relief Society–but nobody from an elders quorum presidency.

    On Feb 15, 1926, “Pres. Thatcher C. Jones commended the priesthood in their weekly meeting on the splendid visiting accomplished. Eleven families had been visited.” Emphasis added.

    July 23, 1926. At Priesthood meeting the branch president appointed one of the men to take charge of collecting funds to buy new song books, and B.H. Roberts “instructed the brethren to read and rely on the standard works of the church.”

    Aug 26, 1927. Several brethren volunteered to paint the fence and part of the chapel, and also to clean the windows.

    June 15, 1928. Priesthood meeting. A letter from Pres. Bishop Sylvester Q. Cannon urging the payment of tithing was read. Attendance 50.

    There are photographs taken September 21, 1920, of the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood of the branch. There are 41 men in the MP photo, and 35 men and boys in the AP photo. A few, such as the branch president James Knecht, show up in both photos. And, it’s not clear if any of the men shown are visitors–missionaries, etc.

    So, it appears that the men were doing some work before the quorum in Washington D.C. was organized, but it appears that a presidency was not organized until 1930. (As always, the lack of a record leaves one wondering if nothing was happening, or if nobody bothered to write it down. That there are lists, with photos, of Relief Society and Sunday School leadership back to 1919 does suggest that there was no organized elders quorum until 1930, and that the lack of a prior record is in fact due to the lack of the organization until that year.)

    And, as to branch leadership, James Knecht served as the president of the Brooklyn Branch from 1909-1932. It appears that he was baptized in New York–in a letter published in the Anniversary Book he writes:

    “In 1898, 1899 and 1900 we met at the Amphean Theatre, Bedford Avenue betwen South 7th Street and South 8th Street, Brooklyn. I remember as an investigator I listened to President Smart talk to the Saints for three hours and never moved in my seat.” William H. Smart was president of the Eastern States Mission from 1899 to 1900.

    So, there was a “local” leader in the Brooklyn Branch beginning in 1909.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 29, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  2. I should apologize for a “comment” nearly as long as the original post.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 29, 2008 @ 8:39 am

  3. Merlo Pusey was the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. I have a signed copy of his book, given to my grandfather who was a member of the DC branch back then.

    Comment by Last Lemming — September 29, 2008 @ 8:41 am

  4. Upon further review, I find that Pusey’s book was not published until 1951, 4 years after my grandfather’s death, so it must have been given to my grandmother instead. Just so the record is straight.

    Comment by Last Lemming — September 29, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  5. Mark, on 22 November 1908, Bro. Knecht was made branch president:

    “At today’s conference, in sustaining the different officers of the branch, Elder Knecht of Brooklyn, was given charge of the meetings in that place. Elder Watkins who was formerly in charge, will come to New York for the present.” (Salt Lakers in Gotham, 12 Dec 1908)

    I’m not sure what that office meant, other than literally presiding at and calling to order the Sunday meetings. The Eastern States mission president (or his missionary appointee) still called RS and MIA and SS officers, collected tithing, called and presided at conferences, secured meeting halls, and did everything else we tend to associate with modern leadership. I’m really curious why it took so long for mission presidents to realize what it means to a branch to staff and govern itself, and to recognize the significant local talent that must have been just about everywhere.

    (There are other Knecht references in that file I sent you, and other Brooklyn dates and names that I’ll bet will broaden the known history of the church in Brooklyn. You’ll end up writing a better LDS Brooklyn history than has ever been done.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  6. Cool, Last Lemming! I don’t suppose your family has private DC church materials squirrelled (do Lemmings squirrel?) away in the family homestead?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2008 @ 8:51 am

  7. There is no record of my grandparents holding any kind of leadership positions in the DC branch–hence, no squirreled away church materials (although some Lemmings do seem to share the squirreling gene). Enough illustrious families passed through DC back then, however, that there may be other undiscovered troves.

    Comment by Last Lemming — September 29, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  8. After finally finding a minute to read your excellent post, I have just a few thoughts.

    First, I live in a ward with a large geographical area. Some of the visiting teaching and home teaching challenges are similar to what you’ve described. At one point my husband had the following home teaching assignment: drive half an hour to pick up his home teaching companion who doesn’t drive. Drive 15 minutes back to visit the family. Spend an hour and a half with the family, who love to visit. Drive the companion home. Drive home half an hour. And this was just one family on the route, although the other families were assigned with a different companion. (Did I complain? I don’t think so, but I did encourage him to request a change of route!)

    I think our current elder’s quorum president is much more pragmatic and is trying to give assignments within unofficial “districts.”

    Second, I sure wish I knew when my grandmother’s grandma lived in Washington DC. It should have been around this time, but I don’t know any details.

    Comment by Researcher — September 29, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  9. Ardis #5: When you mention “SS officers”, I assume you mean “Sunday School” officers. (Couldn’t resist).

    As I read over this, I couldn’t help trying to recall if such was the condition of the quorums in Germany. One German member mentioned that during the 1920s they only had about 10% of the gospel (I assume this means Church organization rather than doctrine). It’s interesting, too, that right before the withdrawl of the missionaries from Europe in 1939, the West German mission went through extreme efforts to prepare the German Church to be on its own. This included calling and preparing preisthood (and RS) leaders. Whether there were quorums organized at that point I don’t know.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 29, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  10. Jawolt, Steve — Sunday school officers!!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  11. Those poor French. They never could understand le Boche (or their language).

    It’s Jawohl, Ardis! :-)

    And, who knows. There were enough Germans in the Brooklyn Branch in the 1920s and 30s that it’s altogether possible that a few went back to Germany and joined the Schutz Staffel.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 29, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  12. Ich bin nicht Berliner.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  13. Brother Knecht’s son lives here in Utah (Sandy I believe.) I have not talked to him in a few months, but this will give me a reason to talk to him. He has wonderful stories about the Church in New York.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — September 29, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

  14. Good job leaving the “ein” out. (Kennedy’s mistake, turning him from a resident of Berlin into a jelly doughnut (sort of) was sticking “ein” into his famous statment.)

    But, put the “nicht” at the end. We’ll make a German of you yet!

    Comment by Mark B. — September 29, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  15. Jeff:

    Go see him. Take your recorder. Get all those stories!

    Thanks.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 29, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

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