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Be Ye Perfect, Even as Mantua Ward Was Perfect

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 26, 2008

I’m not judging whether the following incident is good or bad, or trying to guess what it really says about us as a people. I’m just sayin’ that it’s one of the quirky bits of our history that helps to make us who we are.

Mantua is a small Latter-day Saint town in Little Valley, Box Elder Co., Utah, east of Brigham City. Little Valley was a favorite early herd ground for the settlers of Brigham City, but the place wasn’t permanently settled until 1863 when a few Danish families settled there. Its inhabitants have been largely of Danish descent ever since.

Peter Christian Johnson was the bishop of Mantua in 1916. He encouraged his ward teachers (those we now call “home teachers”) to fulfill their duties – and they did – but he could have had no real idea of the record he was starting.

Beginning in 1916, his ward teachers visited every family in the ward. Every family. Every month. That’s 100% ward teaching.

They kept it up through 1917. And 1918. And 1919 and 1920. Through 1930. Still going strong – 100% ward teaching – through 1940. And 1950. And 1960.

This is the kind of record that could only have been achieved in a small ward, I think, and one tied closely to the land, as were the farmers and ranchers of Mantua, where people didn’t travel far or long. Those conditions certainly helped to create Mantua’s longstanding record of a monthly visit to every family, but that record also required effort on the part of the ward teachers.

But it was inevitable that something sometime would happen that would threaten Mantua’s perfect record.

That “something” was Sister Amelia La Blanche Mortensen Pulsipher Nelson, age 65, widow, and a lifelong resident of Box Elder Stake. Blanche Nelson went out of town for Christmas, 1960, to visit friends in Pasco, Washington.

Early in January 1961, Sister Nelson contacted friends in Mantua to tell them that she was having such a good time that she had decided to stay in Pasco until the spring – would they please keep an eye on her property until she came home? Those friends mentioned Sister Nelson’s plans to other ward members, who probably nodded and said what a good thing that was for Blanche, since she hadn’t had a real vacation for as long as anyone could remember.

And then it registered with someone – Sister Nelson will be gone all of January, and all of February, at least. We can’t visit her! What will happen to our wonderful ward teaching record? Bishop Allston Jensen was crestfallen. Here he was, a brand new bishop, and the first thing that happens on his watch is the end of an outstanding record. Oh, the humanity!

The bishopric and the ward teaching committee counseled together. Bishop Jensen recalled that on an earlier desperate occasion, ward teachers had driven more than 100 miles to make contact with a ward member and preserve the record. But Pasco was more than 800 miles away – no one could go that far.

They consulted Newell Larsen, the chairman of the Stake Committee on Ward Teaching. Could they make a telephone call to Sister Nelson and count that? Or could they contact the ward in Pasco, have someone there visit her, and transfer the credit to the Mantua Ward? Brother Larsen was torn by a conflict of interest – yes, he was chairman of the stake committee, but he was also a member of the Mantua Ward. He didn’t trust his own judgment in this particular case.

So they contacted the Box Elder Stake president, O. Dee Lund. Would he approve either of their proposed solutions? Sadly, he could not. He was sympathetic, but the rules were the rules. Neither proposed alternative would count as a visit for Mantua’s statistics.

Mantua would not give up, however. Not until the last minute of the last hour of January 31 would they admit defeat. First one ward member, then another, then still others, called Sister Nelson in Washington and begged her to change her plans and come home early. Other Mantua ward members wrote cards and letters – please, oh, please come home!

Sister Nelson, it turns out, was a thoroughly loyal member of the Mantua Ward. She knew how much the record meant to the ward, and she agreed to try to make it home before the end of the month.

She did make it. Immediately after reaching home, Sister Nelson was called upon by the ward teachers. And in the words of the Church News reporter,

The record is uninterrupted. The bishopric is pleased, the ward teachers are proud, the members are elated, and Mrs. Nelson is delighted even though her visit was cut short. The Presiding Bishopric commends this type of cooperation on the part of Mrs. Nelson and the dedicated effort of Bishop Jensen and his associates.

No, I don’t know how long the record remained uninterrupted. But I’m glad I wasn’t the one who eventually had to face the ward to confess I had let them down.



15 Comments »

  1. Should I print this story out, translate it, and give it to my home teachers? ;)

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 26, 2008 @ 6:54 am

  2. The interesting thing is that, according to your recounting of the experience, the concern of the ward was on their “statistics” and “record” but not on the welfare of Sister Nelson.

    If this is true, they were missing the mark.

    Comment by Scott — October 26, 2008 @ 9:04 am

  3. I agree they were missing the point, though it makes a charming story. It’s more than just making 100%, though. It’s something they took pride in as a community and it made them one team, brought them closer together. When you’re on a close knit team, what one cares about, all care about. Even if it seems trivial.

    However, if Sister Nelsen had refused to cut short her visit, would they have shunned her later, or ceased to watch after her farm for her? Would it have been right of them to do that? Is that how communities work, with enticements and also punishments for the noncompliant? Would it have been wrong for her to disappoint them, had she decided to stay?

    I’m really not sure of the answer.

    Comment by Tatiana — October 26, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  4. I’m glad I wasn’t Blanche Nelson in 1960. Because there’s no way I assist in propping up a meaningless statistic.

    Comment by queuno — October 26, 2008 @ 10:56 am

  5. (And I don’t mean to say that home teaching/visiting teaching is meaningless. And I don’t mean to say that statistics in the Church are meaningless. Au contraire. But focusing on the meaningless statistic of 100% at the expense of people’s life circumstances is irresponsible and wrong.

    Comment by queuno — October 26, 2008 @ 11:23 am

  6. *I* didn’t presume to judge what this says about us — I left that to commenters, and you have not disappointed! :)

    Do remember that, as Tatiana pointed out, it was a matter of community pride and everybody cooperated. There’s no reason to think that there would have been any practical consequences for Sister Nelson had she stayed in Washington, beyond never being allowed to forget it, perhaps. She *chose* to cooperate with the team effort when nobody could have legitimately complained had she not done so.

    Also, just because a ward has a high statistical rate of home teaching does not mean that the teaching that is done is poorly done.

    Gee, I guess i did have an opinion after all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 26, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  7. Honestly, without a whole lot more information about how the HT is done I can’t applaud or criticize it. I want to applaud the overall focus and dedication to the program, but the literalness/exactness of the need to have an authority figure decide if a phone contact of someone out-of-state is acceptable really bothers me.

    I remember being moved deeply by hearing of Dale Murphy’s dedication to HT as a professional baseball player – how he would call his assigned families from wherever he was playing around the country during his down time and talk for long periods of time with each and every family member. It was everything he could do in his situation during the season, and his families understood and loved him for it.

    **Can of worms warning** (Ignore if desired.)

    Likewise, I wonder often if we should count as visited those who explicitly ask for no contact – if and only if we honor their wishes and do nothing but send a periodic note asking if anything has changed. The spirit of the program often is explained as providing what the families want and need, even if that is different than the standard monthly visit. We always allow for more visits; we often allow for fewer visits of active members who request it in order to free up a HT companionship to visit less- or in-active members (but still allow a visit to be counted in order to not skew the stats unfairly, as long as some verbal contact is made); etc. I wonder sometimes how not honoring someone’s wishes and showing up at a door uninvited and unannounced (or sending a card every single month just to report a visit) is better than honoring someone’s wishes and sending a note annually. Why should honoring a DNC request make it look like someone is doing a bad job?

    I understand the possibility of abuse, but . . . it’s not an easy issue.

    Comment by Ray — October 26, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

  8. Ray, Only families assigned to be hometaught are counted in MLS, from what I understand. If only one family were assigned and home taught every month, the Quorum would have 100% HT. But Church headquarters takes number of families HT, not percent HT, so it’s moot anyway.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 26, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  9. Moot at the global level, perhaps, but not moot at the local level, unfortunately.

    Comment by Ray — October 26, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  10. The solution to a problem like this is simple. Transfer the membership to the ward where the member is planning to be for several months.

    Then the other ward would have the responsibility of looking after the welfare of the visiting member (as they should) and the record would correctly indicate that all families that lived within the boundaries of the original ward were visited.

    Comment by Mark D. — October 26, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

  11. In my Orem ward, the bishop announced in Priesthood Meeting that the ward had had 100% Home Teaching for TWO MONTHS!!!

    I raised my hand and asked how that could be since I had not been home taught for SIX MONTHS??

    My HT was the Elder’s Quorum President and is rather well known in the Mormon community. The pressure of achieving 100% Home Teaching influenced his decision to falsify the records. So, when I became EQP and then again as Bishop, I stressed to the Home Teachers that accurate, honest records were more important than impressive numbers. I wanted to know who was going for periods of time without contact. I didn’t want people to feel that they had dropped off the church’s radar, that no one cared.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — October 27, 2008 @ 4:15 am

  12. Yes, faking stats is wrong. Yes, meaningless visits solely for the sake of stats is bad.

    But please note, all, that there is zero suggestion that Mantua’s stats were faked. It’s also unnecessarily cynical to assume that visits were made only to say that the job was done.

    (My home teachers visit every month, and it’s a real, see that I’m okay, give me a lesson, home teaching visit. Their stats aren’t faked, and their visits aren’t perfunctory. I know it can be done!)

    If you were a bishop or EQP, wouldn’t it be easier to work on putting content into the visits if your home teachers were actually making the visits, than otherwise? I mean, at least you wouldn’t have to nag them constantly to get out the door and visit their assigned families, so you could move on to the next level, couldn’t you?

    I’m a little regretful that this has turned into another everything-that-is-wrong-with-hometeaching thread. I really thought it was kinda fun, kinda strange, that an entire ward was so invested in the program that they went to these extraordinary lengths. If Mantua’s stats were faked, some cynical person sometime during those 44 years would have made sure everyone else in the ward knew. If the visits were not productive of some kind of good, they would have slipped up much, much earlier. That’s human nature.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 27, 2008 @ 5:58 am

  13. As I was visiting family in Utah yesterday–on Home Teaching Sunday (it was the last Sunday of the month), I got to sit in briefly on two different home teaching visits. If only I had found my in-laws at home, maybe I could have hit the trifecta.

    As perfunctory as the second of those visits seemed to be, I was moved by the efforts made by the home teacher to visit my parents and the simple, but faithful prayer he offered on their behalf at the end of the visit.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 27, 2008 @ 6:24 am

  14. I wonder what the effect this consistent home teaching has had on the good gospel outcomes in the ward? I bet there is a correspondingly high percentage of endowed members, full tithe payers, young men that serve missions, etc.

    Comment by Ostrich — October 27, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

  15. #12 & #14 – Amen.

    (and I apologize, Ardis, if I contributed to what you mention. I didn’t mean to do so, but re-reading it . . .)

    Comment by Ray — October 27, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

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