Earlier this week I posted a letter written by Walter Lee Noblin, with the comment that his letter represented one of those pieces “that I can’t really develop into stories.” Maurine commented, “I find myself wanting to know more about Walter and his parents, like who baptised them? Are there others in the family who were converted?” Another reader remarked to me in person that he wanted to know what had happened to Walter after the date of his letter.
Well, I was premature in saying that Walter’s letter couldn’t be developed into a story.
Rather than just expanding the first post – especially since you’ve already read the punchline by having read Walter’s letter – I’m inviting you behind the scenes to show you what goes into writing some of my favorite posts, the ones grouped in the Topical Guide as “Latter-day Saint Lives.”
The first, and usually the hardest, step is becoming aware of someone who did something out of the ordinary, or who lived at a time or in a place where their story has to be extraordinary almost by definition. Sometimes I find such people because of a letter they wrote, as in the case of Walter Lee Noblin, or Annie Griffith Burbank. Sometimes it’s a single line buried in a longer routine report in a newspaper or church minutes, as in the cases of Geertruida Lodder Zippro and Carl Clifton Booth, or because I was casually helping somebody I met at the library, as with Roy Lee Richardson and William A. King.
Then I need to identify the person: If a woman, what was her maiden name? (In Sister Zippro’s case, I didn’t even have her first name, much less her maiden name, when I started). Did the person remain in the Church? (Finding a remarkable conversion story only to find later that the conversion didn’t really “take,” is painful and seems to defeat the purpose, in most cases.)
In the case of Walter Lee Noblin, I first had to expand his initials – he signed his letter only as “W.L. Noblin.” Because his surname is unusual, I was able to identify him quickly by working back and forth between the U.S. census and the church’s FamilySearch database. Sometimes I can use old church membership records to identify someone, or search the online Utah Digital Newspapers project, or even Google or go to one of the genealogical discussion boards that are organized by surname or locality.
That’s as far as I went before posting Walter’s letter.
Enter Justin, who reported that the Noblin name could be found in Liahona: The Elders’ Journal. This semimonthly magazine from the first half of the 20th century is roughly equivalent to the Millennial Star of the 19th and 20th centuries, except that the Liahona is limited to the North American missions. It’s a wonderful place to look for news items about anyone you know who was a missionary, and for material about the general condition of the church in local areas. Because BYU has digitized the Liahona (as well as many other materials), it’s also easy to search.
That search provided a wealth of evidence that Walter remained faithful to the Church throughout his life. He is mentioned repeatedly as a local elder, one who is successfully placing copies of the Book of Mormon, selling subscriptions to the Liahona (40 subscriptions in the first eight months of 1910!), holding multiple weekly meetings, and who in one 1918 issue is credited with a baptism. Walter bore his testimony in November, 1908:
It is with pleasure I bear my testimony to the gospel as taught by the Latter-day Saints. I have proved it by Holy Writ, and from every standpoint. I have had it shown to me in dreams and in many ways. I have been shown a great deal about my dead, and the Book of Mormon, and my Temple work and the Millennium. I have seen the sick healed. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.
The Liahona provides important personal information about Walter’s family, too, in partial answer to one of Maurine’s questions. William Henry Noblin, Walter’s father, wrote in 1906: “It fills my heart with joy to read the Journal and its glorious teachings, and to breathe the good spirit it carries.”
And again, in 1908:
I have been a member for several years and now wish to bear my testimony. I know this gospel is true, that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know that if we live for it we shall enjoy the presence of our Savior, and live and reign with him a thousand years on the earth.
When William died in 1912 (a correction to the date of 1910 shown in Ancestral File), the Liahona reported:
Walter [sic – it’s really William] Noblin of Spartanburg was called by death April 11. Brother Noblin has always been a friend to the elders, and has several times assisted in protecting them from mob violence. He had been a member of the church for twenty-one years, and to the last bore a strong testimony to the truth of the gospel. The funeral services were held Saturday, April 13, where many friends and relatives met to show their respect for the departed. Elders Hair and Pollock conducted the services.
In 1914 came this report:
We regret to report the death of Sister Jennette Noblin, 21 years of age, who passed away at her home in Spartanburg, April 11th, after being seriously burned the previous Thursday. The girl’s father, Bro. Wm. H. Noblin, died just two years ago the same date. The mother and family have the sympathy of all in their hour of bereavement. The funeral services were held at Spartanburg, Sunday, April 12th. Elders Richard Cooper and R.C. Carter being in charge and about four hundred listened to the elders explain the resurrection and life eternal.
And in April 1936 we find:
On the day of Prest. [Legrand] Richards’ [then mission president, later an apostle] arrival, a funeral service was held for Sister Noblin [Walter’s mother] one of our members at Spartanburg. The service was held in a Methodist chapel and over 200 non-members heard Prest. Richards speak.
Walter’s own death in December 1936 seems to pass without notice in the Liahona.
Some common genealogical resources add details to the family story. The Noblins struggled financially: In 1900, the family were renting their home; William and Walter (the oldest child) were weavers in a cotton mill; and Walter’s younger brother and sisters, all the way down to the age of 12, were also employed by the cotton mill. Four younger children were at home with their mother. While the parents and Walter were literate, the other members of the family were not: 18-year-old Rosa could read but not write; 15-year-old Palmer and 12-year-old Nellie May could neither read nor write.
Later, Walter became a salesman for a furniture store, employment he followed the rest of his life. He was required to register for the draft in 1918, and that draft registration gives us a physical picture of Walter: medium height and build, light brown eyes and hair; no scars and no physical impairments that would bar him from serving if called.
Because there was no established branch of the Church at Spartanburg, South Carolina during this family’s lifetime (indeed, the first formal Church organization starts with the establishment of a permanent Sunday School in 1936), there are few local Church records to search for traces of their lives. The sole record is a ledger of brief journal entries kept by missionaries in that district from 1888 to 1892 – miraculously, almost, because that is precisely the period where we could expect a reference to the Noblins’ conversion, based on the length of membership mentioned in Walter’s letter to the Juvenile Instructor. And what a treasure that ledger turns out to be!
27 February 1889: “Elder Redd baptized four 4 persons Henry Noblin, Margaret C Noblin his wife, E.J. Wilson, & Mary C. Harris.”
25 April 1889: “Testimony meeting at Bro Noblins splendid time Elders present Fairbanks Reeve Jensen & LeBaron”
16 May 1889: “Testimony meeting at Bro Henry Noblins splendid time and a good spirit prevailed. H. Fairbanks & D.T. LeBaron present, the former presiding.”
26 May 1889: “S School at usual hour at Bro H Sarratts in the arber Elder D.T. Lebaron presiding. singing. prayer by H. Noblin usual exercises engaged in”
13 June 1889: “Testimony meeting at Bro Henry Noblin splendid good time, members expressed themselves of desires to continue in a faithful performance of their duties. Pres. H. Fairbanks presiding”
18 June 1889: At a preaching meeting, “benediction by Bro H. Noblin”
7 July 1889: At a Sunday School meeting, “sister L Wilsons three children blessed also Sister Henry Noblins three” (Rosa, Palmer, and Nellie May, ages 8, 4, and 1)
20 July 1889: “Baptising & confirming here at Bro H. Sarratts five members, named … Walter E [sic]. Noblin [age almost 11]
“W.A. Reeve’s performed baptism ordinance, & H. Fairbanks, W.A. Reeve, Wm. Collard & D.T. LeBaron confirmed them members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Lat[t]erday Saints.”
… and so on throughout the years covered by the book.
Relative to Walter’s claim in his 1908 letter that “I have seen a mob of men of about two hundred around my father’s house with guns,” the missionary ledger records these events:
19 September 1889: “Bro. Robert Lanier & Mrs. Nancy Biggers were visited by a mob of 75 armed men, and unmercifully whip[p]ed in York Co. S.C. at, and near Hickory Grove for entertaining the Elders as they pass through that Co. to go visit the saints in Catawba nation.”
28 March 1890: “About 10 p.m. a dozen or more mob with blackened faces and armed with pistols, broke in the door of Bro John Gordon’s house where Elders D.T. LeBaron and H.S. Tanner were staying. The elders were taken about 1/4 mile into the woods and threatened a good deal, with pistols pointed at their heads. They were ordered to leave the country within 24 hours. With the exception of a few welts made by sticks they, however received no serious injury.”
2 April 1890: “Elders Reeve, H.S. Tanner, & LeBaron in company with Bros. Tho. Blackwood and Gordon went to Gaffney and engaged Attorney W. Waddy Thompson to take up the case against the mob, not with a spirit of revenge or retalliation, but to determine if Latterday Saints cannot be protected under the Constitution and laws of the United States”
10 April 1890: “A mob visited Bro Tho. Blackwood after he was in bed asleep, ordered him to open the door, light the lamp & assist them in searching the house for Elders – which he did – While this was taking place Bro John Gordon started from his house across the road to go to Bro B’s & was shot at twice, but not hit. Several other places were visited by the “Regulators” but nothing further of a violent nature done.”
11 April 1890: “Lawyer Thompson failed to do as he agreed in bringing the guilty to justice. The proper affidavits, were however placed in the hands of Justice James Scruggs but he hesitated, because some of the accused were his fellow Church members – until this morning his wife suddenly died & he returned the papers to Bro Gordon. Bros. Tho Blackwood & John Gordon have left the country. The four elders who were here went to Bro. Pooles for safety in the night.”
Relative to Walter’s report that he had “never been in a church owned by the Saints,” the journal refers regularly to meetings held in a member family’s “arbor.” That this meeting place was outdoors under the trees, as the word implies, is confirmed by the frequency with which meetings had to be cancelled because of rain.
Nor did the members at Spartanburg have access to any church building in the neighborhood:
10 November 1890: “Sister Martha Jane, daughter of Bro Robert C. Poole died, after an illness of ten days. She was an estimable young lady and a firm Latter day Saint.”
12 November 1890: “The funeral services of Sister Martha Poole were conducted at the cemetery, near the Beth[e]sda Baptist Church. Having been refused the use of the Church, some end seats were arranged, with logs & poles, under the trees and our meeting made a success. After singing Prayer was offered by Elder Wm A. Reeve. Remarks by Elders Collard, Reeve and LeBaron. Benediction by Elder Collard. A hymn was sung at the grave and elder LeBaron offered the dedicatory prayer.”
If I were researching the Noblins as my own family history or for a professional project, there are other sources I would check, such as the church census taken every five years for the relevant period from 1914 to 1935, records of the Southern States Mission, and diaries and biographies of elders who served in that mission anytime between 1889 and 1936. But I have plenty now to work with, and the afternoon I spent gathering these sources is about the limit I can afford to spend on a single blog post.
All that would be left to do is to assemble these pieces into a mini-biography in about half the space it has taken to tell you where I looked and what I found. I would bid for reader attention by beginning with a little drama – the story about the missionaries being taken into the woods – then introduce the Noblin family, showing you their general life conditions and their involvement with the Church, building toward the poignancy of Walter’s 1908 letter, then wind up by providing the evidence that multiple members of the family stayed true to their commitments throughout their lives.
When this work brings me into the imaginary company of such fine people as the Noblin family, is it any wonder that I love both my job and blogging?
24 November 2009 update: See The Kindness of Strangers.