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One Hungry Missionary

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 04, 2009

Charles Denney, Jr. (1849-1937) was the son of English converts of London, baptized when he was 9, and ordained a deacon when he was 15 (which seems unusually early to me, for that time and place). He emigrated when he was 15, ahead of his parents, although he had an uncle and aunt, whom he did not know, to meet him when he reached Utah.

Denney wrote a biographical reminiscence in 1876-77 which includes one of the most engaging (if brief) accounts of emigration I ever recall reading. He remembered the trip as if he were still a 15-year-old rather than as an adult looking back, and recorded the details a boy would notice: the drowning of another boy about his age, his first taste of chewing gum, how his leader on the trail christened each wagon with a name as if it were a ship (Denney traveled with the “Weber Sal”), how he “washed” his shirt by wearing it into the river and rubbing it as best he could, then laying it out on the bank to dry while he went back into the river to wash his body. (You can read his short autobiography to 1877 here.)

Denney was called on a mission to Great Britain in April 1883, possibly in an effort to move him out of the reach of federal marshals who were beginning The Raid to arrest and prosecute men for plural marriage. That may have worked for the years of his mission, but almost as soon as he returned to Utah he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to the usual prison term in the summer of 1886.

In the 1890s he reminisced about his mission. Here is the account of a single day of a missionary, serving without purse or scrip but with very direct faith, and the generous local Saints who struggled to support the elders, in the Hampshire District of England.:

In this district the Saints were few, and not very rich, and what we here regard as a good, square meal was not often had by the Elders, who had to depend on the generosity of the Saints for their daily food. As I was a strict observer of the Word of Wisdom, I did not even indulge in a cup of warm tea, so commonly used there; my breakfast would generally consist of bread and butter and water, and sometimes not much of that.

On the day of which I am speaking I started out to walk from Southampton to Buckland, Portsmouth, and my breakfast was an unusually light one. It was toward three or four o’clock when I neared the town of Gosport, and just before entering it, being quite tired and hungry, I stood by the roadside, raised my hat and prayed to the Lord that He would give me a good dinner, as I was very hungry and working in His cause. I replaced my hat and went on my way rejoicing, feeling that my prayer would be answered.

The first Saint’s house that I stopped at was a Brother Harvey, who had invariably invited me to eat when I called there, but he was not at home, and his son informed me that he did not know when his father would be home. So my first chance for a dinner was gone.

I crossed over the water from Gosport to Portsmouth on the ferry-boat, and made my way to Sister Willkes’, who had for many years kept an open house for the Elders; but she, too, was not at home, and I began to wonder why my prayer was not answered, feeling somewhat disappointed.

Sister Tolfree’s home was only a block or two distant, and thither I wended my way, for she had often made me welcome before, and I was confident a good meal would be provided for me when I got there. But imagine my feelings when I arrived there and was informed by her daughter that her mother was not at home and perhaps would not be for several hours. My stay there lasted but a few minutes.

I determined to make my way to my lodging place, which was a room in a house kept by Brother and Sister Russell, whose mother (Sister Burton) lived with her daughter and son-in-law. I had never known Brother and Sister Russell fail to ask after the health of the missionaries, speak a kind word or two, and invite them to eat. But upon this occasion Sister Russell opened the door for me and scarcely spoke a word. I sat down to a table where my letters and papers had been accumulating for the two weeks I had been absent and tried to read, but couldn’t. I examined myself mentally to see what I had done or said that my prayer should not be answered, but could call to mind nothing out of the way, and was sorely perplexed and very tired and hungry.

Presently while in this frame of mind I was suddenly arouse by a voice, almost as audible as that of a human being, which said to me, “Why don’t you go round to Sister Chambers’?”

I replied, “I will,” and suiting the action to the word, laid down the letter from home I was reading, put on my shoes, hat and coat and went round to the back street and knocked at the door. Sister Chambers opened it, and with a hearty welcome said, “Come in; we are very pleased to see you. What do you think, that boy Arthur has come from the ship today and brought a big piece of beef, and we didn’t know what to do with it.” (Sister Chambers and her daughter were vegetarians, so the meat was of no use to them.) “How fortunate you have come! We had to cook it, you know, to keep it from spoiling and now you have just come in time to help eat it.” Besides the hot roast of beef there were potatoes, cabbage and pudding, and other things to make a good meal, indeed. I believe it was the best meal I ever had in England, at least I appreciated it as such.

During the evening I related to Sister Chambers and her daughter Flora my day’s experience, and we all acknowledged the hand of the Lord in answering the prayer of one of His humble servants in an hour of need. I can never forget this circumstance – the prayer, the confidence, the disappointment, the self-examination, and the final abundant answering of the roadside prayer.

(I am not certain, but I think Sister Chambers may be Mary Jane Springate Chambers, b. 1850, with her daughter Flora Jane, b. 1875. I have no idea who “that boy Arthur” is, nor the other Saints mentioned only by last name.)



10 Comments »

  1. Fascinating. I do not think of people living then as being vegetarians on principle. I certainly had some hungry days on my mission, but none like this. And I carried both purse and scripts, of course.

    Comment by ESO — May 4, 2009 @ 8:02 am

  2. What a lovely story. I enjoy reading missionary accounts like this one. It reminds me of all the kind people who fed me back when I was serving a mission in western Germany. Like ESO, I never traveled without sufficient funds to take care of myself, but I worked in one area where my companion and I realized that between the members and investigators and other kind people we met, we could travel without purse or scrip(t?) and would neither starve nor want for a place to stay.

    Comment by Researcher — May 4, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  3. I love small miracles like this.

    I lived with 3 other elders when I was stationed in Bremen, W. Germany. We pooled our grocery money and had meals together, but once towards the end of the month food was running low. The Saturday mail delivery brought nothing, so we ate the last food in the apartment for dinner Saturday. Sunday was a fast Sunday and we had high hopes that we would be invited to a member’s home for dinner, but no luck. We were looking at 2 hungry days, because the next mail delivery wouldn’t come until Monday afternoon.

    It was after dark Sunday night when our doorbell rang. Three weeks before this night, my companion and I had tracted our neighborhood and met a woman who lived alone. She had a hunchback and had a hard time getting around, and also didn’t want to hear anything about the LDS, but she must have kept our card because she knew our address.

    Earlier in the afternoon she had decided to do something for “those nice American boys” and made a big pot of chicken vegetable soup, stockpot size. It was huge. This dear woman had come out in a drenching rain to knock at our door and invite us to her house for dinner. All 4 of us trooped over to her apartment where she served us soup and bread. It was one of the best meals I have ever had, and she sent us home with the leftovers. I still remember her.

    Comment by Mark Brown — May 4, 2009 @ 9:07 am

  4. This is a touching story. And the comments are great.

    Regarding scrip/script, it is the former and is a means of financial exchange. Growing up, though, I thought it was script, believing that the missionaries focused on contemporaneous improvisation in their teaching. I’d much rather go without a script than scrip, personally.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 4, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  5. If we had relied upon the Japanese members/investigators/others to feed us, I would have lost even more than the 35 pounds I did on my mission.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 4, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  6. Wonderful story. I could really feel the pathos in Denney’s realization that there was nothing more he could do than pray for a meal (“as I was very hungry and working in His cause”).

    Also, I enjoyed following the link and reading Denney’s short autobiography from 1877. Funny that he devotes only a half a sentence in that account to his mission to England (in fact, I totally missed it the first time).

    Finally, I found his recollection of crossing the Plains to be downright depressing; but how else to do justice to the experience of passing, one by one, each of those many barely-marked graves of travelers who didn’t make it to the Salt Lake valley? Very moving stuff. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — May 4, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

  7. I think Mark Brown’s story is even better than Charles Denney’s!

    We were treated pretty well by members in France, especially at Christmas time. I think it could be very hard to go hungry in France, even without the support of members — there were certainly a lot of generous people, even ones who didn’t know us any more than that we had just interrupted them with a knock on the door, who offered us something to eat and drink.

    Hunter, although the autobiography was written in 1877, it looks like Denney went back at some point and added marginal notes about later events like his mission. That’s probably why he didn’t say more, not that he didn’t have more to say.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 4, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  8. Those are great stories. I’ve had times when I’ve prayed and been provided for in great need as well. I’m so thankful.

    Comment by Tatiana — May 4, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

  9. This reminds me of some of the Southern States missionaries describing where they went and what they ate. The missionaries usually carried some crackers so they would have something to eat if nothing presented itself. Sometimes they would “glean” some produce. More than a few times dinner was a shared watermelon. But seldom was there any meat. (Who in their right mind would eat their tractor?) The exception was, of course, bacon.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — May 4, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  10. A friend of mine was divorced with two little boys. It was the end of the month and she was out of money and not much food. One of her sons kept crying for an orange, but there wasn’t any in the house.

    My friend happened to see the RS President walking up the street, stopping in front of every house, looking at it for a minute, then walking on. Soon she saw the RS President come back down the street doing the same thing. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang and the RS President was standing on the porch with a sack of oranges. She had bought them that day. After she got home, she had the feeling that someone needed her oranges, so she had walked up and down the road until she was impressed which house she was to give the oranges to.

    Comment by Maurine — May 5, 2009 @ 12:16 am

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