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Henry Ballard’s Miraculous Newspaper Delivery

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 07, 2009

Please note: Although I will correct one detail in the account presented in Our Heritage, this post is not in any sense a negative criticism of either the story or its use in the current Sunday School curriculum. Anyone accusing me of accusing an apostle of preaching false doctrine will do well to save the keystrokes – you will be mocked for your lack of critical skills, and your comment will likely be deleted. Or maybe left visible as a permanent testament to your dimwittedness.

Regular readers and courteous first-time commenters need not fear such treatment, ever.

—oooOooo—

Gospel Doctrine Lesson 39, “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn to Their Fathers,” suggests that the teacher have a class member report on this incident contained in the supplemental text Our Heritage:

The following incident emphasizes the importance of the work the Saints were performing for the dead. In May 1884, Bishop Henry Ballard of the Logan Second Ward was signing temple recommends at his home. Henry’s nine-year-old daughter, who was talking with friends on the sidewalk near her home, saw two elderly men approaching. They called to her, handed her a newspaper, and told her to take it to her father.

The girl did as she was asked. Bishop Ballard saw that the paper, the Newbury Weekly News, published in England, contained the names of more than 60 of his and his father’s acquaintances, along with genealogical information. This newspaper, dated 15 May 1884, had been given to him only three days after it was printed. In a time long before air transportation, when mail took several weeks to get from England to western America, this was a miracle.

The next day, Bishop Ballard took the newspaper to the temple and told the story of its arrival to Marriner W. Merrill, the temple president. President Merrill declared, “Brother Ballard, someone on the other side is anxious for their work to be done and they knew that you would do it if this paper got into your hands.” This newspaper is preserved in the Church Historical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

A longer, more detailed account is found in a 1966 biography of Henry Ballard, which includes an account of the 1948 visit by missionary M. Russell Ballard to the newspaper office at Newbury to collection information in support of the family story. That experience, told in Elder Ballard’s words, also appears in “Missionary Journal, Ensign, July 1987:

In England, I was able to verify some details of an event that has become one of the great genealogy stories in the Church. As the Logan Temple was being dedicated on 18 May 1884, Bishop Henry Ballard, my great-grandfather, was at home writing temple recommends. His little daughter brought him an English newspaper that had been handed to her by two strangers in the street. It was the Newbury Weekly News – of May fifteenth! A story in the paper contained names and other genealogical data for more than sixty people, then deceased, from Henry Ballard’s birthplace, Thatcham, England. Later, after their temple work was done, it was learned that many of these people are related to the Ballards.

I visited the Newbury Weekly News and verified that the newspaper had never been postdated or mailed out early. I held the issue of 15 May 1884, in my hands and photographed it. There is no mortal way that, in 1884, it could have reached Logan from Newbury within three days.

I don’t doubt that this incident happened, as reported. (I do wonder, though, granting that President Merrill’s interpretation of the event was accurate, what was so urgent about the work for those particular people, or any one of them, that called for the involvement of other-worldly messengers in the mortal world in so dramatic a fashion. But that’s another post.) Odd things are par for the course to anyone deeply involved in genealogical research, and I have no reason to question the basic honesty of the Ballard family.

When he was a missionary in the British Mission in 1948, Elder Ballard attempted to verify parts of the family story by visiting Newbury. He confirmed that there was such a newspaper as the Newbury Weekly News, that it had printed an issue dated 15 May 1884, and that said issue did contain genealogical material. The images below are of that issue’s first page, the page where the genealogical material appears (second column), and a small part of that column enlarged enough for you to get a general idea of the kind of material printed there. (My scans had to be made at too low a resolution to make it worthwhile to enlarge this enough for you to read easily.) 

 newbury weekly - 1 - low res  newbury weekly - 2 - low res

 newbury weekly - closeup

Elder Ballard also photographed the English publisher’s copy of that issue, and, the 1966 biographer claims, those photographs were later compared to the very copy delivered to Henry Ballard and found to be identical.

Elder Ballard attempted one other act of verification which is less useful: He obtained a certificate from the current (1948) publisher that “the newspaper had never been postdated or mailed out early.” It is not possible that the 1948 publisher could be an eyewitness of the newspaper’s practices of 64 years earlier, or, even had he been a very young office boy in 1884 and a very elderly publisher in 1948, that he would have any direct memory of the printing and mailing of the relevant issue. I suppose it is barely possible that he may have consulted an 1884 daybook or office ledger, but Elder Ballard doesn’t say that.

If this were my family story, there are two more details I would want to confirm and which are well within the realm of mundane researchers:

First, I would want to know how and in what way the names in the 1884 newspaper connected with the family genealogy. Because I do believe in other-worldly assistance where genealogical research is concerned, knowing that connection would suggest to me who it was whose work was urgent enough to warrant such an unusual intervention. But none of the multiple accounts I have searched out give any clue to that. The absence of what, to me, is such an obvious avenue of investigation and such a crucial clue to understanding a miraculous event raises caution flags in my brain: until proven otherwise, I will have to wonder if this isn’t an embellishment of the account, added by someone who sensed, even subconsciously, the importance of that missing link.

The second detail I would follow up is the preservation in the Church History Library of the very copy of the newspaper miraculously delivered to Henry Ballard. Really, if you had an opportunity to look at, even hold, a tangible object that you suspected had been handled by angelic personages, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

Our Heritage says “This newspaper is preserved in the Church Historical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.” The 1966 biography said the newspaper “now rests in the Church Historian’s Library in Salt Lake City.” The Newbury Weekly News itself was proud to report in 2005 that “an original copy of the Newbury Weekly News, dated May 15, 1884, is preserved in the church headquarters’ archive in Salt Lake City, Utah – as the Mormon equivalent of a holy relic.”

I’m far from the only one, it turns out, who would like to see this artifact (I refuse to call it “a holy relic,” though). Apparently quite a few Gospel Doctrine teachers have trekked to the Library and asked to see it – so many, in fact, that Library staff obtained and printed the scans I’ve used above (their copies are better; I had to lower the resolution to squeeze them through my connection) to hand out to inquirers.

The thing is, though, that Henry Ballard’s copy of the paper is not housed in the Church History Library (which is now the umbrella label for the library and archives) – or at least it cannot be so identified at this time. It’s possible that it was not donated as reported. It may be there, but filed in one of the collections of Ballard family papers, or in another collection where it is not catalogued individually. It may have been pasted into a scrap book, or a record of temple work, or some other book, and lost its identity. It may have been discarded at some point by someone not recognizing its significance (it does not, after all, contain any overtly Mormon material).

It’s a trivial point compared to the purpose of the story, but if you have yet to reach this lesson in your ward, you would do well to omit that detail in your teaching. In fact, I omitted the entire story when I taught this lesson, or, rather, I substituted other stories – I have my own tales of miraculous assistance while doing genealogical research and temple work, to which I can bear a direct testimony, more powerful than the impressive value of bearing someone else’s testimony.

I wonder whether constantly telling the same few and ancient stories – I’ve heard the Ballard incident over and over as long as I can remember – doesn’t give the false impression that it was a unique event, and that the age of miracles is past.



22 Comments »

  1. Do we really need such stories to teach important topics such as genealogy? Some simply do not hold up under scrutiny. Consider the unfortunate story that claimed that Tolstoy approved of the Mormon church, which research shows he clearly did not. I have a personal genealogy story which is pretty good, but does not involve anything supernatural.

    Comment by Ray — November 8, 2009 @ 4:51 am

  2. Ray, please modify your moniker (add a last initial, perhaps), because “Ray” is already used by a long-time frequent commenter here and elsewhere around the Bloggernacle.

    The inaccuracies in the Tolstoy anecdote are probably best described as exaggeration — “unfortunate,” perhaps, but not, as your comment implies, a fabrication; it is not analogous in any way to Henry Ballard’s report. If it were still available, I would link to Justin’s examination of that question at Mormon Wasp — rather than blithely dismissing a widely known story with a vague “research shows,” you’d be doing readers a service by linking to something reliable.

    The supernatural — I prefer to call it “otherworldly” or “numinous” because “supernatural” has been coopted by the occult — is the undeniable basis of our religion, Ray. How can we –why would we want to? — avoid or deny the role played in our faith and our history by testimony of contact between the mortal world and the pre- or post-mortal world? From at least the First Vision onward, our history is filled with those contacts. In my experience, they continue today and bearing testimony to them is as important as bearing testimony to any other gospel principle or event or experience.

    I know of nothing that discredits Henry Ballard’s testimony, and find nothing inappropriate in teaching this story. My only concerns are that we not add to the story in modern times to “make it better,” and that a continued focus on a story like this not create the impression that it was an isolated event.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2009 @ 7:05 am

  3. faith promoting story Any story that that makes you feel glad you’re a Mormon, even if you can’t bring yourself to believe it. — Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary, Orson Scott Card (Orion Books, 1981)

    I’m a firm believer in miracles. I’m also a firm believer in not talking about them over the pulpit (with rare exceptions), much less over the internet, because they almost always get changed and distorted in the re-telling, usually being ‘punched up’ in the process. This is a human process and not at all limited to the Church; frankly, it happens a lot in ‘professional journalism’. (As a young boy, I had a friend whose pet boa constrictor escaped during his family’s trip back east. It made the local newspapers back there during the search; he kept clippings that described the snake as being 5′, 6′ and even 8′ long, even though the snake was only 3′ long.) (Yes, the snake was eventually found: it had curled up inside the car’s upholstery.)

    I have an acquaintance who sends me LDS-themed e-mails that tend to contain such stories. On several occasions, I’ve written him back privately with a correction to the claim being made. To his credit, he has always promptly sent out the correction to the same e-mail list to which he sent the original story.

    The danger, as Ardis has pointed out about this and other such stories, is that when such stories are debunked, it can make members call into question all such stories, including legitimate ones. The wrong conclusion would be to stop such debunking; instead, IMHO, it is not to spread such stories in the first place. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — November 8, 2009 @ 8:06 am

  4. Ugh. I try to delete those emails without opening them. I may have missed some wanted mail by being so eager to delete what seems likely to be a fake miracle forward, but it’s worth it.

    I wonder where is the right place to draw the line between testifying appropriately and exploiting inappropriately. Testifying to the miraculous, whether it’s as “routine” as finding comfort during grief or healing during illness or as extraordinary as Henry Ballard’s experience, is a necessary part of keeping our own faith alive and kindling faith in others.

    But nobody has any business adding to, puffing up, or exploiting such experiences — including (maybe especially) by launching email forwards.

    By the way, I meant to note that that relatively new site that aspires to be the Mormon Snopes isn’t establishing a very good track record of investigation into email forwards or other Mormon-related questions. If they can find two or three sources that make the same claim, that’s good enough for them to endorse something as true, without primary investigation. Their conclusion that the Henry Ballard story is true is correct, in my opinion, but their reason for that conclusion is untenable:

    “According to several sources, including Melvin J. Ballard: Crusader for Righteousness (1966), 16-17, this is the account of a true story. The exact newspaper even still exists to this day and is preserved in the Church Historical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  5. Excellent, Ardis; very well put.

    Comment by Ben — November 8, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  6. I have been involved for years helping members of the church get started and compile their family history. I understand the need to keep the details of such event correct and I have watched for years as the stories of Miracles that involve this work have been circulated. Many of them can become exaggerated and inaccurate, but they are also extreamly common.

    Most people who do family history regularly, will profess some kind of divine intervention or credit small miracles as they were gathering information. Most of these remain private and are shared only at times when they can be shared safely. Most of the time they are shared as a way of encouragement to others, and are not commonly recorded or circulated.

    They are usually quite personal moments, that are guarded and protected. The thing that strikes me personally is the commonality in which they occur, and in my personal experience they are almost as common as the spiritual conversion many experience as they are investigating the gospel.

    I have been doing this for nearly 15 years now, it is striking to me personally that it happens with such regularity, and that it has such a profound effect on the lives of ‘the rank and file’ members of the church. Those who feel they have been helped in a miraculous manner as they have done family history, it appears to me, are much more numerous, than we generally give credit to.

    For every over top story that I find circulated, I have have heard 10 that will remain personal and private.

    We may find The ‘Spirit of Elijah’ as we have come to call it, to be second only to personal testimony and revelation, as a motivator and comforter to rank and file members of the church.

    Comment by Jim B — November 8, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

  7. Thank you, Jim B. The experiences I have heard directly from the people involved, privately or in small group settings, have a power and believability that is missing from the mass emailed, sensational ones. I hope the people involved do record them. I generally have not, I realize. I’ll have to think about how to change that, appropriately, because I do believe that if they are used carefully they are in fact “a motivator and comforter.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  8. Ardis, You will recall that Henry Ballard was with Lot Smith in the Nauvoo Legion when U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s forty men cut loose at them up on Ham’s Fork. Henry reports in his diary 26 Oct 1857 that “… the bullets flew around us like hail plowing in the dust and cutting off the sagebrush but through the blessings of the Lord none of us was hit nor none of our horses nor was no sign of any bullet in our clothing, they followed us for some little distance slowly …”

    Steve Richardson’s website has the Utah War portion of Henry’s diary.

    Comment by Curt A. — November 9, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  9. Great post!

    Although, I am a tad bit disappointed, Ardis. Where are all of the dimwitted comments you promised? ;-)

    Comment by Brian Duffin — November 9, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  10. Brian, I guess I banned them so effectively after their whining on the handcart rescue lesson that they’re still in shock. Cowards!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 9, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  11. Thanks for this great write-up, Ardis. I happen to acquire a copy of Melvin J. Ballard, Crusader for Righteousness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966) a few months ago for some research. It has a nice discussion of the events, which you describe (pp. 13-18) and includes an image of the paper, which looks like the one you have posted.

    I quickly reread the section and I couldn’t find that it claimed that the paper was housed in the LDS Church History Library. It states, however: “Small wonder that the newspaper, now yellowed and somewhat ragged with age, has always been regarded as a sacred treasure by the Ballard family.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 9, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  12. …regarding the idea of a post-date, the book also talked about some verification:

    By Official Somerset House records the family confirmed the death of a prominent citizen, recorded on the same page as “Wanderer’s” articles, as May 8, 1884. Bells rang in the parish church “last Sunday,” as the death notice states, must have been rung on May 11, only seven days before the newspaper was delivered in Western America. The point is conclusive. (18)

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 9, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  13. “I wonder whether constantly telling the same few and ancient stories – I’ve heard the Ballard incident over and over as long as I can remember – doesn’t give the false impression that it was a unique event, and that the age of miracles is past.”

    Great post, and interesting commentary. I’d never thought of the re-telling of older inspirational stories in this light (that continued re-hashing of them might hide the importance of more recent happenings). Thanks.

    As for the statement that Henry Ballard’s copy of the paper is apparently not housed in the Church History Library, all I have to say about that is maybe we haven’t hired the right research team yet to find it. I think this calls for the help of Benjamin Franklin Gates!

    Comment by Hunter — November 9, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  14. J, the version of Crusader for Righteousness that I used is online here. The line about the paper’s being in the library is three paragraphs above the one you quote, at the end of the paragraph beginning “A representative of the family visited …” That online source is a transcription, though, not a scan of the published biography; I’d be interested in knowing whether this part matches the printed book.

    The paragraph you quote in #12 is the most confirming evidence given for the paper’s not being post-dated. I did not quote it, though, because I had no way to verify it myself. It is probably accurate, but there’s one thing that raises a caution flag for me: the sloppy, vague citing of the evidence to “Official Somerset House records.” That’s like citing to “records in the Mormon library at Salt Lake City,” a phrase I see often in online genealogy sites — a sure sign of an amateur who doesn’t know how to cite evidence, and something crying out for verification before relying on it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  15. Or Dan Brown, Hunter. :)

    I should clarify that I am all in favor of retelling all the old but true stories to new generations of church members. It’s part of our heritage and deserves to be passed on. I just wish we would broaden our repertoire: If we only talk about the Martin and Willey companies, we risk creating the false idea that those pioneers are the only ones who really sacrificed for their religion. If we only talk about three 18-year-olds at the Sweetwater, we risk marginalizing the selfless efforts not only of the other handcart rescuers, but also the legions of men teamsters on the down-and-back companies of later years, the bishops who greeted new emigrants in Salt Lake and made sure they were fed and absorbed into existing communities, and all the others who exerted themselves to bring new people to Zion. If we only talk about missionary activities in foreign lands, we overlook the local members who supported the missionaries and lived faithful lives in their own right.

    I don’t want to *not* tell Henry Ballard’s story; I want us to tell other stories, under appropriate conditions, that show that the Spirit of Elijah continues to work, that it wasn’t a phenomenon of the early days alone.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  16. And also, I should clarify that I know this post is a muddle and really goes nowhere in particular. I didn’t know what to do with it — I had the scans of the newspaper and the awareness that the newspaper cannot now be located in the Church History Library and wanted to share that. Ordinarily I would have let it sit until I came up with a coherent post idea, but this was tied to a current Sunday School lesson so I jumped the gun.

    You readers have certainly found some interesting things to say, despite the ragamuffin jumble of a post. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2009 @ 11:23 am

  17. Ardis, you are correct, I didn’t see that the Henry Ballard bio that you link to quotes the Melvin Ballard bio which I was looking at. In my quick re-read I also missed the comment that it was delivered to the Church Archives, though it was on page 17-18. This is an accurate transcription:

    A representative of the family visited the office of the Newbury Weekly News in 1948, and saw and handled that office’s copy of the issue of May 15, 1884. The entire issue was then photographed on the spot and a signed statement completed certifying that it was copied at its place of publication in England. Comparison reveals that the photographed copy is identical with the copy handed to Henry Ballard on May 18, 1884, which now rests in the Church Historian’s Library in Salt Lake City.

    My bad. I need to read more carefully.

    Do you think that I am correct in assuming that the image of the newspaper in the book and the scan in your post are from the photograph taken in 1948?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 9, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  18. J., thanks for doublechecking that line — I wondered if perhaps we were using different editions, with the line about the library either added or deleted, so I’m glad you checked.

    I just pulled the printed book from the library shelf (the online version doesn’t have illustrations) and yes, the images in the 1966 book seem identical to those used by the Church History Library to make the copies they were passing out. The angles of the not-quite-straight photographs are the same.

    The source could very well have been the 1948 photographs, but I don’t see anything that states that explicitly. If the library never had, or had lost by 1966, the original paper, the 1948 photos would be the only plausible source for these images.

    (I wish we knew whether, in fact, the library ever held the copy received by Henry Ballard, and if so, when was the last time it was recognized for what it was. The 1966 book claims that the 1948 photos were compared to the original paper and found to be identical — was the original paper really in existence at that time for a comparison, or is that assertion a modern (1966) accretion to add credibility? The description is just vague enough for me to be suspicious. Did the 1966 biographer know from direct experience that the original paper was in the library at that time, or was he just repeating an assumption reported to him by somebody else?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  19. RE: #16
    Ardis,
    That Ragamuffin Jumble sounds delicious! Once you’ve perfected it, will you share that recipe with us someday? Thanks!

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — November 9, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  20. Ardis, thanks for anchoring this narrative to history again. To me the other odd part of the story is the fact that the two strangers gave the newspaper to the child, rather than simply knocking at the door and asking to see Bishop Ballard, and then giving it to him directly. It seems to me that if this were an ordinary transaction, involving a newspaper that had been post-dated (by three weeks or more?), someone who thought it worth giving to Bishop Ballard would have taken care to hand it to him directly, along with an explanation of why he was delivering it. The fact that they were purposely avoiding a meeting with the adult, who would have insisted on a sit-down conversation and explanation, even though the item on its face seems so ordinary, is evidence that those two men were not ordinary. Were they unusual people, or was the way they obtained the newspaper and knew to give it to Ballard, of all people in Logan, unusual? Their behavior immediately focuses attention on the newspaper, in a way that would not have been accomplished by someone handing it to him directly and saying “You should read this closely”.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — November 20, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  21. A transcription of the Genealogical words in the newspaper is also given in the following (p. 203)

    The History and Antiquities of Newbury and Its Environs, Including Twenty …
    By Edward William GRAY

    Its a free google e-book

    http://books.google.com/books?id=ydZUAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=john+lansdell+newbury&source=bl&ots=ZeaED__N1T&sig=pN8sgpB4ikvWcUyF5EECkgpXGCA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=L91qUrjhNKmuyQGW-4DgAg&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=john%20lansdell%20newbury&f=false

    Comment by Rick Pettit — October 25, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

  22. Perhaps there was a typo on the date, maybe it was suppose to read Mar 15, 1884, and not the date seen May 15, 1884 ?

    Comment by Drinkwater — December 5, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

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