When asked at age 89 to recall what had attracted him to the gospel more than 60 years earlier, Arthur Elijah “Ot” Morgan answered with the terseness bred into him as a West Virginia mountain man: “Made sense.” He may have been short on words, but his life was long on action where the gospel was concerned.
Ot was born on March 7, 1868, in Wetzel County, West Virginia. He grew up with hard labor on a farm built on hills so steep that human muscle had to take the place of even mule power, much less mechanized power. He married Jane Lemasters in 1887 and continued to farm to feed his family, while working on the railroad to buy the necessities he couldn’t grow. He and Jane eventually raised seven children.
About a year after their marriage, LDS missionaries first reached their neighborhood. Ot answered the door one day to find two missionaries who invited the Morgans to attend a religious service that evening. Jane said they wouldn’t be able to come – she was too sick to leave home, she said, and indeed, she was lying in bed when she said it. The elders, though, simply said, “We shall expect you.” Ot watched as the elders walked down the road a little way, then knelt under a tree in prayer. They returned to the Morgan cabin and told the couple, “If you are not at the services this evening, we will know that you don’t want to come.” Ot was astonished by such a cryptic remark, but as he closed the door and turned toward Jane, he saw her getting out of bed, saying she suddenly felt as healthy as she ever had been. She fixed their supper, then the couple went to the missionaries’ meeting.
That night the elders gave Ot some missionary tracts and a copy of the Book of Mormon and told him that he should study that book and compare it to the Bible. The elders left the neighborhood the next morning; it would be years before the next elders appeared there.
Ot could barely read, but he took seriously the instructions of the missionaries to study the scriptures. He practiced reading, using the Bible and the Book of Mormon as his texts. He read out loud, hoping that by hearing as well as seeing the words he would understand them better. Night after night he studied by lamplight and soon he began to pray that the missionaries would return.
Eventually, Ot heard that Mormon elders were again in the vicinity. When he went to bed that night, he left a lamp burning in the window on the off chance that the missionaries would pass that way. If they were looking for a place to spend the night, he wanted them to know that here was a home where the inhabitants were still awake and they should knock on his door.
Instead, sometime during the night Ot became so violently sick that he was afraid he would die, and he didn’t want to die before he had been baptized. In his delirium he stumbled out of his house and began walking through the black night, mile after mile, up hill and down. He could not tell later how he had known where to go or how he had found his way through the night, but eventually he knocked on the door of the cabin where the elders were staying, and told them that he was dying. “This is the night. I want baptism now. Fetch your lantern.” The elders dressed, and just as the earliest signs of dawn appeared on July 18, 1896, Ot was baptized.
He was the only Mormon in the area. Jane was not interested. She never was interested. Although she didn’t oppose Ot in his beliefs, she forbade her children to read their father’s books.
For the next 17 years, Ot didn’t see another Mormon.
He became known as “Ot-the-Mormon” in his neighborhood, though. He decided to make the nickname a worthy one. More than once he helped a neighbor stagger home after the neighbor drank too much. When paychecks disappeared in Saturday night drinking binges, Ot-the-Mormon brought food to feed hungry families. He never turned away anyone from his door, even when they mistreated him – once, after allowing a tramp to spend the night, Ot-the-Mormon caught the tramp stealing a book but pretended he hadn’t seen the man slipping it into his pocket. After all, Ot-the-Mormon had another copy of the Book of Mormon, and he hoped the stolen copy would do the thief some good.
In 1913, when he was hard at work digging a ditch, two strangers approached and asked if Ot knew where A.E. Morgan lived. Ot eyed the pair, then, as terse as ever, nodded toward his cabin and said,
“Go to that house and wash up. Dinner’ll be ready directly.”
“But you don’t know who we are! How can you – ?”
“I know who you are. You’re Mormon elders, and I’m A.E. Morgan.”
The elders organized a Sunday School during that tour of the mission, with Ot Morgan as superintendent. His two counselors were two of his sons – both too old now for their mother to prevent their baptism. The lure of the forbidden had guaranteed that both young men had secretly studied their father’s books, and both were newly baptized. So was Ot’s mother-in-law.
The Morgan family formed the nucleus of the Church in the Martinsville area – even though Jane never joined the Church of her husband, children, and her own mother, she welcomed the missionaries to her home and cared for them as a sister whenever they stayed. The Sunday School thrived under Ot’s leadership, and he tried never to miss a meeting. Once, while running late to Sunday School, Ot decided to cross on the ice sheet covering a creek to save a few minutes. The ice broke and he was plunged chest deep into the cold water, but instead of returning home to warm up and dry off he continued on to Sunday School. He got there on time, too.
Jane died in 1924. Ot married a second time, and a third time, to women who accepted the gospel and helped him in his work with the Sunday School. He outlived them both. He had other troubles, as well – his eyesight failed, and most of his children moved away out of economic necessity. Some of those to whom he had taught the gospel could not remain faithful to it. The building they used for Sunday School was sold. World War II came and the elders were called away. But Ot-the-Mormon stayed on in the old neighborhood, living alone and never losing the desire to be of service.
Finally, Ot’s neighborhood was reopened as a district in the East Central States Mission in 1954, and a Sunday School was re-established. Ot was too old by then to attend very often, but he was pleased with the revival of the Church there. He paid his tithes and offerings, and he wanted to donate a plot of ground for an LDS chapel as soon as there were enough members to build one.
Ot wouldn’t live to see that achievement, or to fulfill another dream he had: “I wish I were able to go out and proclaim it [the gospel and his testimony]. I would like to go to Moundsville to the State Penitentiary and talk to the men there. I will always believe there is hope for mankind. But they tell me I’m too old.”
Arthur Elijah Morgan died at age 91 on August 10, 1959, firm in the faith he had embraced because it “made sense.”