This week guest blogger Ron Madson has an outstanding post, Grandpa’s Hat (linked here and also in our sidebar for easy finding) up at BCC, telling what followed after he searched his grandfather’s missionary diary for the original account of a story that practically defines the Madson family’s sense of themselves as Mormons. He explores the story itself and issues of tradition and evidence and truth and compassion for relatives’ feelings. It’s a post tailor-made for Keepa, and I’m a little jealous that I couldn’t write it myself.
My comment to the post was typical for me – “Have you provided a copy to the church archives?” Ron hadn’t yet thought of that, and asked, “Do they even want such journals?? and if so, why?” So I explained why the diary of a missionary was valuable for documenting Mormon life and experience after the well-studied pioneer period and outside of the central stomping grounds of Mormonism. And I ended with a flourish – “Sometimes the owners of diaries don’t have any idea that some apparently trivial sentence on page 84 is exactly what is needed to solve some puzzle.”
I felt a little melodramatic writing that … but the next morning, I witnessed yet another evidence that tiny details in diaries or – in my case, newspaper clippings – can provide precisely the missing clue that leads to a better understanding of Mormon history.
Last week I sifted through a database of 19th century English newspapers, pulling out articles that referenced Mormons. One such article, from 1862, was the account of a man who had left the church. It began,
H. Billam, formerly of Sheffield, and subsequently a Mormon elder, has given an account of life in Utah, from which we extract a few passages.
After embracing the Mormon faith in 1843, I left Sheffield for America in 1848, and in 1854 set out for the Salt Lake city, remaining there for five years and seven months. I soon found out that Mormonism in England and Mormonism in America were two very different systems.
You can read the whole sour tale here; the above few lines are what matter for purposes of this post.
I did what I always do when I run across reference to a name and year of travel to Utah – check the Mormon Overland Travel Database to be sure the pioneer appears there.
In H. Billam’s case, he was listed only as “[Brother] Billam (or Billon or Bilan).” So even though it wasn’t much, I sent in a report confirming his last name and adding the teeny tiny trivial detail of his first initial. That was better than nothing, I thought.
Then yesterday morning I heard what that insignificant detail had meant. Elder D. Wood, who along with Sister J. Wood, has served umpteen Church service missions in the archives, tracing and documenting the overland travel details of tens of thousands of Mormon pioneers, took the clue of that little “H.” and located the record of a man named Henry Billam who had lived for a time in Springville, Utah, and paid tithing there in the mid-1850s. Having discovered his full name, Elder Wood then found evidence that Henry Billam’s family had been with him in Springville … thirteen members of his family. All 14 Billams are now listed by name in the pioneer database.
That may not seem to be much, at first glance. No scandalous or spiritual or amusing tale of significant Mormon history has been exposed. The Billams are unlikely to have LDS descendants who care about their convert ancestors. But it is a piece of the overall picture of Mormon history. The Billams’ faith in coming to Deseret, and their subsequent disillusionment and departure, is a part of our story. And for the many people who have devoted long years of service in working toward a complete and accurate roster of Mormon pioneers, these 14 names are an encouragement to keep looking for those last 10,000 missing names who, when they are found, tend to come by ones and twos, not by fourteens.
And the clue that led to their restoration to our memory was a single letter – “H.” – in an old document, which a skilled researcher like Elder Wood knew how to use.
So … if you have missionary diaries of your ancestors, or other documents that deal with the history of Mormons and Mormonism, consider donating them, or copies of them, to the Church. If you need help or information on how to do that, just ask me.