If your ward or branch has a normal member turnover, it’s a routine part of your ward business to “read in” the memberships of new people: Eery few weeks the bishop or his counselor will read names from a stack of printed membership forms recently received by the ward, ask people to stand as their names are read, and then ask the congregation to welcome the new members by raising the right hand.
Printed membership records transferred by a central Church office from a member’s old ward to his new ward are so routine that we seldom give them a second thought (unless, that is, you’re the membership clerk who has to deal with all those bits of data). Such printed records date only to the mid-20th century, however; for more than a hundred years, it was up to individual members to provide their membership information to their new wards. This might be done by a certificate sought by the member in his old ward and presented by him to his new bishop, or, in the earliest decades, by a simple handwritten letter from a clerk or bishop or missionary confirming the member’s status.
Relatively few of those transfer letters or certificates survive today – there was no need to keep them after the clerk in the new ward had made an entry in his membership book. I recently came across one such letter, though, for a woman named Charlotte Lee Hobby. It is undated, but was certainly written in 1896 or ‘97, when its maker, Joseph Stewart Geddes, was president of the Southern Alabama Conference of the Southern States Mission. The place of Charlotte’s membership is shown as “Pleasant Grove Branch,” a small branch near Birmingham, Alabama. And just to complicate things, the name of the man who baptized Charlotte is given as “Joseph A. Reid,” when in fact it was George A. Reid who both baptized and confirmed her.
Elder Geddes wrote about conditions in the southern part of Alabama in May, 1896:
Elders Ira Call and George A. Reid were laboring in Wilcox county, and held a meeting in the Goose Creek neighborhood, where they made some good friends, who began to seriously investigate the doctrine. In a short time the ministers came and stirred up the people to such an extent that the clerk of the church (one of our best friends) resigned his position, and other members declared their intention never to go to hear their preacher again. Shortly after this, we went there visiting and holding meetings with the Elders. We were kindly received by our friends and a meeting was appointed. Before the hour arrived, we were informed that a club had been organized to do us violence if we did not leave at once. Talk of powder and shot was profusely indulged in, but as we paid no attention to it, the meeting went on unmolested. We knew that the purpose of the organization was to frighten us out and cause our friends to forsake us. The plan was a failure, however, for we remained as long as our program would permit, and were not troubled. But the very morning we left, a cavalcade of about twenty-five horsemen came riding through the settlement inquiring for the Mormons and making big talk. They knew we were gone, but did it to excite our friends, which they succeeded in doing to some extent. One lady drew a gun on the justice of the peace (a prominent member of the gang) and told him not to open his mouth or she would blow his head off.
As a result of this little stir, some who were before undecided have now declared themselves on our side, and we feel fully confident that in the near future we will have the pleasure of recording some more names on our records.
[J.S. Geddes, “South Alabama Conference,” Deseret News, 30 May 1896]
A few weeks later, Elder Geddes confirmed that they had, indeed, recorded “some more names on our records”:
[Writing on July 1,] “Truth is mighty and will prevail.” We are holding more meetings to larger congregations, with more satisfactory results than ever before. During our short visit in Lowndes county … twenty-five meetings were held, and thirteen souls added to the fold of Christ. … We are fully persuaded that many of the Lord’s bright jewels are here being polished for the numbering.
[J.S. Geddes, “In South Alabama,” Deseret News, 25 July 1896]
Nine of those “thirteen souls” in Lowndes county were members of one extended family. The matriarch of that family was Charlotte Pace Lee Hobby Hall Hobby, age 67, thrice widowed (her second widowhood was to a casualty of the Civil War), the mother of seven. All six of her living adult children joined the Church along with her, or very soon after. Her “branch” existed more on paper than on the ground: no branch meetings were held, except when missionaries happened to be traveling through the area and stayed with members of the family. Charlotte didn’t need her letter because she was moving to a new branch; she remained in her Mt. Willing, Alabama home for the rest of her life. Rather than introducing her to a new branch, Charlotte’s handwritten certificate served only to document her baptism for herself, and it stayed in her possession until her death on 9 April 1901.
While the epitaph on her gravestone – “The truths you taught us are more precious than gold” – doubtless refers to more than her five years as a Mormon, I like to think that those words do refer in part to her leading her family into the waters of baptism, and to her remaining “in full fellowship” until the end of her days.
Charlotte is my great-great-grandmother, one of the “bright jewels” in my own gospel heritage.