This personal history was dictated just before the death of the subject, and published at intervals in the Church News in the two years following his death. Most of it centers on his life and mission to the Southern States. I found it quite engaging and not, so far as I have been able to find, published anywhere on the Internet yet, so I’ll post it in installments on Keepa. The biographical information with which this installment opens was written either by someone at the Church News or by Isaac B. Ball, the man who recorded Gaston L. Braley’s dictation, not by me.
Leaves from a Life’s Journal
Experiences of Gaston L. Braley, Patriarch of the San Francisco Stake,
as told to and edited by Isaac B. Ball, Berkeley, Cal., 1933.
Gaston L. Braley was a colorful character in secular as in ecclesiastical life. Born July 14, 1858 amid a rough and passionate southern environment in Tennessee, he passed through the Ku-Klux-Klan post-bellum period. His early life always impressed him in retrospect as a pit from which the strong gospel influence had dug him to win his life-long gratitude and the consecration of all the energies of a super-vigorous body and mind, and with an impressive personality.
Favored with a vision in midday, he also entertained and conversed with what he believed to be one of the translated Nephites, both experiences being vouchsafed to him before he had yet been baptized. Gathering to Zion by means provided in fulfillment of prophesy at the age of twenty-five, with his widowed mother and a widowed sister, he later returned to the south as a missionary to baptize nineteen souls, to build two chapels, to suffer imprisonment and court trial, mobbing and poisoning, to heal the sick times without number, to prophesy and live to see his words literally fulfilled, and finally to leave his example and testimony among thousands of souls in three states of the union.
After two strenuous years in the south he returned to his wife and family who were struggling with Idaho pioneer farming hardships with a valor not excelled by his own heroism. And because of a magnificent wifely devotion to the cause of truth, he was enabled to fill three other important short-time missions within four years after completing his first mission. On one of these later missions he presided over the first Washington conference and laid the very foundations upon which is now builded the powerful Northwestern States mission of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Holding important civic and ecclesiastical positions in Idaho, he impressed himself upon the history of the state of Idaho for many years, until in 1924 he moved to Berkeley, California. There he and his family joined with the few saints in the San Francisco Bay region at that time, until they later saw a growth in church membership sufficient for the organization of the San Francisco stake of Zion in 1927.
First serving as president of the high priest quorum of that new stake, he was ordained a patriarch in 1929, and spent his later years going about blessing and encouraging the saints, a true pioneer, a mighty devoted saint all his days.
In 1933 he dictated this biography from his sick bed. His memory was almost photographic, his language clear and striking and his facial and vocal expressions most interesting and impressive. He loved the truth and bore an unwavering testimony with power that carried conviction to many earnest hearts. But he was somewhat hesitant about making public certain spiritual experiences because they were very sacred to him. He requested the writer to make it very clear that he had not in any way sought to have these experiences advertised or broadcast indiscriminately because they are so intimate and dear to him.
“These experiences are so foreign and contrary to the hellish pit from which I came,” he used to say, “the hellish mobs and angry relatives, that I am filled with a very real fear that they be cheapened in any manner in the ears of those to whom they may come.
“When I go back over the things I have told you, I try to find some means to justify me in giving them to the public, and I find it when I turn to the life of the Prophet Joseph and recall the morning on which he went into the woods to pray and the Father and the Son appeared to him. Joseph didn’t hesitate to say that he had seen a vision and to describe it in detail. And now with that justification, I give these sacred experiences of mine as a faith promoting story.”
I never became a member of any church, although my mother urged me to become a Presbyterian minister. I found myself among my relatives going counter to their way of thinking and acting, to the extent that there was no the very warmest feelings between us. And yet I was considered dependable in their estimation. I found myself highly respected by the best people of the community. Once I called on an old man to borrow some money I wanted to get $500. I had nothing to offer for security but without asking a word he counted me out the money. I was only a boy in my teens. When I offered him my note he placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I would not take a note from you, for fear that your dead father would rise up out of his grave and condemn me.”
One beautiful spring evening in 1882, after coming in from my day’s work, I sat out under a cedar tree, waiting for the preparation of the evening meal. It was not yet dark when a venerable old gentleman walked up to the gate, only a few steps from where I was sitting, and addressed me, asking if he could spend the night at my home. I opened the gate and invited him in. By this time dinner was ready.
He impressed me as a remarkable person, but that fact hadn’t fully appeared until later in the evening and the following morning. He sat down with us and had a meal. I noticed that he ate very little. He was a stranger in very deed; not the type of man that lived in that community, or that I had been acquainted with. His views were different entirely, his philosophy of life was new to me, and yet very attractive. His manner of speaking seemed to fasten every thing he said upon my very soul, not because of much speaking, but because of the new candor that seemed to be so full of meaning. Not only in his speaking did he seem new and strange and different; but his face had the appearance of wax, his hair was white as snow, his clothes, though plain, were scrupulously clean, his shoes were clean, his hair was in good order. He seemed to want to talk more than to visit, or to stay all night. After a long and interesting evening we retired.
We arose quite early the next morning. He started talking about a big mocking bird that had occupied a cedar tree near our house for a number of years, and would start singing early in the morning, and keep it up until the day grew warm. After he had talked about the bird and looked around, breakfast was announced.
He inquired if we ever had prayers. I said, “No, we do not know how to pray, or what to pray about.” He suggested that we have prayers that morning, and we knelt down. He offered prayer. The language he used in that prayer had a strange effect upon me, although I didn’t know what it all meant. He thanked God for the privilege of taking part in the bringing forth of the Latter-day work; thanked God for the mission assigned him in ushering in the great Latter-day dispensation, and so on.
After we had spent a couple of hours conversing, he excused himself and left our home. Where he went and how he went I never could learn. He was not seen by neighbors; and when I told them of the visit they laughed at it and made fun of me.
In the fall of the same year, about October, 1882, I think, a man called at my place and said that a couple of Mormon elders were going to preach at my neighbor’s, a quarter of a mile away. Prior to this time the elders had distributed tracts about the neighborhood, and in some way we got hold of one. When we read it, we recognized it as being the same sort of thing that that remarkable old gentleman hd been speaking about. Therefore I went down with some of the neighbors to hear the Mormons preach that night.
When the time arrived for the meeting and the elders were about to begin, the lady of the house became violently possessed of devils. I’ll not attempt to tell what she did or said as it was too bad to relate. The crowd became greatly frightened. Two bachelors who lived near by invited the elders to come to their place and hold the meeting.
That was one of the most impressive meetings I ever attended in my life from that day to the present. The elders present were Robert Spence and Daniel Bateman, both of Salt Lake City, Utah.
The room where the meeting was held was the living room of a farm house. I took a seat on the floor about the middle of the room which was practically filled with people. After th e meeting was over the elders were invited out for the night. Their talk was on the same order as the talk of the old gentleman, above referred to.
Elder Spence told me in after years, that he predicted to his companion that night that some Mormon elder would wet my hair yet. All the time I kept connecting up these sermons and the tracts with the words which the old visitor had spoken to me.
It was in the spring or summer of the next year that I was in the field plowing when four elders came walking through the field. I learned from them that they were on their way to attend a conference. They had just gotten out of a flat bottomed boat, and tied it up nearby. They told me that I could have the boat. They asked if they could secure a drink of water. I told them yes, at the house. They went there for that purpose.
I quit work rather early that day and found that the elders had gone to my neighbor’s who was the father-in-law of the lady possessed of the devils, before mentioned. They had made arrangements to preach there that night.
After dinner mother, sister and I went over to hear them preach. Their efforts that night were a complete success. I think every soul in the room was converted. We invited two of the elders to stay with us that night. They were Joseph Thatcher and Richard Camp. We sat up talking until 2 in the morning. It was about the second time I had seen the elders and I told them of the remarkable old man’s visit. They said he was either John the Beloved, or one of the “three Nephites.” They told me of the Book of Mormon, spending the whole evening on that subject. Their teachings were exactly as the Ancient Visitor. We invited them back, and they, with others, came frequently.
Pretty soon, during the same summer, 1883, I began to take stock, to see just where I had gotten spiritually, and when I did I found myself so completely hedged around about by the principles I found myself had heard from the elders that there was no means of escape at all. The ground of Truth had been completely covered. I was looking for an honest way out of it, if there was one, but I found none, so I was willing to submit.
Up to this time I had no very striking witness, nothing entirely satisfactory, at least.
The elders had stayed all night. I had not slept, but I went to work in the field. While I was cultivating my crop in the forenoon I resolved to pray for a divine manifestation in connection with the experience I had had already.
I must say that I was an amateur in that kind of thing, but I tackled it anyway, having faith. I seemed to loose track of things about me, and was carried away into a mental state, which I haven’t a name for. I was transported from where I was, across the broad Kansas plains, deserted and burnt, over the Rocky Mountains and into the valleys occupied then by the Saints. I saw them happy and very busy and somewhat prosperous, as I went about.
Then I saw them become very lean. I saw the church in dire trouble. I saw the leaders of the Church hunted and persecuted. and I wept as I saw this. I saw some of them thrown into prison. I saw the Church robbed and hated.
Later I saw a change come, a great change. The field became ripe to harvest, there was plenty everywhere; confidence was restored; the Elders went about unmolested; the brethren were no longer in prison. Elders of the Church had political positions thrust upon them and I saw the Church overcome her adversaries, and come into her own. I saw Salt Lake City and her beautiful Temple.
It was about five p.m. when I discovered that I had been there all day, without food or drink for myself or horse and had been plowing constantly. I was on the point of exhaustion. I unhooked my horse, and went home, pondering upon the astonishing things I had seen.
And thus practically the first prayer I had addressed to Almighty God was answered in very deed. I lived to see that vision all come true.