So much of our history, outside of the centers of Mormon government is written from the point of view of the missionaries. The elders went here, the elders taught this, the elders raised up a branch of the Church. Local, non-missionary members tend to be mentioned only in passing – if that much. The record of the early days of the South American Mission, for example, records the establishment of a Sunday School in Buenos Aires as solely missionary achievement, without the slightest suggestion that anybody else – a local member, say, had made any contribution at all. The faces of Danish Saints of Aalborg appear in a photograph illustrating a 1910 account of the kindness of local members to visiting missionaries – but while the missionaries in the photo are identified by complete name, their hosts, the local family, are known only as “Brother Madsen,” “hostess,” and “pretty little daughter.” (And no, alas, I still haven’t identified them. Maybe this week.) It’s been very rewarding to dig out the stories of some of these overlooked Latter-day Saints.
Recently, I’ve realized that there is a third angle to these stories: In addition to the missionaries, and the local members and friends, there is also the perspective of those among whom the missionaries worked who did not identify with Mormonism in any way. Their stories aren’t quite as interesting to me – I confess that I am wholly in love with my own people, and their stories are paramount. Still, the reports of observers can be interesting, and I’ve started gathering some of them.
Consider, for instance, the early LDS mission to India and other parts of Asia. We have good accounts (like this one) about missionary activity there beginning in 1849. While those earliest missionaries were still at work, having surprising success, an additional nine missionaries were called to India during an August 1852 conference. These men (Amos Milton Musser, Richard Ballantyne, Robert Owens, Samuel Amos Woolley, William Fotheringham, Robert Skelton, William F. Carter, Truman Leonard, and Nathaniel V. Jones), accompanied by four other missionaries who would stay in India only long enough to puzzle out how to continue to their assigned fields beyond India (Levi Savage and Elam Luddington to Burma and Siam; Chauncey W. West and Benjamin F. Dewey to Ceylon), arrived in Calcutta on 25 April 1853, after 86 days at sea (they had sailed from San Francisco).
And were they noticed? They were.
The Herald (I think the Bengal Catholic Herald, but my source, a British newspaper reprinting the Indian story, is not specific) reported their arrival and early activities in early June:
The Mormons in India
The Mormons are making a desperate effort just now for the conversion of India to the creed of Joe Smith. Thirteen “ministers” arrived in Calcutta from the city of the Salt Lake, via California, a month or six weeks ago, and their “high priest” has lately got one of the newspapers to publish his manifesto. They are not likely to do much here. The Europeans laugh at them, and the natives do not understand them – for seemingly their gift of tongues does not include Bengalee. The “high priest,” just referred to, and who seems a man of considerable natural eloquence and ability, but of very defective education, boldly avows the doctrine and practice of polygamy, justifying it by reference to the cases of the patriarchs and kings of Israel.
The “high priest” remarks probably refer to Nathaniel V. Jones, who led this group of missionaries and served as president of the Calcutta Branch, and who really was “a man of considerable natural eloquence and ability,” judging by the text of some speeches he gave later in Utah Territory.
I don’t really care, I suppose, what the European community in Calcutta thought of the missionaries – but I do appreciate understanding what ridicule the elders faced, and – reading between the lines – realizing that they “boldly” proclaimed the Gospel in an alien land and in the face of that ridicule.