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The Indian Press Notes the Arrival of Mormon Missionaries, 1853

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 26, 2012

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.



9 Comments »

  1. Had a nephew who served his mission in India a couple of years back, so this was interesting to read. In my nephew’s mission (Bangalore), he was normally very far from the mission home and office, and under considerable restrictions. They could not openly proselyte; they could only respond to the inquiries of others, and then teach if invited. They also were restricted to teaching in English, as the local dialect on India’s eastern coast (Chennai, Vishnakapatnam) was considered a holy language, and Christianity was not not to be discussed in that language.

    However, in an attempt to draw attention (successful, from what my nephew has told us), he and his companion attracted lots of attention just by both of them being 6 foot 4 or taller, with pale, freckly skin and reddish brown and bright red hair. Kids just wanted to touch them, and lots of people came up to them on the street to ask them questions. I believe they had more success than the 1852 missionaries.

    Comment by kevinf — July 26, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  2. That’s all news to me, kevinf — and funny and enlightening all at the same time. Thanks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  3. I suspect that others have thought of this before now, but it just dawned on me that the naming of missionaries only in those publications–whether in articles or photo captions–might come from the same source as the famous (and probably mythical) headline from a British newspaper: “Fog in Channel–Continent Cut Off.” Those magazines and newspapers were edited in Utah, or were edited elsewhere (the Millennial Star, for instance) by Utahans, and those editors, probably correctly, assumed that their readers would be interested to know the exploits of their sons/brothers/husbands/fathers much more than anything about the people in a distant country who talked funny.
    How thoughtless of them to care so little about the interests of future historians!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 26, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

  4. I’m sure you’re right, Mark. But man, is it annoying! And challenging!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

  5. To highlight Mark B.’s point, some of the names listed in the O.P are probably familiar to students of Mormon history
    (Savage- 17 miracles, anyone? Ballantine-founder of Sunday School, etc.) I’m not sure I could list the name of anyone of any race in India at the time. And the only non-Mormon I can list that might possibly be in Siam at the time is Yul Brenner :-)

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 26, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  6. Mark, I can only assume those writers and editors didn’t think about having to worry about historians, maybe because they never thought about having to actually answer to us, which seems silly given our view of the eternities. We’ll all get to ask them questions at some point. Which also supposes that we will get asked questions, as well…..

    Comment by kevinf — July 26, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  7. @kevinf,” They also were restricted to teaching in English, as the local dialect on India’s eastern coast (Chennai, Vishnakapatnam) was considered a holy language, and Christianity was not not to be discussed in that language.”

    I am not sure about this, I am Indian and Christian and I have never heard about this.

    Comment by Anu — July 29, 2012 @ 1:27 am

  8. Anu, thanks for chiming in. I only know what my nephew told us of the instructions given him by his mission president. What is the primary language/dialect of that area? I think he served in Vishnakaptnam first, Chennai later. While he picked up some minor skill in the local languages, he did not spend his time at the MTC learning a language, but just the normal missionary orientation stuff and some cultural instruction.

    Comment by kevinf — July 30, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  9. kevinf, your nephew probably meant Visakhapatnam. It is in the state of Andhra Pradesh and the language spoken is Telugu. Chennai is in a different state and the people speak Tamil there. As far as I know, both of these languages are not considered holy that Christianity cannot be discussed in that language. In fact, Chennai has a good number of Christians who claim their forefathers were converted by St. Thomas, one among the 12 apostles of Jesus.

    Comment by Anu — July 31, 2012 @ 1:48 am

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