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Shipboard Services, 1930

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 11, 2013

I wonder how many man-years LDS missionaries have spent at sea traveling to and from their mission fields?

In rare instances, elders tried to travel incognito: When South Africa was denying entry to missionaries in the 19-teens, for no apparent reason other than that they were Mormons, it was easier to slip elders into the country if they traveled alone and were not known by their fellow travelers to be missionaries. But as often as possible, elders traveled in pairs or groups and were recognized by shipmates for who they were.

Traveling together for days at a time in the relatively small society of the ship must often have been many people’s first close association with missionaries. Especially when elders were on their homeward voyages, missionaries took advantage of this association to act as missionaries, sometimes offering their services as clergymen to conduct Sunday worship – generally not the only religious service onboard that day, but as an additional or alternative service. If you were an elder in such a position, knowing that your temporary congregation was drawn together out of curiosity as much as for worship, what kind of a meeting would you hold?

In 1930, 25 elders released from service from missions throughout Europe and Australia1 were in company aboard the George Washington. They offered to conduct a service, and the ship’s personnel both granted permission and furnished assistance by providing a place to gather and access to the ship’s printing press, where words to the hymns selected for the meeting were printed for distribution.

The Mormon service was the third one scheduled that morning (March 23), following Catholic and Episcopal services. The meeting, conducted by Max Christensen (released from the Danish Mission) opened with prayer, followed by the opening song, “O Say What Is Truth?” Elder Weston N. Nordgren, formerly of the European Mission2 responsible for reporting the service, noted that “many of the passengers joined in with the missionaries as they became accustomed to the tune.”

Next followed two short talks designed to introduce the missionaries to their audience as well as to preach a little Mormonism: Elder Christensen explained who the elders were and what they had been doing for the past two or three years. Elder Nordgren then spoke briefly about the Plan of Salvation.

These introductory talks were followed by the evident highlight of the service: a duet sung by Clifton G.M. Kerr (released from office duty in the British Mission) and Lamont L. Larsen (returning from Australia), singing “O, My Father.” “During this song,” Elder Nordgren wrote, “the whole audience seemed spellbound, so powerful was the influence of the message borne.”

The concluding sermon was given by Elder Kerr, discussing some differences between Mormonism and other religious beliefs. Then the elders and their congregation sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” a closing prayer was offered, and, as per shipboard tradition, one verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung.

Again from Elder Nordgren: “Throughout the service, the spirit of brotherhood and the Spirit of the Lord were abundantly present; many passengers remarked upon it to the Elders afterwards, though they did not all seem to know the reason for the wonderful power manifested. Many complimented us on our religious stand, and all in all, the service was one of the high-lights” of their crossing.

Have you ever participated in an ad hoc congregation like this, perhaps at a campground or other resort, with a largely non-member congregation? What do you think of the elders’ choices of hymns and talk topics for such an audience?

The elders aboard the George Washington in March, 1930:

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(kneeling, left to right:) Weston N. Nordgren (European Mission), Richard A. Jorgensen (Norwegian Mission), Max R. Christensen (Danish Mission), Clifton G.M. Kerr (British Mission), Wayne R. Nelson (British Mission), Edward L. Blacker, British Mission), Theron S. Covey (German-Austrian Mission).

(standing, left to right, reading both rows as one:) Willard G. Noble (German-Austrian Mission), Leo A. Teerlink (Netherlands Mission), Walter Schultz (Swiss-German Mission), Ariel A. Anderson (Australian Mission), Lewis A. Christensen (Danish Mission), Lamont L. Larsen (Australian Mission), R. Welling Roskelley (German-Austrian Mission), Kenneth R. Huber (Swiss-German Mission), Magne Agle (Norwegian Mission), George E. Brunt (French Mission), Miles Burgess (Swiss-German Mission), Adrian R. Gibby (German-Austrian Mission), T. Scott Varley (German-Austrian Mission), Glen Merrill (German-Austrian Mission), Hugo M. Erickson (Swedish Mission), Brigham Nebeker (Netherlands Mission), Max Schmidt (Swiss-German Mission), John W. Southwick (British Mission).

(No name reported for the photobomber in the upper right corner.)

  1. Elders from Australia sometimes sailed directly to the California coast; at other times they returned to the U.S. via England because better and more frequent steamer service could be had that way. []
  2. For decades, the European Mission served as a supervisory mission over all the missions of Europe – a sort of prototype Area, perhaps – and handled trans-Atlantic travel services for all missionaries, emigrating members, and even LDS tourists if they chose to use that service. []


6 Comments »

  1. Ardis, since the George Washington and her consorts of the United States Lines were “dry ships” during Prohibition, did the Church make a point of using only US Lines ships for transatlantic missionaries during the era?

    Comment by JimD — July 11, 2013 @ 8:04 am

  2. I haven’t seen any sign that they deliberately picked dry lines, although that might have been a consideration. What I have seen is lots of evidence that they negotiated with lines for the best rates and best treatment of emigrants and missionaries, which meant that they went with a single line each season (usually for multiple seasons) rather than booking passage indiscriminately. They had used British lines earlier in the century, but I’m much less familiar with the ’30s. I’ll watch for the answer, and perhaps someday I’ll have enough, and a story, to post about it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 11, 2013 @ 8:16 am

  3. Australia? I suppose that there’s no short way home to the U.S. from Australia, but I do think it’s longer to go through Europe than across the Pacific.

    But on a personal note (eventually: the name of the ship caught my eye. The George Washington was built for the North German Lloyd line, was interned by the United States after the outbreak of the first World War, and then seized by the U.S. in April 1917 when it entered the war. During that war it was used as a troopship, carrying soldiers to and from France. After the war, it carried Pres. Woodrow Wilson to France (twice) for the Paris Peace Conference.

    After spending the interwar period in private hands, the George Washington was again taken for government service, converted to oil-burning engines (at a shipyard in Brooklyn!) and then chartered to the U.S. Army for use as a troopship.

    In January 1944 she began regular service between New York and Southampton, Liverpool and, later, Le Havre. In mid November, 1944, she sailed from New York, arriving in England 26 November 1944 carrying the three infantry regiments of the 66th Infantry Division, including my father, Pfc. Eliot Butler of the 262nd Infantry.

    Whatever elegance the ship may have had during its early years had long since disappeared.

    Although there were a few other Mormon soldiers in the 66th Division, I don’t think they managed to get together for worship services during that voyage.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 11, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  4. And, I should add, your footnotes are in such small type that they’re almost unreadable!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 11, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  5. The footnotes appear legibly for me on my little netbook.

    Comment by HokieKate — July 11, 2013 @ 10:28 am

  6. Just one more detail about the SS George Washington. It was over 20 years old when it carried that group of missionaries back to the U.S. in 1930, and just a year from the end of its first useful life. It was mothballed in 1931 and remained that way until 1941, when the huge increase in demand for shipping brought it back into active service. Its old coal-fired boilers weren’t capable of generating enough speed, though, and that led to its refitting with oil-fired boilers.

    With zigzagging to avoid German U-boats, and steaming only as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy, the November 1944 crossing took almost two weeks.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 12, 2013 @ 9:03 am

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