When I was a missionary serving in Marseille, France, my companion and I received a referral card from the Visitors’ Center on Temple Square, filled out by a tourist who indicated she was willing to have missionaries call on her family. We blinked when we saw the name on the card, and blinked again when we saw how long it had taken the card to travel from Salt Lake to Geneva (mission headquarters) to Marseille. Then we took the card over to the woman who had filled it out. Martine, with her parents, had joined the Church three years earlier – Martine hadn’t waited for the Church to send missionaries, but had hunted them up on her own after returning from her American vacation.1
Most referrals are handled with greater dispatch – what missionary wouldn’t rather call on someone who has already expressed interest in a visit than knock on the door of someone who has already been annoyed by too many such calls?
Referrals aren’t always as golden as they might at first appear, though …
In 1907 a letter arrived at Church offices in Salt Lake City from a man in London. I think I’ve identified him, but rather than risk a misidentification under the circumstances, let’s just call him “Mr. W.” Mr. W. expressed an urgent interest in meeting Mormon elders, so would Church leaders kindly have the goodness to send someone? The First Presidency forwarded the man’s name and address to Charles W. Penrose, the mission president in Liverpool, who promptly forwarded it Soren Peterson, the conference president in London.
Elder Peterson called on Mr. W. in January, 1908. He learned that Mr. W. was a wealthy and highly connected man, head of a large insurance concern (if I have correctly identified Mr. W., his firm specialized in industrial equipment and heavy machinery). The two men had an interesting conversation, Elder Peterson left him with several Mormon books, and Mr. W. invited Elder Peterson to return a few days later.
On the second visit, Elder Peterson asked about Mr. W.’s family. Ah, that was a story, indeed. Mr. W. was married, the father of four children. Unfortunately, he had separated from his wife a few months earlier – she had admitted to adultery, and Mr. W. was in the process of suing for divorce. The soon-to-be-former Mrs. W. was a wealthy woman in her own right, however, and the divorce was taking significant time – Mr. W. wanted custody of the children and half of Mrs. W.’s considerable income.
The youngest child remained with Mrs. W., but the oldest three children, all quite young, lived with Mr. W. Needing help with their daily care, Mr. W. had engaged the services of a French governess – nothing was too good for his children, after all. The governess was a very attractive young woman … and Mr. W. was a virile young man … and, how should Mr. W. put it … the governess was enceinte. If her pregnancy became known, Mr. W., also obviously guilty of adultery, would have a very difficult time in the divorce court and almost certainly would fail in his bid for his wife’s property.
What to do in such a situation? Contact the Mormon elders, of course.
As reported by President Penrose, Mr. W. “is willing to pay any reasonable sum of money to a Mormon Elder who will take the woman away and add her to his other wives!”
Elder Peterson was “astounded” and “angry” and “preached the Gospel to him and proclaimed repentance in no measured terms.” Mr. W. was equally astounded – what possible objection could the Mormon have? Mr. W. was giving him another woman! Weren’t Mormon elders notorious for their licentiousness? Why, the pharmacological secrets of their vigor were widely known! And there was money in it for him!
When Elder Peterson continued to call Mr. W. to repentance, Mr. W. became alarmed. “[I] have placed [my]self at [your] mercy and [I] would be ruined if the matter w[ere] made known!” There is no record that Elder Peterson promised him silence, although it would hardly have served the Mormon cause to have spread gossip about Mr. W.’s assumptions. He left Mr. W.’s house in disgust.
This incident is one of the tiniest footnotes to Mormon history. It illustrates, however, how badly we were misunderstood, and the unjustified contempt in which we were held – and by a class of people whose own behavior merited the censure they heaped on us.
- Although I cannot remember their surname, I can see each family member clearly in memory. Martine’s father had the strongest and most delightful Provencale accent: Demainga mataing je vais acheter du paing. Her mother treated us to cassis ice cream. [↩]