Joseph Wilford Booth (1866-1928) served three missions in the old Turkish Mission, much of the time as mission president, tallying 17 years and 3 months in the mission field. His wife Reba (Mary Rebecca Moyle) served with him there about half of those years. Even between missions, when he returned to his home in Alpine, Utah, his time and effort was devoted to helping those Armenian Saints who had emigrated to the West, and raising funds and advocating for the needs of the Saints still in Syria.
There may be other missionaries, perhaps other mission presidents, who accumulated a greater number of years in the field, but surely few of them served so far away from home, under such often primitive, even dangerous, conditions, living so closely with those they served. President Booth’s diary and his every letter are filled with the record of his love of the people he served, his desires to help them temporally as well as spiritually, his willingness to give everything he was and everything he had to the Saints. Oh, he was not blind to weaknesses and faults among the people, and perhaps he was not always the most effective man in advocating for his people among Church leaders who could not imagine the conditions in Syria, but he gave his all. Much of the time during his third mission (1922-1928), he served without other missionary aid, except that of his wife.
He died unexpectedly on 5 December 1928, while still in Aleppo, Syria – he had kept his diary, and worked at packing rugs for shipment (he had established a rug-weaving workshop to provide a source of income for the Armenian Saints) up through 3 December. Upon receipt of word of his passing, the Church dispatched Elder Ralph V. Chisholm from where he was serving in Germany to hurry to Syria and aid Sister Booth in returning home to Utah.
President Booth was buried in a cemetery outside of Aleppo. The Saints there raised a small memorial to him there. Soon afterward, the First Presidency caused a thick cement slab to be set over his grave, and raised a larger, more imposing monument with a record of his service carved into the stone; the new monument was set in front of the earlier, local one.
For five years, the Saints in Armenia went on under local leadership, without a mission president. This was not due to neglect on the part of the Church, but due to difficulty in getting a new president into the Middle East under changing political conditions. President Badwagon Piranian, born in Syria and, after much moving around the world, eventually a naturalized Swiss citizen, finally cut through the red tape and was able to enter what had been renamed the Palestine-Syrian Mission in 1933.
In June 1933, apostle John A. Widtsoe traveled to Haifa, the headquarters of the new mission, to assess the needs and possibilities of the mission. Most of his time was spent in Haifa and Jerusalem, but he traveled throughout the region, meeting the Saints and making the acquaintance of government and educational leaders.
On Sunday, 18 June 1933, Elder and Sister Widtsoe met the Saints in Aleppo in two meetings. At the close of the afternoon meeting, the Aleppo Saints and their visitors walked out to the cemetery on a barren, waterless hillside and gathered around President Booth’s grave. There was no grass in the cemetery, Elder Widtsoe noted, but the concrete slab over the grave made it look “very tidy, and is a protection against the ever moving sands.” The grave was on high ground at the very back of the cemetery, “visible from all parts of the cemetery itself and from highway below. I was very pleased with the setting of the grave and with the effect of the monument.”
The Saints opened their service by singing “Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice,” one of President Booth’s favorite hymns and the name he had given to the missionary tract he had written and published locally. The local branch president, President Bezzian, gave the opening prayer. Next, Sister Widtsoe gave a message on behalf of Sister Booth. Sister Booth had dried some flowers picked from the Booth home in Alpine, and sent them to Sister Widtsoe, who placed them on the grave. At that point, many of the local members stepped forward, each one laying a single flower on the grave. Elder Widtsoe noted how scarce flowers were in that neighborhood, and was impressed that the Saints had found enough to cover the grave. Elder Widtsoe then spoke briefly, and gave a dedicatory prayer.
The gathered Saints then closed by singing “We Thank Thee, Oh, God, for a Prophet,” closing the service “just as the sun set behind the Western hills. A few clouds floated in the blue sky and made great splashes of color as the sun set. It was a peaceful, happy hour.”
But then, as the Saints began to turn toward home, one “aged woman, a member of the Church,” did something that indicates how the Saints felt about President Booth – that he was their beloved leader, and they would claim him no matter what other tributes and monuments were raised to his memory. The sister bent over the grave, and carefully picked out every one of the dried flowers sent by Sister Booth, then carried them to the smaller, locally raised monument hidden by the stone sponsored by the First Presidency, and carefully placed them on their monument. “The circle of members watching her do this with their approval said, ‘and there they shall remain undisturbed.”
Elder Widtsoe closed his written report of the service by writing, “President Booth is greatly beloved by the Armenian Saints. His picture is on the walls of the their rooms and his memory is cherished in their hearts. Undoubtedly he did much for them. He was not only a leader among them, but was a wise counselor with the spirit of a loving father. I am happy to know that his last resting place is in the land and among the people he loved so well.”
And then Elder Widtsoe records a curious detail: “After the services at President Booth’s grave, we went into the city and to the grave of Brother Emil Huber, there paid our respects to another valiant servant who has laid down his life in the mission field.”
Today, the monument to Elder Huber is located not in another cemetery, but within inches of the monument to President Booth. Photographs of their monuments do not show the pedestal beneath Elder Huber’s stone shown in earlier photographs; nor do they show a concrete slab, or the earlier marker raised by the Aleppo Saints over President Booth’s grave. Clearly at least one, perhaps both, monuments have been moved from their original locations, and one, or both, no longer marks the actual burial site of a man who laid down his life in missionary service. I do not know which stone was moved, or why or when, but now, alerted to the historical discrepancy, I will of course be watching for any clue that explains the history of these markers.