Faith Communities: Mormons are weathering the Southern storms
By Dana Clark Felty
Created 2008-05-02 23:30
DeLee Brown shakes her head at the idea of being called “unChristian.”
Most recently, it happened last Christmas when Brown and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered their help to a local Christian social service agency and were turned away.
It happened once when Brown was invited to sing at a South Carolina Baptist church and was later escorted out when the pastor learned of her religion.
“I remember going, ‘Why? What’s wrong?” Brown said of the experience that happened when she was 13 years old. “I had never thought I would be considered not Christian. My belief and my faith in Jesus Christ is such a center of my life.”
About 4,400 area members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons,” follow a faith that is practiced in much the same way as other Christian streams: through prayer, scripture study and regular attendance at church on Sundays and other special occasions.
Mormons dress and live like their neighbors and coworkers. Only their 20-something, white-collar “missionaries,” who travel in pairs by bicycle are distinguishable as they spread their door-to-door evangelism.
Worldwide, the religion is growing.
But, in Savannah and through many parts of the South, the faith has long struggled to gain a foothold.
Brown, who was raised in a military family, once associated the South with anti-Mormonism. But that’s beginning to change. In the six years she’s lived in Savannah, she has learned something from her “born-again” Christian neighbors.
“What I’ve learned in Savannah is to not be afraid to say that I’m a Christian and to ask people “Do you have a church to go to?” she said. “Savannahians are a good example of good Christian service. I’m going to try to do that more often.”
While the Latter-day Saints make up a small population in the region and the state, their history is long and storied.
Shortly after LDS founder and “prophet” Joseph Smith began spreading news of his divinely inspired “The Book of Mormon” in the 1830s, some of the first missionaries began seeking out converts in Georgia.
Their efforts, which at times led to family rifts, met with hostility. LDS families were typically ostracized by their neighbors, according to Brigham Young University professors David F. Boone and David Buice in the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South.
In a June 12, 1879, letter to Gov. Alfred H. Colquitt, 23-year-old missionary Joseph Standing appealed for help in stopping an anti-Mormon mob in north Georgia led by Methodist and Baptist ministers.
“I have recently received letters from several members of our denomination at Varnell’s Station, Whitfield County, informing me that elders of my profession have been obliged at times to flee for their lives, as armed men to the number of 40 or 50 have come out against them,” Standing wrote.
A month later, Standing was fatally shot in a stand-off against the mob, making him the first of eight men “martyred” in the Southern states before the turn of the century, according to church historians.
While such violence against Mormons never reached Savannah, one early missionary found it a difficult place to spread the faith.
Missionary I.W. Clagg spent several months in Savannah ministering to about 16 Mormons and proselytizing, according to a 1901 article in the Savannah Morning News. He eventually left when the city council denied his request to sell Mormon literature without a license.
Clagg also told the newspaper the church had begun withdrawing missionaries from the South to focus on evangelism in foreign countries.
Meanwhile that year, an infant named Julia Mozell Love became the first baptized LDS member in Savannah.
In 1913, a couple named Arthur B. and Annie Laura Davis moved to a home at either 938 or 942 Wheaton St., where they began holding church meetings. Out-of-town missionaries who visited the couple were regularly picked up by police and jailed, church records state. The Davises always bailed them out.
By 1922, membership had only grown to 11. Still the group managed to raise enough money to purchase a lot at 1325 E. 31st St., and build their first chapel by 1929.
In 1961, the congregation completed construction on its current church, or “meeting house,” located at 613 Montgomery Crossroad. Another meeting house was built in Georgetown in 1985 which now serves as the center of the stake.
Members today are a mix of native Savannahians, transplants from the West and military families.
When Noma Cardiff, 66, joined the LDS church at age 14, membership totaled 1.5 million globally.
Today, there are 13 million. Globally, the LDS faith is growing by about 1 million members every three years, according to church statistics.
It’s a sign that the church is becoming more attractive, Cardiff said Tuesday while visiting her son’s family in Richmond Hill.
Son Tom Cardiff believes the Mormons have received more positive attention from the media in recent years. He credits the late church president Gordon B. Hinkley for doing more to explain the faith to secular media and nonbelievers.
“I think the church is more open today. It used to appear more clannish,” he said.
Recent news of a Texas polygamist sect, a radical offshoot of the LDS church, has inspired some questions about polygamy from friends and coworkers, Cardiff said. But for the most part, the public is learning that the church banned polygamy more than a century ago.
Some area Mormons also credit politician Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency for giving Americans a positive, modern impression of Mormonism.
But Tom and his wife September believe one of the main reasons the church is attracting new members is because of its emphasis on the family unit.
The national church encourages all LDS families to host a weekly “Family Home Evening,” a gathering of the nuclear family that includes songs, scripture lessons, announcements, games and snacks.
Part of the Cardiffs’ gathering this week focused on weathering the “storms of life.”
Seated under a painting of Jesus and another of the Salt Lake Temple, the religion’s spiritual home, September Cardiff distributed tropical hats and leis to make the lesson fun.
“When we were sent here, we were sent on a voyage, a cruise,” the mother said.
Daily prayer as individuals and as families, reading scripture and living according to the church’s rules and expectations can result in eternal life in heaven with your entire family, she said.
“I know if we can bear the storm of life, then we can make it there together.”
For 13-year-old, Cayman, the third of the Cardiffs’ four sons, those storms sometimes translate into questions and strange accusations from his private school classmates.
Students have asked him how many moms he has or if Mormons worship spiders.
Tom Cardiff said acquaintances have asked if he had “666” written on his body or if he had horns.
“They were only half-joking,” he said.
But Cayman Cardiff said he appreciates the questions, which give him an opportunity to share his faith.
“I love bearing my testimony,” he said. “I feel I have something special that I need to tell people.”