American Southerners have been joining the Church since the 1830s. The Southern States Mission became the most successful mission field in the Church in the last generation of the 1800s. During those years when southern LDS meeting halls were burned and elders and even members were murdered, many thousands of Southerners responded to the gospel.
Two elders knocked on a farmhouse door in Lowndes County, Alabama, on a spring day in 1896. The door was opened by Sarah Day Hall, holding her six-month-old baby. Sarah believed the gospel message instantly, recalling later that â€œit was like taking a drink of water when I was very thirsty.â€? Her husband Lewis was at work in the fields so Sarah could not invite the elders into the house, but neither could she let them leave: She stood in the doorway for almost two hours, her sleeping baby heavy in her arms, asking questions, accepting the answers, and extracting repeated promises from the elders to return when her husband was at home. They returned, Lewis also responded and the couple was baptized later that month.
Although many of their relatives in Lowndes County joined the Church, no branch was organized there. The Halls held a home Sunday School and warmly welcomed the occasional visits of traveling missionaries. Lewis and Sarah did their best to raise their growing family as faithful Latter-day Saints and relied on the Lord to help them through difficult times.
Daughter Lella became so ill with diphtheria that the doctor declared she would die. He told Sarah he would stop by the house the next morning to make out a death certificate. That evening the elders returned unexpectedly to the Hall home and blessed Lella, who was immediately and completely healed. When the doctorâ€™s knock came the next morning, mischievous Sarah sent Lella to open the door for a startled doctor.
The gospel improved their lives in unexpected ways. Sarah struggled to read the pamphlets brought by the missionaries and encouraged her children to excel in school so they could read the scriptures. The parents were only marginally literate, but their daughters became school teachers. Lella, still in her teens, received part of her pay by boarding with the parents of her students; one evening she returned to the home where she was boarding to find a Protestant minister come â€œto set the Mormon school teacher straight.â€? Sarahâ€™s daughter had learned the scriptures so well that she held her own in the ensuing debate.
The Halls began planning to emigrate to the West. But Lewis was a sharecropper; cash was scarce and babies came along regularly until Sarah had borne a dozen children. Her desire to move West became urgent as her children grew into their teens, because there were no Latter-day Saints for her children to meet and marry at home. World War I brought carpentry work for Lewis in the Mobile shipyards, and the family finally came to Utah in 1919.
Of their first years in the West, daughter Mabel wrote, â€œExcept for Motherâ€™s courage and determination, we might have gone back to the South where our peculiarities in dress and dialect would not have been peculiarities.â€? Lewis died in 1923, leaving Sarah to support six children still at home in Manti. Sarah took work in the pea factory, did laundry and ironing for neighbors, and cleaned the temple on Friday and Saturday nights despite crippling arthritis.
When Sarah died in 1946, Apostle Charles Callis, once president of the Southern States Mission, spoke at her funeral:
â€œI wish I were eloquent enough to pay a tribute to this good woman and her departed husband as they deserve. She was really a mother in Israel, and her husband was adamant in his advocacy of the glorious Gospel. They were built upon the testimony of Jesus Christ. And if the elders that have visited their home in Alabama could hear of her passing, they would shed many tears. God bless this good and faithful woman!â€?
photograph: Lewis and Sarah Hall, with unidentified missionaries, in Lowndes County, Alabama, circa 1904. Children (left to right): Lewis, Jessie, Claudia, Lella, Vernon.
(originally published October 2005)