Searching for a Sense of Place in Viriginia (a bleg)

I am at a stage in life when I think a lot about place. After a decade or so of moving every 1 to 3 years, our family has arrived on the banks of the James and there is a very good chance that this is where my children will grow up. My interest in place is heightened of course that I live a mile from the site of Jamestown — first English settlement in America — and work in Williamsburg — colonial capital of Virginia and, as one acquaintance put it to me “Disney Land for history major.” We live in a part of the world that takes its sense of place very seriously.

One of the ways that I have of thinking through and becoming acquainted with a place is by learning local history. I acquired the habit, I think, from my father who was forever telling me the stories — almost invariably Mormon — of this or that place in Salt Lake City or Utah: the place where the only tree in the valley grew when the settlers arrived, where the old walls of Salt Lake stood, which parks are built over the sites of old forts, where Brigham Young’s houses were, and so on. I think that one of the reasons why I always feel so at home in Salt Lake is the way in which my consciousness of the place extends in four dimensions.

There is this odd way in which I feel detached from the history of Virginia. It is not mine in the same way that the history of Utah or even Massachusetts (where my ancestors came from) is mine. One of the ways that I am trying to overcome this sense of alienation is by learning the history of Mormonism in Virginia. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

The first Mormon missionary to come to Virginia in the time of Joseph Smith was Jedediah M. Grant (my children’s great, great, great grandfather). Like most of the early missionary efforts in Virginia, he came into the Old Dominion from the south and the west, coming from Tennessee into the southern Shenandoah Valley. By the mid-1840s there were 7 branches in the southwest corner of the state. At that point, my research runs out.

I next find material on Mormons in Virginia in the 1880s. The Southern States Mission at the height of the anti-polygamy crusade was a none too friendly place for Mormons. The missionaries travelled without purse or script and seem to have kept to the back country. The mission was based in Chattanooga Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia seems to have been on the periphery of the mission. In those days elders tramping the back roads of the Blue Ridge, Appalachian, Shenandoah, and western Piedmont were regularly run out of the county by posses of local citizens intent on protecting their women from the polygamist fiends from Utah. In addition, between 1887-1890 problems with immigration authorities in New York led church agents to reroute Mormon immigrants through Norfolk, Virginia and during a three year period some 5,000 Latter-day Saints made their way through the Old Dominion on the way to Utah.

Now I run into even larger gaps. There have always been Mormons in Washington, D.C. During the early part of the twentieth century Mormons met in the home of Reed Smoot, and a chapel was eventually built in Arlington Virginia, which is still used by the Arlington Ward and claims to be the oldest LDS building the South. (I am skeptical as to whether this claim is actually true.) Andrew Jensen reported in 1930 that there were branches of the church in Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk, which is the first mention that I have been able to run across of church units in my part of the state, i.e. the southeastern Tidewater.

Which leads me to my bleg for all you Mormon history nerds. Can anyone point me toward sources on the history of Mormonism in Viriginia.

39 comments for “Searching for a Sense of Place in Viriginia (a bleg)

  1. Jacob F
    June 17, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Nate – Have you checked whether your wife has family history ties to the area? My ancestors are also from New England and Europe, but I started to get interested in the South when I discovered my wife has ties to several southern states.

  2. June 17, 2008 at 3:56 pm


    I’ll ask around among some of the old timers in my ward (in Charlottesville). I understand the sense of not owning the history here in the same way we feel an ownership of the history of Utah or some other places, but this side of the country is amazing history-wise in other ways. In our area, the Civil War history is fascinating, and of course up North there is a wealth of things to see. I recently stayed with a friend in the Boston area whose house has been standing since 1787, and on a bike ride through his town, I came across a church where people have been attending services since 1681.

    The only thing I wish about the East is that someone would have implemented the grid system of streets here like we see in Utah. What Utah lacks in architecture, it makes up for in ease of navigation…

  3. June 17, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve just checked the catalogs in the church history library and archives without finding anything really obvious that you might be able to get at your end of the country, although there are some stake histories. The journal of Samuel Jackson for the 1890s looks promising because he was stationed in Williamsburg, Richmond, and nearby places. Then there are the compilation histories Andrew Jenson cobbled together — there might be some interesting episodes or landmarks mentioned in the letters and clippings he pasted together (I’ll look). But overall, it doesn’t look as though anyone has yet written the book you want to read. You may need to research and write it yourself. (yes!)

  4. Gina
    June 17, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I was baptized in 1994 in Roanoke, Virginia. At that time someone gave me a fairly substantial history of the church in Southwest Virginia. I kept it for awhile but don’t think that I ever read it through and no longer have it, unfortunately. Now I would be very interested in it. I would check with someone in the Roanoke, Virginia stake, or the Roanoke 2nd ward. It wasn’t a published book, but it’s the sort of thing I’m sure someone still has a copy of.

  5. June 17, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Jacob F: I don’t think so. I think that I actually have some ancestors who were in the northern Shenadoah at the end of the 18th century.

    Dan: Let me know what you find. Don’t get me wrong. I love the history of Virginia, and one of the great advantages of living where I live is that the landscape has been researched in excrutiating detail. I am just trying to come up with a set of relationships to this place that is deeper than either “this is where we happened to wash up” or “I’m an American and gosh darn it there are a lot of patriotic things that happened in Williamsburg way back when.” Mormon history is one way of doing this, though by no means the only way. (BTW, Charlottesville is one of my favorite cities in America; you’re luck to be there.)

    Ardis: Thanks! I suspect that I would actually be kind of interested in readin the stake histories some time. Maybe next time I am in Utah…

  6. June 17, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Gina: It is good to know that such a thing exists. Thanks! I know that Roanoke is actually the “oldest” part of Virginia in terms of Mormonism. The first branches were down there as that was the part of the state closest to Tennessee, which is where the elders were coming from. (Of course, there are also very early Mormon contacts to West Virginia out of Ohio back before they seceded from the Commonwealth.)

  7. June 17, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    If you’re ever further north, the library in the Mount Vernon building has what looks like a self- (or stake-) published book on the Church in Virginia/Alexandria/something (I only lived there a year and, in spite of how interesting it looked, never looked closely at the book).

    Of course, I don’t think I could be any vaguer about content if I tried.

    What I found interesting in Virginia was that we had at least a couple people in our ward who’d been in the ward for 40+ years. Growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, nobody had been there for 40+ years (in or out of the Church–our city had only been incorporated in 1980), and here in New York, my wife is an old-timer at ten or 11 years in the city.

    Which, speaking of, Dan: have you ever been to New York? As long as you stay north of, say, 14th Street, we have the ultimate grid system. (And, since Richard Bushman was in the stake for a long time, we also have had extensive research done by a stake committee he and Claudia chaired on the history of Mormonism in New York; they used to put out a newsletter every quarter or so.)

  8. June 17, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Gina’s book is: Lynn S. Searle and June G. Searle, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Virginia Roanoke Mission (1987).

    Sam’s book might be: Eloise U. Whiting, A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia (1987).

    Do the authors’ names ring local bells?

  9. Mark B.
    June 17, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    There is a church building here in Brooklyn that was dedicated in early 1919 by Elder Reed Smoot (sadly, no longer owned by the church), which is claimed to be the first building built by the church east of the Mississippi since the Nauvoo temple. If that is in fact true, the Arlington chapel could be the oldest in the South–I don’t know how you’d verify either of those claims.

    Maybe Alan Cherry (Margaret Young, are you listening?) could help with one branch of Virginia Mormon history. About 20 years ago he collected some oral histories of African Americans in the church, and interviewed a lady here who had come from somewhere in Virginia–if I had to guess, it would be somewhere south and west–who came from a large multi-generation family of African Americans who where members of the church. Her surname was Kelly (or Kelley), but I’m not sure if that was her birth name or a married name.

    Actually, I just did a search at the Lee Library at BYU and found this:

    I hope that my memory is right, and that she is from Virginia–again, maybe someone in Provo can run over to the library and find out, and send a transcript of the interview, if there’s something about her Virginia childhood in the church in it.

    By the way, it’s “scrip”, not “script”. Scrip is substitute money.

  10. Kevin Barney
    June 17, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I don’t have any info for you, but I just want to reiterate my envy of where you are living and your situation (extremely cool).

  11. Ahna
    June 17, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Sorry, not a history nerd, but I do understand the sense of place. Virginia in particular. Although I’ve never lived there, I claim it as my own.

    My great, great grandparents, Jimmie and Olivia Covington, owned a farm in Fredericksburg, Spottsylvania County and joined the church in the late 19th/ early 20th century.

    My grandmother wrote a personal history and included a number of details about the church in Virginia during the early 20th century. If you’re interested, I could email it to you.

  12. Gina
    June 17, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Wow, thanks, Ardis! I’m pretty sure that’s the book I had a copy of. I was only a member of the church in Roanoke for a short time but the name Searle didn’t ring a bell. Apparently the Searles served as missinoaries in Roanoke in the mid-eighties and wrote that book during that time:

  13. gst
    June 17, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Mark B., they didn’t have a script either.

  14. Sam
    June 17, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I grew up in the east. And the majority of the east lacks the vast flatness of the west. The land in and around the Appalachian region is especially unfriendly to “flat-land lovers.” Thus, a grid street system isn’t going to work. The terrain prevents this. Utahns, try imposing a grid system in the foothills of the Wasatch front. You’ll see what I mean.

    #6, Roanoke is about 2.5 hours up I-81 from the border of Tennessee. I don’t call this close by today’s standards. Without a paved road and an automobile, Roanoke is another world away from Tennessee.

  15. June 17, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I thought I had found an 1871 newspaper article describing an LDS branch meeting right there in Nate’s Williamsburg … but from the names of those in attendance, I realize it was Williamsburg, New York. Drat!

  16. Researcher
    June 17, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    Sorry; I don’t have anything to say about the church in Virginia; I’ve just been there once and that was to visit someone in the DC suburbs.

    However, my family relocated to the mid-Atlantic region four years ago from the West and we live in a community where many others’ roots go deep. Lots of large old families and everyone is related. I’ve gotten more used to it, but even after four years it is hard to see how we’ve put down roots, and as far as I know, we could live here for the next 30 years.

    It’s been challenging to find that sense of place that you’re talking about. One thing that we’ve tried to do, as you have, is dabble in the local history. There’s certainly lots of that and it’s amazing to someone who grew up in the West to be able to drive fifteen minutes and see someplace where George Washington slept. (Really.) But when it comes down to it, most of the history is about someone elses’ families and religion.

    Something that means more is that every time we drive into Philadelphia, we pass the cemetery where my g-g-g-g grandparents are buried. We also appreciate the history of Philadelphia and its meaning as one of the important places in the development of modern medicine, since we’ve needed to access some of that excellent care for one of our children. We were very interested once when watching a show on Philadelphia to see the tour guide walk into a large church and say, “This is where the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith preached.”

    All these things have meaning, but are all rather tenuous particularly in the past little while that I have had to miss the funerals of three of my grandparents due to circumstances beyond my control. I do wonder how my children will look back on their growing-up experience and if they will have that same feeling of having “roots.” I sure wonder about my own feeling of place and belonging. [Yes, I’m feeling sorry for myself. :-) ]

  17. Mark B.
    June 17, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Actually, Ardis, since I spend at least one night a week and some time every Sunday in a church building in Williamsburg (the neighborhood in Brooklyn), I can assure you all that it is the one and only true and living Williamsburg on the face of the earth.

    gst–Yeah, just like today’s missionaries. No script.

    Sam: that “vast flatness” of the West sort of got stuck somewhere on the peaks of the Rockies as I tried to swallow it. The Appalachians are a scrawny Twiggy in comparison to the Jayne Mansfield of the Rockies. (Why did those poor French trappers call those mountains the Tetons, after all?)

  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    June 17, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    With respect to terrain suitable for the imposition of a street grid, anyone who has driven a stick shift car in San Francisco (I worked there 5 years) sort of hopes that the city fathers had NOT used a rectangular grid system for all those steep hills, but there they are.

    Washington, DC, clearly has a grid of streets, though the fact is often missed because of the distraction of the diagonal avenues in Pierre L’Enfant’s plan of the city, like the one that runs from the Capitol to the White House.

    I also lived in Maryland, which has many pairs of highways with the same name that wander independently around the countryside, and in northern Virginia, where the streets also wander with no apparent goal in mind, and change names every couple of miles or so in order to ensure that the damn Yankees get lost. Google Maps has earned its development cost simply by making the suburbs of DC driveable.

    My sense is that there has been a general steady rise in LDS membership in the DC area over the last 30 years, since I first arrived at Andrews Air Force Base just out of law school. What I experienced was a vast colonization of immigrants from the West to the East due to college and graduate school, military service, and jobs with the government (the courts, the CIA, Interior Department, State Department) and with the innumerable “Beltway Bandits”, the consulting and lobbying firms that feed off the blood of the taxpayers.

    My guess is that a good part of LDS history in the Tidewater is related to the military bases and the Mormons who initially came there with the Navy, Army and Air Force and then decided to stick around.

    My family history says that, although my great-grandfather’s ship came in 1896 from Sweden to New York City, he and his family then traveled by coastal boat to Norfolk, where they caught the train to take his family west. Indeed, I saw a history of the handcart companies which indicated that the 1860 companies (in which my wife’s great grandfather was a 6 year old boy) sailed into Norfolk and then traveled by rail and steamboat across various stretches of land until finally sailing up the Missouri to Omaha (Florence), Nebraska, where they built their handcarts. I wonder if there are government records on immigrants processed through Norfolk? My guess is that any repeated use as a port means there might have been a small colony of Mormons who helped the immigrants get through the process, just as there were in Council Bluffs, Iowa and Florence (now Omaha), Nebraska.

  19. Edje
    June 17, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    I can’t imagine that you haven’t already encountered the sources I know about. Just in case…

    –J. Golden Kimball served part of his mission in Virginia; he left an extensive journal. He also returned as mission president. (see Dialogue and New Era articles thereon. Quick quip: “I remember my companion was dismissing. We had our eyes shut and our hands up. I thought he would never get through. And when he said, Amen, we looked back, and there were four men … with guns on their shoulders. I said to my companion, ‘That is another lesson, from this time on in the South; I shall pray with one eye open’” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1925, p. 158). [Note also the attitude of prayer involving raised hands rather than folded arms].)
    –Online missionary diaries at BYU’s Mormon Missionary Diaries website.
    –WorldCat’s listings on the Southern States Mission, including a BYU thesis that I presume to be available online via the HBLL’s Mormon Theses collection.
    –the “Southern Star” and the “Elders Journal,” mission journals of the Southern States Mission–though I don’t know how you would obtain copies or how useful they would be to you.
    –Some mission records can be ordered on microfilm through the local family history center; those could help you identify early missionary efforts in your area.
    –the Whiting book cited above is available through BYU’s Family History Archive, which might also hold other local church histories
    –The Family History Library also holds local church histories, but in this case, I only see the Searle and Whiting volumes.

    Good luck!

  20. June 17, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Thanks to everyone for your help!

  21. June 17, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Interesting post, Nate. My situation has been about the exact opposite yours. I grew up in rural Virginia (Horsey and Chincoteague) and Maryland (Salisbury) on the Eastern Shore. Our ward and branch sense of community was always a major part of what I considered central to Mormonism. Great memories.

    Now, after also moving every 1-3 years for the past 15 years or so, we’ve finally settled down in Provo. Early Mormon history has always seemed bizarre (but fascinating) to me, so part of me has felt a bit detached here in Utah (though I’m coming around, have no regrets).

    Sorry I can’t help you on Mormon history on the East Coast.

  22. TMD
    June 18, 2008 at 12:17 am

    There is a chapel in a cove (rather like a hollow) in Tennessee, North Cuts Cove, which (though it has receded to the ownership of the family that donated the land) surely predates anything from the Smoot Period. The ward I attended in college, the Alta Mont Ward, uses it every other year for a sunrise service on Easter. (I never made it there…I was a college student, and a two hour drive each way, involving a substantial amount of gravel road driving, to reach a 6AM sacrament meeting, seemed like a bit too much…I kind of regret this now…kind of.) The last time I was there, in 2003, an old picture of the ward in front of the NCC building was in the Church History Museum as part of an interpretive display.

  23. cj douglass
    June 18, 2008 at 12:36 am


    no history info here either. Just wanted to say thanks for reminding me how great it is to be from Virginia – I miss her so.

  24. June 18, 2008 at 1:10 am

    I just want to add how insanely cool I think Ardis is…

  25. June 18, 2008 at 1:32 am

    I actually just finished reading A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia (that Ardis mentioned in #8). It’s a quite useful volume, and contains some great pictures (typical of most Stake histories), but also photocopies of a number of primary sources (membership rosters, missionary licenses, baptismal certificates, etc.) that makes it a particuarly great Stake history.

    As of right now, stake histories and missionary journals are the best sources on the Church in the South anywhere, something that will hopefully be remedied in the near future by historians like Edje. I’m also working on a short piece that treats Mormonism in the South, but its a slow-moving project thus far. I’ll let you know if I come across anything else useful for VA, Nate.

  26. Researcher
    June 18, 2008 at 11:39 am

    I realized yesterday that I actually do have a little bit on Virginia. It consists of the book “The Life and Ministry of John Morgan.” He was my grandma’s grandpa and was president of the Southern States Mission back in the late nineteenth century. He mostly worked in Alabama and Tennessee but there are notes in the book about Virginia. I see, for example, on page 259 that Henry W. Barnett and Matthias F. Cowley were in charge of missionary work in Virginia and had about 120 converts, most of whom moved to Manassa, Colorado. The Morgan book has an awful index so it’s hard to find more than that without rereading the relevant chapters. For a brief conference report of the mission you can see JD 21:179.

    You could probably find some good info on the mission by reading bios such as Cowley, Clawson, BH Roberts, Ben Rich, etc. as well as the resources that Edje lists.

  27. Sam
    June 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    # 17

    Well, if we are really going to compare mountains to breasts. I’d prefer a soft and gentle and curvy Applachian over a hard and pointy and generally inaccessible Rocky.

    Personal preference, perhaps.

    Anyway, give the Rockies several thousand more years. They’ll be looking just like the eastern peaks, minus the lush hardwood forests, of course.

  28. SingleSpeed
    June 18, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Don’t do very much missionary work or else the church will have to build a lot of new chapels – and an LDS chapels will kill any “sense of place” that previously exists in the area…. or maybe just limit your missionary work to the suburbs where one of our chapels will fit in just fine.

  29. Visorstuff
    June 18, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Don Searle and his wife wrote a book about the history of the church in Virginia when they were on their mission there. I saw it in a ward library in ether Ashland or Portsmouth, but I’m sure there are many stakes that also recieved copies, and i’m guessing that the work was submitted to the church. May be a place to start.

  30. Matt Jacobsen
    June 18, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Nate, I have nothing to offer in terms of church history in Virginia. I do get a kick out of the typo in the post title though :)

  31. KateB
    June 19, 2008 at 9:26 am

    I have a recent interest in Mormon History in VA history as well. A few years ago, there was a large party commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the King Street Bldg (Alexandria). I\’m not sure how recent your interest runs, but I\’d be willing to talk to some people in my stake/check out the Mt. Vernon Family History Library. Send me an email.

  32. Mark B.
    June 19, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Re: 27

    I suspect that those French trappers had spent so long in the wilderness that they were willing to lower their otherwise high standards.

  33. Glen
    June 19, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Nate, I’m from Virginia. My grandparents on my father’s side were members as far back as about 1900. I can’t begin to give a complete history, but I do know tidbits about the history of the church in the area. If you have any specific question, I can probably find answers; either my dad or someone else in my extended family could almost certainly tell you just about anything about history of the church in central Virginia back to the turn of the century.

    My grandfather’s family was converted when he was a teenager (exactly when, or by whom, I’m not sure). My dad was born in 1928. When he was little the Richmond branch met in a dance hall on Moss Side Avenue. At that time the Washington DC stake went from somewhere in North Carolina to southern Pennsylvania. When he was a young man the Richmond Ward was incorporated, and they built a chapel on Monument Avenue, which is still in use as the meeting place of the Richmond First Ward (among others, I’m sure). My dad was trained as a bulldozer operator in the military, and he helped dig the foundations of the building.

    In the fifties, during the Eisenhower administration, the Washington DC stake president was a guy named Ezra Taft Benson, who also happened to be the Secretary of Agriculture. Stake conferences were held somewhere in the DC area, but I don’t know where. My dad tells a story that he was asked to give an opening prayer at a conference session, but he screwed it up pretty badly because he just didn’t have much experience praying in public. After he sat down President Benson went over to him, put his arm around his shoulders, and talked to him about how to give an opening prayer.

    The Richmond stake was formed sometime in 1957. The first stake president’s name was Cashell Donahoe, who was instrumental in making sure my father stayed active as a young man. I don’t remember who succeeded him, but when I was a teenager the stake president was Glade Knight, who is also one of the founders of Southern Virginia University. I lived in Buckingham, which is about 30 miles east of Appomattox, and we met in the Burkeville branch. The branch was about 150 miles long and fifty miles wide and covered most of central Virginia.

    Until the DC temple opened in the 1970’s, all of Virginia (in fact all of the east coast) was in the Salt Lake Temple district, so anyone who wanted to get sealed had to go to Utah. My dad bought his first car so he could drive my grandparents to Utah to get sealed sometime in the fifties.

    When I was on my mission, approximately 1989, the RIchmond stake was split. A new stake center was built on the standard church plan, and was named by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as one of the ugliest buildings in the city.

  34. Glen
    June 19, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    “Sam’s book might be: Eloise U. Whiting, A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia (1987).

    Do the authors’ names ring local bells?”

    Yes, I’m pretty sure my parents know the Whitings. In any case I think I’ve got a copy of the book at home.

  35. June 19, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Glen! Great to see you around here again. (My e-mail isn’t working today, so I’ll just have to put my shout out here on the blog. How are the robots?)

  36. June 19, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    29: Visorstuff — I just checked the catalogs for both church library and archives without finding anything from Don Searle related to Virginia (he does show up there with some fiction, an article on the church in the UK, and some social service materials). If you by chance are in contact with Bro. Searle or one of the wards or stakes who might have an extra copy, the church library would really, really, really like to have one, I’m sure.

  37. Glen
    June 19, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    An electronic copy of “A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central Virginia” by Eloise Whiting can be found here. Unfortunately each page is a different pdf file. But still, it’s cool that it’s online.

  38. June 25, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    It’s cool. For reference, the bottom of that tree-navigation thing on the left at the page Glen points to has links to two PDF files, each of which represents 1/2 of the book. So, if you’re on a MacBook like I am or have that otherwise annoying feature where the PDF loads in a separate application instead of in your browser, you might like to use those links instead.

    I miss Virginia.

  39. Neal
    July 24, 2008 at 3:09 pm


    The oldest LDS Chapel in the South (and perhaps the East as well) is located in Altamont, Tennessee. I forget the exact date of construction, but it pre-dates the Smoot era by decades. Its a 1 room building with a steeple out in the middle of nowhere!



Comments are closed.