Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Those who went before

Published: Saturday, July 20, 1991

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Nellie Bolick Opie

South CarolinaHistorians believe missionaries first came to South Carolina in 1839. Missionaries found converts, but after persecutions in Nauvoo in 1846 and the westward trek of many members, the work was discontinued in the South for 40 years.

Resuming missionary work again in 1875 was a struggle. By 1883, some missionaries in the South were so discouraged by constant harassment and persecution that they would gladly have closed the Southern States Mission, Elder J. Golden Kimball stated in a speech many years later.

"But the Lord is not so short-sighted and impatient," continued Elder Kimball, a missionary in the Southern States Mission from 1883-84, and mission president from 1891-94. He was later in the Seven Presidents of the Seventy from 1892 until his death in 1938. "He has all eternity and He proposed to save His children. . . ."

Though missionaries struggled, local members made the effort worthwhile. One such member is Nellie Bolick Opie of the Columbia (S.C.) 1st Ward, whose grandfather, James Thompson Coleman, was among the first converts in South Carolina before the turn of the century.

Sister Opie, who was baptized in a creek just outside of Columbia, recalls as a girl listening to her parents teach the gospel, and meeting with small groups of members. Taught music by her mother, she became an accompanist for Church meetings for many years.

Often called upon to accompany the singing, she said, "My mother used to play the piano and organ before I did. Between the two of us, we must have played for a good 50 years.

"I remember the old-fashioned pedal pump organ. I remember Mama playing when one pedal was broken and she had to get all the air with one foot.

"I remember we used to meet in rented halls over stores. One place they used to rent was a small store on a very undesirable road.

Because the facility was so shabby, Southern States Mission Pres. Charles A. Callis "used to say, when he came, that he'd look up and down the street and if he didn't see anyone, he'd step inside."

She served a full-time mission under then-mission Pres. LeGrand Richards, who later served in the Council of the Twelve.

"I am grateful to have lived during all that development of the Church."

Alvin Canova Chace\ Florida

One of Pres. Alvin Canova Chace's first duties as a new stake president in 1947 was to take charge of arrangements to send home the body of the apostle who had called him as stake president.

Pres. Chace's sad duty came when Elder Charles A. Callis, a beloved and long-time leader in the South, died in Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 21, 1947, just two days after he'd fulfilled a long-time dream by organizing the Florida Stake, the first in the South.

The end of one era, though, was the beginning of another. For the next 14 years, Pres. Chace led the stake in an exemplary manner, according to Church leaders. He later served as mission president and regional representative. His lifetime of service threads through much of the history of the Church in Florida. He and his wife, Alzada, are members of the MacClenny Ward, Lake City Florida Stake.

The first successful missionary work in that state began Nov. 1, 1895, and one of the early converts was George P. Canova, who became president of the Sanderson Branch Jan. 1, 1898. His daughter Adeline - Pres. Chace's mother - became Sunday School secretary about the same time.

Just a few months later, as he returned from a conference at a location somewhere south of Sanderson, Pres. Canova was assassinated by an unknown rifleman.

Despite this tragedy, the Church continued to progress. A small building was completed and dedicated for Church use in 1906 in Jacksonville. Membership continued to grow, though it grew slowly.

"There was a time when we knew every member from South Georgia to Jacksonville to Miami," said Sister Chace, who, like her husband, was a pioneer member in the area.

In the new stake, long distances were the main challenges, recalled Sister Chace. In an area where home teaching might mean driving 150 miles each way, "You just go and do," she said.

"I did what the Brethren asked me to do," said Brother Chace. "I didn't question them. I put the programs right into effect."

Pres. Henry D. Moyle of the Council of the Twelve from 1947-59, and in the First Presidency from 1959-63, was once asked about Pres. Chace.

"Let me tell you about this Alvin Chace," he said. "He's so humble. This man was never in a ward, never in a stake . . . and he's become one of the best stake presidents in the Church."

Willie Lou Greene

Alabama

In the early 1890s, William Jefferson Greene met two LDS missionaries at the country store in Mt. Willings, Lounds County, Ala., and invited them to supper and to stay at his home that night.

He returned to tell his wife, Florence, who was upset because they had nothing to feed the missionaries. The newlywed couple hastily prepared. When the missionaries arrived at their home, she felt ashamed because of the scant offering.

But her shame soon fled, recalled their daughter Willie Lou Greene. She remembers her mother later saying, "They were the friendliest things - they were just like anybody else."

Sister Greene, now 82 and a member of the Montgomery (Ala.) 3rd Ward, continued, "That night, Papa invited a lot of people and the missionaries preached there.

"Mama and Papa took a mattress [stuffed with hay] off the bed to sleep on and gave the bed to the elders, but they wouldn't have that - they slept on the floor."

The Greenes were baptized about 1893 and remained faithful, though isolated from other members literally for decades.

"I was 21 years old before I went to an organized meeting," Sister Greene said. "We went to Mobile on the train, and I met Pres. Charles A. Callis. Since then I have met every one of the [Church presidents] except President Heber J. Grant. President Benson is a real good friend."

She moved to Montgomery in 1940 and found members there, but the war had taken away all the priesthood holders. An elderly man was called to be branch president but the branch had no clerk.

One day he visited Sister Greene and asked if she could help out. "I did it," she said. She recalled an investigator of the late 1960s named Frank W. Riggs III, who came occasionally with his wife, Isobel, who was a member. "I wanted Brother Riggs to be baptized so bad," Sister Greene said. "I made sure when he came that I shook his hand and told him how much we appreciated him coming. I don't know why I wanted so much for him to be baptized - maybe for her and her two children. He kept on coming till one day [in 1971T he decided he'd join the Church." Today, he is a regional representative, the first native Alabamian to be so called. "I love the Church," Sister Greene said. "I feel I could just open my arms and put them around all the people in the Church to keep them from doing anything that will keep them from progressing. "I feel like getting up on the house top and proclaiming the gospel. The gospel is so beautiful." D. Homer Yarn Georgia A short time after his family came into the Church, D. Homer Yarn, then a small boy, stood in the fork of a tree and commenced "preaching" to a number of small children gathered around. He emphasized things the Lord had blessed them with.

"The Lord gave us eyes to see with," he said. "The Lord gave us ears to hear with. The Lord gave us feet to walk with."

Then he exclaimed, "The Lord gave us hands to work with."

At that point, a man who had been watching unseen called loudly:

"Why don't you use them, then?"

That, recalled an older D. Homer Yarn, broke the meeting up.

Brother Yarn's boyish sermon was followed by many more discourses in a lifetime of service to the Church that stretched from a tiny branch in Atlanta about the turn of the century to the temple built near there about 80 years later.

Brother Yarn of the Tucker (Ga.) Ward, who will be 97 in August, remembers when the original meetinghouse - modified from a frame home - was acquired in 1908 and later razed and a new brick meetinghouse built. The branch met at the home of his parents, Charley and Aldora Yarn, during construction.

In 1916, at age 21, he was called as the first local Sunday School superintendent in Atlanta. During the next three years the headquarters of the Southern States Mission were moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Altanta. Then the brick chapel was disposed of and a new meetinghouse and mission headquarters were completed. In 1923, he was called as the first local president of the Atlanta Branch.

When the Georgia District was organized in 1937, it was Pres. Yarn who was called as president. In 1939, he also became counselor to the mission president. In that capacity, he supervised 1,200 local missionaries in the Southern States Mission. Although he was released as local missionary supervisor and district president after a few years, he continued as counselor to six mission presidents and was released in 1957.

Fittingly, one of his final services was a most fulfilling one: ordinance worker in the Atlanta Temple, which he continued until he suffered a stroke at age 94. In an earlier interview, he commented: "I'm a happy man. No day goes by that I don't thank the Lord for the happy life I've had here among my people."

Jesse R. Smith

Washington D.C.

A branch flourished in the nation's capital from at least the 1920s, augmented by "prominent elders visiting or stationed in Washington, D.C.," according to historian Andrew Jensen.

Property was purchased as a meetinghouse site in 1924, but when Jesse R. Smith and his wife, Lucille, arrived in 1927, the branch still held its services in the upper room of an auditorium at 18th and "E" streets NW, said Brother Smith of the Chevy Chase Ward, Washington DC Stake.

Brother Smith, now 88 and spending the summer at his cabin in the upper Weber River valley in northern Utah, vividly recalled those early meetings.

"If we got 150 people there, it was quite good. I remember a number of things going on collaterally in the auditorium - auto shows, and things like that. I remember one time there was a circus in the auditorium. We could hear the elephants trumpeting as we were in our meeting upstairs."

Brother Smith recalled U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot, a member of the Council of the Twelve, having established a good reputation for Church members.

"I was fortunate to get on the staff of Sen. Smoot," he said.

He said most of the strength of the branch was from Utahns who moved to the eastern city. Among the noteworthy Utahns were J. Willard and Alice Marriott.

"When Sen. Smoot was defeated . . . the Marriotts bought his home," said Brother Smith.

Brother Smith was called as president of the Chevy Chase Branch in 1938, then was the first bishop when Chevy Chase became a ward in 1940.

At the same time, Ezra Taft Benson, executive secretary of the National Council of Farm Cooperatives, was called as the first president of the Washington Stake. The Bensons and Smiths were well acquainted.

"His office was near mine on "I" street," recalled Brother Smith. "He left family behind at Boise until he could find a good place to buy and have as his residence. He found a good place out in Chevy Chase. I think he had his first dinner [after moving inT at our place. We lived at Nevada Avenue at that time.

"He added strength to the Church there. In 1940, Ezra Taft Benson became the first president of the Washington Stake. A little while later he was summoned by President [Heber J.T Grant to go to Utah, where he was made an apostle."

Raymond Lane

Maine

Faith, patience and teamwork were vital to Church growth in Maine. And Raymond Lane, now 78, was around to see and be a part of this growth.

He was only an infant when missionaries baptized his mother and sister on July 4, 1913, in Bowdoin, Maine, 17 miles south of Augusta. Brother Lane, now a member of the Gardiner Ward, Augusta Maine Stake, recalled that between Portland and Bangor, a distance of some 150 miles, his family was not aware of other members of the Church at that time. He and the other members of his family, including his father, were later baptized. "The missionaries helped us have little Sunday School meetings," he related.

The Lane home became the center of Church services hereduring those early years as membership grew.

Until the late 1930s, the Church in the Augusta area grew slowly from six to eight members attending services to between 30 and 35.

Church services were held from around 1937 until the early 1940s in Augusta and Brother Lane was called as a counselor in the branch presidency. Members came from neighboring communities. Later, Brother Lane served as branch president in Augusta, in nearby Winthrop, and in Litchfield, respectively.

"The Church more or less grew slowly until the 1950s," recalled Brother Lane. "In 1949, we got a little schoolhouse and rebuilt it into a chapel. From that time on, we had people join the Church."

Brother Lane was called as district president of the Southern Maine District during the early 1960s, a time when members in the Augusta area got their first meetinghouse in nearby Farmingdale.

Brother Lane said citizens' unfamiliarity with Latter-day Saints was the major obstacle to Church growth, so branch members held "unite meetings." Members brought friends to receive discussions from full-time missionaries. In 1963, 10 full-time missionaries joined 10 district missionaries to expand missionary efforts. "The branch grew by more than 300 new members that year, because the members helped the missionaries," noted Brother Lane.

In June 1968, the branch became the Augusta Ward when the Maine Stake was organized. By this time, about 400 members were attending the ward.

Naomi B. Cranney

Massachusetts

The Depression proved quite an obstacle to Church growth in the Boston, Mass., area during the 1930s. But resolve and strength saw members of the Church here through those troubled times and provided the framework for future growth.

Naomi B. Cranney and her husband, Adelbert G. Cranney, helped contribute to this framework. They moved to nearby Cambridge in 1930 when Brother Cranney entered Harvard Business College. Today, Sister Cranney is a member of the Belmont Ward, Boston Massachusetts Stake.

"There were only 10 permanent families here in the Church in the whole area," said Sister Cranney, in describing Church membership when they arrived.

One of the things that most impressed her was the strength and feeling of unity among fellow members of the Cambridge branch, part of the Eastern States Mission at the time.

She was especially touched by the priesthood holders who stepped up to do their part in strengthening their branch. "These men were young, and I remember looking at them and thinking if they hadn't been on missions they wouldn't know what to do. The same ones who conducted the meetings also passed the sacrament."

Making up the bulk of these young men were about 25 LDS students attending Harvard. But with the advent of the Depression, many of the students lost their jobs, which provided them with money for tuition and housing, and had to relocate. Sister Cranney described this as a major setback for the Church in the area, but she emphasized this was not a spiritual setback. "There just weren't as many people to carry on the Church," she added.

But those who remained carried on Church programs to the best of their ability.

In the 1940s came World War II, which brought a turning point for the Church in this area. She said 12 couples from Utah were assigned to the radiation lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge, thus suddenly raising branch membership.

By that time the branch was part of the New England Mission. Sister Cranney, whose husband was branch president during the early 1940s, remembered their home becoming the center of missionary activity. "In those days, we all felt very responsible for the Church."

This willingness to accept responsibility resulted in the Boston Stake being organized May 20, 1962. This originally included Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.