Max Nolan, “J. Golden Kimball in the South,” New Era, Jul 1985, 6
On a train to Chattanooga, J. Golden Kimball began learning that great men grow through missionary service.
The serving of a full-time mission for the Church is a landmark experience in the lives of those who undertake it. It is a time of rare personal challenge and opportunity for spiritual growth. It reaps a harvest of memories both joyous and poignant.
Elder J. Golden Kimball (1853–1938), who served for 46 years as a member of the First Council of the Seventy, was no exception in this regard.
Once at general conference Elder Kimball summarized his experience as a mission president: “I was in the South three years, presiding over the mission, under the greatest hardships; and the greatest difficulties I have ever endured in all my life were experienced in the missionary field, yet I have had the greatest joy and the greatest peace and happiness” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1927, p. 54). From remarks he made on other occasions there is no doubt that Elder Kimball felt exactly the same way about his earlier experiences in the mission field as an elder.
At the time J. Golden Kimball was called to serve his first mission, he was one of a party of several dozen young elders newly assigned to work in the South under the direction of President B. H. Roberts.
Elder Kimball’s introductory meeting with President Roberts was a memorable one, providing him and his companions with a missionary challenge from an unexpected direction.
“The first time I ever saw Elder Roberts was either in Cincinnati or St. Louis. He had been chosen as president of the Southern States Mission to succeed John Morgan. I left for Chattanooga, Tennessee, with twenty-seven elders assigned to the Southern States. There were all kinds of elders in the company—farmers, cowboys, few educated—a pretty hard-looking crowd, and I was one of that kind. The elders preached, and talked, and sang, and advertised loudly their calling as preachers. I kept still for once in my life; I hardly opened my mouth. I saw a gentleman on the train. I can visualize that man now. I didn’t know who he was. He knew we were a band of Mormon elders. The elders soon commenced a discussion and argument with the stranger, and before he got through they were in grave doubt about their message of salvation. He gave them a training that they never forgot. That man proved to be President B. H. Roberts” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1933, p. 42).
A largely self-educated man, who as an English child walked across the Great Plains with other early converts, B. H. Roberts later became one of the Church’s most gifted and prolific writers. In his recent biography of Roberts, Defender of the Faith, Truman Madsen noted that B. H. Roberts authored “thirty major volumes and over one thousand pamphlets, articles, tracts, and sermons” (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, p. x).
Elder Kimball served his mission in the South at a time when anti-Mormon feeling was strong and when the missionaries were often subject to persecution and even violence.
At one of his conference addresses in later life, Elder Kimball referred to this element of risk with characteristic humor:
“I remember when we arrived at Chattanooga, Brother Roberts sent me and a son of an apostle into Virginia. … When we reached our field of labor, we lay around there for three weeks. I said to my companion, who was from the Brigham Young Academy, ‘Let us go up into the woods and see if we can sing,’ (I couldn’t carry a tune, I never tried to sing in the Academy), ‘and let us go up and learn to pray.’ We did not have any audience, only those great big trees. And I said ‘Let us learn to preach.’ I would advise young elders to do that before they start out and not practise so much on the people. … So I prepared myself and occupied the time. My companion was prepared, and we sang. We made an awful mess of it, but after a while—and that is another testimony—God brought the tunes to us, and we could sing the songs that we had listened to in the Academy. Then I preached. God was kind to us and he loosed our tongues and we found we were able to express the things we had studied. 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).
Elder Kimball had more somber memories of that difficult period. He was the mission secretary, based at Chattanooga, at the time of the Cane Creek Massacre, which occurred on Sunday, August 10, 1884. In that incident, Elder Berry and Elder Thompson were killed in a mob action, along with a Brother Condor and a Brother Hudson. A Sister Condor was wounded in the hip.
Elder Kimball was in the vicinity of the tragedy at the time of its occurrence, and he sent a telegram from Columbia, Tennessee, informing President Roberts of the details of the incident.
Resolving to retrieve the bodies of the slain missionaries so they could be returned to their families in Utah, President Roberts set about making arrangements to do so. The bodies had been buried in an area known as Shady Grove. As their recovery involved considerable risk, Elder Kimball tried to dissuade President Roberts from personally undertaking the task and offered to go himself. However, the mission president’s will prevailed, and Roberts, effectively disguised as a farm laborer, went to the burial site with some local people, recovered the bodies, and supervised their return to Utah.
A great friendship which was to last a lifetime developed between J. Golden Kimball and B. H. Roberts in the mission field.
Later in his life, Elder Kimball remarked: “Brother Roberts has been my mentor; he has been my teacher; he has been my chronicler. I was relieved of reading the great histories; I didn’t have to read a whole library searching for information. What did I have to do? When anything troubled me about the history of the Church or scripture, I went to Brother Roberts. He had the most wonderful mind and memory of any human being I have ever known, right up to the very last” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1933, p. 43).
When Elder Kimball served his mission it was still customary for missionaries to travel without “purse or scrip” (D&C 84:78), relying on the hospitality and goodwill of friends and strangers alike.
“I went on one trip [in Virginia] with a young elder, and I say it with a good deal of pride, six hundred miles, without purse and without scrip and without friends. No man had ever heard the voice of a ‘Mormon’ elder where we traveled. We left a trail behind us, a trail that other elders have traveled, and at no time during that three months did I sleep outdoors, but I came mighty near it a lot of times. I thought the Lord had surely forsaken us, at times, but when it came to the last test, someone’s heart was softened, and they fed us and they gave us a bed so we had no use for money” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1921, p. 179).
Elder Kimball’s early missionary experience taught him that the true armor of the missionary in the field is meekness and love.
He once said: “I often wonder when you do have the Spirit of God. I used to think I had it in the Southern States, when I became excited and sensational, and my face was red, and the cords of my neck were swollen—I thought then, in my ignorance, that it was the Holy Ghost. I have learned since that the Spirit of God gives you joy and peace and patience and long-suffering and gentleness, and you have the spirit of forgiveness and you love the souls of the children of men” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1918, p. 29).
During his long life of service in the Church, Elder Kimball knew all the presidents of the Church from Brigham Young through Heber J. Grant. His second mission in the South gave him several opportunities to meet President Wilford Woodruff during that period.
“I remember when I was presiding over the Southern States mission: for two years of that time I brought home two emigrations a year, and when I went to the President’s office to report, that great Prophet, the President of the Church, Wilford Woodruff, who was interested in me, said, ‘Brother Kimball, sit down a minute.’ We only had a few minutes—it didn’t take five minutes. He told me more than once: ‘Now, Brother Kimball, I have had visions, I have had revelations, … but the greatest of all is that still small voice.’ Any elder who has gone out and kept the commandments of God, knows he has heard that word behind him saying: ‘This is the way, walk ye in it, when you turn to the right and when you turn to the left’ ” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1924, p. 70).
One of Elder Kimball’s most remarkable mission experiences occurred in Alabama.
“Let me call your attention to an incident. It happened away down in Alabama. That was at a time in the ’90’s when I presided over the southern states mission. The elders had been asked to assemble themselves together. They were laboring in that low, marshy, malarial district that was scarcely safe for a human being to live in, … suffering with malaria, rather low-spirited, because they had been travelling without purse or scrip through that section of the country. We assembled to hold a conference. After the conference was over, two days, we were to hold a priesthood meeting. We had no place to meet in those days except in the woods, but I had instructed the elders to clean some place off in the woods, a circle, where we could meet together and hold our priesthood meeting. On that occasion there was a young man whose mother was a remarkable woman, a Latter-day Saint. The father had left the Church years and years ago. He opposed the boy, he stood out against him, … but the mother’s faith and the faith of the young man who was in that conference did not fail. I don’t know what the trouble was, but one of his legs was as large as my body, and it looked like a great piece of raw meat. It looked like it would burst. The people there did the best they could for him. He had no physician. We did not know what a physician was in the South, in my day. There may have been physicians there, but I never happened to meet any. So on this occasion I said to this elder: ‘Well, you will have to stay here with the people. You can’t go up there.’ ‘Why,’ he said, ‘Brother Kimball, I have been dreaming about this, and I have been talking about it. It would ruin my whole mission unless I can be at that priesthood meeting.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you feel that way, two of the elders will carry you up there, one mile.’ We went there in order to get away, to a place where we would be secluded, and when we got into the woods in that little circle and sat down, as best we could, I looked those elders over. I was not very well myself, but I said: ‘Brethren, what are you preaching?’
“ ‘We are preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’
“ ‘Are you telling these people that you have the power and authority, through faith, to heal the sick?’
“They said, ‘Yes.’
“ ‘Well then, why don’t you believe it?’
“This young man spoke up and he said: ‘I believe it.’ He sat down on a stump and the elders gathered around him. He was anointed and I administered to him, and he was healed right in their presence. It was quite a shock; and every other elder that was sick was administered to, and they were all healed. We went out of that priesthood meeting and the elders received their appointments, and there was a joy and happiness that cannot be described. The people gathered around, and the elders before their departure, got down and they cried. Those elders, many of them, had never seen one another until they assembled in that conference, and ‘Such love,’ those people said, ‘we have never known’ ” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1927, pp. 52–53).
Elder Kimball’s missionary experiences in the South and his subsequent long service in the First Council of the Seventy gave him an acute sense of the high importance of the missionary role of the Church, a conviction well summed up in his October 1910 address to the general conference: “I have learned this much regarding the value of the priesthood, that I would rather place my hands upon the head of an elder and ordain him … than preach the best discourse that I ever delivered. I feel that I have accomplished a great piece of work for God and His Church, when I ordain a [man] and that man goes forth and magnifies his calling” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1910, p. 33).
[photos] Friendship with his mission president, B. H. Roberts, was just one of the benefits that grew out of J. Golden Kimball’s service in the southern United States. He also returned from his first mission with singing ability he acquired by serenading trees out in the woods, and with the memory of enduring persecution, such as turning around from companion prayer to find himself looking at men with guns raised to their shoulders. Elder Kimball later returned to preside over the same mission area, using his insight and wisdom to help and encourage those who served with him.^ Back to top