Samuel Davidson Chambers, a tall middle-aged black, regularly attended the monthly meetings of the Salt Lake Stake deacons quorum of the LDS Church during the 1870s. Although he held no priesthood, Samuel frequently bore his strong testimony about Mormonism to the deacons there assembled (who then were adults as well as young men). His testimonies, expressed at least 25 times between 1873 and 1877, were re-recorded nearly verbatim by the quorum’s excellent clerk, Thomas C. Jones. From these records and other minute books and from information provided by Salt Lakers who knew Samuel Chambers in his old age, his remarkable life story can be pieced together. Converted as a slave in Mississippi, he retained his testimony for a quarter of a century without any contact with the Church. Finally, as a freedman after the Civil War, he migrated on his own to Utah, and for the next six decades he functioned as a faithful Latter-day Saint.
When Mormon missionaries were proselyting in Mississippi in 1844, their message was not widely received. However, one 13-year-old slave boy, Samuel Chambers, showed unusual interest in the elders’ street meeting discussions, and a nighttime baptism and confirmation soon followed. Born on May 21, 1831, in Pickens County, Alabama, Samuel grew up in Noxubee County, Mississippi, as an orphan. Slave traders took away his mother, Hester Gillespie, while Samuel was a small boy.
Thus he embraced the LDS faith despite “not having kind parents” to encourage him. Nevertheless, as he later told the deacons quorum, “the spirit of God remained with me.” He had “known the gospel to be true ever since I was confirmed,” and after his conversion he “greatly longed” to gather with the Saints, but being a slave he “could never see how it would be brought about.” Samuel was cut off from any contact with the Church but “tho’ lacking age & experience yet God kept the seeds of life alive in me.” During these years in bondage he married. But shortly after the birth of his son Peter his first wife either died or was sold into Texas (the records disagree). Then on May 4, 1858, he married Amanda Leggroan, a slave who was born to Green and Hattie Leggroan in Noxumbra County, Mississippi, on January 1, 1844.
When the Civil War brought the collapse of the Confederacy, Samuel became a freedman. He turned to shoemaking and then to sharecropping in order to support his family. It had been 21 years since his baptism. “I then commenced to save means to gather (to Utah),” he recalled, and “this took me four years.” This desire to join the Saints is most remarkable in Samuel’s case because he had “never heard another word of the gospel” since his baptism.
Finally in 1870 the 38-year-old freedman left Mississippi with 26-year-old Amanda and teenaged Peter. Evidently their means of transportation for part of the journey was a simple, ox-drawn wagon. Accompanying them was the family of Amanda’s brother, Edward Leggroan. He and his wife were in their mid-20’s and brought with them three children under six years of age. Like others who had migrated to Zion, this small group came with high hopes. At the same time the fact that they were black gave them cause to worry about what the future might hold for them in the strange new land. But one thing was certain with Samuel: “I did not come to Utah to know the truth of the gospel, but I received it away back where the gospel found me.” They arrived in Salt Lake City on April 27, 1870.
Initially the Chambers and Leggroan families settled in the First Ward area of the city. Edward found work as a stable hand, and Samuel labored at a sawmill in Big Cottonwood Canyon. By 1872 the families had settled in the Eighth Ward, along with a third black family headed by Frank Perkins. Here Samuel commenced his successful career as a Utah farmer and fruit grower.
Meanwhile, early in May of 1873, Church leaders in the Salt Lake Valley sought to counter the inactivity and carelessness spreading among Church members. To improve the work of the deacons, regular stake meetings were commenced. Simultaneously each of the 20 Salt Lake City wards were instructed to organize and fill up their deacons quorums. If sufficient adults could not be found, then younger males might be ordained.
In the Eighth Ward, Samuel Chambers’ enthusiasm for the Church was utilized. Though he was never ordained to the priesthood, he was asked by ward leaders to assist the deacons in many of their responsibilities for at least the next four years. Deacons of that day had no part in the sacrament service. Instead they were responsible for the care and cleaning of the ward meetinghouses. This meant washing windows, sweeping floors, dusting benches, making minor repairs, opening doors and windows as needed in summer, and caring for heat stoves in winter. Samuel conscientiously did these jobs, telling his brethren, “I have joy in cleaning up and whatever I am called to do.” When wards were asked to provide deacons to usher at the summer Salt Lake Tabernacle meetings in 1875, Samuel was the Eighth Ward’s sole volunteer.
Perhaps his greatest service was expressing his testimony concerning his religious beliefs, for, as one presiding officer observed, “He spoke by the Spirit of God.” This same leader promised Samuel that if he continued faithful he would “be a saviour to his brethren.” Once Samuel stated, “I have been 29 years in the Church, and have never been dissatisfied yet.” Another time he told the deacons, “I thank God I’ve a standing in the church and kingdom of God.” Frequently he warned the younger ones that “we are called to act in the kingdom of God; we should respond to every duty.”
At times stake deacons meetings, which were testimony meetings, were attended by nearly 60 deacons. But sometimes less than half a dozen showed up. On two occasions Samuel was the only person in attendance other than the three quorum officers. Some men who attended these meetings later became leading Church authorities, such as John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley who became apostles. One time Samuel told his associates in the quorum:
“[The gospel] is not only to the Gentiles but also to the Africans, for I am one of that race. The knowledge I received is from my God. It is a high and holy calling. Without the testimony of God we are nothing.”
Samuel’s convictions about Mormonism were deep as shown in this testimony given on November 11, 1873:
“I know we are the people of God, we have been led to these peaceful vallies of the mountains, and we enjoy life and many other blessings. I don’t get tired of being with the Latter-day Saints, nor of being one of them. I’m glad that I ever took upon me the name of Christ. It is our privilege to call our families together, and we can sleep sweetly, and rise and thank God in the morning for his care through the night. It is good when we can go about our business, and return again, and find all right. I’ve a good woman, and that is a great blessing. I thank God, for my soul burns with love for the many blessings I enjoy. I’ve been blest from youth up, although in bondage for 20 years after receiving the gospel, yet I kept the faith. I thank God that I ever gathered with the Saints. May the Lord bless us and help us to be faithful is my prayer.”
He desired to be humble and “active in doing what he could for the building up of the kingdom of God.” Church service was important to him because he “did not come here [to Utah] to sit down and be still.” He wanted to be “faithful to the end” and to “always be valiant.” Ultimately he hoped “to receive an exaltation in the kingdom of God.”
Samuel’s dedication as a Saint impressed his Church leaders. The stake deacons quorum president, James Leach, predicted that one day Samuel would “be a mighty man among the Saints.” Leaders in the Eighth Ward paid similar tribute at their January 6, 1876 meeting:
“A vote of thanks was unanimously tendered Brother Chambers for being so faithful in the discharge of his dutues … and that he be blessed.”
Amanda Chambers too was well received by and active in the Eighth Ward.
Samuel and Amanda were further integrated into the faith on September 5, 1874, when Church Patriarch John Smith pronounced patriarchal blessings upon their heads. He promised that if Samuel were faithful he would live a long life (Samuel was then 43 and he lived another 55 years after this blessing), would prosper materially, and his name would be held in remembrance among the Saints.
Samuel, an ex-slave, voted for the first time in 1874 and felt proud that he had voted for Latter-day Saint office seekers who were “servants of God.”
After 1878 the Chambers family farmed in southeast Salt Lake City, and their quality produce became well-known. Samuel became an authority on the culture of grapes and small fruits, especially currants. These won him first prizes in various state fairs. Samuel’s enterprise was reflected in his tithing payments, in kind, between 1878 and 1898: eggs, peas, wheat, corn, butter, pork, chickens, cabbage, peaches, cherries, currants, gooseberries, and molasses. Hard work and frugal living brought the couple increasing success.
By World War I Samuel owned and farmed about 30 acres in southeast Salt Lake City. There he arranged for the construction of a small brick home for Peter’s family and a two-story, yellow brick home for him and Amanda. Old-timers recall Sam and Amanda sitting under large umbrellas on hot summer days, picking and cleaning currants. By then they had established a regular route of customers to whom they delivered their fruit, milk, butter, eggs, and chickens. At times Amanda would take the boxes of fruit in her spring wagon down to Holladay and return with an apron full of money. Other customers came to the Chambers’ farm to buy currants.
Samuel’s Church contributions kept pace with his prosperity. One thing that briefly bothered Samuel upon reaching Zion was the law of tithing. He desired to carry out every measure, but he “could not see for a while how I could pay tithing and live. But the Spirit said to me, ‘All things are possible with God.’ I never questioned it any longer.” In addition Samuel willingly paid all Church assessments such as fast offerings and building funds. When subscriptions were taken out for the Wilford Ward building fund in 1901–1902, for example, few members contributed more than the $200 Samuel paid in cash.
Of Samuel’s twin loves, his farm and his Church, the latter was the most important in his life, according to one of his bishops, Charles Fagg. He recalled always seeing Samuel at Sunday School and sacrament meetings in the old Wilford Ward after the turn of the century. Evidently Samuel retained his feeling expressed during the 1870s: “I love to meet with the Saints, no matter what meeting; it does me good.” He attended conferences and special Church meetings as well as social events. Bishop Fagg invited him to priesthood meetings; so in Samuel’s declining years he attended the ward’s high priests group meetings. Occasionally Samuel gave prayers at meetings, and during many fast meetings he bore his testimony. One resident recalled that Samuel was a fine public speaker, delivering his testimony forcefully, “like an apostle.”
Ward teachers regularly visited the Chambers, and when illnesses accompanying old age troubled the couple they received anointings and blessings from these teachers. Although Samuel never learned to write, Amanda taught herself to read and write with a Guffey speller, and their home contained a number of Mormon books. Amanda, an excellent cook, often donated cakes and pies for ward social functions. According to one former neighbor, Samuel had such respect for the Sabbath that he “would let his fields rot” rather than do farm work on Sunday. Also, Samuel insisted that Sunday meals be prepared on Saturday. He likewise lived the Word of Wisdom. At the time of his death, Samuel held membership in the Church-sponsored Genealogical Society of Utah.
Samuel developed a reputation as a defender of his faith. Unwilling to tolerate criticism of LDS leaders, he was known to verbally defend them when necessary, in private as well as in Church meetings. To nonmembers Samuel’s religion was no secret. Guests in his home received copies of the Book of Mormon. Among relatives in Mississippi whom he visited in 1911, already he had become a legend as their prosperous Utah Mormon kinsman.
Among Mormons who knew them personally, including some General Authorities of the Church, the Chambers were highly regarded, a fact later borne out by the large crowds that attended the couple’s 66th wedding anniversary dinner in 1924 and later Amanda’s and Samuel’s funerals.
That Samuel held no priesthood office did not diminish his Church activity. His faithfulness is proven by the fact that the reputation, prosperity, and longevity promised in his patriarchal blessing clearly came to pass. For 85 years he maintained his faith in the message of Mormonism: from conversion as a slave boy, to faithfulness for 26 years in Mississippi without contact with the Church, to choosing on his own to come to Utah, to steadfastness during periods of Church history when many Saints fell away. Enduring to the end, Samuel passed away on November 9, 1929, at the age of 98 years, joining his Amanda who died four years before.
Sources for this article include: Salt Lake Stake Deacons’ Quorum Minutes 1873–1877; Eighth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, Historical Record Book B, 1856–1875; Wilford Ward Historical Record; Samuel Chambers inheritance Tax Report and Appraisement, County Clerks Probate Records, Salt Lake County; Kate B. Carter, “The Negro Pioneer,” in Our Pioneer Heritage (May 1965); Deseret News article, May 10, 1924, and obituary, November 9, 1929; personal interviews with Annie Clayton, Eugene White, Mahonri White, Vidella Vance, Henrietta Leggroan Bankhead, Minnie Haynes, Charles Fagg, E. Barr Fisher, and Monroe Fleming. Mrs. Thelma Duffy kindly provided a portrait of the Chambers.