Brief but Meaningful Mormon History Found in War-Torn Aleppo

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 7 February 2017

Photo taken in 1909 in Aleppo, Syria, of mission president Joseph Booth, seated at center; his wife, Sister Mary Booth; and other missionaries. Elder John T. Woodbury is seated on the floor at right.  Photo courtesy of Richard Morley.

Article Highlights

  • War-torn Aleppo was once home to a group of Latter-day Saints and missionaries.
  • Missionary work in the Middle East around the turn of the 20th century was difficult.
  • Members risked persecution, and several missionaries lost their lives, including the mission president.
  • Elder Widtsoe visited Aleppo and dedicated the graves of the mission president and missionaries.

ALEPPO, SYRIA

In recent years, the Syrian city of Aleppo has been a staging ground of death, violence, and horror. Civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and legions have been forced to flee this ancient city—contributing to a global refugee crisis.

Like countless others, Richard Morley has viewed the Aleppo tragedy from afar, lamenting the suffering that has come to define a city built centuries before the birth of Christ.

A lifelong Church member from Price, Utah, Brother Morley has a family tie to Aleppo and its brief but meaningful Mormon history. The city was once home to a small but faithful group of Latter-day Saints and missionaries. In fact, the remains of at least two missionaries are buried there. Their graves were dedicated by a latter-day Apostle and became lasting reminders of the sacrifice sometimes exacted in service to the Lord and His gospel.

Elder Jacob Spori from Logan, Utah, opened the Turkish Mission in 1884, signaling the beginning of missionary work in the Middle East. According to James A. Toronto’s publication “The Church in the Middle East,” branches of the Church—consisting primarily of Armenian and European converts—were eventually established in several cities in the vast region, including Aleppo.

Over the next several decades, dozens of elders and one sister missionary would serve in the nations of Turkey and Syria.

Counted among those missionaries was Brother Morley’s maternal grandfather, John T. Woodbury, who labored in Turkey and Syria from 1904 to 1909. At the conclusion of his mission, Elder Woodbury received permission from the First Presidency to marry and return to his Utah home with a Mormon Armenian woman (Brother Morley’s grandmother) named Nimzar Gagosian Woodbury.

Missionary work in the Middle East around the turn of the 20th century was difficult. Political and religious turmoil often undermined the work. Conversions were scarce, the members risked persecution, and, sadly, several missionaries lost their lives while fulfilling their callings.

Five missionaries succumbed to natural ailments such as small pox and pneumonia, according to Brother Morley, who has spent years researching the experiences of his grandfather and his fellow missionaries in Turkey and Syria.

In 1933, Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the graves of two missionaries in Aleppo, Syria.

The mission, wrote Brother Morley, “was finally closed in 1928, when [mission president] Joseph Booth died from exhaustion and pneumonia. His remains were laid to rest in Aleppo, Syria, at a cemetery near mission headquarters and near the grave of young Elder Emil J. Huber, who died there on May 16, 1908.”

Five years later, on June 18, 1933, Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Aleppo and dedicated the graves of President Booth and Elder Huber.

The Apostle would record his recollections of that sacred day:

“[President Booth’s] grave is at the very upper edge of the cemetery. It is visible from all parts of the cemetery itself and from the highway below. We held two meetings with the Aleppo saints; one in the early forenoon and another in the late afternoon. At the close of the afternoon meeting, members and friends present walked to the cemetery to gather around the grave. There a brief outdoor meeting was held.”

In his writings, Elder Widtsoe noted that he addressed the small group before dedicating the graves and a monument that had been placed at the cemetery. The service closed with a prayer and singing of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.”

“The exercises ended just as the sun set behind the western hills,” wrote Elder Widtsoe. “A few clouds floated in the blue sky and made slashes of color in the sunset. It was a peaceful happy hour.”

That placid Aleppo afternoon stands in stark contrast to the destruction of the day. Missionaries no longer serve in the city, and Brother Morley hopes that the final resting places of President Booth and Elder Huber have not been disturbed.

In a recently published family history, he wrote, “I hope that the God of heaven has miraculously preserved the otherwise barely known good works of the Lord’s servants in the [Turkish] Mission.”