Historians Say St. Louis Was Vital Haven for Early Saints

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 7 June 2017

Fred E. Woods, professor in Church history and doctrine at BYU (left), and Tom Farmer, lifetime St. Louis resident and local historian, address the opening plenary session of the Mormon History Association Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, June 2, 2017.  Photos by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • St. Louis was vital to the early Church as a port for immigration and a haven from persecution.
  • The newly remodeled Gateway Arch museum will include exhibits about the Mormon pioneers.

“[St. Louis was] an inland port for Mormon immigration, a haven for the Latter-day Saints who were being persecuted, and an important place in the Midwest for the Saints to be able to develop as a people and to help the Church grow in this area.” —Fred E. Woods, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University


St. Louis, where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers converge, has also been a place of confluence for Mormons with other American cultures throughout history, two Mormon History Association Conference speakers said in their opening plenary session June 2.

Eye of the hurricane

“St. Louis in the 19th century was the most important non-Mormon city for the Latter-day Saints,” said Tom Farmer, echoing deceased Church history scholar Stanley Kimball, a former history professor at Southern Illinois University.

“Ditto,” agreed Fred E. Woods, “an inland port for Mormon immigration, a haven for the Latter-day Saints who were being persecuted, and an important place in the Midwest for the Saints to be able to develop as a people and to help the Church grow in this area.”

Woods, Brigham Young University professor in Church history and doctrine, traced the earlier period of Church history in St. Louis, while Farmer, a lifetime St. Louis resident whose family history in the Church goes back three generations in the city, brought the timeline up to the present.

Woods cited references to St. Louis in Doctrine and Covenants 60:5–8, giving direction to Joseph Smith and other Church leaders to go there and beyond to do missionary work.

He noted that by 1833, there was a small colony of Church members in St. Louis, taking refuge from mob activity elsewhere in Missouri.

“By late 1838, the St. Louis press was paying attention to the conflict between Mormons and Missourians in northwest Missouri,” he said. “This was largely ignited by the extermination order issued on October 27, 1838, by Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs.”

Woods added, “During the winter of 1838–39, St. Louis, with a population of 12,000, became an important oasis of tolerance and protection for the Saints. The St. Louis press also expressed sympathy for the suffering Saints as they began to flee for safety to their city in Nauvoo.”

No Church members were expelled from the city, and some residents even raised funds to aid the distressed Mormons, he said.

With the Gateway Arch in the background, members of the Mormon History Association pose on the steps of the Old Courthouse during their pre-conference tour in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 1, 2017. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Beginning in 1841, the first wave of British Mormon emigrants passed through the city en route to Nauvoo, he said, some staying to gather funds to continue their journey.

A few were influenced by apostates, he said, quoting this journal account from Joseph Fielding: “Here we saw some poor, faithless Saints, something like spider’s webs set to catch flies. They came to us with fair words as our best friends, but their counsel was that of enemies, but did not prevail to stay any of our company except two.”

He quoted a letter written by Apostle Orson Hyde to the editor of the Church newspaper Times and Seasons, saying he was pleased with the spirit that prevails among the Saints in St. Louis. “They visit the sick and administer to their wants so far as they have ability; and they also remember the building of the Temple of the Lord by giving a portion of their earnings.”

Trials and tribulations

When persecution beset the Nauvoo Church members in 1846, at the time of the exodus, many fled to St. Louis for refuge, Wood recounted.

William Clayton, the Mormon pioneer who wrote “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” came to St. Louis in February 1848 to supervise the printing of 5,000 copies of the The Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants Guide, written expressly to help Church members with their trek from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City, Woods said.

Nathaniel H. Felt was one of the presidents of the St. Louis conference, consisting of six branches with about 1,500 members when it was created. His compassion during a cholera epidemic was reflected in a passage Woods read from a biography:

“Every morning the ‘dead wagon’ made its round, accompanied by the awful cry ‘bring out your dead.’ … Occasions like that required all the devotion, strength, and love that a conference president possessed. He was called on constantly by the afflicted people.

“Hour after hour, without stopping sometimes to eat or sleep, President Felt visited the sick, administering to them, comforting them in their pain.”

When the great St. Louis fire broke out in 1849, Felt’s frame home was miraculously spared, as flames came right up to his dwelling but did not destroy it, Woods said.

In June 1854, the first stake was created in St. Louis, as well as, in that same month, the St. Louis Luminary, a Church newspaper edited by Erastus Snow. Like other Mormon periodicals, it carried a variety of topics, but its primary purpose was to defend Mormonism, Woods said.

A variety of nationalities were represented in the stake. In late May 1855, the Luminary reported that Church services were conducted in English, French, German, and Danish.

From the year after the initial exodus of the Church from Nauvoo, St. Louis had served as the inland port for Mormon emigration coming via the Mississippi River. But the thread of yellow fever and cholera in 1855 caused Church leaders to close it and use New York’s Castle Garden instead. Thus the need for a stake in St. Louis to serve passing immigrants came to an end.

Departure for Utah

The Utah War of 1857 caused ill feeling toward Mormons in the nation, including St. Louis. Church members in St. Louis were called to come to Utah, including stake president James Hart, the last stake president, who left with his family June 11, 1857, and the stake was eventually dissolved.

Farmer took up the story from there, saying President Hart and his wife, Emily, left two of their children buried at the city’s Bellafontaine Cemetery. The grave was viewed by some conference attendees June 1 in a pre-conference tour (see related story).

Tom Farmer, local historian and member of the Mormon History Association, tells other MHA members about the grave containing two children of James and Emily Hart. James Hart was the second stake president in St. Louis. Their children both died in 1856, and they left shortly afterward to join the Church members who had gone to Utah. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

With their 6-month-old son, James, the Harts boarded a steamboat with other Church members and left for Utah via the trail in Nebraska.

“There still were members here in St. Louis,” Farmer said. “A new stake presidency was organized to take care of those members, but over the years the stake slowly dwindled away.”

After the stake was dissolved there continued to be a branch in St. Louis, helping all the Saints who could emigrate to Utah.

In October 1866, President Brigham Young sent missionaries from Salt Lake City to reestablish the St. Louis District and reorganize the presidency of the St. Louis Branch. In 1870, a hall was rented at 1301 Broadway for the branch.

“In 1900, the St. Louis community thought they were the center of the world,” Farmer said. With a population of some 575,000, it was the fourth-largest city in the United States.

The famous St. Louis World’s Fair was held in 1904, and a that time, Church members sponsored the Utah Pavilion. “The building still exists today,” Farmer said. “It was taken down and rebuilt just south of the Forest Park.”

Return and growth

In 1914, Elder Spencer W. Kimball was assigned to the Central States Mission and served in St. Louis the following year.

By 1916, a wealthy Church member purchased a building on Maple Avenue, and it was dedicated by Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Farmer said a new meetinghouse was built on Jamieson Avenue in 1949 and dedicated by Church President George Albert Smith.

A Church member from Utah, Roy Oscarson, found work in St. Louis, and on June 1, 1958, he become the president of the second stake to be created in St. Louis, the previous one having been dissolved years before. Today, St. Louis has four stakes, Farmer said.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in St. Louis in 1893, 1911, 1958, and 2009, he said.

Notable Church members in St. Louis include Stanley Kimball, the Church history scholar; Menlo Smith, who founded a confectionery company that manufactured SweeTarts and who, after seeing the poverty in the Philippines as a mission president, created Enterprise Mentors, a precursor to the Church’s Perpetual Education Fund; Bonnie Oscarson, Young Women General President; professional baseball player Dane Iorg; and professional football player Vai Sikahema.

The St. Louis Missouri Temple was dedicated in 1997. Farmer said some 260,000 people attended the temple open house, which was so popular it was extended to four weeks and permission was given to hold it on Sundays, a rare occurrence.

Telling their story

Farmer said the museum created in 1967 at the iconic Gateway Arch has until now lacked information about the Mormon pioneer experience, perhaps because people thought Mormons went from Nauvoo, not St. Louis. “But since that time, they found out that the Mormons did come through St. Louis.”

Since 2007, LDS volunteers have been telling the story at the museum, he said.

Farmer met with Bob Moore, the historian of the Gateway Arch, to help rectify the lack of information at the museum about the Mormons.

When plans were made to remodel the museum in 2013, Farmer was included in discussions.

As a result, the museum, when it opens in about eight months, will include an 1840 copy of the Book of Mormon, William Clayton’s emigrant guide, a photo of Clayton’s odometer fashioned to measure the distance covered by the pioneers’ wagons, and images conveying the message that a quest for religious freedom motivated the Mormon pioneers.

Also included, Farmer said, will be a map showing the distinction between the “old” Mormon Trail from Nauvoo and the “new” trail leaving from St. Louis about a year after the Nauvoo exodus.

A movie depicting the Mormon experience, filmed in part at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, has been produced to be shown at the museum.

“So what’s the big thing that has happened in St. Louis today?” Farmer asked the conference attendees. “You’re here! We’re excited you came. We’re honored you’re here, and thank you for coming.”

St. Louis, Missouri cityscape as viewed from inside the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, by members of the Mormon History Association on a pre-conference tour June 1, 2017. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.