The Mormons have been almost unique among religious groups in America for the monuments built at stopping places along the march that led them to their Utah home. But monuments marking what they left in the East are few indeed, for the very act of leaving required that all their resources be brought along so they could build again. When the early Boston Saints set out to obey the spirit of the gathering they left nothing behind, for they did not expect to return. Almost miraculously, however, a monument has survived—a brick building at 82 Commercial Street—the same building in which Freeman Nickerson organized the first Boston branch in 1842.
My wife, Cheryll, our son Timothy, and I found that old building one fine day last May. A major freeway has cut through the row of buildings in which it stands, missing Number 82 by only a few feet. Urban renewal has leveled large areas just one street away. A fire at some time in the past damaged the upper stories, causing a renovation that flattened the once steep pitch of a slate roof and removed the uppermost row of windows. A vegetable packing firm has left its remnants scattered throughout the interior. But the building is still there, adding its simple sturdy grace to a street that has its character preserved after nearly 150 years. Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall are still just down the street. Long Wharf is behind handsome granite warehouses built in the 1850s. The port of Boston has become somnolently picturesque, a startling contrast to the bustling traffic of 1842 when Abijah Tewkesbury worked in his shipping offices in the building at 82 Commercial Street.
The story of that building is the story of Abijah Tewkesbury and Freeman Nickerson and the story of the early Church in Boston.
Always open-minded, Mr. Tewkesbury had examined the torrent of new ideas coursing through Boston in the 1830s and 1840s. In June 1841, a broadside had caught his eye, announcing that one Freeman Nickerson of Illinois would make a public defense of Joseph Smith and the Golden Bible. Mr. Tewkesbury vaguely remembered that nearly a decade earlier Mormons had appeared in Boston, but his interest had been caught by more recent newspaper accounts of terrible persecutions of the Missouri “Mormons.” Though known even to his friends as an unbeliever, Mr. Tewkesbury decided out of curiosity to find out what an elder of this strange new religion might have to say.
Elder Nickerson’s defense of Mormonism, held under the auspices of the Boston Free Discussion Society, began the last Sunday in June. The rules of the society called for alternating speeches of different points of view, and Elder Nickerson had no dearth of opponents. When challenged to produce the golden plates, or to perform a healing, the elder always gave the same response. He testified that he had met the Prophet, had asked God if the Prophet’s work was true, and that God had given him assurance that it was. Mr. Tewkesbury, with others who attended the meeting, was probably more struck by the spirit of the defense than by its substance. One opponent reported that when Elder Nickerson spoke he imparted a “magnetizing influence,” which was “wonderfully apparent.”
The Mormon’s delivery carried such power that it “reminded us of the Day of Pentecost.” Mr. Tewkesbury came away with similar impressions, ultimately concluding that he must hear more. As the summer wore on he became convinced that the unlikely stories Elder Nickerson had brought to Boston were true. By fall he asked for baptism.
Abijah Tewkesbury was the first fruit of the lonely mission Elder Nickerson had begun half a year earlier amidst what the Council of the Twelve Apostles, on a previous visit, had termed “the opulence and splendor of that city—the Queen of the East.” By March the number of converts had grown to just over 30, a group large enough to sustain a branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brother Tewkesbury offered his shipping office as a meetinghouse and on a blustery March day in 1842 the Boston branch was organized in the brick building at 82 Commercial Street.
That old quarter of Boston has recently been designated a historic landmark and is being renovated and restored. The area is planned as a tourist center for Boston’s celebration of the bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976. Thus, the building seems destined to stand as a monument to New England Saints who met in a shipping office and learned the truths of the restored church.