North Louisiana in the 1890s was a land of low red clay hills, dense pine forests, and isolated settlements tucked away along a network of rivers and creeks winding through the countryside. The War between the States had been over for thirty years, but the inhabitants of these self-sufficient, agrarian communities, left largely untouched by the outside world, still struggled through the aftermath of the war and its legacy of fear of the unfamiliar, of the stranger from faraway parts. The prospect of a mission in Louisiana must have seemed rather forbidding to the first Latter-day Saint missionaries who came to the state in 1896.
In many areas the missionaries encountered a suspicious populous. Most people knew little about the Church, and what they had heard were mostly false and distorted rumors. Children were sometimes frightened with incredible stories; ministers warned their congregations that Mormons did not believe in the teachings of the Bible; and many dishonorable intentions were attributed to the missionaries.
Consequently, it is natural that some people felt the only proper way to eradicate this new menace was through violence. Beatings, floggings, and tarring and feathering were common. Indeed, some missionaries lost their lives in the South. New converts also suffered. Often their neighbors viewed them as traitors or misguided souls who had fallen unwittingly into the clutches of evil, and prayer meetings were held for their deliverance.
But in the face of this adversity, the missionaries persevered and their converts stood firm. They found kind friends, and the outpourings of the Spirit helped pave the way for the more than 13,000 Latter-day Saints who now enjoy the respect and goodwill of their neighbors in Louisiana.
On 20 August 1896, Elder Joseph A. Cornwall, father of former Tabernacle Choir conductor J. Spencer Cornwall, left his home in Mill Creek, Utah, for the newly opened mission field in North Louisiana. Other than train fare and money for his meals on the journey, he had no funds. Arriving in the state on 10 September 1896, he labored on the eastern side of the Red River for more than a year with little result. In 1897, Elder Cornwall, now conference president, crossed the river into the western end of Natchitoches Parish with other missionaries who had been assigned to the area by then. That year, he and his companions baptized the first converts, and in 1898 they organized what Elder Cornwall said was the first permanent branch in the state at Red Rock, a tiny settlement near Provencal.1
Elder Cornwall was soon to be released from his post. His replacement was David A. Broadbent, who left his assignment in Georgia on 1 November 1898 to go to Victoria, Louisiana, a lumber mill community just above Many, the seat of Sabine Parish. There he would preside over the twenty-four missionaries assigned to Louisiana by that time. As president of the Louisiana Conference, Elder Broadbent spent most of his time in Red Rock, Victoria, and Vowels Mill, another settlement nearby.2
One of the friends both Elder Cornwall and Elder Broadbent valued was John R. Jones. In a letter dated September 20, 1942, Elder Broadbent reminisced about his first meeting with the Scotsman:
“Mr. John R. Jones, the Scotch merchant, sawmill-man and postmaster, did much to assist in the work of the Lord. He had about 75 men working for him in the lumber business, cutting an average of 60,000 feet of timber daily. He never joined the Church, but gave me an office, stamped my letters when I did not have stamps, provided a place at the head of his large table for me, and often scolded me for not eating there at his expense. He was very interested in our work, and often fought off the local ministers when they would have raised a mob to drive us out of the country. One morning the local minister advised Jones that he was a great menace to the vicinity because he was fostering the Mormons. Jones asked how he was a menace. In reply the Reverend said: ‘Why they even allow dancing in the church.’ Jones ripped out one of his characteristic yard-long blue streaks of swearing; and gave the Reverend to know that if the dance, which is the rhythm of motion, were taught as the Mormons and as ancient Israel taught it, there would be far more beauty in the form and features [of the participants]. When I asked Jones for his belief in Mormonism, he said, ‘I fully believe it, but I am going back to Scotland when I have made my fortune. What would all my friends do with John R. Jones, a Mormon? I would be ostracized and friendless. No, I cannot join you, but I will do everything in my power to assist in the work and keep all the mobs quieted.’”3
When asked forty-four years after these events took place to recall some scenes of these early years in Louisiana, Brother Broadbent wrote:
“God will bless such friends. This [support] might not seem important today, but then there was a real need of such influence. … My entire mission of 26 months was lived without purse or script, and such men as Jones, with all the hospitable people of the South, made it possible to do this.”4
During Elder Broadbent’s Louisiana tenure, he baptized twenty-five people. Of one of these converts he wrote:
“A very interesting one of the group was Dr. George Coverdale, a scientist of authority in one line of scientific study. Dr. Coverdale became interested in our statement of the Book of Mormon being a true history of the American Indians. He told us to begin with that he had no belief in God, man or the devil; but if he could find but a single reliable idea of the origin of the Red Man, it would be worth his time to read the Book through. I told him that if he would be honest in his search for the beginning of the descendants of Lehi, he would find many truths that would change his mind on God and his entire outlook on life. He read diligently, and reported every few days on his study. On May 22, 1899, this honest doctor handed me a note as follows:
“‘Elder Broadbent, I have examined the evidences of the Mormon Church sufficiently to give me a strong and living faith in the truth of its teachings and the Divinity of its mission. Following upon this Faith has come as a natural consequence a genuine Repentance and a strong and earnest desire to lead a better life: one that shall be more in accord with the will of God (for in this study I have learned that there is a God). I have had, I know, the help of His Holy Spirit in leading me on; but I feel that I cannot hope to retain the help of this Spirit of God unless I fulfill the command and go down into the waters of baptism. I feel that the time has come, and I, therefore, ask to receive baptism at your hands at your earliest convenience.’”5
Elder Broadbent baptized Mr. Coverdale as soon as possible, along with three others who had previously applied.
Other conversions during those years in Louisiana are further indications of the outpourings of the Spirit. The conversion story of Alexander Colman Wagley, the first president of the Red Rock branch, is but one example.
One day the missionaries came to Alex’s door, asking for a night’s lodging. He and his wife, Cora Belle, never refused such requests and so invited the young men to stay. As the elders began to relate their purpose, Alex remembered vividly an impressive dream he had had earlier. He had seen the ground open at his feet, disclosing a brilliant gold book rising from the earth. Recognizing the Book of Mormon as the book from his dream, he sat up with the two messengers most of the night, excitedly discussing the restored gospel. When he finally went to bed that night, Alex was converted; his life and the lives of his family were to be changed profoundly. He and his wife were baptized by Elder Thomas Palmer, Jr., and confirmed members by Elder Cornwall on 4 September 1898.6
Other families too were converted, and when Elder Broadbent left the state 16 June 1899, to accept an assignment as presiding elder over the East Kentucky Conference, his records showed one hundred and ten baptisms in the area.7
These early converts rapidly discovered that being a Latter-day Saint required great courage. On one occasion a mob of one hundred and fifty to two hundred men, on horseback and brandishing guns, apprehended two elders at nightfall near the home of Miller Dendy, one of the new converts. The elders, accompanied by Alex Wagley, were walking toward Victoria, intending to move on to a new area. All that night and the next day the mob held Wagley and the elders in the woods while they argued among themselves. Some wanted to lay the elders across logs and whip them; others held for tarring and feathering; several insisted that hanging was the only way to rid the country of the missionaries.
Repeatedly the mob urged Wagley to leave—they had no quarrel with him, they argued. Wagley was somewhat of a leader in his community, however, and he knew the mob members, most of them his neighbors, would not want to face the outrage of his family and friends should he be harmed. He also knew that once he left the elders, the angry mob would show them no mercy. He steadfastly refused to abandon the young men, and the three hostages passed the weary hours in prayer and hymn-singing.
Early the next morning James Bolton, a nonmember friend of Alex Wagley, came to the woods to try to persuade the mob to release the elders. The man appointed as spokesman for the mob was Zack Hawthorne, who was also unwilling to harm the captives. After a heated argument with some of the more violent men, Hawthorne selected three men, one of whom was Bolton, to decide what should be done. Two of these contended the elders should be whipped; but the third, Bolton, refused. He said they could argue as much and as long as they wanted, but he would never yield to whipping the young men. Throughout the day the quarrel raged, with tempers high and threats flying. At length Bolton, with the help of John R. Jones, who also had found the mob, prevailed, and the three men were released.8
On another occasion, 9 October 1899, a mob of seventy-eight men armed with guns and knives rode up to the home of Jane Holt Clark, Alex Wagley’s aunt, a well known midwife and nurse in those parts. That day she was caring for Elder Philo V. Carter whose foot was badly infected. Their dispute was not with her, the mob leaders explained, but with the elder. With a shotgun cradled in her arms, Jane blocked the entrance to her house. “I brought a good many of you into the world,” she solemnly intoned, “and I can take you out again just as easily if you dare to cross my doorstep.” After much discussion and swearing, the frustrated mob left.9
Soon after the Red Rock branch was established in Natchitoches Parish, another small branch was organized near the lumber mill town of Fisher in Sabine Parish. The group, led by President Nat Muse, first met under a brush arbor but later built a small church. Another congregation met in the old Enterprise school near Corleyville, also in Sabine Parish. Early leaders of this branch were Alex Wagley, who had moved from Natchitoches to Sabine Parish by this time, and Leander Tynes.
Around 1915, a caravan of covered wagons drawn by “jennies” (female donkeys) traveled from Pride, Louisiana, to the Corleyville area. This group was led by William Barksdale and consisted of his wife and other family connections—all Latter-day Saints who would swell the numbers of the Corleyville branch. The membership increased further in 1918 when Jacob Sneed, his wife, nine sons, and one daughter arrived from Upshur County in Texas. The Sneeds traveled by rail to Fisher, with an entire boxcar engaged to transport their household furnishings, horses, and farm equipment.
Eventually, the Enterprise and Fisher branches were consolidated into the Corleyville branch, and a chapel was erected around 1920. Leaders of this branch were Alex Wagley, Wesley Paul, and W. M. (Bud) Muse. For twenty years the Corleyville branch was an active organization. To its conferences came Elders James E. Talmage, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Melvin J. Ballard. Some of the members traveled many miles for conference. One faithful man, Eddie Russell, walked from Shamrock, thirty miles away, to attend the first session. Noted for its plays, pageants, and barbecues, the Corleyville branch attracted crowds numbering in the hundreds.
Another group of members formed at Hardytown where a Sunday School was organized with James Monroe Hardy as superintendent. There was no church building there, but the Sunday School convened in the homes of the members. After the death of Brother Hardy, Luther McDuffy (Mack) Hayes presided until 1944 when the group disbanded, and its members were absorbed into the Many branch.
Organized in 1933 with W. M. Muse as president, the Many branch held meetings first in the Lions’ Hall and the City Hall until a chapel was built in 1942. Branch presidents and bishops serving during this period were W. M. Muse, Fred and Arthur M. Wagley (sons of Alex Wagley), Mack Hayes, Jr., and C. Glen Hardy. In 1976 the congregation moved into a spacious new building, and the Many Ward now contains over three hundred people, under the leadership of Bishop Michael Slay, a grandson of Alex Wagley. The ward became part of the Alexandria Louisiana Stake a few years later.
The more than eighty years since August 1896 have brought considerable change for the Church in Louisiana. From the day of its beginning there, with a handful of converts, the Church has grown and prospered. Five organized stakes now flourish throughout the state. The first stake there, the New Orleans Stake, was created in June 1955 (the 221st stake in the Church), followed by the Shreveport Stake (including some members in Texas) in January 1958, the Baton Rouge Stake in January 1969, the Alexandria Stake in August 1978, and the Denham Springs Stake in April 1981 (the 1254th stake in the Church). The attitude of the community is no longer one of animosity and suspicion, but one of respect and good will. Members have come and gone, but from the roots of these early missionary efforts have come the fruits of faith.