The moon cast a golden glow on the unfinished walls of the Salt Lake Temple on that April night. Newly married and contemplating leaving his beloved Eliza Luella (Ella Stewart) behind as he left on a mission, David King Udall was looking for comfort and guidance.
Years later when recording his life story,1 Brother Udall recalled that night in 1875: “I climbed to the top of the unfinished Temple walls where I knelt down in the moonlight and poured out my heart in prayer to my Heavenly Father. I promised Him that if He would assist me in fulfilling an honorable mission and would bless and care for dear Ella in my absence, I, in exchange, would dedicate the rest of my life to His service. I prayed that He would bless me with children and in turn I covenanted to do all in my power to rear them to love and serve Him. As I look back over the long years, I am sure that my entire life has been influenced by that solemn promise I made to my Creator.”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 7 September 1851, the oldest child of English immigrants, David was prepared well for a lifetime that would span eighty-seven years and include service both in the Church and the community. “We had our work, we had our fun, and we had our religion,” David remembered. “It was a living, burning reality to many of us youngsters that God through Joseph Smith had restored the gospel of old, had organized His church according to revelation, and had established Zion in the tops of the everlasting hills. We had a conviction that we belonged to a great cause and that we were needed. With many of my companions, I was fired with a determination to carry on the work of redeeming the desert and of giving to the world the message of the restored gospel. This determination became the guiding star of my life.” And also of his mission. On 22 April 1875, David left for England to preach the gospel for more than two years.
“What a blessing this missionary activity has proved to be,” Brother Udall observed in his life story. “I came from my mission with a testimony that has never wavered—a testimony that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, and that God has spoken to the modern world through His prophet, Joseph Smith. I had a desire in my soul to be susceptible to the influence of the Holy Spirit and to be of service to my Church and the world. Joy and sustaining strength have come to me through all my years because of the testimony I gained while on my mission.”
While still on his mission, David received a copy of the April 7, 1877, Deseret News, which contained news of the recent general conference held in Salt Lake City. Imagine his surprise when he read that he had been called to serve another mission, this time to Arizona. “I am willing to respond,” wrote the bewildered young man, “but it seems strange that I am called to fill another mission before I am released from this one. It does not worry me in the least, as I know all will come around for the best.”
David Udall’s attitude of faith and commitment is one of the memories that Nicholas Udall, David’s oldest living descendant, recalls fondly. “I probably knew him better than any of the grandchildren,” explains Nicholas, now eighty years old. “I lived with him as a child for a year while my father recovered from my mother’s death. In addition, I lived with him while attending school a few years later. And when Grandpa quit driving later in his life, I was one of the grandsons who drove him around.”
His grandfather’s strong and fervent prayers made quite an impression on Nicholas as a youth. “He expressed his dedication to the Lord and the gospel in those prayers,” Nicholas explains. “He always prayed that he and his family would be able to obtain the celestial kingdom. That was his lifetime goal, for himself and for all of us.”
Completing his mission to England would only be the beginning as David and his family worked toward that goal. Upon returning to Utah, he was released from his Arizona mission call and spent a year in Nephi, Utah, and two years in Kanab, Utah, establishing a business with two brothers-in-law. He spent hours working in the YMMIA program and as a home missionary. In addition, David and Ella had their first two children, a son who died at birth and a daughter, Pearl.
It was also in Kanab that David first got a taste of political service when he was elected as justice of the peace and the town’s water master. Years later, in Arizona, he also served as a representative of Apache County on the Council of the Twentieth Territorial Legislature.
“One of the things that impressed me most about my grandfather was his commitment to public service,” Nicholas notes. The Udall descendants have all followed in David’s footsteps, with sons and grandsons working as county attorneys, judges, mayors, congressmen, and teachers.
“They’re all just ordinary people,” explains granddaughter Inez Turley. “They just liked public service. Honesty is one of the traits the Udall politicians were known for. Grandpa taught us that honesty should be our guiding star.”
In 1880, David Udall was called again to pioneer in the St. Johns, Arizona, territory, where he served as a bishop.
Answering the call to move to Arizona was not easy for the young Udalls. “Ella and I realized that this call meant a life’s mission,” recalled Brother Udall. “We were thwarted in our financial ambitions for we had to sacrifice our good start in Kanab. Our faith was tested. We were happy with our relatives and friends. … We felt we were going into another world, strange and far away.”
David left Kanab on his twenty-ninth birthday with his wife, daughter, two wagons, and a herd of cattle. One month and four hundred wilderness miles later, the Udalls reached the small town of St. Johns.
The LDS pioneers already there had had a rough time of it. Surrounded by mostly anti-Mormon settlers, the small desert group banded together to accomplish much in the next few years. The debt on the town property was paid, the town site surveyed and recorded, land plotted, irrigation ditches dug, a military group organized, a school and store established, a sawmill and gristmill built, and a meetinghouse erected. “In all our priesthood business meetings, in all our Sabbath services, and in our homes we prayed for divine guidance,” Bishop Udall noted. “During those seven years the saints laid the foundation of St. Johns.”
In 1887, a stake was organized in eastern Arizona, and David Udall—the first bishop in the St. Johns Ward—became the first president of the St. Johns Stake. He would serve in that position for nearly thirty-five years.
Some of the enjoyable memories of that time were ward conferences, scheduled in the summer when traveling was more comfortable. Accompanying President Udall would be representatives of the priesthood quorums and auxiliary organizations, along with younger children that couldn’t be left behind. Sometimes as many as twenty-five or thirty people made the trip. “It was before the day of the automobile,” President Udall recorded. “We traveled in covered wagons. … It took ten days or more to make the trip and hold our meetings. … We looked forward to holding ward conferences with all the pleasure of going on a vacation.”
Though there were moments of pleasure and fun, these were trying times for the Arizona Saints. Many left the area after being worn down by the desert challenges. In desperation, the Saints appealed to Church leaders in Salt Lake City for help of other Latter-day Saint settlers. Soon, one hundred families from Utah and Idaho were called to move to Arizona. The Saints in Arizona rejoiced at the news and met the new members of their community with open hearts. However, two decades later, the population of the St. Johns area had dwindled to practically the same small number again because many families had returned to their original homes or moved on to the more fertile Gila and Salt River valleys.
During this period and in the years following his release from his stake calling, David kept careful notes of various experiences and feelings. “Grandpa had a historian’s instincts,” explains Inez. “He had a big desk with pigeonholes that were always full of papers. Later on in his life, he had all those typed up and organized. I was lucky enough to be one of the ones who worked with him. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I was young and didn’t understand that Grandpa was truly a link to Arizona history. But I’m grateful for that opportunity now.”
But while many pioneers left the dry, undependable St. Johns Valley, the Udall family remained. Although sometimes homesick for Utah valleys and relatives, the family cultivated a positive attitude along with their often scanty crops of wheat, corn, and barley. In May 1882, before the Manifesto was issued, David married Ida Frances Hunt in the St. George Temple. During the next sixteen years, thirteen more children came to the Udall family, with eleven surviving to adulthood. The family was close knit, working together to meet and overcome the challenges of Arizona life.
It took work. Times were tough; like many farmers dependent on ever-changing weather conditions, the Udalls suffered through drought and flood. At one particularly low point, the family farm was lost to foreclosure. In order to supplement the family income, the Udalls ventured into other financial forums.
For nearly forty years, David and his sons delivered mail, traveling hundreds of miles on horseback through all kinds of weather. For a few years, the Udall family tried raising sheep, but they had little success. One of David’s favorite ventures was the Nebo Electric Light and Power Company. But, like many businesses of the time, it proved unprofitable. After ten years, David sold the company at a loss. At one time, the Udall daughters started an ice cream parlor and secretly paid off a 750-dollar loan, surprising their father with the canceled note for his birthday.
The horizon wasn’t always dark. David recorded years later: “That period had a bright side. In the driest years, there was enough water to raise good gardens, wheat for our bread, and provide pasturage for our cows and horses. We also managed to keep on with our mail-driving and while we were burdened with debt and my good [family] worked far too hard … yet we were together and we enjoyed many blessings, chief of which came to us in our children.”
After decades of hard work and a succession of good crops, the Udall family bought a building lot in St. Johns and constructed the house of their dreams. Known as the Elms, the two-story bungalow was finished in 1912 and the family moved in, settled after years of uncertainty. Ida died three years later, but for years, the home was a haven of security for Udall children and grandchildren.
After being released as stake president in 1922, David struggled. “I am honest when I say that I was happy to be released from my public work. I am honest also when I say it was difficult to adjust myself to the change. I felt a loneliness—a lostness for something definite and important to do.”
Deciding to try dry farming on some land west of town, he planted shade trees and alfalfa and several crops of sugar cane. He also tried his hand at making molasses, which his daughters affectionately called sunshine sorghum. He was called as a stake patriarch during this time as well, but he deeply missed being thoroughly immersed in Church service.
His struggle, however, lasted only five years. Both he and Ella were delighted when they were called as president and matron of the new Arizona Temple, a calling in which they would serve for seven years. At age seventy-five, David rented out the Elms and moved to Mesa.
“I am convinced that the seven years spent as president of the Arizona Temple were the most fruitful years of my life,” David recalled in his memoirs. After being released as temple president in November 1934, Brother Udall and his wife returned home to St. Johns. They lived happily and peacefully for almost three years before Ella died in May 1937. David followed her ten months later.
David’s oldest daughter, Pearl, recalls one of her favorite memories of her father. While serving as temple president, he returned to St. Johns to visit and bore his testimony during sacrament meeting. He began by emphasizing the need for the members to truly live the gospel, but before he had said many words, a terrible storm erupted outside. Lightning flashed and thunder pealed, nearly deafening those in attendance.
“Father stood still and stopped speaking for some minutes until, by raising his voice, he could be heard above the elements. Clearly and convincingly his words rang out above the fury of the wind, rain, and hail that beat against the windows, as he told us that keeping the commandments of the Lord works no hardship on people.
“The incident touched me as being significant, symbolic of Father’s life, for how often he has met the lightning and thunder, the wind and beating hail of an opposing world! Through it all his testimony has remained undaunted, and cheerfully he has carried on regardless of the storms.”