On the north bank of the Virgin River in southern Utah, near the town of Rockville, is a forgotten ghost town called Duncan’s Retreat. The town, deserted by its seventy-nine inhabitants in the 1890s, never knew success. Three decades later, nothing was left of the town except fragments of one or two buildings and three pear trees still bearing fruit.1
Much like the town where he lived, Joseph A. Ott, a young Latter-day Saint missionary who died shortly after entering the mission field in late 1895, never knew success as some define it. He never taught one discussion or baptized one investigator. Yet Joseph’s short-lived missionary effort is still bearing fruit one hundred years after his death.
Life must have seemed to be going just as planned for 24-year-old Joseph Alma Ott, the third son of pioneer parents. It was October of 1895, and he had just married his sweetheart, Elizabeth Jolley, in the St. George Temple.2 Only three years earlier Joseph and his family had followed President Wilford Woodruff’s call to colonize an unsettled area in Utah now known as Tropic. Among the handful of other settlers there was William Jolley’s family, of which Joseph’s new bride was the second child.3
A mission call to Germany was far from Joseph’s mind, but when it came three weeks after his marriage, Joseph immediately accepted the opportunity to serve.4 From his parents’ example, he had learned early in life to sacrifice for the Lord and his church.
Joseph’s mother, Hannah Normington Ott, left her home in England at the age of six, crossed the Atlantic with her parents, and traveled across the plains in a pioneer handcart company. Her father and two brothers died while making the journey. At sixteen, Hannah married David Ott, whom she had met after her family responded to the prophet’s call to colonize Utah’s Dixie area. Hannah reared a family of thirteen children, including four who died before their twenty-fifth birthdays.5
Born in Indiana, Joseph’s father, David B. Ott, was living in the eastern states with his parents when he joined the Church. David’s family moved to Nauvoo to be with the other Saints. After the death of David’s father, the rest of the family moved to Utah, where David helped settle two colonies and held Church callings until his death in 1921.6
Joseph showed similar dedication when, after receiving his mission call, he parted from his new wife and traveled north to Salt Lake City. On 8 November 1895, he was ordained as a Seventy by Elder Abraham H. Cannon, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.7
“Unfortunately,” writes Joseph’s great-nephew C. Eric Ott, “tragedy was Elder Ott’s first … companion. While disembarking from the ship in Germany, he slipped and fell into the cold water.”8 Joseph was rescued from the fall, but days later Elders William McEwan and J. M. Weller, Joseph’s companions, sent a letter to A. O. Woodruff—a fellow missionary and the son of President Wilford Woodruff—saying that Joseph had become very ill.9
On 18 January 1896, one month and six days after his ill-fated arrival in Germany, Joseph died from black diphtheria. He had not had the chance to teach even one person about the restored gospel. George C. Naegle, the mission president over Germany, wrote to Joseph’s parents to inform them of the death, commenting that “[Joseph was] full of courage when he arrived. He took up his labors with the German language and study of the scriptures with zealousness and true devotion.”10 Joseph’s parents had already heard the sad news weeks before from a telegram sent by President Woodruff to the presiding elder of Tropic, Utah.
Joseph’s body was buried in his field of labor on 22 January 1896 at the St. Pauli (also called St. Paul) cemetery in Dresden, Germany. Eight missionaries performed the small, private ceremony.11 Elder A. O. Woodruff made this entry in his journal: “We all got silk hats and white gloves for the occasion and proceeded to the St. Paul’s cemetery. Here we all saw the remains of our dear Brother and Comrade Joseph A. Ott who has fallen in the battle for right against wrong. Elder Weller dedicated the grave and resting place for our dear boy who gave his life for the cause of truth. It is useless to say how sad I feel … for his poor young wife and his loved ones.”12
Almost six months later, a tombstone—bought with donations from German Saints—was placed on the grave site and dedicated to be protected.13 The white marble tombstone reads: “In Memory of the Missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph A. Ott. Dedicated to Him by His Fellow Believers.”14
Since the death of Joseph Ott one hundred years ago, many changes have taken place in Germany: two world wars, the division of the country after World War II, and the rise and fall of communism in East Germany. Yet despite the destruction in Dresden from the wars and the rebuilding afterward, Joseph Ott’s tombstone still stands today. More important, the spirit of missionary work and sacrifice that he exemplified has lived on through the years in Germany and inspired others who have come after him.
Hella Smith was a young girl living at her grandparents’ home in Dresden during World War II when she first heard the unique story of the conversion of her grandmother, Maria Strauch, to the Church. Located not far from her grandparents’ home was the cemetery where Joseph Ott was buried. In 1908 Grandmother Strauch “would visit the cemetery frequently because she had relatives buried there,” remembers Hella, who now has two daughters and lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, Roman.
“One day, during the middle of the day, she saw a light shining on one of the tombstones. She thought it was unusual, so she got closer and saw Joseph Ott’s marker. She read the name of the Church and later looked it up,” says Hella.
After finding the address of a local branch of the Church in Dresden, Maria attended meetings, embraced the gospel, and was baptized. A year later her husband, Herman, was also baptized, and many of their thirteen children followed suit, including Hella Smith’s mother, Ghemela.
A few years after World War II and the creation of East Germany, Hella and her widowed mother escaped from Dresden. “I was fourteen when, on Christmas Eve, my mom told me we were going to take a long train ride. ‘This is your Christmas present,’ she said.”
Because they were able to take along only what they could wear, Hella’s mother dressed her in layer after layer of clothing. “I do remember that we said a wonderful prayer before leaving,” Hella says. Hella and her mother crossed the border of East Germany and eventually made their way to the United States and built a new life for themselves.
Many years later, Hella and her husband were called to serve as missionaries in Germany. One day while walking down the halls of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, the couple saw a door with the name Ott on it.
“Even though I had heard my grandmother’s story many times, I had not thought about it for years—that is until that day in the MTC,” says Hella. Curious, she and her husband opened the door and found C. Eric Ott, director of research and evaluation at the MTC and a great-nephew to Joseph Ott!
It was a memorable day for Eric Ott. “When our two stories came together that day, Sister [Hella] Smith and I sat quietly, savoring the sweet feeling that had settled over us. ‘Brother Ott,’ she said, ‘It appears that your great-uncle Joseph was a successful missionary after all.’ Knowing that something good came from Joseph Ott’s mission has been a source of comfort to my family, like the healing of a long illness.”15
Born into an active Latter-day Saint family in Chemnitz, Germany, during communist rule, Tobias Burkhardt grew up desiring to serve a mission but never thought he would be allowed to do so.
One day Tobias heard his father talking about a missionary’s grave in Dresden—about an hour’s drive from Tobias’s home—that needed to be cleaned. Tobias, who was a deacon at the time, jumped at the chance to become involved in missionary work, if only in a small way, by caring for that grave.
The first time Tobias went to Dresden to see Joseph Ott’s tombstone, weeds covered the grave site. For three or four hours a day for two days, Tobias worked hard beautifying the site—clearing weeds, cleaning the tombstone, and planting flowers.
“I did all I could to make it look nice,” recalls Tobias, who now lives with his wife, Tannya, in the Sego Lily Ward of the Sandy Utah Central Stake. “I knew the grave was a special site.”
Sometime during the several years that Tobias cared for the grave, President Thomas S. Monson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited members in East Germany. During his visit he was taken, in the night, to the cemetery to see Joseph Ott’s burial spot. Impressed with the well-kept grave site, he asked the members who cared for it. Upon learning it was Tobias, President Monson asked him why he took the time to do so. Tobias responded, “I’ll never be able to serve a mission, as did my father. I feel close to missionary work when I tend this grave where the body of a missionary rests.”16
But the Lord knew Tobias’s desires and heard the prayers of the Saints there. In May 1989 the first ten missionaries to leave East Germany in fifty years arrived at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. Among them was Tobias, called to serve in the Utah Salt Lake City Mission.
“It was amazing to be doing something we had only heard about and imagined others doing,” says Tobias. “The MTC was strong and marvelous because the Spirit was so easily felt. It prepared me so well for the mission field. We are never handed blessings without effort and sacrifice. We must trust in the Lord no matter what.”
Elder William Powley and nine other missionaries entered the newly created Germany Dresden Mission on 30 March 1989. For the first time in decades, East Germany had opened its doors to Latter-day Saint missionaries, and Elder Powley knew he was seeing history in the making.
Five months later, on 7 September 1989 at a Dresden mission conference, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told the missionaries that he saw in East Germany’s future “stakes dotting the land.” Elder Nelson said he saw “the same reaching out to neighboring countries as was done from the first missionaries in England to Europe.”17
Elder Powley and the other missionaries were not too surprised when in November, two months after the conference, the East German government announced that its borders were open to free travel and that the Berlin Wall was to come down. That same month Dresden mission president Wolfgang Paul introduced to the missionaries an award for excellence in teaching—the Joseph A. Ott Award.
“We wanted to have something by which the missionaries could be inspired and motivated,” said President Paul, adding that he chose the name of the award after hearing Maria Strauch’s and Tobias Burkhardt’s inspiring stories that stemmed from Joseph Ott’s missionary service.18
“Earning it was difficult,” said Elder Powley, one of the first two missionaries to receive the Joseph A. Ott Award. “It was a motivational award for teaching the discussions. It seemed fitting that to be awarded the Joseph A. Ott Award you had to teach the discussions really using the commitment pattern, something that Joseph Ott never had the opportunity to do. The award was more than just memorizing the discussions and scriptures. It set a teaching standard of excellence in the Dresden mission, which helped us be better missionaries.”
The story of Joseph Ott is similar to the story told by President Harold B. Lee about a missionary who thought he was a failure until years later he learned that his one baptism, a young Irish boy, had become an Apostle.19 The success of Joseph Ott’s mission cannot be judged from the few weeks he spent sick in Dresden, for his example of sacrifice and love of the gospel inspires those who hear his story.
“There will always be an Abinadi or a Joseph Ott whose work comes to fruition in a later age. God’s purposes often go beyond the present moment,” writes Brother Ott, Joseph’s great-nephew. “The true worth of a mission or life can only be measured in the timetable of the Master.”20
In the words of President Monson, “The spirit of Joseph Ott has long since gone home to that God who gave it life. His body rests in the peaceful, well-kept grave in far away Dresden, but his missionary spirit lives on.”21