As Church members in Florida celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Church in their state, they are also celebrating another milestone: Church membership in the state has reached 100,000 members.
Although the first gospel seeds in Florida were actually planted more than 100 years ago by traveling missionaries (one of the first converts in the state was Cleve Brown of Quincy, Florida, who embraced the gospel in 1857), Church organization in the state occurred in the mid-1890s, when the Florida Conference, part of the Southern States Mission, was organized as well as the state’s first Sunday School, which was created at Coe Mills, Florida.
Initially, the Church grew in the northern part of the state, and missionaries wrote home about braving alligators, water moccasins, and giant mosquitoes as well as intense heat as they searched out converts.
One of those converts was John Jackson Blackwelder, the first branch president of the Oak Grove Florida Branch, who served from 1912 to 1938. His wife, Emma Kerce Blackwelder, was the first Relief Society president in the branch. Today, two of their daughters, Suzie Blackwelder Thomas and Emma Ouida Blackwelder Miles Nettles, still live in the area and carry on a strong family tradition of Church service. Sister Thomas has served as Young Women president, Primary president, and twice as Relief Society president. All of her sons served missions, and the family has provided three bishops, as well as a stake president.
Her sister Ouida married Seth Nettles, whose ancestors were also among the first in the area to join the Church. In fact, Henry Nettles donated the land for the first meetinghouse in Oak Grove. The original building is still there, and Sister Nettles remembers riding to church in a wagon.
“There was a very steep hill that we had to go down,” she recalls, “with a creek and two bridges at the bottom. Mother would make Father stop the wagon at the top of the hill and then instruct all of us ten children to walk down the hill. Then Father would carefully lead the team down the hill and across the bridges before we could climb back on the wagon again.”
Eventually missionaries fanned out to the east, west, and south. One of the fastest-growing areas became what is now the Jacksonville Florida West Stake. The missionaries met there in local schools to introduce people to the gospel. One day when the elders arrived at a school, they found a note on the door saying they were no longer welcome there. Fortunately one of their investigators, William Daniel Mann, invited the missionaries to preach at his home. Brother Mann became one of the first persons baptized in the area, and he later served as one of the first legislators in Florida.
The work was a little slower in the west, where law officers met each train arriving in Tallahassee to prevent Latter-day Saint elders from disembarking. Finally, in the late 1920s, missionaries were allowed in the town. They found the local post office, where they announced their presence and asked if there were any members living in the area. Hubert O. Walker, a member who had been baptized by traveling missionaries in Georgia in 1912, introduced himself and took the missionaries to his home.
Brother Walker’s wife, Ollie Green Walker, was not a member of the Church. When cottage meetings were held on their front porch, she gathered the neighbor ladies to one end of the porch and engaged them in loud conversation to try to hinder the elders in their preaching. Nevertheless, she was soon converted. In 1929 she attended a regional conference with her husband when Charles A. Callis, president of the Southern States Mission, called her to the stand and set her apart as Relief Society president of the Tallahassee Branch.
The gospel also spread south into the Orlando and Tampa areas. Jonathan Clark Cox and his wife, Shannon Rene Gasque Cox, are examples of the enduring diligence of strong Latter-day Saint pioneer families in the state. This young couple, members of the St. Cloud Ward, both have ancestors who were deeply committed to the gospel: Brother Cox’s great-great-grandparents were some of the original members in the Lake City area, and Sister Cox’s great-grandmother joined the Church at age 31 and raised all seven of her daughters in the gospel when her husband left because of her conversion.
At the turn of the century, Miami was a bustling frontier settlement supporting a population of 2,000. When two missionaries arrived in the area in 1909, they were warmly greeted by Julius C. Neubeck, a member who had moved his family to the area to work on the Florida East Coast Railroad. Thereafter, missionaries went to Miami each winter to preach, and in 1915 Brother Neubeck was called as presiding elder over Church members in Miami.
Five years later, on 14 November 1920, 18 members met on Miami Beach under a cluster of palm and sea grape trees to organize a Sunday School, and Elder Neubeck was appointed superintendent. For years, members met in the Neubecks’ tiny home, with classes being held inside the house, on the porch, in the yard, and even in an automobile.
Membership in Miami climbed to 180 by 1924, and members rejoiced when in October 1930 the first Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in the area was dedicated. The small band of Miami Mormons grew to include members from Sebastian in the north to Key West in the south and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. On 28 October 1938, the southern portion of the state was organized into the South Florida District.
In 1960 there were four stakes in the state, and the first Florida mission was created. Blair Conner and his family were Miami converts, baptized in 1963. Brother Conner was honored as the 3,000th member in the Miami Stake. “I’ve seen the Miami stake stretch from Fort Pierce to Key West and over to the Gulf Coast,” he said, “and I watched the Fort Lauderdale Stake being sliced out of that. The Church has grown well ever since.”
In the early 1960s, large numbers of Cubans arrived in Florida. Many of these refugees settled in Miami, having a tremendous impact on Church growth as they began to accept the gospel in record numbers. At first these converts received services through translators, but as their numbers grew, Spanish-speaking branches and wards were formed. In 1994 the first Spanish-speaking stake in the southeastern United States was organized.
Nicholas Biangel is a third-generation Florida member. His grandparents were among those early converts, and his grandfather, also named Nicholas Biangel, was the first Spanish-speaking patriarch in Florida. Sixteen-year-old Nicholas, a member of the Pembroke Pines Ward, is not surprised by the surge in membership among the Hispanic population. “It says in the Book of Mormon that the descendants of Lehi will receive the gospel,” he explained. “What we’re seeing here today is that very prophecy being fulfilled.”
The influx of immigrants from many different countries continues to change the face of the Church in southern Florida. Perhaps the best example of the broad range of cultural diversity within the stakes in this region lies in the Miami Shores Ward, where classes are taught in English, Creole, Spanish, and sign language. Members of the ward come from more than a dozen different countries.
“The diversity of our membership is really the glue that has held our ward together,” says Bishop Glen Larson. “Our differences have made us kinder and more patient with one another. … For many, we are their only family. It’s beautiful to hear our members sing the hymns in their own native tongue, and it’s a great blessing to know we are helping to build up the Church.”
A high point for many members of the Church came on 9 October 1994, when a temple was dedicated in Orlando, Florida. Since then, the gospel in Florida has continued to flourish. Currently the 100,000 members in this southern state make up 22 stakes, 158 wards, and 27 branches.