Elder Charles A. Callis: Twentieth-Century Missionary


Most students of Church history are familiar with such missionary giants of the nineteenth century as Wilford Woodruff and Orson and Parley P. Pratt. However, the contributions of many General Authorities in the twentieth century have been every bit as remarkable. One such missionary pace-maker was Charles Albert Callis (1865–1947) who, from the age of forty until his death at eighty-two, devoted his full time to the Church.

Elder Charles A. Callis

Photography courtesy Josephine Callis Spilsbury and Church Historical Department.

Elder Callis, in many ways, was to Church members of the Southern States what Elder Matthew Cowley later became to the South Pacific Saints—a man of faith and inspired leadership. Furthermore, Elder Callis was a transitionalist, bridging the missionary approach of the nineteenth century with the modern uses of mass media, public relations, and referrals of today. He was many things in one—miner, legislator, attorney, husband, father, Apostle, missionary.

Born 4 May 1865 in Dublin, Ireland, of English parents, John Callis and Susannah Charlotte Callis, he very early suffered the cruelty of extreme poverty. At the age of ten he was baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Liverpool. In October of that same year, 1875, he and his widowed and almost penniless mother immigrated to America on board the S.S. Dakota, with passage largely provided by the Church-sponsored Perpetual Immigration Fund.

Once in Utah Territory they settled in Bountiful for two years before moving north to Centerville, where Susannah Callis later married Thomas Williams.

Because of continuing poverty, Charles moved to Coalville to work in the coal mines. Though only sixteen years old, in making this decision he may have realized that he was probably losing any reasonable chance of gaining a formal education. He spent eleven years laboring underground and in time became a hoistman. Despite the rigors of a mining life, he used his spare moments well, for it was during those years he gained an increasing love for learning. He read widely in many fields, especially the writings of Shakespeare and other great literary artists.

Like many of his fellow Mormon miners, he sometimes found his religion and his lifestyle incompatible. The work was backbreaking, dirty, and extremely dangerous. Fellow workers and bosses did not always maintain high standards of language, behavior, and morality.

Perhaps because of his work and his associates, he temporarily drifted from the Church, though not very far and not for very long. For after coincidentally meeting Elder Brigham H. Roberts of the Council of the Seventy, who took a personal interest in the young coal miner, Brother Callis rededicated himself to full Church activity, a course from which he would never again turn. After serving five months in 1892 as a Summit Stake missionary in Wyoming, he was called on a full-time mission in December of that year to Great Britain. He spent a year and a half in the Liverpool Conference, and from November 1894 until June 1895 labored in his native Ireland under the direction of Anthon H. Lund, then president of the European Mission. 1

Upon returning to Coalville in 1895, he committed himself to furthering his education, improve himself economically, and become reinvolved in community affairs. (He had been elected Coalville constable before his mission and in 1891 had won a seat on the Coalville City Council.) 2

In 1896, Brother Callis ran for state office during Utah’s first national election as a state and won. 3 As a state representative, he voted consistently to better the plight of the common laborer, particularly coal miners and railroaders. 4

At about this time Brother Callis began studying during odd moments to become a lawyer, and even before being admitted to the bar won election as county attorney in Summit County in 1898. 5 In 1902 Brother Callis was reelected as Summit County attorney for the third consecutive time. During these years, he met and married Grace E. Pack of Kamas, Utah. Their marriage on 31 September 1902 would last forty-four years, produce eight children, and span a sea of church activity.

But Brother Callis’ promising career in public service changed direction abruptly on 13 December 1905 when he was asked to serve another full-time mission, this time to the Eastern States. However, a letter from the First Presidency, dated March 26 and signed by secretary George Reynolds, asked if he would mind going to the Southern States rather than the Eastern States. 6 In that same letter, Brother Callis was given permission to take his family, 7 which consisted of his wife and two little girls, three-year-old Grace and year-old Kathleen.

In 1905 the Southern States Mission was no easy place to teach the gospel. Four years before, the missionary force was trimmed from 466 to 154 partly because of the tragic persecutions LDS missionaries had been suffering. Some missionaries had been murdered. Other attempted murders were documented. Incidents of whipping, tarring and feathering, and forcible ejection from communities were common.

Even though physical violence began to abate after the Reed Smoot Senate hearings, strong feelings against the Church still lingered, especially in rural areas. Obviously, the Church needed someone in the South who could improve its public image and build better relations with Southerners, someone who could defend the Church in Southern courts while making contacts with politicians, judges, and other prominent leaders. Brother Callis was regarded as one who could fill the need.

That he would succeed in this great task soon became evident. In 1907, he was assigned to defend Elder George Perry, falsely charged with “riot” and “intent to kill” by a grand jury in Darlington, South Carolina. Elder Callis, by then a member of the Florida Bar, was accepted by the South Carolina court and succeeded in exonerating Elder Perry while cultivating a spirit of good will.

His missionary labors were equally impressive and innovative. Under his direction Latter-day Saint missionaries set up “portable tabernacles” (tents) in cities without members to preach the gospel, later returning in pairs to teach interested contacts. After this successful two-year mission, the Callises returned home, only to be immediately recalled to the South, this time to preside over the South Carolina Conference. President Ben E. Rich had been quietly looking for a replacement since 1905. 8 Consequently, four months after Elder Callis returned, he was appointed mission president in August 1908. 9 Just the month before, he had been admitted to the South Carolina bar, where he had been “treated very courteously by the judges, lawyers and court officials.” 10

The area over which he presided, especially in those days of slower communication and transportation, was enormous. There were fourteen conferences (districts) distributed throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, southern Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, serving approximately 13,000 members. The 250 missionaries reported to Chattanooga, Tennessee, until President Callis moved headquarters to Atlanta, Georgia.

As mission president, Brother Callis pursued his objectives of making the South safer for missionaries and members alike and of improving the image of the Church. He continued using his legal skills to bring injustices to trial. As one of many efforts, he met with the governor of Florida and secured his personal promise to try citizens who had kidnapped and whipped two young missionaries. 11 Though diminutive in size (5′5″), he brought with him a sense of justice and persuasive powers that recurringly aided the Church.

Correspondence now available at Brigham Young University reveals his genuine love for the missionaries and the Church. He urged the missionaries to keep themselves clean and tidy but not to buy new clothes unless necessary. “Leave candy, soda water drinks, ice cream, and other sweets. Black your own shoes and shave yourselves. Do not spend your money on picture shows. … Expenses must be kept down to the lowest possible point.” 12

President Callis himself, perhaps because of his childhood, was very frugal. It was not uncommon for him to save the cost of a hotel room and sleep all night on a railway station bench.

Though not a taskmaster, he believed in hard work and expected the most from his missionaries. “I do not know of anything that will spoil an elder quicker than long visits with the Saints. He becomes spiritually lazy, he is not out on the battle line.” 13

His belief in the efficacy of tracting never waned. In a personal letter after he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he observed: “I am fully persuaded that every day tracting contributes largely to the spiritual depth of the missionaries. It strengthens testimony. …” 14 To another he wrote: “We certainly rejoice in the radio, illustrated lectures and every other method employed to bring the gospel attractively before the people. At the same time you will remember that in the past … countless thousands of people have been converted by reading the tracts and by listening to the Elders expound the principles of the Gospel.” 15

Not surprisingly then, he set a standard in his mission of having his missionaries “spend at least four or five hours (per day) tracting” and to “be sure that [they] tract[ed] every district at least three times.” 16

In another letter written years later to Elder ElRay L. Christiansen, at that time president of the Texas Mission, Elder Callis revealed some of his tactics at improving the public image of the Church.

“When one of the brethren visited the Southern States Mission … I set myself the task of preparing a brief synopsis of his addresses during the meetings. At the conclusion of the night meetings or before ten o’clock, I presented myself to the city editor … with a prepared summary. Almost without exception, and I cannot now recall an exception, all or part of the synopsis was published and information about the faith … was given to the public. This, I thought, was excellent missionary and doctrinal publicity.” 17

The man was extremely energetic. Lengthy sessions with visiting General Authorities, district meetings, outdoor conferences with the members, constant meetings with an ever-changing battalion of far-flung missionaries, even debates exacted great demands on President Callis. One of the few photographs in the Callis papers shows Elder James E. Talmage coming out of the mission home with President Callis, characteristically, two steps ahead of his guest.

Debates were not uncommon in the early 1900s, and President Callis seldom turned down an opportunity. In late May 1910 he squared off with a Reverend Mansfield, a Campbellite preacher in Northout, Tennessee, for no less than three days. As was so often the case, the “gold bible” and Joseph Smith became the central issue. The outcome, according at least to the mission publication, the Liahona, was that “the Lord softened the hearts of the people and made manifest the truth of His word.” 18

There is no doubt that President Callis was a gifted speaker. He developed a forceful and convincing style that made him an energetic and entertaining speaker. His preaching, though, was not without its lighter moments. His daughter, Kathleen Callis Larsen, recalls a moment when his approach backfired: “One hot day in Atlanta Papa was preaching in the Church there. All the windows and doors were open. He was delivering one of [his] hell fire and damnation talks, telling of the wicked. As he reached the climax he hit the pulpit and called out in a big voice, ‘Then in that day of judgment, Brothers and Sisters, what will those wicked stand in need of?’ He paused for a second or two to emphasize the point, and at that moment the ice man just passing by shouted ‘Ice!’ Well, it broke up the congregation to say the least, and Papa enjoyed the joke most of all.” 19

With the perseverance of the missionaries, the Callis’s fine brand of leadership, and the ever so gradual change in attitude of the Southern people, the Church made increasing numbers of converts, built new chapels, effectively made a beachhead in this area. Meanwhile his years as president increased and lengthened out their time. Past the first three years, throughout the war years, into the days of the Roaring Twenties when much of America remained a giddy fanfare of business prosperity, and well into the agonizing, terrible daze of the depression—and still Charles A. Callis and his devoted wife remained in the South.

Why were they left so long? Perhaps the conservative South responded better to a continuity of leadership. Perhaps Church leaders knew that President Callis had won a place of respect in the Southern area that was yet too fresh, too important, too tenuous to dissolve. The wounds of the past were gradually healing, and it was terribly important that nothing get in the way of that transformation. But finally after twenty-five years as mission president and a total of twenty-eight years in the Southern States, President Callis was released to be succeeded by LeGrand Richards.

Yet true to form, he was released only to be called again, this time to the Quorum of the Twelve at the 1933 October general conference. He received no prior warning of his call—as was custom with President Heber J. Grant—and Elder Callis said of it later, “The appointment came unexpectedly and we were filled with almost overcoming surprise.” 20 He replaced Elder James E. Talmage, who had passed away only a few months before.

Elder Talmage, who always admired Charles Callis’s forthrightness and dedication, had written to him just two years before: “Your work is that of a great leader in Israel, and the extent of it you do not, because you cannot, comprehend; but it will be unfolded to you in its full measure … for I am sure your work on earth lies yet largely before you in effectiveness if not in time duration.” 21 Elder George Albert Smith, later to become eighth president of the Church, confided, “I have had one of my desires realized. I have wanted to see Brother Callis and Brother [Samuel O.] Bennion both among the General Authorities of the Church and that has now come to pass.” 22

Elder Callis served as a General Authority for fourteen more years. In addition to regular assignments of visiting stakes and missions throughout the Church, he served on the Church Board of Education and as special advisor to the Primary Association. While an Apostle he authored his only book, Fundamentals of Religion 23 (Deseret Book, 1945), a series of seventeen lectures he gave over national radio in 1943.

His writings during this period reveal much about his mind and views. For the most part, he kept aloof from politics and economics during these years. He argued that “God wants both (labor and management) to go together peaceably. Do not blame men because they are rich, do not condemn or look down upon men because they are poor.” He also urged young men to learn “to be craftsmen. … qualified to earn a comfortable living. The middle partition of the incompatibility between labor and culture should be pulled down. There should be no such partition. Labor is honorable.” 24

If there ever was a blue-collared Apostle, here was one. Elder Callis forever remained a common man with uncommon characteristics. He loved the simple things, the baseball game, the boxing match, the picnic.

His hatred of war was no idle thought. Like the depression and even natural disasters, he saw war as a Divine punishment for sin, an outpouring of the wrath of God, or as he called, judgment “days” of the Lord before the great and last day. Speaking in 1935 he said: “The world is an armed camp … Their words, as the Bible says ‘are as smooth as butter’ but deep down in their hearts there is war. Only the grace of God can save the world from a cataclysm that threatens to destroy civilization and bring despair to humanity.” 25

Recurring themes throughout his writings and sermons were his great love for America, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon; his disdain of racism; his love of home; and his recurring condemnation of liquor. Yet even more frequently, he preached Jesus Christ as Savior of the world. His favorite scripture was that Christ had “purchased us with His own blood” and believed that man’s accounting for sin was ultimately with Christ. On one occasion he said, “Eternally the Atonement is the very heart of religion for it gives evidence for faith in the principle of life eternal and affords life to the ordinances essential to man’s redemption.” 26 Though work was essential to salvation, he emphasized the role of Christ in dispensing mercy and grace to the Latter-day Saint.

Sister Callis passed away in October 1946. Her passing was a serious blow to Elder Callis, one from which he never quite recovered. But before his death, he saw one of his cherished dreams fulfilled—the formation of the first stake in his beloved South in Jacksonville, Florida, on 20 January 1947. That very night he wrote to his daughter: “I am being treated well but it is very lonely without your mother. …

“The Lord gave me strength to go through with the organization. With his aid I am battling through. I feel that your mother is not far from us.” 27

Within twelve hours, Elder Callis was dead.

Today Elder Charles A. Callis is an almost forgotten figure among younger members of the Church. Yet to those who knew him, he was utterly memorable. A fellow Southern States missionary working with him in Jacksonville, Florida, long before Elder Callis was even appointed mission president, wrote words that were still true at the time of his death:

“C. A. Callis in many respects [is] a very remarkable man. He is one of those heroic souls who have come up from the depths. A few years ago he was working in a coal mine in Utah, now he is a practicing attorney and has been admitted to the bar in two states. Without opportunities or aid from friends he has risen by the sovereignty of his determination to an enviable station in life. He not only acquired a knowledge of law by self effort but read widely on general subjects and trained himself in the art of public speaking. He is an able, pleasing and convincing orator.

“His personality is not striking. His appearance gives you no true idea of the caliber of the man. He is undersized and there is nothing prepossessing about his countenance. But when he commences to talk you begin to enlarge your estimation of him. His voice is soft, round, and full. There is a charm in it. You listen and soon discover that you are not in the presence of an ordinary man.

“He is a leader. He does things without being told. Nor does he stick tenaciously by the past. He is always discovering new ways of doing things. While others are waiting for opportunities to do good he is making them.” 28

[photo] Elder Callis and his family at the mission home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, around 1917. To Elder Callis’s left is his wife, Grace Pack Callis; below her is Paul, the only son. The five daughters (with their married names) are, from left to right, Josephine Spilsbury, Grace Summerhays, Laura Horne, Kathleen Larsen, and Pearl Dean.

[photo] This photograph was taken in 1924, when Charles Callis was president of the Southern States Mission.

[photo] On 20 January 1947—one day before he died—Elder Callis organized the first stake in his beloved South. He called this the “crowning achievement” of his life.

Richard Edmond Bennett, a historian and archivist, University of Manitoba, Canada, is a high councilor in the Winnipeg Manitoba Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Charles A. Callis Collection, Mss 22, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University; hereafter Callis Collection.

  2.   2.

    1891 Certificate of Election, C. A. Callis Papers, Historical Department Archives.

  3.   3.

    The Coalville Times, 6 and 13 Nov. 1896. Callis defeated Henry Walsh by a margin of 2229 to 1219 votes.

  4.   4.

    Bryant S. Hinckley, “Charles A. Callis,” Improvement Era, July 1934, p. 389.

  5.   5.

    Certificates of Election, Callis Collection.

  6.   6.

    It appears that Elder Ben E. Rich, then president of the Southern States mission, influenced the decision. In a letter to Callis, Elder Rich said: “In speaking to the [First] Presidency concerning the works of our mission … I mentioned the great necessity of having someone … who had a good understanding of the gospel, and told them of yourself, that I believed from what I had heard that you could do a great work here. (Ben E. Rich to Charles Callis, 26 March 1906, Callis Papers.)

  7.   7.

    George Reynolds to Charles Callis, 26 March 1906, Callis Collection.

  8.   8.

    Ted S. Anderson, “The Southern States Mission and the Administration of Ben E. Rich, 1898–1908, including a Statistical Study of Church Growth in the Southwestern United States During the Twentieth Century,” Brigham Young University: master’s thesis, 1976, p. 106.

  9.   9.

    First Presidency to Charles Callis, 20 August 1908, Callis Papers. The Callises had been released from their first mission to the Southern States Mission in early March 1908 and were set apart again for the Southern States Mission April 14 of that same year.

  10.   10.

    Liahona: the Elders’ Journal, 6 (1 August 1908): 170.

  11.   11.

    Southern Stakes Mission Historical Record, Book “D,” 1918–1924, p. 931, Hist. Dept. Archives.

  12.   12.

    Charles Callis to Southern States missionaries, 4 November 1925 and 15 April 1926, Callis Papers.

  13.   13.

    Charles Callis to Southern States missionaries, 23 June 1927, Callis Collection.

  14.   14.

    Charles Callis to Elias Woodruff, 13 August 1937, Callis Collection.

  15.   15.

    Charles Callis to Merrill D. Clawson, 4 February 1938, Callis Collection.

  16.   16.

    Charles Callis to Southern States missionaries, 26 January 1928, Callis Collection.

  17.   17.

    Charles Callis to E. L. Christiansen, 21 October 1939, Callis Papers, Hist. Dept. Archives.

  18.   18.

    Liahona: The Elder’s Journal 8 (28 June 1910): 24.

  19.   19.

    Kathleen Callis Larsen, A Biography of Charles Albert Callis and Grace Elizabeth Pack (1974), p. 34, in Charles Callis Collection, BYU.

  20.   20.

    Charles Callis to Mr. and Mrs. S. Larsen, 10 November 1933, Callis Collection.

  21.   21.

    James E. Talmage to Charles Callis, 5 September 1931, Callis Collection.

  22.   22.

    George Albert Smith to Mrs. Grace E. Callis, 10 October 1933, Callis Collection.

  23.   23.

    Fundamentals of Religion, Charles A. Callis, Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, 1945.

  24.   24.

    Ibid., April 1941, p. 42.

  25.   25.

    Ibid., April 1935, p. 16.

  26.   26.

    Fundamentals of Religion, Charles A. Callis, Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, 1945, p. 9.

  27.   27.

    Charles Callis to Kathleen Larsen, 20 January 1947, Callis Collection.

  28.   28.

    Nephi Jensen Journal, July 1907, pp. 65–67, Archives & Manuscripts, BYU.