In 1895, Joseph Alma Ott, my great-uncle, became the first missionary called from the small southern Utah town of Tropic. He was the third son of David Benton Ott and Hannah Normington, sturdy pioneers who helped transform the southern Utah deserts into farms and cattle ranges.
The mission call to Germany came just a few weeks after twenty-four-year-old Joseph was married to Elizabeth Jolley in the St. George (Utah) Temple. Like many others of his generation, Joseph left behind everything he knew and loved and set off on his long journey to Europe.
Unfortunately, tragedy was Elder Ott’s first and only missionary companion. While disembarking from the ship in Germany, he slipped and fell into the cold water. He became ill from exposure to the water and frigid winter weather. His condition worsened, and, within a month of his arrival in the mission field, Joseph died. He was buried at Dresden, a beautiful city now located in the German Democratic Republic. His only possession of value sent home by the local authorities was a gold watch that later was carried by my grandfather and then my father on their missions.
The news of Elder Ott’s death devastated the family. Joseph was dead, his life wasted, his body buried in a distant land. Elizabeth, who weeks before had danced gaily as a new bride, was a grief-stricken young widow. Joseph’s father mourned even as Jacob of old mourned when his Joseph was presumed dead at the hands of savage beasts.
Although time and their faith eventually softened the blow, the story of his ill-fated mission was passed from generation to generation.
Meanwhile, Elder Ott’s memory was kindly preserved by the German Saints. Shortly after Joseph’s death, the president of the European Mission and several elders of the Church conducted a brief graveside service and dedicated the grave. A monument, paid for by local contributions, was erected on the grave site. Constructed of white marble, the monument stood 1.6 meters high, and carried the inscription:
of the Missionary
of The Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints
Joseph A. Ott
Born Dec. 12, 1870
Virgin City, Utah
Died Jan. 10, 1896 in Dresden
Dedicated to Him
by His Fellow Believers
The German Saints sent a large photograph of the tombstone to the Ott family. For many years it was prominently displayed in the home of Joseph’s parents, and later in his sister’s home. Several years after his death, the Church offered to send Joseph’s remains home for burial in his home town. However, after careful thought and prayer, the family decided to leave the body in Germany, where his mission had tragically ended before it began.
A Shining Light
But, in a strange way, Joseph Ott’s missionary work in this life was not yet over.
In 1908, a woman named Maria Strauch made regular visits to the Dresden cemetery to tend a relative’s grave.
On one of these visits, Maria saw what appeared to be a light shining on one of the tombstones. She was curious and decided to investigate. Approaching the tombstone, she discovered that it marked the grave of a missionary named Joseph Ott.
Maria wondered about what she had seen. What did it mean? Who was this man? Why had her attention been directed to his tombstone? The answer came to her that she must learn more about the church named on the stone.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had few members in Germany at the beginning of the century. However, careful inquiry soon led Maria Strauch to the local branch of the Church. She accepted the gospel message gladly and was baptized. A year later her husband Herman joined her, and eventually many of their thirteen children were baptized.
Since that time, Maria’s descendants have contributed to the growth of the Church in Germany. For example, one of her sons, Herman Karl Strauch, served a mission in his homeland in the 1920s. The gospel light has burned brightly in the Strauch family through two wars and the division of Germany into two nations.
One afternoon in early 1988, while I was working in my office at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, a missionary couple unexpectedly visited me. Their name tags identified them as Roman and Hella Smith.
Sister Smith said she had seen my name on the door and felt impressed to talk to me. She inquired whether I knew anything about a missionary named Ott who had gone to Germany many years ago and died there. I thought immediately of my great-uncle Joseph. I told her his name and briefly reviewed the circumstances of his death in Germany.
Sister Smith hesitated briefly. Then, with growing excitement, she told me the story of Maria Strauch: her visits to the cemetery, the light that seemed to shine on Joseph’s tombstone, and the conversion of Maria and her family. Then Hella Smith told me that she was the granddaughter of Maria Strauch. Her mother, Ghemela Strauch Ulpts, was the thirteenth child of Herman and Maria Strauch. Born and raised in Dresden, Hella left East Germany in 1955 and eventually came to the United States with her widowed mother and her brother Henry. Now she and her husband were returning to Germany as missionaries.
When our two stories came together that day, Sister 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.”
Hearing the story of Maria Strauch has brightened the lives of many people. 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. But for me, hearing the rest of the story has brought not only comfort, but insight as well. It has changed my way of thinking about missionary work and about life.
In my work for the Church I have had many opportunities to evaluate missionaries. Like many others, I have been inclined to judge their success solely by the number of converts baptized during their mission and other immediate measures of productivity.
Now I realize that many events cannot be judged on the basis of their own limited time frame. 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; the Lord’s day is longer than ours, and the true worth of a mission or a life can only be measured in the timetable of the Master.