Mission Histories and Historical Reports

    Steven Hepworth, Church history specialist
    23 January 2020

    This post by Steven Hepworth teaches how to explore the stats and stories you can find in mission records, including the newly digitized Southern States Mission history. 

    The Church History Library houses ward, stake, and mission histories. These histories, known as unit or local records, are written by members of the Church of Jesus Christ who live and worship within each specified unit. These histories can be important sources for many library patrons, from professional researchers to amateur family historians. The records tell the story of the Church of Jesus Christ and the individual stories of members and missionaries laboring in specific places.

    One such history is the Southern States Mission manuscript history and historical reports, 1832–1978. This history is available in the Church History Catalog and chronicles the organization and growth of branches, wards, and stakes in the southern United States, as well as the proselytizing labor of individual missionaries and Church members. The history is a compilation of records taken from mission reports, journals, and news articles.

    This history, like other mission histories, contains an index1 with dates spanning from 1832 to 1956. The index includes important information about individuals, branches, and wards within the Church. It is organized alphabetically and lists missionaries’ arrival and departure dates, as well as other important moments of their mission. Andrew James Aagard is the first person listed in the index. On August 7, 1903, he was transferred from “Middle Sts”; on November 12, 1903, he was transferred to Kentucky; and he returned home on April 6, 1905.

    Using the index to find names and the attached dates will help researchers locate specific individuals in the collection.

    Using the index to find names and the attached dates will help researchers locate specific individuals in the collection.

    The index is also useful for finding information about geographic locations and Church units. An entry in the index for Abbeville, South Carolina, lists dates of conferences and visits by General Authorities. Additionally, an entry about the Abbeville Branch lists three events that occurred in the 1930s.

    The index can be used to track individuals, Church units, and the history of specific geographic locations.

    Researchers interested in various topics—from missiology to regional studies, from theology to lived religion—will find mission histories like this one to be vital sources. The date span of the record allows a long look at change over time within the Church as it grappled with internal tensions and external forces. Also captured in the record are regional and national events as experienced by Church members. Snippets of Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and two world wars, among many other events, appear in the record. Similarly, family historians and genealogists will find the record replete with individual stories, dates, and events that will help to complete family trees and histories.

    The Cane Creek Massacre2 is one such episode captured in the record. On August 10, 1884, in Lewis County, Tennessee, four members of the Church of Jesus Christ—two missionaries, William Berry and John Gibbs; and two local members, W. Martin Conder and John Riley Hudson—were gunned down during a Sunday service, and an additional member was injured. The mission record contains the reactions of local members and citizens, the response from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, and national opinions on the murders. Brigham H. Roberts, president of the Tennessee Conference, described his heroic efforts to stealthily enter Lewis County and recover the bodies of the two slain missionaries:

    “I met Elders Jones and Kimball at Columbia last night and we are making efforts to get the bodies and get the Elders out of the adjacent neighborhood. There is much excitement, and the Elders are in danger. We came here to see the governor. He is out of town and I fear we shall get no help. Let the friends be assured we shall get the bodies. . . . I have the bodies O.K. Will leave Nashville to-morrow night.”3

    Photograph of B. H. Roberts taken while en route to recover the bodies of the deceased missionaries. Roberts is in disguise as a hobo.

    While this story is tragic and extreme, it is representative of the important events captured by missionaries and other Church members who wrote and compiled the mission history.

    The Southern States Mission manuscript history and historical reports are but one example of the many mission histories that are available online through the Church History Catalog. These records show how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints transformed from a localized religion to a global Church. Researchers from disparate backgrounds with differing research interests will find these records pivotal to their work.

    For more information on early missionaries, explore the Missionary Database.

    Top image: Group photograph from the Southern States Mission photographs collection.