Commentary: Roots of Mormon Church intertwined with local history
Submitted by Bob Lonsberry, Mount Morris
Geneseo’s newest church was also one of its first.
The construction of a new chapel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2009 brings back to Livingston County a religious organization whose roots here stretch back to the 1820s and the earliest days of the village of Geneseo.
The 13 million-member worldwide Mormon Church – as it is informally known – had important parts of its origin in Livingston County.
It was under a hearth in Livonia, for example, that the golden plates from which church members believe the Book of Mormon was translated were hidden for safekeeping. The hearth was in the home of Alvah Beman, a man who was friends with the Palmyra family of young Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith claimed as a 14-year-old to have had a vision in which he saw God and Jesus and was told by them that modern churches had strayed from their New Testament-era roots. Later, he was given the golden plates, which purported to be a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of America. Their translation was published in 1830 in Palmyra.
It was in the spring of 1830 that the first Mormon missionary was sent out to tell people about the church. There have been more than a million since, and some 60,000 serve today. The missionary – Joseph Smith’s brother Samuel – walked from Palmyra to Livonia and back. In Livonia, he left a copy of the Book of Mormon with a minister’s wife. She was an in-law of a young craftsman named Brigham Young. The book passed through the family and led to the baptism of several, including Brigham Young and his friend Heber C. Kimball.
Shortly thereafter, in 1832, events took place which were described by Heber C. Kimball: “I was ordained an elder by Joseph Young and in company with himself and his brother, Brigham, I labored in Geneseo, Avon and (Lyons), where we baptized many and built up churches.
“Brother Ezra Landon preached in Avon and Geneseo, baptized eighteen or twenty, and being afraid to confirm them and promise the Holy Ghost, he requested me to confirm them, which I did according to the best of my knowledge, pronouncing but a few words on the head of each one, and invariably saying, ‘receive ye the Holy Ghost in the name of Jesus Christ.’ ”
Kimball then recounted an experience like that of the New Testa ment saints on the Day of Pentecost.
“Immediately the Holy Ghost fell upon them and several commenced speaking in tongues before they arose from their knees, and we had a joyful time,” he wrote.
Those first converts quickly became a Geneseo congregation with Ezra Landon as their leader. Additionally, he and a local man named Roger Orton traveled through the region as missionaries.
“In the spring of (1833), two men by the name of Landon and Orton who profess to be elders of the Church of Latter Day Saints, came to my father’s house,” in Greenwood, Steuben County, wrote Warren Foote. “I paid strict attention to their conversation with Father, setting forth the principles of the gospel as taught by the Latter Day Saints. Being familiar with the scriptures, I saw at once that these p rinciples accorded with those taught by Christ and his apostles.
“On the following Sunday, Landon preached in our school house.”
In 1833, many Mormons were concentrated in two areas, near what is today Cleveland, Ohio, or Kansas City, Missouri. Joseph Smith and the church’s headquarters were typically in Ohio. That distance, and poor communications, sometimes led to misunderstandings with the congregation in Geneseo.
Hoping to iron out those differences, and remind the locals of their duty, Joseph Smith wrote a November 23, 1833 letter to the Geneseo church.
“When we reflect upon the holiness and perfections of our great Master, who has opened a way whereby we may come unto him, even by the sacrifice of himself, our hearts melt within us for his condescension,” Joseph Smith wrote. “And when we reflect also, that he has called us to be perfect in all things, that we may be prepared to meet him in peace when he comes in his glory with all the holy angels, we feel to exhort our brethren with boldness, to be humble and prayerful, to walk indeed as children of the light and of the day, that they may have grace to withstand every temptation, and to overcome every evil in the worthy name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
To further bolster the Geneseo Mormons, traveling missionary Orson Pratt came about Christmastime of 1833 and, as he wrote, “held a conference and preached much in the adjoining regions.” Of that same visit, participant Amasa Lyman wrote, “I accompanied Brothers Pratt, Murdock and others to Livingston County, New York, where we labored for a length of time in settling difficulties in a branch of the Church in the town of Geneseo, under the presidency of Elder Landon, who with some twenty-five others were cut off from the church – perhaps in some instances rather prematurely.”
The discord arose as the consequence of Mormon belief in continuing revelation, the notion that God speaks today. In 1832, Joseph Smith and a man named Sidney Rigdon had a vision that taught them that humankind’s eternal destinations were more complex than just heaven and hell. “It appeared self-evident,” Joseph Smith wrote of the experience, “that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one.”
That didn’t sit well with Ezra Landon. The idea that the degree to which one had been faithful in this life would determine the degree to which one would be rewarded in the next life conflicted with his understanding of a heaven and a hell with no distinctions or divisions. To answer his concerns, a general conference of the church was scheduled for March 1834.
Accordingly, various leaders of the Mormon Church converged on Geneseo. Among them were Parley P. Pratt and Joseph Smith, who traveled together from Ohio, making a preaching trip along the way and visiting a Mormon congregation in Freedom, Cattaraugus County. Of the trip, Parley P. Pratt wrote, “As we journeyed day after day, and generally lodged together, we had much sweet communion concerning the things of God and the mysteries of the His kingdom, and I received many admonitions and instructions which I shall never forget.”
The conference covered three days – March 15-17, 1834. The first and third days’ meetings were held at Alvah Beman’s house in Livonia. The second day’s gathering – held on a Sunday – was in Geneseo.
“At this Conference we had an interesting time,” Parley P. Pratt wrote, “public meetings were convened, multitudes assembled to hear, and Presidents Joseph Smith and S. Rigdon addressed the crowds in great plainness of speech with mighty power.”
Parley P. Pratt also enjoyed the accommodations at Alvah Beman’s. “He was a good singer, and so were his three daughters,” he wrote. “We were much edified and comforted in their society, and were deeply interested in hearing the old gentleman and brother Joseph (Smith) converse on their early acquaintance and history. He had been intimate with Joseph long before the first organization of the Church, (and) had assisted him to preserve the plates of the Book of Mormon.”
But the conference wasn’t all fun. One record states, “Mr. Landen continued to be rebellious.” Generally, though, it was remembered as a wonderful experience. For Sunday’s meeting, Joseph Smith’s diary records, “Brother Sidney preached to a very large congregation” in Geneseo. Also preaching that day were Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt.
Where that Geneseo meeting was held is not certain. The only location historically associated with Mormon gatherings was the old “Mormon barn” – now demolished – between Geneseo and Lakeville. Undocumented Geneseo tradition is that Joseph Smith and his parents lodged in that barn on occasion and that Joseph Smith held meetings there. It is also possible that meetings where held at the homes of the several Mormon families in Geneseo at the time.
After the public Sunday meeting of March 16, a meeting was held the next day in Livonia where two things were discussed: Raising money to pay the bills in Ohio and sending men to go help persecuted Mormons in Missouri. Orson Hyde stayed in the area after the conference to help raise $2,000 which had been pledged, and Roger Orton went we st with Joseph Smith and others as part of a Missouri-relief effort called Zion’s Camp.
It doesn’t seem like Ezra Landon’s feelings were soothed, and sometime in 1834 he left the church. The Geneseo congregation continued, however, and in June 1835, Reuben Hedlock of Avon became its leader.
In the early years of their history, Mormons tended to gather together, and so it was that many of the members of small congregations in New York went west to be with their fellow believers. That is probably what happened to the Geneseo branch.
Most notable among the folks who moved was Reuben Hedlock, who was presiden t of the Mormon Elders Quorum in Ohio by the mid-1830s and who was among those violently kicked out of Missouri in 1838.. He was a missionary in England in 1840 and lived in the Mormon town of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841 before overseeing Mormon missionaries in England from 1843 to 1845. He was also the engraver who made the still-used reproductions of some Egyptian papyri translated by Joseph Smith.
For more than a century, there was almost no Mormon presence in the Geneseo area, but early Livingston County Mormons played a huge role in the development of the church. Brigham Young, of course, led the Mormons to Utah, serving as their leader from 1844 to 1877. Heber C. Kimball was his close associate all his life and was the grandfather of the man who led the Mormon Church in the 1970s and 80s. To this day, there are thousands of Youngs, Kimballs and Ortons in the Mormon Church and all can claim as part of their family and religious heritage the events of long ago in Livingston County.
A heritage that is renewed today in the beautiful new church on South Street.