Revision 8.4 A Latter-day Saint Presence in Palestine and the Near East?

Revision 8.4 A Latter-day Saint Presence in Palestine and the Near East? November 15, 2020

 

O. H. M. G. in J'lem
A view from the southwestern corner of the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden toward Jerusalem’s Old City (specifically, the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock).
Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph

 

The earliest Latter-day Saint missionaries to the Near East dreamed of a Church presence in the Holy Land, something more than a few scattered elders and something larger than the graves of a few faithful Saints. They envisioned a Latter-day Saint colony in Pales­tine. Ferdinand F. Hintze, the first president of the Turkish Mission, wrote to his wife as early as 1889 that he was trying to get a colony started somewhere near Jerusalem. Such a colony, he felt, would serve as a base from which the message of the gospel could go forth. Living together, the Saints would find strength in numbers and would be less prone to fall away through sheer isolation not only from the center of the Church but from one another. Further­more, it would allow the Saints to become temporally independent as they gained greater understanding of the practical arts and sci­ences, much as the Saints in Utah were building their own com­monwealth in the semi-arid lands of the American West. Near Eastern missionaries had seen what the industry and discipline of the German colonists had been able to accomplish in Haifa. Could the Saints not do even better, blessed as they were by the compan­ionship of the Holy Ghost?

In 1873, President George A. Smith had reported much the same feeling after his visit to Palestine. “I was often asked,” he recalled to an audience of Saints assembled in the new Tabernacle at Salt Lake City, “if we were going to settle in Palestine. I replied that we were not, but I could take a thousand `Mormons,’ go up the Jordan, put in a dam to take out the water, and irrigate several thousand acres.”[1] Although President Smith died in 1875, it appears that his confidence about the abilities of the Latter-day Saints to deal with the difficult terrain of Palestine was shared by his brethren. At any rate, when the idea of a colony of Saints in the Holy Land was presented to the leaders of the Church, they were positively inclined toward it. They even saw the possibility of send­ing colonists from the American Zion to Jerusalem to put their col­onizing skills to work in that land. Late in 1897, the First Presidency called Elder Anthon H. Lund of the Council of the Twelve to accompany Brother Hintze on a tour of the region to see if land for a Latter-day Saint colony could be secured. Suitable land was indeed found in the Jezreel Valley along the banks of the Kis­hon River. Unfortunately, the Church was in precarious financial health in 1898 and simply had no money with which to pursue the project. The dream had to be deferred. (This was the financial cri­sis that led to President Lorenzo Snow’s famous revelation on tith­ing, received in the tabernacle at St. George.)

A resident of Alpine, Utah, by the name of Joseph Wilford Booth was called to serve as the eleventh president of the Turkish Mission in August 1903. Elder Booth had previously served as a missionary in the same mission for almost four years, having only been released from his labors in April of the previous year. Already, he was headed back. This time, however, he was accompanied by his wife, Mary Reba, who would become the first “mission mother” in the history of the modern Near East. Her presence was impor­tant because, in the conservative and gender-segregated culture of the region, she could gain access to women in a way that was utterly impossible for the elders. The Booths worked side by side in Turkey and throughout the Near East until, because of political unrest, the Turkish Mission was shut down in 1909 and they and their missionaries were withdrawn.

For more than ten years, Church headquarters in Utah sent no representatives to the Middle East. When Joseph W. Booth returned in 1921, much was changed, including the name of the mission. In recognition of the group among whom most of the Church’s limited proselyting success had occurred, it was now to be called the “Armenian Mission.” Some changes, though, were clearly for the worse. The Haifa Branch had long since disappeared—the victim of emigration to Utah. But other units of the Church were in trouble as well. Where there had been more than a hundred members in the branch at Aintab in 1909, there were now only thirty-five. The First World War, the Turkish massacres of the Armenians, and the revo­lutionary unrest that accompanied the end of the Ottoman Empire had taken their terrible toll. “Aintab, the beautiful city of so many years of my missionary experiences, is now in ruins,” President Booth lamented, “and perhaps two thirds of the Christian popula­tion and a big percent of the Moslems have been slain in this awful struggle the past few years.”[2]

Late in 1921, Elder David O. McKay of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived at Jerusalem, along with his traveling companion Hugh J. Cannon. They were delighted to be there. Jerusalem, Elder McKay exclaimed, was “the most historic place in the world!” One of his assignments from the First Presidency was to leave an apos­tolic blessing on the land. He soon saw how desperately such a blessing was needed. Looking at the silver and gold decorations in the Grotto of the Nativity, the purported place of the birth of Jesus, Elder McKay felt them to be “desecrations.” Worse, with his own eyes he saw examples of the fatal violence that had begun to boil between Jews and Arabs in the so-called City of Peace. His own Arab Christian guide was vehement that the Jews would never be allowed to rule over Palestine. Elder McKay could not allow this to pass without contradiction.

“Michael,” he declared, “standing here on the street of David, this 2nd of November, 1921, I want to tell you something to remem­ber. No matter how much the Mohammedans and the Greek Chris­tians oppose the Jews’ coming back to Palestine, the Jews are coming and will possess this land.”

“Never,” Michael cried out, bitterly. “The streets will flow with blood first!”

“The streets may and undoubtedly will flow with blood,” replied the apostle, “but that will not prevent the Jews possessing their land. Don’t you believe your Bible?”

Elder McKay’s guide admitted that the Bible did foretell the rebuilding of Jerusalem. “But,” he insisted, “the time hasn’t come yet.””

“Yes,” Elder McKay corrected him, “the time has come.”[3]

 

[1] Journal of Discourses 16:100.

[2] Cited by Barrett, The Story of the Mormons in the Holy Land, 57.

[3] See Clare Middlemiss, ed., Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 95.

 

 

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