ALABAMA'S FIRST MORMON CONVERT
John E. Enslen *
The following article was orally presented on May 28, 2005,
at the annual Mormon History Association Conference
held at the Grand Resort Hotel in Killington, Vermont
John E. Enslen
(All rights reserved)
When one thinks of Mormon pioneer history, the word "Alabama" does not immediately come to mind. If you search the index to the 6 volume
History of the Church under the word "Alabama," you will find nothing. If you examine the reference work Studies In Mormon History, 1830-1997, An
Indexed Bibliography by Allen, Walker, and Whitaker, for the subject "Alabama," you will find nothing. The same is even true if one refers to the
index of the 4 volume Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
The same could be said for other major reference sources covering the 200 years since the birth of Joseph Smith, but perhaps the point has been
sufficiently made. But the point is not that Alabama has no important connections to Joseph Smith and Mormonism. In other words, there is no need to erect historical roadside markers at the major highway entrances to the State of Alabama which read: "Within the boundaries of this state, between the years 1830 and 1850, with respect to the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and the church he founded, nothing happened."
Rather, the point is that Alabama's rich array of connections to Joseph Smith and his religious movement have heretofore gone virtually unnoticed
by the historians, both Mormon and non-Mormon alike, and both Alabamian and non-Alabamian alike. There is no intellectual insult that surpasses being ignored, as the Mormon community itself well knows from past lonely expenence.
A couple of years ago, I read in the Church News about the baptism in 1873 of Chief Sagwitch of the Shoshone Nation who had experienced a series of dreams and requested baptism. The baptism was performed by a highly successful Mormon missionary to the Indians, conversationally fluent
in their language, named George Washington Hill. As I read the article, I said to myself: I bet I am the only mortal on planet earth who knows that
George Washington Hill was baptized by a native Alabamian and that he married a native Alabama girl. And then a more sure thought struck me: I may be the only person on planet earth that cares.
This native Alabamian who baptized Hill was Benjamin Clapp. Clapp also baptized at least two members of Brigham Young's vanguard company,
as well as James Madison Flake of Mississippi whose son William Jordan Flake is half the namesake for Snowflake, Arizona. Furthermore, Clapp baptized Alabama's first convert, as I will discuss shortly.
In truth, early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with significant Alabama connections participated in many important events and contributed to the most prominent movements of the church. For example, there was an Alabamian at the Battle of Crooked River, and he was
on the Mormon side! There was another Alabamian in the Mormon Battalion, another in Brigham Young's vanguard company, a couple of more
with Lot Smith's raiders in Echo Canyon, another in the Blackhawk War, and several who worked on the Nauvoo Temple. At least six Alabamians are
buried at Winter Quarters, five of the six being from one family, and more were buried in unmarked graves along the Platte.
Alabamian John D. Holladay, for whom Holladay, Utah, is named, holds the record for the longest wagon trek of any Mormon family to the Salt Lake Valley. He was one of approximately 20 Alabamians who arrived at Ft. Laramie a full year ahead of Brigham Young, wintered in Colorado, and then entered the Salt Lake Valley only five days after Brigham Young.
By the way, John Brown, a southerner from Tennessee, who had labored as a missionary in Alabama, had already planted turnip greens on the
valley floor before Brigham Young's arrival. That may sound like pure trivia to a Westerner, but true Southerners don't trust people who won't eat turnip
greens. Two pre-exodus missionaries to Alabama, Hayden Church and Absolom Porter Dowdle, married their Alabama converts. These two
women and several other Alabama women played silent and unrecognized roles in colonizing the Mormon west. One Alabama widow was a founding
pioneer of Ogden, Utah, and other Alabama women were part of the Dixie or Cotton Mission of 1861.
William Carter, the first Mormon to plow ground in Iowa, Salt Lake, and St. George, was married to two Alabama women, at the same time of course. Being married to only one Alabama woman myself, he has my greatest admiration. My wife Dianne is not in here is she? (Just in case you were wondering, neither Alabama woman was a cousin of Brother Carter.)
There is one significant reason why less Alabama Mormon history has been written, a reason for which Alabamians can be truly thankful. At least thus far, Alabama is the only state amongst its abutting neighboring states of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida that cannot be accused of
violently murdering a Mormon because of his religion.
The remaining focus of my presentation today will relate to Alabama's first convert baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was baptized on March 2, 1840, in rural Perry County, Alabama, and his name was Samuel Turnbow. What occurred in Samuel's life prior to his baptism seems to be as equally noteworthy as what occurred afterwards.
On June 11, 1829, as the Book of Mormon was being translated hundreds of miles away by a 23-year-old Joseph Smith, Samuel's father, 66-year-old Issac Turnbow, lay on his death bed in Perry County. Issac, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier, was a God-fearing, Bible-reading, Tennessee volunteer under General Andrew Jackson, and had purposefully never joined
a church. The following quote is taken from the personal memoirs of Samuel Turnbow which he penned while living in Utah. According to his record,
Samuel was called to his dying father's bedside and told that before the Second Coming of the Lord:
[T]here shall first be raised up prophets and apostles who will preach the gospel to this generation, and that it was near at hand, even at their doors ...and that a great prophet would soon appear amongst the people who would declare the principles of the everlasting gospel...[,]prepare the way of the Lord, ...[and] bring in ... the former blessings, and the Church of Christ will be established with all its gifts ....
Over the next four years, Samuel, a non-laveholder, engaged in the grinding physical labor associated with non-mechanized farming, often pondering his father's last words. Then in the early predawn morning of November 13, 1833, there occurred an unprecedented meteor storm wherein fiery shooting stars are said to have been as numerous as flakes of falling snow. This phenomenal meteor storm became the inspiration for a national hit song exactly 100 years later entitled "Stars Fell On Alabama," and those words from the song currently adorn Alabama's car tags, replacing the more
racially divisive phrase, "Heart of Dixie".
In those early morning hours of November 13, 1833, Joseph Smith was aroused from his sleep in Kirtland, Ohio, by a brother who urged him to come behold the stars falling from heaven. In those same early morning hours in Alabama, while lying in his bed, Samuel experienced a vision.
There suddenly appeared at Samuel's bedside an aged person who, according to Samuel, escorted him on a journey along a dark and stormy path
wherein their way to safety was made manifest by a narrow shaft of light that became brighter as Samuel fervently prayed in the name of Jesus Christ. In
time they arrived at a house where Samuel saw the prophet Joseph Smith, whom he had never heard of or met and whom he would never meet in life. This young prophet, unknown to Samuel by name, was preaching to others the first principles of the gospel and, after consecrating a bottle of olive oil,
healing the sick, the blind, and the deaf. Wrote Samuel, "These things passed before my eyes and I knew that this man was a righteous man and a Holy prophet of God...."
Almost seven more years would pass before Samuel was taught the restored gospel by missionary Benjamin Clapp. The teaching process was short because Samuel quickly recognized and joyfully received the principles taught as being the very same principles he had heard in his prior vision. He and his wife Sylvira were baptized.
Samuel successfully introduced his newly found religion to several close relatives and two sets of neighboring families, as well as others, and thus assisted in establishing by 1843 two thriving branches of the church in his county.
After serving a 5-month mission to Mississippi and then selling on New Years Day of 1846 his 160-acre farm for approximately half its value, Samuel Turnbow and his wife Sylvira and their 6 living children, like other Alabama families, became part of the faithful who gathered to the Zion of Nauvoo and then to the Zion of the Salt Lake Valley. Along the way, the Turnbows buried a child in Iowa, survived that first harsh winter in Winter Quarters, and, in the summer of 1847, birthed another child in a temporarily halted wagon box on the plains of Nebraska.
Other early Alabama members of the church who failed to heed the warnings of church leaders to sell their lands and gather with the main body of the church incurred a double penalty. First, those who remained in Alabama suffered through the turmoil, ravages, and heartbreak of the Civil War, and the long-term economic devastation that came in its aftermath. Church members who remained in Alabama lost whatever pre-war wealth they had accumulated. Secondly, Alabama members were left without ecclesiastical direction by a church headquarters consumed with regrouping and colonizing the west. None of Alabama's seven pre-exodus congregations survived the general migration west. Is it not ironic that in Samuel's beloved Perry County, Alabama, where he labored to establish two thriving branches of the church, a truly outstanding accomplishment for the Nauvoo period, there are today no branches of the church.
But the now countless descendants of the faithful Alabama Mormon pioneers who gathered to Zion are on the whole dedicated contributors to the building of the kingdom; Latter-day Saints who have sung in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, served missions across the globe, and faithfully filled
callings and assignments in numbers untold without fanfare or accolades.
Indeed, they are part of what makes up the very backbone of the LDS Church, ordinary, unsung, non-heroes. As we pause to recognize the Prophet Joseph Smith in this the 200th anniversary of his birth year, we might reflect for a moment on a singular type of evidence for his prophetic calling that the false prophets find difficult to duplicate. And that is this: There are many credible stories of people who had never heard of or met Joseph Smith, and while living in locations where Joseph Smith had never lived or visited, they dreamed dreams and had visions relating to Joseph Smith and his work - dreams and visions sufficiently real and powerful to compel the recipients thereof to sell their lands and personal possessions, endure the persecutions attendant to joining an infant, unpopular, and misunderstood religious movement, and confront the hardships associated with a total relocation hundreds of miles away to an unknown place to face with bare faith in Christ an uncertain future.
May I close with the words of the Old Testament Prophet Joel followed by a thought on Mormon history. And it shall come to pass ... that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth. (Joel 2: 28;30)
In my humble opinion, no historian, notwithstanding his or her intelligence level, education, position, experience, or expertise, will ever be able to fully and accurately account for Joseph Smith and his
accomplishments unless he or she gives complete and adequate consideration to the direct interventions of God, which interventions I believe to be historical facts.
*John E. Enslen is a seventh generation Alabamian, a practicing attorney in Wetumpka, Alabama, and a 1973 convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has a B.A. in History from Clemson
University (1969) and a JD.from the University of Alabama (1972). He has served as a branch president, stake president, on the Birmingham Alabama Temple Committee, and as a counselor tofour mission presidents.