Hidden Histories

Mormonism in Early Philadelphia

Tuesday, 9/13/11
 
This appeared in the September HSP email publication, History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania. For a free subscription, enter your email here
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Much of the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) rests in the Philadelphia region and the Delaware Valley. A native of Vermont, Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) was the founding prophet and first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In January 1827, Smith married Emma Hale, a native of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, where the couple resided for a time and where much history relative to the Mormon Church and its teachings transpired. The Book of Mormon was published in March 1830 and the church was officially organized on April 6, 1830 in the state of New York.  
 
Smith organized the Philadelphia branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on December 23, 1839 on the corner of 7th and Callowhill Streets. On January 14, 1840, he spoke to an audience of about 3,000 at the First Independent Church of Christ (later called the First Universalist Church and now a Jewish synagogue), located on 4th and Lombard Streets. He preached Mormon doctrine, specifically from the Book of Mormon, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds many early printed editions of this gospel.    
 
Soon, congregations of Mormons were found throughout the Delaware Valley, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Philadelphia newspaper accounts from the 19th-century record the exponential spread of Mormonism in the city. Prominent Quaker Edward Hunter converted to Mormonism in 1840. Even as a Quaker, he had permitted Joseph Smith and other LDS missionaries to preach in his West Nantmeal Seminary building. Hunter later moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, a settlement larger than Chicago at that time, and eventually served as the presiding bishop of the Mormon Church there. His former farm in Chester County is still locally referred to as Mormon Hollow and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  
 
Prior to his murder in June 1844 in Carthage, Illinois, Joseph Smith Jr. campaigned as a candidate for president of the United States with James Arlington Bennet as his vice-presidential running mate. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds an 1843 letter from Smith to Bennet discussing the presidential campaign and political corruption, pictured at right.
 
Although never a Mormon himself, Philadelphia lawyer and Union Civil War officer Thomas Leiper Kane (1822-1883) was a longtime supporter of the Mormon Church and friend of Mormon leader Brigham Young. Kane spoke at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on March 25, 1850, giving a discourse titled "The Mormons" in an attempt to rectify some misconceptions and falsehoods about the Mormon people and their faith. This lengthy discourse was published by the Historical Society in the first volume of the Miscellaneous Publications of the Historical Society in 1850. Kane also served as a mediator during the so-called Utah-Mormon War from 1857-58, a dispute between Brigham Young in the Utah territory and President James Buchanan. To read more about Kane, visit Thomas Leiper Kane: the Utah-Mormon War of 1857-58.
 
Like most early Mormon converts, the majority of Philadelphia members migrated to the far West as a result of intense persecution. Decades later, Mormon missionaries returned and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to grow once again in the Philadelphia area. Today, there are about 50,000 members in Pennsylvania. After a ground-breaking ceremony on September 17, 2011, construction will begin on a 68,000 square-foot temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the northeast corner of Vine and North 18th Streets in Philadelphia. 
 
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