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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church) was first introduced into Arkansas upon the arrival of missionaries Henry Brown and Wilford Woodruff, who came in to Arkansas from Clay County, Missouri, on January 28, 1835. Jonathan Hubble and his wife were the first Arkansas converts. They were baptized by immersion, as is the custom among Latter-day Saints, on February 22, 1835. Years later, Wilford Woodruff, the first LDS missionary to preach in Arkansas, would become the fourth president of the LDS Church. From that modest 1835 beginning, Latter-day Saints in Arkansas number 27,559 as of 2012.
LDS meetinghouses (chapels) are frequently shared by more than one congregation, called a ward or a branch, depending upon its size. Frequently, one ward will meet on Sunday morning, while a second congregation uses the building later the same day. In areas with a large LDS population, as many as four units may use the same meetinghouse. Since there is no paid clergy, each unit is presided over by a bishop or branch president who is a lay member of the congregation. At present, there are fifty-four LDS congregations throughout Arkansas. Although members are spread throughout the state, large concentrations are found in Faulkner, Pulaski, Lonoke, and Saline counties in central Arkansas and in Benton, Washington, Crawford, and Sebastian counties in northwest Arkansas. Whether they are first, second, or third generation, many Mormons in the state today are native Arkansans. On the other hand, others are attracted to Arkansas as a land of opportunity. While LDS congregations and leaders are integrated with regard to race—the first black bishop in the Church was Harold Lewis of Little Rock (Pulaski County)—there are also special branches organized to satisfy the particular needs of college students, such as those in Fayetteville (Washington County), and of Spanish-speaking members, such as those in Rogers (Benton County), Fort Smith (Sebastian County), and Little Rock.
Founded in Fayette, Seneca County, New York, on April 6, 1830, by Joseph Smith Jr. and five additional adherents, the LDS Church bases its doctrine on the teachings of Jesus Christ as contained in four standard works of scripture—the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ (hence the nickname “Mormons”), the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price—as well as on continuing divine revelation. A Christian denomination originating independent of the Catholic and Protestant traditions, the Church claims to be a restoration of the early church Jesus Christ established while on earth.
During the first decade in Arkansas, LDS missionary activity increased steadily until the murder of the Church’s prophet/leader Joseph Smith and his brother, patriarch Hyrum Smith, in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. At that time, missionary work was suspended until after the Civil War. Then, under Brigham Young’s leadership, a large contingent of Latter-day Saints, most living in Nauvoo, Illinois, began the arduous trek from Illinois in February 1846, west across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, where they began settling in 1847 along with converts from other states and Europe.
The year 1857 was tragic in the history of the Latter-day movement in Arkansas. Elder Parley Parker Pratt, a missionary, hymn writer, author, and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was murdered near Alma (Crawford County) by Hector McLean, the former husband of Pratt’s wife, Eleanor. After a thirteen-year marriage, Eleanor joined the Mormon faith, and she and McLean separated. In 1855, she became Pratt’s twelfth plural wife. (Facing a new and unfamiliar religion, mid-century newspapers and politicians of the day focused criticism on the Mormons’ practice of plural marriage, or polygamy, a practice discontinued by the Church in 1890.)
While serving as a missionary in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), Pratt and Eleanor were arrested and brought to Van Buren (Crawford County) for trial on larceny charges pressed by McLean. Both appeared before Judge John Ogden and were acquitted, yet Pratt was kept in protective custody because of threats against his life. The next morning, Pratt rode out of town early but was followed by McLean, who caught up with him north of Alma. After being stabbed and shot by the assailant and two accomplices, the mortally wounded Pratt was taken to the home of Zealey Wynn, where he succumbed hours later. Today, a large stone monument marking Pratt’s grave can be found just east and slightly north of I-540 near the Rudy (Crawford County) exit.
Later that same year, a wagon party consisting of California-bound emigrants mostly from Arkansas was attacked in southern Utah, with more than 120 killed. A group of Utahns consisting of Native Americans and Latter-day Saints was blamed for the event, which has become widely known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Although the resulting ill feelings towards Mormons slowed the proselytizing effort in Arkansas, missionary work proved particularly successful in the Des Arc (Prairie County) area. Many Arkansas converts had remained faithful despite missionaries’ withdrawal from the state. During this era, when new converts were encouraged to move “west to Zion,” twenty-seven LDS families, or roughly 125 Latter-day Saints—an entire congregation—left Des Arc in April 1877, traveling across the plains to the Rocky Mountains.
Following the Civil War, LDS missionaries returned to Arkansas, and Church membership began a steady uphill climb. In 1914, the Barney Branch was established in Faulkner County, with more than 100 members. By 1930, the Church had organized two more branches or congregations in El Dorado (Union County), and Little Rock. In 1969, the first stake (diocese), consisting of several congregations, was formed in Little Rock, with Dean C. Andrew as president. A second stake was organized in Fort Smith in 1978 and was presided over by Arthur D. Browne. Later, the Jacksonville (now North Little Rock) Stake in Pulaski County was organized in 1983, with Robert M. McChesney at the helm. A fourth stake at Rogers was organized in 1991, with David A. Bednar as its first president.
Bednar, a University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville professor, was later named president of the Church’s two-year Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, on July 1, 1997. Under his leadership, the institution became a four-year campus of Brigham Young University (BYU-Idaho). Bednar now serves in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second highest council in the LDS Church and a governing body equal in authority to the First Presidency. By the year 2000, Mormon membership had reached 20,000 in Arkansas. As an apostle, Bednar returned to Arkansas and organized a stake in Springdale (Washington County), the fifth in Arkansas, on June 4, 2006, with Hal Bradford as president. According to results of a national religious census released in May 2012, there were 27,559 Mormons living in Arkansas; the state rated fifth in the nation in the rate of growth for Mormons. A sixth stake was organized in Searcy (White County) on January 26, 2014, with Bruce K. Berkheimer as president.
Mormons pay tithing on their income and contribute funds for the needy through a monthly fast offering. They are generally known for their healthy lifestyle. They avoid using coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and harmful substances. After they have completed high school, most young men enter voluntary missionary service in the United States or abroad, paying their own expenses for a period of two years. Young women who have reached the age of nineteen may also choose to serve missions, as do older retired couples and singles.
For additional information: Armstrong, Gregory K., Matthew J. Grow, and Dennis J. Siler, eds.Parley P. Pratt and the Making of Mormonism. Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2011.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. http://www.lds.org/ (accessed May 16, 2006).
Smith, Doug. “Mormons in Arkansas.” Arkansas Times. October 18, 2007, pp. 12–14.
Tindall, Emogene. History and Genealogy of the Early Mormon Church in Arkansas: 1897-1975. North Little Rock, AR: 1983.
Greg ArmstrongUniversity of Arkansas at Fort Smith
Last Updated 1/31/2014
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