Sarah Day Hall: Southern Mother in Israel

October 19, 2006 | 9 comments
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Lewis and Sarah HallAmerican Southerners have been joining the Church since the 1830s. The Southern States Mission became the most successful mission field in the Church in the last generation of the 1800s. During those years when southern LDS meeting halls were burned and elders and even members were murdered, many thousands of Southerners responded to the gospel.

Two elders knocked on a farmhouse door in Lowndes County, Alabama, on a spring day in 1896. The door was opened by Sarah Day Hall, holding her six-month-old baby. Sarah believed the gospel message instantly, recalling later that “it was like taking a drink of water when I was very thirsty.� Her husband Lewis was at work in the fields so Sarah could not invite the elders into the house, but neither could she let them leave: She stood in the doorway for almost two hours, her sleeping baby heavy in her arms, asking questions, accepting the answers, and extracting repeated promises from the elders to return when her husband was at home. They returned, Lewis also responded and the couple was baptized later that month.

Although many of their relatives in Lowndes County joined the Church, no branch was organized there. The Halls held a home Sunday School and warmly welcomed the occasional visits of traveling missionaries. Lewis and Sarah did their best to raise their growing family as faithful Latter-day Saints and relied on the Lord to help them through difficult times.

Daughter Lella became so ill with diphtheria that the doctor declared she would die. He told Sarah he would stop by the house the next morning to make out a death certificate. That evening the elders returned unexpectedly to the Hall home and blessed Lella, who was immediately and completely healed. When the doctor’s knock came the next morning, mischievous Sarah sent Lella to open the door for a startled doctor.

The gospel improved their lives in unexpected ways. Sarah struggled to read the pamphlets brought by the missionaries and encouraged her children to excel in school so they could read the scriptures. The parents were only marginally literate, but their daughters became school teachers. Lella, still in her teens, received part of her pay by boarding with the parents of her students; one evening she returned to the home where she was boarding to find a Protestant minister come “to set the Mormon school teacher straight.� Sarah’s daughter had learned the scriptures so well that she held her own in the ensuing debate.

The Halls began planning to emigrate to the West. But Lewis was a sharecropper; cash was scarce and babies came along regularly until Sarah had borne a dozen children. Her desire to move West became urgent as her children grew into their teens, because there were no Latter-day Saints for her children to meet and marry at home. World War I brought carpentry work for Lewis in the Mobile shipyards, and the family finally came to Utah in 1919.

Of their first years in the West, daughter Mabel wrote, “Except for Mother’s courage and determination, we might have gone back to the South where our peculiarities in dress and dialect would not have been peculiarities.� Lewis died in 1923, leaving Sarah to support six children still at home in Manti. Sarah took work in the pea factory, did laundry and ironing for neighbors, and cleaned the temple on Friday and Saturday nights despite crippling arthritis.

When Sarah died in 1946, Apostle Charles Callis, once president of the Southern States Mission, spoke at her funeral:

“I wish I were eloquent enough to pay a tribute to this good woman and her departed husband as they deserve. She was really a mother in Israel, and her husband was adamant in his advocacy of the glorious Gospel. They were built upon the testimony of Jesus Christ. And if the elders that have visited their home in Alabama could hear of her passing, they would shed many tears. God bless this good and faithful woman!�

photograph: Lewis and Sarah Hall, with unidentified missionaries, in Lowndes County, Alabama, circa 1904. Children (left to right): Lewis, Jessie, Claudia, Lella, Vernon.

(originally published October 2005)

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9 Responses to Sarah Day Hall: Southern Mother in Israel

  1. mami on October 19, 2006 at 5:53 pm

    Ardis,
    Your really ought to publish an anthology of these. Seriously. Please consider it.

  2. Ardis Parshall on October 19, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    Thank you, mami. I do have plans to publish these sketches, and I think I might write a post about that — I have a particular goal in mind that would benefit from some helpful and interesting remarks from commenters. Of course, you will have read them all by then so probably wouldn’t buy a copy, huh? ;-)

  3. TMD on October 20, 2006 at 12:04 am

    I appreciate the topic of this one, particularly. During college, I attended a ward in rural Tennessee that was largely descended from the work of the missionaries of this period. As it was explained to me, a set of missionaries came through the small town of Altamont in the 1890’s and baptized about 4 families. Today, their decendents form the core of a remarkable ward. They built and used one of the earliest chapels in the south, at North Cuts Cove, and to this day every other year the chapel (the ownership of which returned to the family who donated the property for that use, if I recall/understood correctly) is used for a sunrise service on Easter Sunday. (I admit I never made it to Northcuts Cove for the sunrise service…it would have required leaving the dorm by about 4 AM, and as I said, I was a college student. As the name suggests, north cuts cove was far back amid the hills and coves)

    I think there’s a picture of the chapel in the church history museum, or at least there used to be.

    Amidst challenging economic circumstances, neighbors who were often unfriendly to their religious beliefs, and relative isolation from the rest of the church, those families and their descendents built a deeply faithful, loving, welcoming, actively serving community. I treasure my experiences there.

  4. mami on October 20, 2006 at 1:12 am

    Ardis,
    I would buy a copy–and a copy for my 7 sisters, one for my mother, one for my mother-in-law, and then there are all my sister in laws.
    We just had our book group, and I suggested we read some accounts of women like the ones you have written. I was hoping I could get a few emailed to me. Is that a possibility?

  5. Ardis Parshall on October 20, 2006 at 9:19 am

    TMD – That’s for that. I’ve never heard of Northcuts Cove, but I’ve put it on my list to investigate. I’ve got a personal interest in southern saints and believe their history needs more exposure.

    Mami, if you bought copies for everybody in your family, you’d single-handedly guarantee a best seller! Could you contact me directly at AEParshall at aol dot com?

  6. David Richey on October 20, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    Ardis:
    TMD (in #3) referenced Northcuts Cove which became the ward at Altamont, TN but there is another area in Tennessee that has an equal amount of history-Turkey Creek. In the early 1890\’s in that area, the missionaries found a family, the Bighams, that befriended them in much the same way as was in your story. The mother in the family was baptized along with children old enough to be baptized. The father was baptized later. The father protected the missionaries from being beaten by his neighbors. One of the more fascinating parts of this story is the mother kept a book of the signatures of all the missionaries that visited her home. When I saw the book in 1987, it was in the possession of the Bigham\’s granddaughter, who was elderly at the time. One of the early names in the book was Brigham H (B.H.) Roberts.
    I too, would buy a copy of your book.

  7. Ardis Parshall on October 20, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    TMD (3) — I meant “thanks for that” (typos come in no matter how hard I proofread)

    David (6) — There is so much heroism in the history of southern Mormonism, and most of it has never been told. All I can hope is that families like the Bighams have recorded something for their own families, that will eventually make its way into archival files. That autograph book would be a treasure. I’ve got another story about a Tennessee family that I’ll post eventually.

    I donated dozens of missionary photographs to the Archives kept by my family — they were of no special use to me and I hoped the descendants of some of those missionaries might the photos and know that their ancestors had made friends on their missions.

    The body of this article doesn’t say it, but I’m grateful to claim Lewis and Sarah Hall as my great-grandparents, with their daughter Lella being my grandmother. I’ve heard these stories from my grandmother so many times, and have been able to verify much of it from church records and the writings of aunts. The part about Lella’s standing up to the minister isn’t independently verified, but grandma used to tell about that evening in very solemn testimonies, so I believe it was so.

  8. Kevin Barney on October 20, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    Ah, a very nice, if belated, addition in #7, in Paul Harveyish “rest of the story” fashion! That is quite a line from which you descend.

    The only thing I know about the Southern States Mission from the period is that B.H. Roberts was a mission president there. I love the picture of him dressed up as a tramp so he could secret out the bodies of those missionaries that were murdered.

  9. Ardis Parshall on October 21, 2006 at 5:25 am

    I love that picture, too, Kevin. What do you suppose it says about B.H. Roberts’s personality that he had his portrait made in that get-up? I know it was a dark time, and maybe it was partially to document the extent to which the servants of God would go to serve, but I can’t help thinking that BHR appreciated the adventure to some extent. We’re so used to thinking of BHR as an old man in his other familiar portraits that I was startled to realize that he was still in his 20s when he “tramped” in to bring out the bodies of Elders Gibbs and Barry. (One of the stories in this series is about the mother of the two young members killed trying to protect those elders, by the way, with a great photo of the surviving family.)