“There’s no such thing as bad press, or, how an RLDS elder converted my great grandparents to the LDS Church: A family history tale.”
My mother’s father was born in Utah to a family with deep roots in Mormonism, but my mother’s mother’s parents were converts — from among the first wave of people who joined the LDS Church in the early 20th century, when it began to reach out again from its Rocky Mountain stronghold.
When I was born, I was lucky enough to have five living great grandparents. My mother is the oldest of ten children, the youngest two of whom are about my age. Because these uncles were like cousins and my grandparents were still in parent mode, it was my great grandparents, Jim and Myrtle Greer, who took on the grandparent-role for me. Great Grandma Greer always referred to me as “her boy,” and Great Grandpa Greer called my sister Carol, “his cherry pie.”
Four generations (Left to Right): Grandpa Bob Erekson, Grandma Louise Erekson holding my sister Carol, my mother holding me, Great Grandma Myrtle Greer, Great Grandpa Jim Greer.
Grandma & Grandpa Greer lived most of their lives in the town where I was born: Aurora, Illinois. Grandpa was president of the Aurora Branch for 29 years, from 1932 to 1961. Grandma was primary president even longer because (according to family lore) nobody dared to release her. They had their roots in rural southernmost Illinois — the towns of Tunnel Hill and Cypress in Johnson County. Although Illinois is a northern state, southern Illinois is culturally more akin to the South, and Grandpa Greer was heir to a great tradition of story tellers. My mother interviewed both of them during the 1970s and recorded their stories, which were published in two volumes as Rocking Chairs and Fried Chicken: The Story of Jim and Myrtle Greer. The first volume was edited by my mother, Ginger Hamer, and the second by my uncle Douglas Erekson.
In Vol 2 (12-15), my great grandmother tells the unlikely way in which they became Mormons. They let a pair of LDS missionaries stay over at their house one night, and were left with a Book of Mormon and some other literature, which they put on the shelf and never thought much of. As she tells it:
It wasn’t long until some of the neighbors called and told us they was having a revival over to this little church. The women had got together and made enough money to help Brother Webb come and hold a two-week revival…. Well, we went. We got there and all they’d talk about was Brigham Young and the awful things he’d done. We didn’t think much about it.
The next night they called us again, and we went. All they talked about was Brigham Young. They said Brigham Young would dig a grave and if you didn’t join the church, he’d just push you in the grave and fill it up. Jim and me thought that was kind of fun. But anyway, we didn’t pay much attention to it…. So Jim says, “Well, if that’s the way they feel about the Mormon Church, and all they got to talk about, let’s don’t go no more.” So I says, “All right.” It didn’t matter to me whether we went or not.
So we didn’t go to the church when they had it. They asked us. They called us up; three or four of them would call, “See you at church tonight. Be sure and come. Brother Webb is gonna talk Wednesday night,” and all this. But we didn’t go. And you know what they did? They just brought a bunch of them together with Brother Webb and they come down to our house. They told us they come to talk to us.
Well, Jim’s always real friendly with people that come, and we couldn’t turn them out. Well, it was all right with me for them to come. They sat there and talked and told us how terrible it was if you joined the Mormon Church and these awful things they did, and how they treat members, and these awful things going on out west…Well, we just sit there and listened. What else could we do? After they’d go, Jim says, “Well, I don’t know.” Finally they got [Brother Webb’s] two weeks done and he didn’t preach any more.
Then the neighbors didn’t call us; they just quit us completely…. Some of them said, “The Greers is fixing to join the Mormon Church. We can’t have nothing to do with them.” We hadn’t thought anything about joining. But, [the neighbors] got so they didn’t pay any attention to us at all, and it seemed funny because we had been close.
The shunning itself caused my great grandparents to investigate the LDS Church. They decided to read the Book of Mormon and the literature they’d been left and pray about it. My great grandmother remembered that “we had them all read, and still Jim didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either. We were afraid it might be like they said it was, being buried alive and all.” The break through came when my great grandmother had a dream and a lady she respected told her “It’s all right. The Mormon Church is a good church and it’s the one.” This led to their baptisms when the missionaries returned the following June, and eventually to their move to northern Illinois, and the founding of the Aurora Branch.
I’ve been back several times to Tunnel Hill and Johnson County, Illinois. When I was very young, my parents purchased the family’s ancestral farm there and we visited it on a few occasions. More recently, Mike and I have passed through on road-trips, visiting family sites and graves.
In an interesting postscript, we’ve learned that the only church left in Tunnel Hill today is a small Community of Christ church known as the “Webb Congregation,” because so many of its members are members of the extended Webb family. Johnson County, it seems, was traditionally a hotbed of Reorganized Latter Day Saint activity in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although my great grandparents didn’t remember that detail, the Brother Webb who denounced Brigham Young so continually was almost certainly a leader of the Johnson County church that still bears his family’s name.
The Webb Congregation of the Community of Christ in Tunnel Hill, Illinois.
Thus were my great grandparents converted to the LDS Church by an elder in the RLDS Church, illustrating the maxim “no press is bad press.”