No Press Is Bad Press

“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.”

4 generations
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.

Webb Congregation of the Community of Christ
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.”

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  1. Very fun post — can’t beat conversion stories from family history. Thanks for sharing that and for providing a textbook example of one of Brother Brigham’s favorite maxims.

  2. I love hearing about this stuff, especially the details of the RLDS stronghold in rural Illinois. Fascinating.

  3. this is a great story!

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Terrific story. I can relate to it a little bit, since I came as a boy to northern Illinois in 1965.

    (They just opened a Sonic in Aurora, which is a big deal there. Sonic has been airing commercials on Chicago TV building demand, but the closest restaruant was all the way down in Springfield untl they built the Aurora one. My daughter made a special trip there just to check it out, and I’m meaning to go sometime myself.)

  5. When my family lived in New Jersey, there was a Baptist congregation in the area that would at times have an anti-Mormon night where they would show the Godmakers and hold discussions about all the problems with Mormon practice/theology.

    The full-time missionaries, who were accustomed to a mostly apathetic response when they were knocking doors – told us that whenever this happened, more doors would open for them – because the things people heard would make them curious.

  6. John Hamer says:

    Danithew (#5): I think that’s a very common result. The conversion story of my great great great great grandparents in 1833 is the same. The neighborhood was so excited by all the crazy claims about the Mormonites, but when they investigated they learned otherwise, And just like the Greers, they indicate that they pretty much joined because the Mormons had (easily) exceeded these incredibly low expectations.

    Kevin (#4): Glad to hear they’ve got something going on. Poor Aurora hasn’t seemed too happening when we go back and visit.

  7. John Hamer says:

    The above blockquote from my great grandmother tells the history, but I thought I’d give a brief quote from my great grandpa to give you a flavor of his story telling style:

    When he was growing up, his parents had a log house, in his words:

    Oh, I guess [the log house] was 12 x 15, something like that. That’s what we cooked and eat in… The whole place set up high off the ground and had cracks in the floor big enough so we could shell corn on the floor and it would go right down through the cracks and the geese’d get under there and eat it. The darn geese would come from the barn of a-night, way in the night, and they were hollering just as loud as they could yell. They’d get under that floor and you couldn’t no more sleep than you could fly. And my dad hollered for us kids to get out and chase the D-A-M geese down to the barn. But by the time we’d get back to bed, here they’d be under there hollering as loud as they could yell and my dad in bed a-cussing. That was living!

    That old kitchen had an old stove pipe going out of the roof, you know, and ever so often the blamed thing would catch a fire. We had a fellow working for us, my dad did, and he got up there and he couldn’t do nothing. [Aunt] Artie Bear, she got up there and she got in the attic and she took some of the shingles off — and she kicked him clear off the roof. “Get off and stay off,” she says, “if you couldn’t do nothing, stay out of the way.” Well, she put the fire out. My mother went in and got a big pot of beans off the stove and took it out to the yard and set it in the yard and says, “I’m going to have my beans if the house does burn!”

  8. John Hamer says:

    J (2): Like you, I’m fascinated that this tiny hamlet in Johnson County, Illinois, which I’ve always known was a part of my family history, was so strongly RLDS back when my great grandparents left there. For example, William H. Kelley, president of the RLDS Council of the Twelve (1897-1913) had been born in Johnson County in 1841. According to Mrs. P. T. Chapman’s 1925 History of Johnson County Illinois, most of the original families who settled in Tunnel Hill Township, including the Kelleys and the Webbs “are members of the Church of the Latter-day Saints [i.e., the RLDS Church]. When this church was broken up at Nauvoo, Ill., these families located in this township. They have intermarried so that their descendents are most all related.”

  9. What a gift to have that, John. And thanks for sharing it with us. It just makes me smile.

  10. Cynthia L. says:

    My ancestors in England joined the church after going to a meeting in order to taunt and jeer at the missionaries. I’ve always liked that story.

  11. My great-grandfather went to see the missionaries because he heard that the KKK was going to kill anyone who attended the meeting (including the missionaries). So, that intimidation tactic backfired.

  12. great stuff, John.

  13. On that same note — no press is bad press — thanks for posting a cute baby picture of me! :D

    I’ve written two posts myself about this same pair of great-grandparents: Family history: we’re different and Family History: Moonshine. They’re perhaps not quite as historically rigorous, but I do what I can.

  14. I have an ancestor named Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy and she wrote an account of her conversion and life. Here’s an excerpt, which seems to suggest that nasty tales about Mormons got her interested in the first place (my mother tells me she was in upstate NY at the time that this happened):

    “… That summer we began to hear rumbles about a gold bible that a gold-digger had dug up. Reports came fast and thick. It made quite an excitement. The newspapers were full of the vilest slander about Joseph Smith, the finder of these gold records. Time passed on in this way for awhile. At last there came sole traveling preachers styling themselves Mormon missionaries. Of course, prejudice was against them. However, they succeeded in getting a place to hold meeting. I heard of it. It was two miles from where I lived, but out of curiosity I determined to go and see and hear what those horrid creatures looked like and had to say, for I hardly expected they were human from what I had heard. So I got two other woman to go with me and repaired to the place appointed. The house was filled, waiting to see this wonderful man. My astonishment was better felt than described when he appeared tall and st with piercing black eyes filled with the spirit of God. He gave out a hymn and sang, a few joining him. Then he prayed and such a prayer! He was full to the brim. All eyes were upon him and you could have heard a pin drop. It seemed as though his influence put all prejudice under his feet. He took his text from the Bible, but I have forgotten it. However, I well remember his powerful sermon on the first principles of the Gospel as taught by the Savior and his apostles. O how plain and beautiful and easy to understand. I believed with my whole soul and I could see that I had been preserved from uniting with other creeds and was waiting to here and told the folks that for the first time I had heard the true Gospel preached by David Patten who had been chosen as an Apostle, ordained and set apart to teach the pure doctrine of our Savior. They laughed at me and cried, “Delusion, false prophets,” and so on. But the seed had taken root and I would talk with my husband and was very anxious that he should hear and investigate …”

  15. I just sought some clarification from my mom – she says Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy is my great-great-great grandmother. So there ya go … the anti-Mormon stuff has been working its magic for a long time.

  16. Fascinating! Thanks for posting John! Great photo as well of everyone.

  17. Awesome post, John. This was delightful to read.

    I hate to steer the conversation away from your family and their history, but perhaps you could answer a more academic question that your post raises? How common/popular was revivalism in the CoC/RLDS tradition? I’m guessing that the culturally-southern region in which your g-grandparents lived might factor into the equation. I’ve recently become quite interested in revivalism in the Latter Day Saint tradition, and your g-grandparents’ published memoirs look like they might be an interesting source to consult. Is Rocking Chairs and Fried Chicken available for purchase anywhere?

  18. I have nothing important to contribute, I just like the post.

    On a side note, I always fill out referral cards every time I visit a CoC / RLDS church (mostly stuff in Nauvoo and Kirtland, but once I saw one along a highway in Maine and went in just to fill one out). I have never been contacted.

  19. What a fascinating post! I loved hearing the story in your g-gandma’s folksy voice. What a treasure to have those family history volumes. I also loved your photo (you looked like you were quite a handful back then!) :)

    I have a friend, “Patrick”, who was a son of a polygamous off-shoot group in Utah. When he was about 10 years old, his parents took the family to see the Manti Miracle Pageant. Patrick became interested in the LDS Church not due to the pageant, but actually due to the protesters they encountered outside the gates. The protestors were yelling so loud and making such a wild scene and crazy accusations that Patrick felt sympathetic towards the Mormons. He could tell the Mormons were very nice people, and determined he would like to know more about their church. His parents were extremely open-minded. They gave approval for the Mormon missionaries to come over to give Patrick the discussions. They also gave permission for him to be baptised. Patrick remains the only member of the mainstream LDS Church in his family. However, his extended family are very supportive of him because they have seen how happy he is. (I keep encouraging him to write his story, btw).

    Brigham Young once said: “Every time you kick ‘Mormonism’, you kick it upstairs; you never kick it downstairs.”

    This statement holds true today! – MoSop

  20. This is awesome! I have to say that the fact that the ignorant and dogmatic elements in our local culture were so vehement against Mormons probably contributed a little to my conversion as well. Mostly it was the spirit, but it didn’t hurt that the local temple was protested against when it was being built, and many evangelical churches had speakers who specifically warned against the dangers of Mormonism. There is something intriguing about that sort of opposition. Let us remember that when we oppose things like pron or Big Love. =)

  21. John, I’m glad the gift of storytelling lives on in our family. Thanks for discovering a new twist to the conversion story.

  22. John Hamer says:

    Thanks all!

    Danithew (#14-15) — Thanks for sharing that! I don’t think that our stories are unusual. I have another ancestor conversion story from a different century and state and it’s very much the same.

    Christopher (#17) — Unfortunately, I don’t have any more information for you than this. Rocking Chairs and Fried Chicken was printed in the late 1970s and is long since out of print, but there’s also precious little information on this topic other than what I’ve excerpted. I’d suggest you write Ron Romig, the CofC archivist and/or Mark Scherer the CofC historian.

    Orwell (#18) — I guess they don’t want any converts! I’ll rib my CofC friends for you next time I talk to ‘em.

    MoSop (#19) — My great grandparents definitely had folksy language. They were country folks and there’s no shame in it. I love to hear their stories, all the more for their wonderful language which is otherwise lost to the family.

    Tatiana (#20) — A very wise insight.

    Mom (#21) and sis (#13) — Great seeing you here & thanks. :)

  23. #15 – danithew, given the name of your ancestor, we might be related. Of course, that’s true of most Utah-born Mormons. :)

    John, I absolutely loved this little sentence:

    “Grandma was primary president even longer because (according to family lore) nobody dared to release her.”

    It reminded me so much of my own paternal grandmother – the one who killed the cow as a teenager, which is a great story in and of itself. Thanks for the chance to remember such an amazing woman as I read of yours.

  24. For your information; “Rocking Chairs and Fried Chicken” is still available !!! $25.00 post paid. Send Check or money order to:

    Bob Erekson
    541 Park Lane
    Billings, MT 59102

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