Mormon History Rich In State

On a cold March day in 1919, with several hundred people looking on, William Fox immersed himself in the icy waters of the Farmington River in the Poquonock section of Windsor.

The occasion was Fox's baptism into the Mormon Church, and the crowd joked and jeered through the ceremony, according to The Courant, which covered the baptism and put the story on the front page.

"He don't look like he's saved particularly," one onlooker was quoted as saying. "He just looks like he's soaked."

The Mormon faith that so dominates Salt Lake City, the site of the Winter Olympics, is a comparatively small presence in Connecticut, with about 9,350 members, but it has a rich history in the state.

Connecticut's involvement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the faith is formally known, dates almost to its creation.

The first Mormon missionaries arrived in the state in Salisbury in 1832, only two years after the church was founded in Fayette, N.Y., by Joseph Smith, a Vermont native.

Wilford Woodruff, a native of what is today Avon but was then a part of Farmington, embraced the faith in 1833 and later became a towering figure as its prophet and president, the Mormon equivalent of pope. It was Woodruff who, in a momentous 1890 decision, banned polygamy among Mormons, a practice that had mired the faith in controversy for decades.

But church leaders acknowledge that the closest association most state residents have with the church today is through its 10 Family History Centers in Connecticut, where the public can conduct genealogical research. Thousands of people yearly are using those centers.

Family genealogy has become enormously popular as baby boomers have entered their 50s, and on any given day, as many as 30 people will show up at a center to do family history research.

"We probably have more people not of the faith come in than those of the faith," said Richard E. Black, president of the Hartford-area stake, a Mormon organizational grouping similar to a diocese.

The Mormon interest in genealogy stems from its strong focus on the family and its belief that families have an eternal bond. Mormons living today can perform baptisms for their dead ancestors, by proxy, once their family history is suitably documented. Baptism for the dead is a tenet rejected by Catholics and Protestants.

"The [Mormon] church as part of its doctrine believes that family ties go beyond the grave," Black said. "So the main purpose of the Family History Centers is to do genealogy so we might tie all of the families together."

Deceased family members do not necessarily have to accept the baptism into the church done on their behalf, however. "They can decline," Black said.

To help Mormons research their family histories, the faith has copied original records from the United States and other countries on millions of microfilms, the originals of which are stored in temperature-controlled vaults in a mountain southeast of Salt Lake City. Those microfilms include such documents as church rolls from European countries and Colonial Connecticut land records.

People researching family histories can request loans of microfilm from the Mormon vault. The cost is $3.50, including shipping, for the first month's use. The Family History Centers - Hartford-area sites are in Bloomfield, Manchester and Southington - have machines available to read the film.

During the 19th century, Mormons were subjected to considerable persecution, especially in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Mormons were beaten, tarred and feathered, even murdered. The church moved to the relatively wide-open West as a result.

Woodruff stood beside Brigham Young when Young, overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, wagons full of pioneers behind him, declared in 1847, "This is the place" for the seat of the church.

Woodruff "was a major part of early church history," said Earle L. Stone of West Hartford, a Mormon who wrote a master's thesis on the history of Mormons in Connecticut from 1832 to 1952.

Young, another major figure in the faith, himself baptized five people in Canaan in 1836 and preached in New Haven in 1837.

Connecticut people often gave Mormons a chilly reception, even harassed them, but spared the sect the violence it experienced in some other states, Stone said. The Connecticut treatment of Mormons often seemed more mischievous than dangerous, he said.

For example, when a Mormon spoke to a gathering, people might surround the hall and beat on pans or toss firecrackers under the building.

One evening in Canton, Woodruff began to speak at the town hall in Collinsville but immediately was harassed by people banging drums and "laughing and sneering."