News of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Pittsburgh area, counsel from its leaders, and reflections from its members.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Historian's Corner: A Conference Comes Before a District

A plaque in the Second Ward building charts the congregation’s evolution from one of the first branches in the Pittsburgh area to a suburban ward in the Pittsburgh Stake

To pick up from where we left off the last time, the modern history of the Church here began in 1886, when a conference was convened at the New England Branch (near the present-day location of the Pittsburgh Second Ward) on May 16-17.  The members of the branch had asked to be re-baptized into the Church the year before.  Another branch was organized that same year in Little Redstone in Fayette County (further south of Pittsburgh) and three more followed in 1887.

At that time, western Pennsylvania was under the jurisdiction of the Indiana Conference, a “conference” in this sense being a smaller version of a district.  The process of re-introducing the Church into the eastern United States was long and difficult.  It was likely made more difficult by the legal proceedings undertaken against the Church in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Western Pennsylvania was transferred to the Northern States Mission in 1889 and then to the Eastern States Mission in 1897.  The Eastern States Mission had been organized in 1893 when Elders Job Pingree and Seymour B. Young Jr. were dispatched to New York City to restart missionary efforts in the East following the resolution of the Church’s legal difficulties.  The mission was headquartered in Brooklyn and included New York, Maryland, the southern part of West Virginia, New England and eastern Canada in addition to Pennsylvania.

The mission expanded into Virginia shortly thereafter and counted 975 members in eight conferences by the year 1900.  Thirty years later, the mission counted 4,281 members in twelve organizational units, which by this point included districts and conferences; the Pittsburgh area was part of the West Pennsylvania Conference.

Despite having so many members, the mission counted only six chapels, including two in Pennsylvania.  During these early days of the Church, each branch was a handful of families that met in different members’ homes at varying times.  This was generations before the current consolidated meeting schedule was introduced (that occurred in 1980), so there was no organizational expectation of so much to take place on Sunday as there is now.

Two of the main priorities of the early branches were creating Sunday Schools and Relief Societies.  The first record of the latter in Pittsburgh dates from May 25, 1916, when a Relief Society presidency for the branches in the area was called.  The members of the presidency lived far apart and could not meet often, owing to the difficulty of transportation and communication in those days.  This also contributed to the fact that the Relief Society presidency’s membership changed three times in the ensuing year.

The challenges of leadership were ameliorated in 1922, when Sister Marble Holmgren was called as the Eastern States Mission’s first mission-wide Relief Society President.  She traveled around the mission to instruct the sisters in their duties, visiting the city of Pittsburgh on October 1, the Fairview Branch (in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh) on October 18 and the New England Branch on October 25.  Three years later, the five branches in the area organized their own Relief Societies.

From 1941 until 1963, the wives of mission presidents were asked to “take direct charge” of the Relief Society work in their missions’ areas.  This provided the relatively young branches with a veteran leader who may likely have had experience in areas with a fully formed Church organization.

The next step in the evolution of the Church in the Pittsburgh area came in 1943, when the West Penn District was organized.  But that is another tale for another post.  Until next time…

Respectfully submitted,

Rush David
Pittsburgh Stake Historian

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