Thursday, December 5, 2013

Call to Sectarian Preachers: Benjamin E. Rich, Observed by David H. Elton

Recently I have enjoyed, on occasion, looking through the numerous nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Latter-day Saint missionary diaries that have been digitized and transcribed out of the collections of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University.  At the moment, my attention is held by a particular entry from the fourth mission journal kept by one Elder David Horton Elton (1877-1963), who served in the Southern States Mission in 1898-1900.  I quote the following entry, dated 18 February 1900, modernized and edited for presentability (4:86-89):
We met in fast meeting at the Mission Headquarters, Pres. [Benjamin Erastus] Rich presiding.  It certainly was an enjoyable meeting.  We sang, and prayed, and partook of the symbolic emblems of the broken flesh and spilt blood of our Redeemer.  Testimony upon testimony was borne by those worthy servants of God, and with the rest of the brethren I bore my testimony to the truthfulness of the everlasting Gospel.  I have never felt better in all my life than I did this morning, and I feel to thank the Lord with all the energies of my soul, and with every faculty that I possess for His loving kindness unto me. 
At 2 P.M. there was a public meeting held in the Congregational Hall, Pres. Ben E. Rich presiding.  Commenced by singing, "Did you think to pray."  Prayer was offered by Elder Skidmore of the Florida Conference, and a Quartet composed of Elders Stokes, Summerhays, Parker, and myself sang, "Rock of my Refuge."  Pres. Rich then made a few introductory remarks and then introduced Elder Stokes - a Mormon Boy.  He spoke upon the principle of divine revelation from God, and showed the absolute essentiality of communication between God and man.  Ben L. Rich, son of our beloved President, was the next speaker.  He dwelt upon the courage, stamina, virtue, and honesty of the sons of the Western Highlands.  I then spoke for a few minutes upon the goodness of God, and the truthfulness of the Gospel; followed by Elder W. T. Davis, who spoke upon the self-sacrificing conduct of the Elders who left home, friends, loved ones and kindred relations, in order to be of service unto the Lord. 
Pres. Rich made a few remarks in closing - touching upon the words of those who had preceded him, - and once more issued a call for Sectarian preachers to come and point out the errors or absurdities of Mormonism - using the Holy Bible as their guide and defense. 
In compliance with an invitation from Sisters Rich and Hyldahl, we all met in the Mission House, where we enjoyed ourselves beyond expression.  We had a genuine good hearty, old time Hand shake.  Refreshments in the line of Bananas, Nuts, Oranges, Apples and Candy, were served by the sisters.  It seemed just like Home - in great big letters.  Elder Boyle of the South Alabama conference, whose picture can be seen on the first page of this Journal, recited, "Down on the Rio Grande."  Pres. Rich then amused the happy throng by reciting a semi-tragic-comic - portraying a man shaving.  We sang Hymns - Gospel, Sectarian, Revival, and Otherwise, and after rendering that Old Time Hymn found on Page 107 - "Lord dismiss us with thy blessing," we bade, "Good Bye" to our Host, and Hostess, feeling like Peter of old, "It was good to be there."  
Naturally, in this particular missionary journal entry, it was the second-to-last paragraph - as I have introduced paragraph divisions, that is - that most caught my attention.  For a bit of background, Benjamin E. Rich (1855-1913) was the son of Charles C. Rich (1809-1883), who had been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Benjamin E. Rich here began serving as a mission president in 1898 over the Southern States Mission, became president of the Middle States Mission in 1900, and returned to presiding over the Southern States Mission in 1903 when the Middle States Mission was dismantled; and eventually, in 1908, he came to preside over the Eastern States Mission until he died in 1913.  (For his part, Elder David H. Elton went on to serve for a number of years as the mayor of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and became a noted poet  During his mission, he came to preside over the Chattanooga Conference.) 

Clearly, President Ben E. Rich was no slouch; at his funeral, Joseph F. Smith called him a "stalwart defender of the truth".  He wrote missionary tracts and did engage in debates with various Protestant ministers, some of which were published - see, for instance, the 1912 publication of The Brunner-Rich Debate, his debate against Rev. A. A. Brunner.  And here we see President Rich remembered as encouraging Protestant ministers to attempt to offer biblical critiques of the Latter-day Saint belief-system.  Not only that, but he himself modeled critical engagement with those critiques.  That raises some interesting points.  To what degree to modern-day Latter-day Saints exhibit a similar willingness to listen to attempts to biblically critique LDS beliefs?  To what degree are modern-day Latter-day Saints prepared to offer reasonable pushback and attempt to give a similarly biblical defense of LDS beliefs?  If there is a discrepancy between President Ben E. Rich's attitude and the attitudes cultivated by modern-day LDS culture, why? 

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