A saintly aunt of mine spent years putting together a family history book entitled, Oh Joy: The Legacy of Joseph Alma Owens and Alice Elvaretta Harris (my paternal grandarents), that contains short biographies of many of my ancestors. It also has short autobiographies of all of my 51 cousins and our parents. Looking through it a few months back I was surprised to learn that my great-great grandfather, Robert Owens, was among the first LDS missionaries in India, then known as Hindustan. I was probably told many times throughout my life about this mission but I had forgotten. I also found an interesting letter from my great grandmother, Mary Ann Edgely, that impressed me as an amazing example of faithful missionary service. I was proud to realize that my family has been engaged in the work of building the kingdom for five generations. Here are some brief accounts of the missionary work of five generations of my direct ancestors on my father’s side.
Robert Owens: Calcutta and Chinaderaput, Hindustan, 1852 – 1854
Robert Owens was called to serve a mission in Hindustan by surprise during a special conference in the Old Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in August of 1852.* It came as a shock and the timing was less than convenient. He was destitute and both of his wives were pregnant. But he heeded the call and left his family for the journey over land to California, followed by a 10,936-mile boat trip to Calcutta. To the missionaries’ dismay they found that, rather than the burgeoning branch they had hoped for, there were only 20 Saints in Calcutta, and only 6 were active.
The work and the climate were grueling and Robert’s lack of success in finding converts was dispiriting. He found the Hindu culture incompatible with Gospel living and the English residents unapproachable. In July of 1854, after a transfer to Chinderaput and more frustration, Robert finished his work in India. The next year the India mission was closed.
I can’t imagine how difficult that experience must have been. The foreign culture and inherent privations of the missionary lifestyle of that time is bad, but might have been bearable if the kingdom-building was going forward. But as it was, the feeling of dejection and failure must have been acutely painful. These experiences are always valuable, though, if for no other reason than for the example it sets for the rest of us. Elder Brigham H. Roberts later wrote: “There is nothing more heroic in our Church annals than the labors and sufferings of these brethren of the mission to India.”**
Mary Ann Edgley: Member Missionary, London, England, 1886
Robert Owens’s wife, Martha Allen Owens, was pregnant with my great grandfather, William Q Owens, when he left for his mission to India. William was born blind and as an adult he traveled to London to seek out a doctor to treat his vision. While there he stayed with the Edgley family, a family of Saints who wished to emigrate to Zion but didn’t have the means. While he was with the Edgleys, Mary Ann was designated as William’s guide. After he found out that the doctor couldn’t help him, he determined that he would pay the passage of two of the Edgleys back to Utah. Joseph, the family patriarch, and Mary Ann accompanied William on the voyage back. William and Mary Ann later married and begat my grandfather, Joseph Alma Owens.
On September 27, 1886, around the same time that Mary Ann and William became acquainted in London, the Millennial Star published*** a piece entitled, “Letter from a ‘Mormon’ Young Lady.” [You can see it here in issue no. 39.] It was a copy of a two or three-page letter that my great grandmother had sent to her cousin explaining many principles of the Gospel and encouraging him to investigate the Church. It’s a bold and wide-ranging letter that uses a lot of Biblical passages to concisely cover everything from faith vs. works, to the necessity of baptism by immersion, to priesthood authority, to the necessity of gathering to Zion, to a defense of plural marriage. On the latter topic she writes, with some serious sass:
I know you think it is a terrible thing for a man to have more than one wife, and so do many people; but you will find, if you read your Bible, that the Lord always blessed those righteous men of olden times who practiced this principle. Abraham was the friend of God, and he had more than one wife; and many of our Christian friends think that when they die they will go direct to Abraham’s bosom, but when they get there and find him with Sarah and Hagar and others of the family, I am thinking they will be glad to come back again, if they do not change their minds about that dreadful thing they call polygamy.
You go girl! (Not that I’m gung-ho about polygamy, but the lady does have a point.)
Like any good missionary, she doesn’t just teach and share, but she boldly invites:
. . .If you wish to investigate the principles of the Gospel, you are easily able to do so. I invite you to come and hear for yourself, “for he that judgeth a matter before he heareth is not wise,” so said Solomon.
Her closing testimony sounds somewhat familiar:
I have said a little upon the principles we believe in, and before concluding I will bear my humble testimony to you. I can say that I know as sure as I know that I live, that this is the only true Gospel, and that Joseph Smith was a true Prophet of God, Brigham Young was his legal successor and that John Taylor now stands at the head of the Church upon this earth; and it is my constant prayer and desire unto God that the time may soon come when I shall be gathered from these lands to that land which I know He has set apart for the gathering place of his Saints in these last days. And I pray that I may be faithful to my last breath, and then gain the reward of the righteous, and hear those welcome words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
It’s pretty awesome that her prayer to gather to Zion was in the process of being answered when this letter was published. I was seriously impressed with my great grandmother’s boldness and with the way she expressed herself in this letter. She was a seriously powerful lady. I don’t know what became of her cousin, but once again, this letter is valuable if for no other reason than that it gives us an example of how our faith should work within us. In the introduction to this letter the Millennial Star editors say that they
hope that it will tend to encourage others to be as willing and ready to give a reason for the hope within them as Sister Edgley in her plain and sensible letter.
Well, this is plenty long as it is. The next three generations will have to wait for my next semi-annual post.
*No I don’t have citations for any of this. I am not Ardis, and neither was my saintly aunt.
**Again, no citation. Get off my back.
***Look at me, getting my citation on: Millennial Star, Sept. 27, 1886, pp 611 – 613. No. 39, Vol. XLVIII.