“From Colony to Community: The Washington, D.C., Saints,” Ensign, Aug. 1974, 22
Washington Latter-day Saints are a community in microcosm: senators, lawyers, doctors, homemakers, teachers, entertainers, writers, businessmen, professional athletes, military men and women. But the new arrival in the city, or the new convert to the Church, will find all the familiar Mormon activities—campouts at a national forest, welfare work at the stake farm, genealogy excursions to the National Archives, and early morning seminaries for high school students. The Sunday School chorister may be a United States Senator, and the Relief Society visiting teacher may be his wife, but to Church members they are “brother” and “sister,” as in the Church the world over.
Today there are about 20,000 Latter-day Saints who live in the Washington metropolitan area, and they are known as an influence for good. But they were not always an integral part of the community.
Washington, which had passed laws against the Church in the 19th century, did not willingly open its social doors to members. Even after the Manifesto, which was issued in 1890 and stopped plural marriage in the Church, alleviated the abrasive quality of earlier contacts, official Washington remembered the Mormons with special disdain for many years.
One family in particular—the Reed Smoots—came to represent Mormons in Washington at the turn of the century and to bear the burdens of Washington’s displeasure. Elder Smoot, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was elected senator from Utah in 1904 and took his family east with him as he began a long fight to take his seat in Congress. While Senator Smoot fought the political battles, his wife found herself on the social battleground.
“At receptions she was a proud and lonely woman,” recalls Jesse R. Smith, a Smoot family friend from early Washington. “At one occasion, the wives of two congressmen reached over and began fingering the material of her dress, wondering aloud if Senator Smoot provided his other wives with such fine material.
“On Tuesday afternoons, official Washington would receive visitors. Time after time Sister Smoot would prepare for visitors and then sit there alone throughout the day,” Brother Smith remembers.
It fell finally to Theodore Roosevelt, as president of the United States, to cut through the discourtesy. At a White House reception in 1907 he spent a good share of the evening visiting with Sister Smoot. Finally, upon leaving the reception, the President turned at the end of the hall and said, “Good night, Mrs. Smoot.” Three years of petty insults and social exile were over.
During those early years, Senator Smoot wrote that only a handful of Latter-day Saints lived in Washington, with about five or six members meeting in his home on Sundays. It wasn’t until June 1919 that the Church numbered enough members to form a branch. By that time the membership had outgrown the Smoot home, and the next ten years found members hopscotching from one location to another until, in 1930, the Church decided to build a chapel in Washington.
Started in the heart of the Depression, the new chapel was an important and unusual investment on the part of the Church. It was built of Utah marble, quarried out of the mountains near Thistle, dragged by horse team to railroad cars headed east, and finally put into place on 16th Street, a fashionable section of Washington already filled with beautiful churches of other denominations.
“Your little church,” one man said, “going up right there in the middle of the rest of them, makes people stop and think. People will soon get over any idea they may have of Latter-day Saints being an obscure, mysterious far-Western sect.”
The chapel, with its Salt Lake Temple-inspired central spire, topped by a golden statue of the Angel Moroni, was completed in 1933. Inside, an impressive new organ was installed for daily concerts. The strong, clean lines of the marble were softened by stained-glass windows portraying native Utah flowers as well as the story of the Church.
Seven years after the Washington chapel was built, Washington Stake was formed, the first in the East since the days of Nauvoo. By the end of 1973 the wards and branches of that first stake had been divided and re-divided until metropolitan Washington could count four stakes, with outlying regions comprising three more.
Today’s 20,000 Latter-day Saint Washingtonians are a mixture of Utahns and other Westerners, some on temporary assignment with the government, some students, some military personnel. Others are converts, both native Washingtonians and transplants from other parts of the country.
Many of those who have come to Washington to work for the federal government have come because they feel that their early training and background prepared them for positions in the Congress, in the various departments, or in the military. As Royal Shipp, a government specialist on food and nutrition programs, says, “People often overlook the fact that Latter-day Saints are brought up to believe in service and that they can give that service in working for the government and other nonprofit organizations.”
Jack Carlson, a Church member and a specialist at the White House Office of Management and Budget, believes that Mormons in Washington should directly influence the politics that affect their lives. “It is the seat of national government, and consequently many things that affect our lives emanate from here. That is the magnet that drew me to Washington.”
Although Church teachings have instilled special feelings for integrity in government, there remains plenty of room for honest disagreement on issues among LDS congressmen, and every Congress has had Mormons serving on both sides of the aisle.
“We have never called a meeting of the Mormons in Congress. We have made no organized attempt to bring us all together,” says Senator Wallace F. Bennett, who has represented Utah for 20 years. “Even still, members of the Church serving in Congress have been able to defend the Church’s cause through their community and in Congress. I am frequently asked to try and help solve a particular problem, more or less unique to the Church, and I do what I can to help.”
But not all Mormons making contributions to national government come as elected officials. There are many members of the Church who are appointed or promoted through the ranks to top levels of government. This was first evident in the years of government expansion following World War II.
“There were a lot of appointments,” recalls Mark Cannon. “The chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, of the Tariff Commission, of the Federal Communications Commission, and of the National Labor Relations Board were all Mormons.”
Edgar Brossard, who was chairman of the Tariff Commission, is remembered fondly by Washingtonians. Branch president and first bishop of the Washington Ward, he was known not only by his Church friends but by his colleagues in the government as “Uncle Edgar”—a name that lingered long after he had left his post.
Rosel Hyde, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, still lives in Washington with his wife Mary. He was one of those who worked his way up through the civil service to political appointment. He was drawn to Washington because it was the only place in the country where, in 1924, a man could combine work and a night-school program.
Washington has also been a magnet for some of the best writers and reporters. Two Latter-day Saint journalists in Washington have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize—Merlo Pusey for his biography of jurist Charles Evan Hughes, and Jack Anderson for his reporting of the Indo-Pakistani War.
But not all members of the Church settle in Washington for professional reasons. Some come for the Church itself. Virginia Harter, a teacher, came in 1956 at a cut in pay “because there was so much going on in the Church here.” She has since done more than her share to keep it going, having served enthusiastically with young people.
The cliché that one can travel the Church over and find the same patterns everywhere is hard to deny, but each of the wards and branches in the four stakes has its own personality. Each has special needs and interests to challenge its leaders and members.
The Chesapeake Stake provides a good example of the diversity in Washington wards. Its boundaries cover parts of Montgomery County, which is reputed to have the highest per capita income of any county in the nation, as well as some under-employed rural areas.
Baltimore First and Second wards represent the fastest growth. The Fort Meade-Laurel area encompasses the headquarters of the First Army; Annapolis Ward meets in a beautiful building across from the Severn River near the U.S. Naval Academy where an institute of religion was recently opened; Bowie Ward covers one of Washington’s famous residential communities, and includes a dependent branch at Calvert, Maryland. College Park Ward near the University of Maryland will soon provide a building for area singles’ activities and meetings. Carrolton Ward has the Metro rapid transit system within its boundaries, making it an especially fast-growing area. Two famous universities, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, are located in the Chesapeake Stake, and active Church members serve on both faculties.
Much of the diversity of the Chesapeake Stake can be duplicated in the other three Washington metropolitan stakes. The various wards and branches are in so many different stages of growth that no one assessment could cover them all, except to point out that each has a special character as Church programs combine with community traditions.
The Washington Ward, for example, now composed almost entirely of young single members, has the atmosphere of last year’s college reunion. Money was raised for the chapel’s remodeling through a Washington Ward reunion in 1973, featuring an organ recital by Roy Darley, a Salt Lake Tabernacle organist and Washington Ward organist in the early days of World War II.
The Buck Valley (Pennsylvania) Branch, by contrast, is 100 miles from Washington. After sacrament meetings, members may be found planning box lunches for a group trip to stake conference or discussing activities and programs involving their youth. The original branch, with a chapel first dedicated in 1929, has flourished, and the third addition to the building is being completed.
The Oakton Ward in Virginia, only recently divided from Vienna Ward, claims a large convert membership. The Potomac Ward in Maryland, presently meeting in a school, is doubling up on meetings because of the fuel crisis, thereby adding to the spirit of sacrifice among its members.
The ward in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town known for Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia, has been a second home for students and young people from the Washington area. The beauty of the town, located at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was described by Don Perkins, who makes his home near Washington: “If I were fortunate enough to go to the celestial kingdom and it were as pretty as Charlottesville, I would be happy forever.”
Estaleah Baker, who left Arlington nine years ago for the smaller city of Manasses, 50 miles away, reports that she has watched the branch grow into a ward, the village into a city. “We are building the third phase of our beautiful chapel. We are attracting wonderful men and women to our area.”
Some of the older wards that grew out of the original divisions have stabilized and changed over the years. The Arlington Ward, each year a little more urbanized, has a singles group of about 100, many student couples, and a strong contingency of retired men and women who settled there many years ago. The number of teenagers is very small because families tend to move farther out as their families grow.
The Chevy Chase Ward, which includes many gracious older homes and some imposing new apartments and retail developments, boasts most of the Mormon members of Congress as well as many retired high-ranking government officials. One of the recent divisions from this ward, the Kensington Ward, has former congressman and ambassador David King as its bishop.
The Alexandria Ward, originally an offshoot of the Arlington Ward, is involved in the life of the city of Alexandria, former home of George Washington.
Church members had a chance to put their religion to work when Washington, D.C., Mayor Washington called on area LDS stake presidents for emergency assistance during the 1968 riots. As the frustrations of the black community boiled over after the murder of Martin Luther King, downtown Washington became a battleground with federal troops defending major government buildings. But the anger and despair was manifest mainly in the black residential areas, where burnings and lootings forced innocent residents to turn to emergency assistance.
Through the home teachers, seven truckloads of disaster supplies—canned food, evaporated milk, clothing, and blankets—were collected from Church members in one evening. In a protected convoy, Church leaders delivered the contributions to neighborhood leaders. Later, Mayor Washington complimented members for the best organized food relief program in the city.
These shared community experiences enable Mormon families to constantly examine the boundaries between themselves and their neighbors and seek to reach across them. A concrete symbol of this is Bountiful Farms, the regional welfare project. Kent Christensen, welfare farm consultant since its inception, reports that “people from all over the East come to see the farm. They are usually full of admiration and respect.” A recent bus tour brought a group from Russia to see this modern, scientific dairy farm, located 90 miles from Washington on Maryland’s eastern shore, a flat and fertile area much like the Midwest. The farm produces enough milk to fill the daily requirements of 20,000 people and ranks in the upper 1 percent of all dairy farms in the nation.
The farm was created 12 years ago as an investment shield, to provide fellowship in the open air, and to provide the welfare contributions for the entire region. Volunteers work at construction and at cleaning and repairing. Sometimes whole families come together on a farm outing. Even those who don’t have an opportunity to work on the farm feel a direct involvement, as in 1962 when the membership was asked to fast and pray for the cattle, which had then fallen prey to brucellosis.
Missionary work in the area also has been successful. Close cooperation between local stake missionaries and the Eastern Atlantic States Mission (which became the Delaware-Maryland Mission in 1970) meant that nearly all baptisms since 1967 have been “joint efforts.” From 1967 to 1969, baptisms in the mission averaged 1,000 per year, and in the more compact Delaware-Maryland Mission, baptisms since 1970 have been close to 900 a year.
The Potomac Stake alone, for instance, had 1,000 baptisms over a five-year period, meaning that the equivalent of two wards joined the Church; this contributed largely to the division of the stake in 1970. During one of these years the Potomac Stake was third in convert baptisms in the Church.
Uniting the technical skills and enthusiasm of the full-time missionaries with the solid fellowshipping and community ties of the stake missionaries proved to be a partnership that was hard to resist. As one convert, Jean Downs, says, “Anyone who would spend all day at the office and then several hours in the evening, week after week, through snow, sleet, and rain not to mention the Washington humidity—for nine solid months (her conversion period) must have something to offer.”
Mark Cannon, who teaches the investigators’ class in the McLean Ward, feels that Mormonism harmonizes with the needs of those who visit his class. “A high percentage of the nonmembers who visit our meetings join the Church. People want our values, and they have felt very isolated in their daily lives.”
A unique part of the missionary system is the Spanish-speaking branch, which meets in the Washington chapel under the direction of Eddie Barillas, a former bishop from Guatemala. Beginning first as a single Sunday School class, then maturing into a complete Sunday School, then into a branch, it now has 227 members. It has a strong MIA, a Primary partly staffed by the Washington Ward, and a fully functioning Relief Society.
Washington has been a haven to those who recognize its advantages. The city and its environs offer wide historical and cultural experiences that cost little in money and effort. And the opportunity to work while attending night school at one of the city’s universities or colleges remains a constant attraction.
Many who are rearing their children agree with Don Perkins: “I have lived in many places and I can’t think of anywhere I would rather raise children. As far as opportunities both within and outside the Church are concerned, I have never been in a place that had so much of both.”
Many families live and work in Washington because they are educationally prepared for the high level of professional jobs and because of opportunities for providing superior education for their children.
Latter-day Saints are often found in PTA and other community organizations, but Charles Carlston remembers that when he first arrived in 1931, most Church members did not participate in these organizations. In fact, many were still voting in their home states. He thinks that trend has reversed today, with members of the Church supporting school and county elections and activities. Brother Carlston was somewhat of a pioneer, having been the first male president of a PTA in his county. Active on the county council, he was flattered when people who attended the Presbyterian Church across the street from his own Arlington Ward nominated him for the school board.
Another activity that blends well with family and community life is Scouting. Artel and Focha Ricks of the Falls Church Ward are one of only four families in the history of Scouting to rear seven Eagle Scouts. Their family achievement brought city-wide attention to the LDS Scouting program and an invitation to the White House to meet President Nixon.
Families who grow up in Washington have other benefits beside those relating to school and home. History is alive in Washington, from the cobblestone streets of Georgetown laid by Hessian prisoners of war during the Revolution to the national debates in Congress. Families take outings to Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington, and school classes visit the offices of national leaders.
Not only are history and government close and vivid, but a renaissance of the arts is filling Washington with music, drama, and art. The new Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the scene of a Christmas “Messiah Sing-In” that attracts members of the Church who know and love Handel’s Messiah.
Families who enjoy outdoor summer music and drama can sit together on the sloping lawns of the Filene Wolf Trap Center, where a beautiful wooden stage rises out of the grounds of what was once a large farm. In addition to this and the fine Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, Church members often go in groups to Arena Stage, one of the nation’s great repertory theaters, and to the revered “first theater,” the National.
There is no doubt that members of the Church have found a place in Washington, with some families now into the second and third generations there. The Marriott family began their Washington career in 1927 when J. Willard and Alice Marriott drove from Salt Lake City following their marriage to set up an A and W Root Beer stand just off 16th Street. Today, with its operation grown from the days of carrying away the night’s receipts in a paper bag and adding menu items from embassy recipes, the Marriott Corporation is a major service industry. Now that the actual operation of the enterprise is turned over to Bill, Jr., the senior Marriotts can devote their energies to many of the country’s important celebrations. Their children and grandchildren are rearing their families and making their homes in the Washington area.
A favorite dinner-party pastime is comparing the number of years Mormons meant to stay in Washington with the number of years they actually stayed. A homesick young couple may stoutly insist, “We’re going to stay only two years—until we’re out of the service,” and be greeted with smiles from those who were heard to make a similar remark five, ten, even 40 years before.
Even though Washington is one of the Church’s transient areas (one bishop estimated ward turnover at 35 percent), it has a strong attraction for many, and they echo the sentiments of Milton Barlow, former business executive and now a well-known building contractor: “This is our place. An increasing number are retiring here at the focal point of the world where people make history.” Jesse R. Smith, retired business executive, points out that modern mobility makes it possible to enjoy spring in the West and again in the East, so “Why should we leave?” He finds it invigorating to retire in a community where he can “rub shoulders with investigators.”
Summarized President Ezra Taft Benson, president of the Council of the Twelve and Secretary of Agriculture under former President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Many people get their start in Washington, in school, in the government, and it has been a great anchor for young people going there from all parts of the world. It provides a place for fellowship, for cultural activities. I think that’s what the Brethren had in mind when they built that great chapel for the Washington Ward.”
Now the brothers and sisters of the Church have built a great temple, a building that brings them hundreds of requests from neighbors and colleagues to “show us through your temple.”
The growth of the Church from the Washington Ward to the Washington Temple is a step signifying the spiritual maturity, the growth, and dedication of the Saints in Washington.