The Saints in Florida

“The Saints in Florida,” Ensign, June 1975, 36

The Saints in Florida

In 1898 George Paul Canova, a new convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was returning from a conference of the Church at a little country church near New Zion in northern Florida. As he and his companion, Thaddeus A. Hill, rode along the quiet road on their 20-mile horse and buggy journey, rejoicing in the wonderful outpouring of the Spirit they had witnessed at the conference, several men ambushed them and Brother Canova was killed.

Persecution was common during the early days of the Church in the South, and few dared listen to the missionaries who tracted through the countryside. Those who did listen faced ostracism and criticism. The Southern States Mission covered most of the southeastern United States, and it wasn’t until the 1890s, long after branches had been established in the other southern states, that elders were assigned to Florida. (Although some had crossed over from Alabama in the 1870s, they had not stayed long.)

Two families who did accept the missionaries and listen to their message, despite the persecution, were those of George Paul Canova and Thaddeus A. Hill. Two elders traveling without purse or scrip in Sanderson, Baker County, they stopped at the Hill home at Christmastime in 1896 and found hospitality and shelter. They also delighted the Hill children with their songs and stories.

Six months later other elders came through the area. They had been walking through the woods for several days but had not found anyone who would listen to their message. When they were in front of the Hill home, one of the elders stopped and said to his companion, “The blood of Israel is in this house; they will accept us.”

At first Mrs. Hill bolted the door. However, her children remembered the charming young men who had stopped there the previous Christmas and persuaded their parents to extend hospitality to these elders.

The next day the missionaries presented the gospel message, and by the end of the afternoon, Thaddeus Hill announced to his family that he had found the true gospel. He and his wife and their three oldest daughters were baptized July 25, 1897, in a small creek near their home.

The Hill family moved to Jacksonville in 1901, where they helped build up the Church, and two of the children, Nellie H. Maddock and her sister, Alice, still reside there. “We have been present at almost every significant Church event in Jacksonville,” Sister Maddock declares.

George Paul Canova, who was killed by the mob in 1898, had also sheltered the elders. In early 1898, missionaries laboring in Sanderson received a vitriolic letter, signed by a committee of citizens, asking the elders to “vacate the county.” The letter mentioned Brother Canova by name and attacked him for feeding the hated Mormons. Not long afterwards, he was killed.

His descendants remained in the Jacksonville area and helped strengthen the small Church group. His grandson, Alvin C. Chace, has seen the Church in Florida grow from a handful of members in 1900 to more than 30,000 in 1975, with more than 7,500 members in the Jacksonville area alone. Despite such growth, he recalls seeing prejudice against those who joined the Church as well as those who were preaching the gospel.

“As late as 1923,” he recalls, “when I was living in Ocala, a missionary came to my home and said he had been whipped near Wildwood and run out of the county.”

Brother Chace became the first president of the Florida Stake, organized in Jacksonville in 1947, and has served in many other branch, ward, mission, and stake leadership positions, as president of the mission, and as a Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve.

Growth of the Church in Florida was slow during its first five decades there, but today it is booming, and the beautiful “Sunshine State” has more members than any other state east of the Mississippi River—in fact, more than all but ten of the United States. The state is organized into nine stakes and one small branch at Bonifay, which is part of the Dothan Alabama District of the Florida Tallahassee Mission. Also located in the state are the headquarters of two missions: the Florida Tallahassee Mission, whose missionaries proselyte in northern Florida and in Alabama and which is presided over by President Spencer W. Osborn, and the Florida Ft. Lauderdale Mission (formerly the Florida South Mission), presided over by President Arden B. Hutchings, which includes the southern three-fourths of the state, the islands of the Caribbean (extending down to within five miles of the coast of South America), the Bahamas, and even some small islands off the coast of Africa.

It should not be surprising that the Church has grown so tremendously in Florida in recent years, for the state itself has seen tremendous growth, as persons from colder climates, retirees, immigrants, servicemen, businessmen, tourists, government workers, and others have settled there. The 1970 United States Census showed the state’s population as 6,748,443—a gain of almost two million in the ten years since the preceding census.

In 1830, when the Church was formally organized in this dispensation in New York State, Florida had only 34,730 citizens. The first known mention of Florida in Church history was in Nauvoo, Illinois, at a conference held April 10, 1843, when Daniel Cathcart and William Bowen were appointed to go to Pensacola City, Florida, to “build up the churches” there. Nothing is known of these assignments.

The first official Church organization in Florida came in November 1895 when Joseph A. West led a group of missionaries from Alabama to Florida and organized the Florida Conference (District) of the Southern States Mission, with Elder West serving as first president of the group.

A small Sunday School had been organized previously at Coe Mills, Liberty County, and the missionaries proceeded to organize other Sunday Schools. The first conference in Florida was held at Ann Arbor, two miles west of Live Oak, on May 30, 1896, under the direction of Southern States Mission President Elias S. Kimball. Twenty-four elders were present. In January 1898 a conference was held at Sanderson, with Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Council of the Twelve and President J. Golden Kimball of the First Council of the Seventy in attendance. This was the first time General Authorities were known to have been in the state.

These first missionaries, whose labors centered in the northern part of the state, initially became discouraged and thought they should close the work. However, after listening to them at a conference and at first feeling as they did, President West arose to give his closing remarks and bore testimony that they should persist and be faithful, and that the Lord would open the way for them; Florida would become one of the most fruitful areas of the Church.

This prophecy wasn’t fulfilled for many years—not until the 1940s when World War II brought many servicemen and government workers and their families into Florida. The Florida Stake, the first stake to be organized in the South, was formed on January 19, 1947. It was another 11 years before the second stake was organized: Orlando Stake, formed on February 23, 1958. This stake was divided in 1959 to form the Tampa Stake, and in 1960, the Miami Stake was organized. The Church was becoming firmly established in Florida, and today there are stakes in Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, Pensacola, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, Tampa, and two in Jacksonville.

In the early days of Church activity, Jacksonville was the center of growth. Miami, which is now the hub of a large, heavily populated megalopolis that stretches 75 miles up the southeastern coast of the state, was a frontier town at the turn of the century, with a population of only 1,681. (In 1970 there were 334,859 in the city of Miami itself, with more than 1,260,000 in the metropolitan area.)

J. C. Neubeck was the first Mormon resident of record in Miami. He went there with his family from Palatka, near Jacksonville, in 1907, and worked in a machine shop forging tools that would help extend the railroad to Key West. In 1909 the first missionaries were assigned to Miami, and for the next 16 years, meetings of the small group were held in Brother Neubeck’s home.

On November 14, 1920, 18 people met under a cluster of seagrape trees on Miami Beach to organize a Sunday School, and Brother Neubeck was called as superintendent. Presiding at this meeting was President Charles A. Callis, longtime president of the Southern States Mission, who was later to become a member of the Council of the Twelve. The Sunday School met each week in a home with an average attendance of 20 to 25 from Hollywood, Ft. Lauderdale, Homestead, and other neighboring communities. Some came as far as 30 miles—a two-hour drive each way over primitive roads.

By the time a small chapel was dedicated in Miami in 1930 by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Council of the Twelve (later the tenth President of the Church), the branch was almost completely organized, with a Relief Society, MIA, and, the next year, a Primary group. The Miami Stake was organized 30 years later.

The story of the growth of the Church in other parts of Florida is similar. Brother Standish W. Holmes, Jr., of St. Petersburg, reports, “Public attitude toward Mormons has come a long way in the Tampa area since the days in the 1930s when missionaries were beaten and tarred and feathered. In fact, the great-grandson of a man who led a mob against missionaries in the 1920s has served as a bishop and stake high councilor in the Tampa Stake.”

Today Mormon Pioneer Day (July 24) is an official holiday on the Tampa city calendar, Brother Holmes notes, and the mayor of St. Petersburg recently proclaimed Family Unity Week at the urging of local missionaries, calling for all families everywhere to “strengthen their homes through family home evening.”

The mayor of Miami also declared a week to be set apart as Family Home Evening Week, and missionaries were invited to participate in a statewide Jaycee convention to explain the Church’s emphasis on family unity, a goal of the national service organization.

Of great interest to members and nonmembers alike in Florida are the Deseret Ranches, a 300,000-acre agricultural and ranch complex in the Orlando Stake in central Florida between Cape Canaveral and Disney World. The Saints brought new irrigation and land reclamation techniques to Florida, enabling them to be among the first to develop and improve large tracts of land. The primary products of the ranches are cattle and citrus fruits; in addition, the ranches also harvest timber, providing fiber for wood and paper products. The ranches have joined in the development of improved grazing lands and better strains of beef cattle and in experimental research with cattle and feeds, in cooperation with the University of Florida and other groups.

When he served as president of the Florida Mission in 1965, Ned J. Winder, who is now administrative assistant for the Church Missionary Department, dedicated the Indian reservations of Florida for the preaching of the gospel, and since that time the missionaries have had an active program with the Lamanites. President Hutchings of the Florida Ft. Lauderdale Mission invited the tribal chiefs to the mission home for a dinner, following which the missionaries explained the Church’s programs for the Lamanites, including the student placement program, seminary, family home evening, and other youth programs, and talked with them about their heritage and destiny. An interesting sidelight is that the Seminoles have a legend that their ancient records were lost in New York State. Missionaries of Lamanite descent have been assigned to labor with the tribes.

Many faith-promoting experiences have strengthened the testimonies of the Saints in Florida, and there is a strong feeling of brotherhood and joy in sharing the gospel with others.

Brother Holmes writes of one exciting adventure when possible tragedy was averted by the training youth had received in their Aaronic Priesthood and Scouting activities:

“Perhaps no single event better epitomizes the way in which area Mormons have gained the respect and admiration of nonmembers than the modern-day miracle that occurred on May 17, 1969. On that day, 34 adult leaders and 69 Aaronic Priesthood youth commemorating the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood boarded the M. V. Go Go and headed five miles out into the Gulf of Mexico off Anclote Key for a peaceful day of deep-sea fishing. Peaceful, that is, until fire broke out in the engine room at 2:55 P.M. and almost immediately began to engulf the ship. Within an estimated two minutes the ship burned to the water line—but not before all 103 members had calmly evacuated the ship on the command of their leader. Total injuries? One sprained wrist, one skinned shin, two skinned legs, and one slightly bruised chest.”

The Church’s youth programs, especially seminary and institute, have had great appeal in Florida. Missionaries have also had opportunities to participate in world religion series on college campuses to discuss the gospel with many students. In a state that attracts many retirees, the elderly haven’t been neglected either, as missionaries and members have contacted activity directors of retirement communities to volunteer their services and have also worked through local adult education programs. The fulltime missionaries include many elderly women who have particular success with retired persons.

New converts as well as older members are finding great vitality and spirit in the Church in Florida today. One stake president estimates that in his area in southern Florida, about 375 converts are being baptized every year, enough to form a ward, and that the present membership is about 75 percent converts and 25 percent second- and subsequent-generation members. “The vitality of our stake is largely due to the converts,” reports President Jack Turner Wright of the Miami Florida Stake. “They have very strong testimonies and desire to serve.”

President Hutchings of the Florida Ft. Lauderdale Mission echoes this feeling of excitement. “I foresee something taking place here similar to what took place in California a few years ago,” the former Californian says. “We are starting to obtain some stature here, and the future looks very bright.”

Many of the new converts are Spanish-speaking, and about 15 percent of the missionaries are Spanish-speaking. Wards and branches have been formed for Spanish-speaking people in the Miami and Tampa stakes, and the mission also has strong branches in Puerto Rico. Many of the Spanish-speaking members in Florida are Cuban refugees. It is estimated that more than half a million Cubans reside in Florida, the majority of them in Miami and the surrounding area.

A former missionary who labored with the Spanish-speaking people, Vickie Heaton, writes about the experiences of two Cuban converts:

“One new convert, in a fast and testimony meeting the Sunday after her baptism, related that she had been the only one in her family to come to the United States. She had cried when she left her parents and her brothers and sisters. ‘Even after I’d been here for several months, I still cried a lot,’ she said. ‘One day I prayed and asked God why he’d brought me here when I felt so discouraged and alone.’ The next week two missionaries knocked at her door, and three weeks later this sister became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Another convert, one who had money and property and a high-paying job in Cuba, stated that even though he had left it all behind, he was grateful for the opportunity he had had to come to the United States and hear about the restored Church. ‘I wouldn’t trade the knowledge I have today for anything,’ he said emphatically.”

Formerly inactive members in Florida who are being brought back into the Church through home teaching and the love and concern of other members also find new vitality and excitement. Brian Keziah of the Tampa Second Ward credits “the undying love and persistence” of his home teachers for finally bringing him back after nine years of inactivity. Says he, “I guess you could say that I never really was in the Church before, even though I had been baptized. I never had a testimony because I had never tried to get one.” He added that one day he went to a fast and testimony meeting and suddenly found himself on his feet making commitments that he has been trying to live up to since his return to activity.

A third-generation Mormon who calls himself “a convert at age 36” is George Ray, president of the New Port Richey Branch, St. Petersburg Stake. After he was wounded in Vietnam, doctors said he would never walk out of the hospital. But he did—on crutches—and he came to Florida when he was discharged from the army. There he rediscovered new meaning to life through the Church. In his first two years as branch president, he saw his branch grow from 15 to 185 active members. He credits home teaching for much of this success. “I’m completely converted to home teaching—it is one of the strongest bases of the Church,” he says.

One of the most exciting and spiritually awakening events for the Saints in Florida has been the dedication of the Washington Temple. The members were formerly in the Arizona Temple district, and they had to travel thousands of miles to do temple work.

A choir of 80 voices—16 from each of five stakes in Florida—sang at the first dedicatory session of the temple on Tuesday, November 19, 1974. For many months the specially selected singers practiced in their individual stakes; then they traveled great distances for the final rehearsals in Jacksonville under Sister Jewel Hill.

The afternoon of November 17, a chartered train carrying the choir members and several hundred other Saints from Florida left Jacksonville for Washington. They traveled all night, sleeping on the train, and arrived in the nation’s capitol early the next morning. That day the Saints toured the city in special buses while the choir held a final rehearsal.

The members stayed in motels in Washington that evening, attended the dedicatory services the following morning, and returned to Jacksonville Tuesday night, again sleeping on the train, in order to be home by Wednesday morning. Though it meant sacrifice on the part of each person, “it was one of the most thrilling experiences of our lives,” Richard E. Chappel, executive secretary of the stake in Tallahassee, said, “particularly for those who had never had an opportunity to visit a temple before.”

Members in Florida had been raising funds for the temple for several years, looking forward to the dedication. Now they are planning regular temple excursions, and interest in genealogical research has greatly increased. Branch libraries have been established in several of the stakes, and others have applied to the Genealogical Society for permission to establish facilities. The stakes are emphasizing the four-generation program in particular, since there are so many converts whose immediate families have not yet accepted the gospel. An increase in baptisms and endowments for the dead as well as in temple marriages and sealings for the living has already been seen.

The Church is growing rapidly in Florida. It’s exciting to be a Mormon there today, as the stature of the Church increases. Dr. Lloyd E. Hoffman of the Pensacola Ward, Pensacola Florida Stake, sums up the feelings of many of the Floridians:

“The greatest satisfaction one can achieve is to know he is part of our Father’s gospel plan. This is the blessing my family has received in helping to build Zion in Florida. To see the growth of the missionary program in the individual wards and stakes, the institute and seminary programs, and the people themselves is truly faith-promoting. But the real testimony builder is that we have been a part of it. Having lived in Florida seven of our ten years in the Church, we have seen the great growth and, most importantly, felt the spirit of the Saints. It is a blessing to be associated with them!”

  • Eleanor Knowles, editor for Deseret Book Company, serves on the stake board of the Relief Society in the Salt Lake Stake.

Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

Photographs by David Yost and Harold Shipes

Sunday School in the Panama City Ward.

President and Sister George E. Melvin, Apalachicola Branch.

Sister Ruby Chadwick and Tampa Florida Stake President Clifton B. Edwards.

Below: Lakeland Ward Chapel. Bottom left: Brother Robertson, counselor in the Panama City Ward bishopric. Bottom right: Spanish translation at the Miami Stake conference.

Terry Bishop, Panama City Ward.

Participant in a ward roller skating party.

Members enjoy outing on Polk County Lake.