“From Denmark to Manti: One Man’s Experience,” Ensign, Jan. 1980, 15
A gnawing dissatisfaction had bothered young Danish tailor Jens Christian Andersen Weibye for several years. True, demands for his work kept himself and two or three apprentices and journeymen busy, a notable accomplishment in the rather thinly populated area of northern Denmark where he lived. He had also developed a quicker method for making patterns and cutting material. Yet his thoughts and travels convinced him that he wanted more refinement, more meaningful conversations, and less sin, deception, and materialism than he found among his associates. Perhaps, he thought, a change in location or in vocation would fill his needs.1 He didn’t guess the magnitude of the change to come.
Jens was a Lutheran, like almost all of his fellow Danes, but on visits to Copenhagen he had attended services in a number of churches, and he liked to be quite open-minded about religious questions. Thus, he strongly discouraged his acquaintances when they talked of ridiculing and persecuting a new group known as Mormons meeting in a nearby village, even though he knew little about the controversial religion. As months passed he borrowed the Scandinavian Latter-day Saint periodical Skandinaviens Stjerne (Star of Scandinavia) from a visiting rag collector. He liked what he read and took a friend to observe a Mormon meeting.
That first little meeting made a deep impression on him. The sermons, the hymns, the simple ordinances performed there touched him, and he believed that what he was hearing was the truth. But he was fair to his own religion. For ten weeks he diligently attended both Mormon and Lutheran services and read the Bible, all the Latter-day Saint publications available, and many Lutheran books. He wanted to know how the believers were organized in the time of Christ, how and when various practices were instituted in Christendom, how the Apostasy had taken place, why there was a need for a restoration, and whether the Restoration had indeed taken place. The more he studied, the stronger his feelings about Mormonism grew.
Still, something within was unsatisfied until he attended a local conference in April 1854. As he knelt in prayer with the others, he “seemed to melt together with them.”2 Even then he hesitated. That evening he took a list of questions to the branch president. If he received satisfactory answers, he would accept the gospel. The branch president was willing, but Jens felt a powerful feeling so overwhelm him that he did not even listen to the answers to his questions. He paced back and forth weeping, and felt that he must follow the example of Christ and be baptized. The ordinance was performed that evening.
His happiness was obvious to those who knew him. Still, his sisters and some acquaintances tried to persuade him that he had taken the wrong step. One of his apprentices even scolded him for having thought so little of his “honor” that he would join the ill-reputed Mormons.
At first Jens’s lifestyle showed no drastic changes. As he traveled in his work he bore his testimony and expounded scriptures in the Bible. He soon became clerk of the small Harridslev branch and performed other duties in the area. Proselyting occupied more and more of his time; in January 1855 he was ordained a priest and called to take a deacon with him to do proselyting. One year after his baptism he had let all his apprentices go and was spending little time on anything but Church work.
Church service for Jens and many other converts at that time involved visiting the homes of both Saints and non-Mormons, selling pamphlets, and holding preaching meetings and prayer meetings. They found the Danish people generally hospitable and they rarely had to go without food or lodging.
Still, they encountered opposition from Lutheran ministers, schoolteachers, and gangs of rowdies. During one conference meeting involving about 150 Saints, a mob sprayed them with water, roughed some of them up, and broke windows in the building where they were meeting. After Jens became involved in missionary work, his brother-in-law, at whose home he had lived since the death of his mother sixteen years earlier, asked him to leave and forbade him contact with his own sister, who had become converted to Mormonism. Jens was patient and not discouraged.
And he was resourceful. He once gave every tailor in Hjørring, the largest town in the vicinity, a copy of his labor-saving scheme for patterns along with a pamphlet entitled “Invitation to the Kingdom of God.”
During the mid-nineteenth century, young Latter-day Saints in Scandinavia were taught not to marry or even become engaged until they emigrated to Zion, though individual exceptions were made by Church leaders. Obviously, this policy saved many young people from marrying out of the Church. Even if they married Latter-day Saints, the expenses of establishing a household and providing for children would have made emigration more difficult. Moreover, many young men could give years of missionary service which would have been difficult or impossible had they been married. Jens faithfully obeyed this policy. Even though he fell in love with a recent convert, a young seamstress named Sisilie Marie Pedersen, he said nothing of it.
Soon his conference (district) president, Peter A. Fjeldsted, emigrated to America, and Jens replaced him. In July 1859, Jens received an encouraging letter from Brother Fjeldsted in America. Somehow this close associate had become aware of Jens’s feelings toward Marie, and now he predicted that she would become Jens’s wife. Although he had never shared his feelings with Marie, Jens let her read the letter. She was delighted. She had been secretly in love with him for a year and a half.
By now Jens was nearly thirty-five and performing valuable service in a key mission position. These circumstances seemed to warrant a modification of the marriage policy. Mission president Carl Widerborg indicated that he would like to give Jens permission to marry since he wanted him to serve a year or two longer, but President Widerborg was released without having acted on the matter and was replaced by John Van Cott, who had to learn Danish from scratch. President Van Cott wrote Jens in English, giving him the needed permission. But Jens was afraid he did not understand President Van Cott’s English clearly enough and did not want the mission president to give the permission only in response to Jens’s eagerness. So he wrote for clarification, indicating that he wished to do whatever the president felt was best. President Van Cott replied emphatically, even in broken Danish, making it clear that he wholeheartedly approved of the marriage. Three weeks later, Jens and Marie were married.
As conference president, Jens made emigration arrangements for hundreds of Latter-day Saints from Vendsyssel, at the extreme north of Denmark’s peninsula. After three years’ service in that calling and seven years of full-time Church service, he was released with permission to take Marie, Marie’s daughter, and their own little girl to Zion. As president of an emigrating company of 210 Saints, Jens kept the records, handled the money, and kept everyone informed of the preparations. He also cut out canvas for tents, leather for suitcases, and material for sleeping bag covers and bags, which the emigrants could then sew together. He helped obtain water casks and tinware for eating purposes. They did not intend to leave Denmark unprepared.
As he set out for America, Jens had the satisfaction of knowing that nineteen of his relatives had joined the Church. Offsetting those who had died and two who had been excommunicated were many who, Jens felt sure, believed in the gospel but had not yet been baptized. Jens himself had baptized ninety-two persons and gathered the names of some three hundred family members for whom he would have temple ordinances performed in Utah.
More emigrants left Scandinavia for Zion in 1862 than in any other year—a total of 1,556. Among them were Jens and Marie Weibye, their two daughters, an elderly woman who had been staying with them, Marie’s sister, and two of Jens’s sisters with their families—one of them the sister, since divorced, whose husband had forbidden Jens to see her again. They traveled by steamship from Aalborg, Denmark, to Kiel, and by rail from Kiel to Altona (Hamburg’s port town).
There they immediately boarded the large sailing vessel Franklin as part of a company of 409 Scandinavian Latter-day Saints. Jens assigned each emigrant to a berth, and then distributed such provisions as Scandinavian rye bread, butter, and dried biscuits. Now that the Latter-day Saints were actually en route to Zion, several couples were married and Jens performed three of the wedding ceremonies, followed by dancing and music on deck. We even have a record of their weekly dinner menus:3
Sunday: sweet soup
Monday: pea soup
Thursday: pea soup
Friday: barley mush
Saturday: herring and potatoes
Although thorough provisions had been made for worship, for sanitation, and for orderly routine, some passengers had come on board with measles, and the disastrous epidemic claimed forty-eight lives. Forty-three were children under eight. Both of the Weibye daughters were ill for weeks, and the youngest, fourteen-month-old Anemine, had severe complications. Marie spent most of the time in bed with her, attempting to keep her warm.
Several passengers were still ill when the ship arrived in New York. Some seriously ill families were hospitalized while everyone else underwent an uncomfortable two-day quarantine aboard ship. During this time one little girl died and was buried “at sea”—apparently in New York Harbor itself. Finally, 31 May 1862, the immigrants set foot on American soil. First they passed through the large round building called Castle Garden where all immigrants were processed. There they were welcomed by former Scandinavian mission president John Van Cott and Elder Charles C. Rich of the Council of the Twelve. Then they set out on foot through the streets of New York for the train station past jeering observers. Jens noted the children who pointed at them and hooted, “Jews! Jews! Jews!”4 Many immigrants of the time were received less warmly than they might have expected on America’s shores.
Jens helped purchase food for the immigrant company, and they boarded the train for a long journey—Albany, Niagara Falls, Canada, Detroit, Chicago. Anemine continued to grow weaker, and on June 5 she quietly died aboard the train at Prairie City, near Quincy, Illinois. Her father had kept a journal for her, proudly recording her first teeth, her first footsteps, her ways of responding to her parents, entries that must have rung with pathos when he and Marie reread them:
“19 May 1861. I could hold tight to someone’s finger and laugh out loud.
“26 May. I could begin to sing in the cradle when my mother sang.
“2 June. I could sing along with my father when he carried me in his arms.”5
The entries ended with her emigration experience: five weeks’ illness and the train ride “which was the hardest trip for a little sick child.”6 In Hannibal, Missouri, her parents were able to arrange for her burial, and thoughtful friends sewed a special set of clothes for the occasion: a slip, white dress and bonnet, blue stockings and booties, with a white band around the waist and sleeves. Weibye sketched her casket in his diary.
By rail they came to St. Joseph, Missouri, and steamed up the Missouri River to Florence, Nebraska. Jens marveled at the Missouri, casually sweeping trees and other objects downstream. North of Florence they set up their tents for the first time and again marveled at a display of thunder, lightning, and rain: “We Danes have never seen such a storm, for the sky was almost like an ocean of fire.”7 Here orderly arrangements were made for wagons, oxen, food, and other necessities. Jens helped emigration agent Joseph W. Young record the provisions each person received—not only such expected items as flour, dried apples, and axle grease, but also glasses to protect the eyes from dust on the trail, something undoubtedly welcome a month later when “the trail was so dusty that one could not see the third wagon ahead or behind.”8 The Weibyes paid half the expense for a wagon, bought two of the four oxen necessary to pull it, and shared it with two other small families.
Jens was appointed first counselor, treasurer, and historian, in a company of 264 people. In addition, he was captain of ten wagons. While most of the groups of wagons rotated positions during the trek, Jens’s ten were to remain near the front so that he could have time to write in his journal in the evenings; Captain Christian A. Madsen felt it important that a good record be kept of the journey.
That observant journal is detailed without being tedious: Jens described the events of the trip, the scenery, and their campsites. He even recorded the hour and minute they arrived at landmarks and drew simple sketches of them. He described the unruliness of new oxen, the immigrants’ gift-giving and trading with friendly Indians, and a rather mild grasshopper infestation (“Here there are about 5 grasshoppers to every four square feet”). Rather than crossing over to the south side of the Platte River at Fort Laramie, as the Pioneer company of 1847 had done, and then crossing it again at present-day Casper, this company continued on the north side of that river, according to Jens’s diary.
Only one person died between Florence and Salt Lake City, and the trip came to a happy end when Danish Saints met the company in Parley’s Canyon with greetings and fruit from Zion. As they reached the city September 23, many of their acquaintances, including some from Jens’s home town, welcomed them. “Praise and thanks be to God that I have now arrived safely in Zion with my wife and child, safely, healthy, and happy,” reads the final entry in his record of the long voyage from Hjørring, Denmark, to Salt Lake City, Utah.9
Culture shock was inevitable, but for the Weibyes it was cushioned by several factors. Friends who had already emigrated had written back describing conditions in Zion, and Danish Saints shared these letters with each other. Jens, and perhaps Marie, had taken English classes from Saints who had been called to travel to various branches as language teachers.10
Some earlier emigrants had returned to Denmark as missionaries, and Jens, working closely with a number of them, had thus learned more about Utah. From their descriptions, Jens had even drawn a map of Utah once. The mission publication, Skandinaviens Stjerne, frequently gave the latest Utah news, and when the Scandinavian Mormons spoke and sang about going “home” to Zion, Utah seemed almost familiar.
This preparation was not always sufficient. At Fremont, Nebraska, Jens and Marie were saddened to meet two families they had known well in Denmark who had become disillusioned with Mormonism in Utah and were going back east. But the Weibyes had paid attention to the counsel they often received in Denmark in sermons and hymns not to form unrealistic expectations of life in Zion. There would be trials and hardships still, they were told, and there would be both bad and good people there, temptations as well as positive opportunities. In fact, the Zion they would find in Utah—as in any place—would be the Zion they would bring in their hearts. The Weibyes had seen enough of human nature in Denmark to know that even people in responsible positions were human and that one’s faith had to be based on the gospel, not people. Thus, when there were disappointments in Utah the Weibyes were temperamentally equipped to cope with the problems.
Another factor cushioned the shock. Danes and Americans in Utah formed two subcultures which existed side-by-side, overlapping each other. In each of the settlements where the Weibyes would live, they would have relatives, friends, and other Danes who became friends. Jens and Marie attended and helped sponsor Danish dances in Manti and in Richfield. There were Danish-language or conjoint Scandinavian church services, in addition to the English-speaking meetings which all were encouraged to attend. In Manti, Jens sang in a Danish choir and served for many years as a counselor in the Church-oriented Danish organization. A high proportion of the immigrants thus maintained their own language and culture, although most of the children lost the use of both when they were “Americanized.”11
Attending English services and praying and speaking in English helped improve the Weibyes’ competence in their second language. At first they might bear their testimonies in their native Danish, but soon they were expected to use English. Jens kept his diary in Danish for three years, although words like faens (his spelling of fence) and shaet (shed) crept in. Then in 1866, he resolved to write in English and did rather well.
Church callings also brought deeper interaction with other members of the community. Marie was a Relief Society officer and Jens was senior president of his seventies quorum. He had gained a reputation for integrity and conscientious attention to detail and thus was called upon to serve in positions involving record keeping, money, or goods. For many years he was tithing clerk, a demanding and time-consuming position in those days. He also served as postmaster, watermaster, and county treasurer. Some of Jens’s most stimulating experiences came in his participation in a local School of the Prophets and in other meetings with leading Latter-day Saint men of the community. He also enjoyed his membership in a garden club.12
Like other immigrant families, the Weibyes needed to make a living and establish a home. They rented very modest accommodations in Salt Lake City for a year, and Jens traveled about “a tailoring” during the winter and early spring months; in Utah’s economy, he did not find it financially rewarding. He also worked at a molasses mill in Salt Lake City; hoed, weeded, and dug carrots for Brigham Young; and helped dig the foundation for the new Salt Lake Tabernacle.
The family moved in 1863 to Gunnison, Sanpete County, where Jens proudly constructed his first house, a dugout cellar. Within weeks, however, he had an opportunity to move to nearby Manti and learn the shoemaker’s trade from a Danish friend. With characteristic energy he bought and refurbished an old house, built farm buildings and fences, and planted 606 fruit trees and about a hundred varieties of flowers. Next they established a home and farm in newly settled Richfield, Utah. Then they prepared to move south to the Colorado River in early 1865 but their plans were changed by Indian hostilities. In fact, the continuing threat forced the evacuation of Richfield in 1867, and they returned to Manti. Here Jens’s income as postmaster, in addition to the small profits from his farm, provided a relatively comfortable living. Thirteen years after his immigration he made his last payment on a loan from his brother-in-law for immigration expenses.
Despite the opportunity and encouragement for unity between English-speaking settlers in Utah and their immigrant neighbors, barriers still existed. People who spoke with a “foreign” accent—and their children—were sometimes considered inferior. In 1875 Jens and two other Danish brothers had a long, friendly, and frank visit with their bishop about the discrimination they felt against the Danes in Manti. The bishop, an Englishman by birth, promised to work to improve the situation.13
One of Jens’s three plural wives was an Englishwoman, Isabella Walker Weibye, with one child by a previous marriage. Although he and Marie were unable to have more children, he had a son and a daughter with Isabella. This only son died as an infant. The two other wives, Maren Kirstine, Jensen Weibye and Thora Henrietta Twede Weibye, were beyond childbearing years when they married.
Jens Weibye moved rather freely between the world of the immigrants and that of the larger Latter-day Saint community. His home sheltered a ninety-year-old Welshman with no relatives as well as visiting Church authorities who came to dinner. Yet although he was a respected member of the community who made solid contributions to the quality of its life, Jens never enjoyed the prominence he had known as a Church leader in Scandinavia. In fact, high points of his life were two subsequent missions in which he served as conference president in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway, and Copenhagen, Denmark. In this respect he was like many other Scandinavian immigrants who found opportunities to serve with distinction on their European missions.14
Yet his diary shows no strivings for position, no discontent with his situation in life. Until his death in 1893, he frequently wrote a few simple words of thanks to God in his daily journal, expressing gratitude for the blessings and opportunities he and his family had received, and praying that they might continue faithful to their religion. That strong and simple faith helped build Zion.