“Temple in Dallas Means Blessings for Southwestern Saints,” Ensign, Oct. 1984, 75–77
In the spring of 1973, President Ervin W. Atkerson, who had served as the first president of the Dallas (now Dallas Texas) Stake, reflected on the three decades of Church growth he had seen in the area. He recalled the historic day when attendance at the Dallas Branch Sunday School had reached one hundred; all those present had posed for a photograph after the meeting to commemorate the occasion.
President Atkerson lived to see two stakes in Dallas. It has been more than a decade now since he passed away, but he undoubtedly shares the joy of the Saints who will soon see a temple there.
After it is dedicated October 19–24, the Dallas Texas Temple will serve some 120,000 Church members in a district that covers all of Texas, except the El Paso area; all of Oklahoma; and parts of Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas.
A generation ago, members in some of those areas might never have dreamed they would see a temple within a day’s drive, for the rapid growth of the Church there during recent years came only after long periods of labor by a few faithful Saints.
Missionaries sent from Utah during the 1850s had some early success in Texas. As Church leaders urged, the missionaries prepared the Texas Saints to gather to Zion, and the new converts journeyed West in different companies over a period of several years.
They experienced all the hardships suffered by the Saints who had trekked from Illinois to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Cholera struck one group, for example, just twenty-five miles into its journey. Brother Wallace East wrote in his journal on 19 June 1855: “Our little Mary who was a promising and lovely child, died about sundown. She sank away calmly and peacefully as though she were going into a sweet sleep. She was buried at the South side of the road before daylight.” Nearly a third of the company of one hundred Saints died of cholera; the Easts lost five of their six small children during the trek.
The United States Civil War, which began in 1860, put an end to missionary work in the South for some time, but when missionaries were called to return to Texas in 1875, Elder Wallace East was among them.
For the next several decades, missionary work in Texas was very difficult. Several small colonies of Latter-day Saints played key roles in the growth of the Church there. One of the best known was in Kelsey; in 1906, it had a population of about four hundred, with its own school and meetinghouse. There were then four places in Texas where LDS meetings were regularly held: Kelsey, Spurger, the Williamson settlement near Evadale, and Poyner.
During the post-Civil War period, missionaries were at work throughout the South and Southwest. Early missionary work in Oklahoma was done while it was part of the Indian Territory Mission; at first, missionaries worked among Lamanites, then later among white settlers.
Membership figures for Oklahoma and Texas at the end of 1930 illustrate just how far Church growth has come in the past half century. Oklahoma had 1,015 members, with a branch in Oklahoma City and Sunday Schools at Okmulgee and Tulsa. Texas had 3,837 members in fourteen branches from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Amarillo.
When Ervin Atkerson arrived in 1942, as an employee of a national life insurance company based in Dallas, he estimated that there were some 450 members in the branch there. He and his family were part of a new wave of growth that would come to the Church in the South and Southwest as business and industrial expansion and military assignments brought in members from other areas.
Long-time residents of areas in the temple district say it was possible to see the hand of the Lord at work as the lives of people were touched in the 1950s and 1960s through conversion and reactivation. An increase in the number of missionaries assigned to the area, dynamic new mission presidents, and the heightened visibility of Latter-day Saints all affected growth, they say.
The Dallas Stake was organized 18 October 1953. (The first stake in Texas had been organized at El Paso the preceding year.) The new stake included wards in Dallas, Fort Worth, Kelsey, Longview, and Waco, Texas, and in Shreveport, Louisiana, plus ten independent branches and one dependent branch. Now, Dallas and Fort Worth are regions of the Church, and there are stakes in Shreveport, Longview, and Gilmer. Numerous wards and branches have sprung from units of the original Dallas stake.
Growth patterns in Oklahoma have been similar. The first stake in the state, at Tulsa, was organized 1 May 1960, with Robert N. Sears as president. The second, at Oklahoma City, was organized 23 October 1960, with James A. Cullimore, now a member emeritus of the First Quorum of the Seventy, as its president. Many additional stakes, wards, and branches are now within the boundaries of these original stakes.
Growth of the Church provided not only the blessings of the gospel, but also leadership opportunities for converts and for members who had grown up in the area—members like Jim Vernetti, executive secretary in the Tulsa Oklahoma Stake.
On a spring day in Dallas this year, Brother Vernetti and his wife Fran, a convert, along with their two daughters, parked their car near the partially completed temple and watched as workmen scurried about. The Vernettis talked of their plans to be sealed there this fall, shortly after the temple is dedicated. As they have had occasion to be in Dallas during the intervening months, they have stopped by the site on Willow Lane to check on the progress of the sacred edifice.
“It’s going to enable us to go to the temple on a fairly regular basis,” Brother Vernetti says, even though Dallas is a five-hour drive from Tulsa.
Excitement is high in his stake, he comments. The number of appointments for temple recommend interviews with the stake presidency is running three to four times higher than usual, and the Laurels in his ward—the Tulsa First—are planning a temple trip to do baptisms for the dead. The temple also appears to be giving a boost to name extraction efforts in the stake, Brother Vernetti notes.
Reports from other areas in the temple district are similar.
Bishop Ronnie F. Boyd of the Corpus Christi Third Ward, on the Texas Gulf Coast about eight hours from Dallas by highway, says, “We have quite a few members now who are making commitments to go” to the temple. “Our youth are very excited about it. I’m strongly considering taking a group of them up to go through the open house.”
Shreveport Louisiana Stake President J. B. Johns reports that members gave two-thirds more than they had been asked to contribute toward construction of the Dallas Temple. “Our people are really anxious to have a temple.”
Ivan L. Hobson has had ample opportunity to observe progress of the Church in the temple district. He was president of the second stake organized in Dallas, has served as a regional representative in South and Central Texas, and was recently called as president of the new temple.
He says members in the temple district have been very supportive.
When the contractor building the temple asked for volunteers to help with cleanup efforts, several hundred Saints showed up on short notice. One young high priest later reported how touched he was as he cleaned the baptistry area and felt the impression that large numbers of spirits were waiting for the sacred work that would be done there.
Some who live far from the temple have contributed in the only ways they could. Sisters in Harlingen, about five hundred miles away in the lower Rio Grande Valley, knitted items for the temple, offering them because, President Hobson reported, they feel it is “the first time they’ve had a chance to give the Lord something back.”
One bishop asked a widow to contribute twenty dollars toward the building of the temple, thinking that the sum might be all she could handle on her limited income. She brought him one hundred dollars she had been saving, and when he noted that it was far more than he had asked, her reply typified the feelings of many Saints in the temple district: “This is money I’ve been saving to go to the temple in Salt Lake City, but I’ll contribute it to the building fund and go to the temple here.”