“Willard Bean: Palmyra’s ‘Fighting Parson’” Ensign, June 1985, 26–29
When Willard Bean and his young bride moved to Palmyra, New York, in the spring of 1915, they were the first Latter-day Saints to live in the town in eighty-four years. Their mission there was a challenging one: to preach the gospel and make friends for the Church in an area known at the time for great prejudice against the Latter-day Saints. Eight years earlier, in 1907, Elder George Albert Smith had purchased the Joseph Smith farm from a man named William Avery Chapman. Mr. Chapman requested permission to stay on the farm until he could find another suitable place to live. He remained until 1914, an additional seven years. At that time, Church President Joseph F. Smith began looking for the right man to move his family to Palmyra, live on the farm, and represent the Church there.
Willard Bean and Rebecca Peterson had been married for less than a year. In early 1915, they attended a Church conference in Richfield, Utah. Before the meeting began, Rebecca took her place in the choir loft, and Willard renewed old acquaintances outside the chapel. The minute Willard entered the side door of the building, President Smith stood up and said “Would Willard Bean please come to the stand?”
“Willard, I’ve got a mission for you,” he said. “After this service is over, I’ll tell you all about it.” President Smith later said, “When Willard stepped in that door, the impression was so strong—it was just like a voice said to me, ‘There’s your man.’ “When he set apart Willard and Rebecca for their mission that spring, he warned them that they would find a great deal of prejudice in Palmyra. But he confidently added, “Willard, knowing you and your missionary work and your fighting spirit, I’m sure you are the right man to send.”1
Word spread rapidly in upstate New York that Mormons were returning to their community. The citizens were irate. Entering Palmyra with a young wife and two children from a previous marriage, Willard was immediately branded as a polygamist. Few if any would speak to them; clerks refused to wait on them in stores; people walking their dogs crossed to the other side of the street to avoid them. For two years they had to drive their horse and buggy to neighboring towns just to buy groceries.
Willard had encountered prejudice before during his mission in Tennessee from 1893 to 1895. But his young wife was not used to such treatment and was hurt deeply as people would pass their home screaming obscenities and calling them vile names, emphatically suggesting that they go back to Utah where they came from.
On their first trip to the Hill Cumorah, they were met by a man, shotgun in hand, who let them know in no uncertain terms that Mormons would never be allowed to walk up that hill.
After the Beans had lived in Palmyra only a short time, the townspeople held a meeting and sent a delegation of three men to the farm.
“Won’t you come in?” Willard offered.
“No, Mr. Bean,” was their reply. “You step outside. We’ve been to a meeting, and we are a committee that’s been sent out here to tell you people we want you to leave Palmyra. We don’t want any Mormons here.”
“Now, I’m sorry to hear that,” answered Willard. “We had hoped to come out here and fit in with you people and be an asset to this community. But I’m telling we’re here to stay if we have to fight our way. I’ll take you on one at a time or three at a time. We’re here to stay.” The three men left, and nothing more was ever heard from that committee.2
Although those men were unaware of it at the time, it soon became known in the community that Willard was a professional boxer. He was, in fact, the middle-weight champion of the United States. His boxing skills earned him the title of “The Fighting Parson” and proved to be an asset to him on more than one occasion.
Several anti-Mormon lecturers were hired to come to Palmyra in the months following. One of the most dramatic was Mrs. Lulu Loveland Shepherd of Pittsburgh, who stirred up the community with a tirade of slander against the Church.
Several other speakers came to Palmyra to preach against Mormonism. But Willard was a tough match for them because, as Heber J. Grant had said years earlier in the mission field, “I know of no man in the church who can quote as much scripture as Willard.”3 He knew the Bible well and could easily out-debate any minister—local or imported.
Some ministers chose to attack Willard and the Latter-day Saints through newspaper articles, rather than debating in person. One did this on several occasions, always ignoring Willard’s willingness to meet him in open debate. Willard finally responded by having his own article published in the Palmyra newspaper:
“I did not come to Palmyra to fight other churches or any man because of his religion or lack of religion,” he wrote. “I am naturally a tolerant and peaceable man and hoped to fit in with the better element and work for the moral uplift and betterment of the community. But I have a little fighting blood in my veins, and when I or my people are maliciously attacked by character assassins, I feel it my privilege and duty to fight back in self-defense. And may I suggest that in the future if any of the ministers feel the urge to expose my religion, it is not necessary for them to send away for a group of paid hirelings to expose Mormonism, so-called. Remember that I will gladly do it without cost.”4
There were but a few more attempts to defame the Church. A few debates were scheduled, but, oddly enough, the opposing speakers were always called out of town a day or two before the debate. The Beans had finally won their battle for survival, but the climate in town still left much to be desired.
In an effort to break the ice, Willard offered to put on a boxing exhibition. A ring was constructed in the old opera house in the middle of town, and the unabashed fighter-preacher challenged anybody in the community to get in the ring with him.
The night of the exhibition arrived. On the first three rows sat the biggest bruisers in the community. When it was time to start, the first one climbed into the ring. But this first opponent didn’t even get to land a punch; he lasted less than fifteen seconds. While he was being carried out of the ring, the second aspirant entered; he, too, was carried out within a matter of seconds. This went on until the seventh challenger was carried out—not one had lasted a round. The eighth man declined the invitation to box with Willard, and no more takers could be found.
Almost as impressive as winning the matches so easily were Willard’s gymnastic feats between matches. While his opponents were being carried from the arena, he would do back flips and other gymnastic stunts.
The exhibition was a success, and people became more friendly. Willard began holding street meetings and cottage meetings. With Rebecca’s vocal expertise and Willard’s “bull moose” vocal chords, they drew quite a crowd. The local banker, Pliny T. Sexton, decided to assist them and granted them the privilege of preaching in the park across from the bank. He arranged for Willard to use the bandstand as a pulpit and have the spotlights shining at night. Crowds numbering from two hundred to four hundred people soon became regular attenders.
Willard’s assignments from the First Presidency were not limited to making friends and converts. In addition, he was to arrange for the purchase, whenever possible, of Church historical properties in and around Palmyra. Pliny Sexton owned the Hill Cumorah, and Willard was especially anxious to purchase that piece of property.
President Heber J. Grant and his counselor, Charles W. Nibley, accompanied Willard to visit with Mr. Sexton one afternoon. When the owner suggested a price of $100,000 for the purchase of the hill, Willard jokingly accused the ambitious banker of “listening [to other people] tell of the fabulous wealth of the Mormon Church,” and informed him that the Church had done quite well without the hill for nearly a hundred years and would continue to do so until a more realistic offer was made.
On the way back to the farm, President Nibley confided, “When the Lord wants us to, get possession of that hill, the way will be opened up.”5
His prediction proved accurate. After Mr. Sexton died, his estate fell into the hands of distant nieces who pledged never to sell the hill to the Church at any price. One by one, the nieces passed away. Finally, one afternoon in February 1928, the lawyer who handled the Sexton estate called Willard to his office and announced that an opportune time had come to make arrangements for the purchase of the hill. Willard was able to purchase the Hill Cumorah, three farms bordering the hill, and Grange Hall, a building that would make a fine chapel for the Saints—a total of over six hundred acres—all for $53,000.
At the following general conference, President Grant said, “We have recently come into possession of the Hill Cumorah, and it looks very much like it came about providentially.”6
In the ensuing years, Willard was instrumental in acquiring the Martin Harris and Peter Whitmer farms. He was also responsible for reforesting the Hill Cumorah in an effort to restore it to the natural beauty that existed there when the Prophet Joseph Smith received the gold plates. Willard, assisted by his three sons, local missionaries, and hired hands, planted 65,000 young evergreen trees in addition to 3,000 small hardwood trees—the latter dug up from the outskirts of the Sacred Grove.
With only a faint echo of the original persecution still surviving in Palmyra, Willard and Rebecca and their children became well-accepted in the town. They were invited to join the parent-teacher organization of the children’s school. Willard was selected to serve on the Board of Control; he became a charter member of the Palmyra Lion’s Club and served as president of that organization; and he became a Scout committeeman for Wayne County, an officer in the Civic and Businessmen’s Organization, and a member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce. He gladly accepted many invitations to speak for business and civic organizations.
Rebecca was president of the first Relief Society in Palmyra. She gained the respect and admiration of all who knew her. Local charity organizations cooperated with her and gladly furnished materials for compassionate service, including entire bolts of fabric.
The Bean children, who once had to sit at desks screwed to the floor in the far corners of the classroom, excelled in their school work. One son, Alvin, represented Wayne County in the spelling contest at the State Fair in Syracuse. Another son, Dawn, and daughter, Palmyra, were valedictorians of their high school graduating classes. The children also became accomplished athletes.
Church leaders were frequent visitors to the farm, and soon Eastern States missionary conferences were being held in the Sacred Grove. What was to be the forerunner of the Hill Cumorah Pageant was staged in the Grove in 1926 under Willard Bean’s direction.
Willard and Rebecca had been sent to Palmyra for “five years or more.” It turned out to be “more”—they were well into their twenty-fifth year of service before receiving a release from their mission on the farm. They had arrived in New York as newlyweds and left the farm as grandparents. Rebecca had given birth to four children during their sojourn on the farm. Each child was raised with a thorough knowledge of the events that took place there, and each left with a well-founded testimony.
It was a great satisfaction for the Beans to see the sentiment in the community change from sub-zero coldness to great respect and admiration. As Willard and Rebecca prepared to leave, the townspeople displayed their love with parties and banquets in their honor. The Beans had truly captured their hearts.