Philadelphia, the Seedbed of a Nation

“Philadelphia, the Seedbed of a Nation,” Ensign, Aug. 1993, 76–77

Philadelphia, the Seedbed of a Nation

Pennsylvania’s role in U.S. political and cultural history is widely recognized, but its importance in the history of the Restoration is often overlooked.

In 1681, William Penn founded the Pennsylvania colony, saying God “will bless and make it the seed of a nation.” His words were fulfilled just under a century later when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were both written in Philadelphia, and the city became the new nation’s capital from 1790 until 1800. A modern symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell, with its immortal words “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” was conceived in Philadelphia in 1751.

Beyond being the seedbed of a nation, Pennsylvania has a fertile religious history as well. It was in Harmony, Pennsylvania, that most of the translation of the Book of Mormon occurred; the Aaronic Priesthood was restored in Pennsylvania on the banks of the Susquehanna River, 15 May 1829; also in Pennsylvania, the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored and fifteen of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received.

A branch of the Church was organized in Philadelphia in December 1839, when Parley P. Pratt called Samuel Bennett as its first president. One month later, the Prophet Joseph Smith spoke to a gathering of some three thousand people. (See Ensign, May 1993, p. 101.)

Seeds of future Church leadership also took root in Pennsylvania. Converts included Edwin Dilworth Woolley, grandfather of both President Spencer Woolley Kimball and President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who was a counselor in the First Presidency.

Many converts traveled west to the Salt Lake Valley. Yet one stalwart Philadelphia family, that of Albert Obendorfer, remained to help and serve. His sons and daughters subsequently influenced many as they served in branch presidencies, Relief Society presidencies, and stake presidencies.

The first Philadelphia stake was created 16 October 1960 by Elder Harold B. Lee, of the Quorum of the Twelve. Bryan F. West became the first stake president there. From that time until now, the growth has been steady. Today there are five stakes in the area. “The Philadelphia stake is one of great diversity,” says President Anthony R. Temple, who has lived in Philadelphia for nearly twenty years. “Many cultures and tongues are unified in faith, and the gospel is giving meaning to all kinds of lives.”

Metropolitan Philadelphia, with 5.78 million people, is the fifth largest city in the United States. The city has a large mix of blacks, hispanics, and Asians, often living in strongly ethnic neighborhoods.

In order to better serve in these circumstances, the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission has missionaries trained in seven languages besides English: Spanish, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, Portuguese, and American Sign Language. In June 1991, Elder F. Enzio Busche organized the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Metro District, operating under the direction of the mission president. To make the Church more accessible to urban members, seven urban branches were formed and joined together in the Metro district. There are now ten branches for some five hundred members, who attend meetings in small storefront-type facilities the Church leases, and attendance is greatly improving. Also these smaller branches are involved in community efforts to improve living conditions, to keep youth off the streets, and to achieve other worthwhile goals. Both enthusiasm and activity are increasing in the branches.

The South Philadelphia Branch began with nine people and now averages an attendance of forty-five each week. Ex-marine Ed Smith and his wife, Carol, were among the first converts, and he is now a counselor in the elders quorum presidency. A Laotian sister, Viengxay Mounelasy, was called as Primary president within six months of her baptism. She says, “I love the Church and know it is true. Serving has helped me grow more quickly than I would have otherwise.”

The Philadelphia stake, like the four surrounding stakes, is largely suburban, though it has an urban singles ward that serves those working at or attending the 150 colleges and universities in the city and also an urban branch in the northeast part of the city. Seven other wards in the stake enjoy the full program of the Church, even though distances among members and distances to meeting facilities may be great. Early-morning seminary is very strong, and the youth appreciate the association, since most of them are the only Church members in their high school or, at best, one of a few. The Marshallton and Valley Forge wards have the largest numbers of young families, and the youth programs in these wards are vibrant. Across town, the Broomall First and Second wards combine for Mutual, with between thirty-five and forty youth attending.

President Richard Morley of the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission adds, “An unusually rich variety of people are coming into the Church here—humble immigrants, hourly wage earners of every color, and highly placed executives with international influence. This great city is blessed with all kinds of people.”

Independence Hall, a well-known Philadelphia landmark. (Photography courtesy of Ronald M. Mann.)

Malay Saysana, Relief Society president, West Philadelphia Branch.

The Liberty Bell

Luis Sopena and family of the Philadelphia Stake.

Some branches meet in “storefront” locations such as this one.

Members of the South Philadelphia First Branch.