“Turn These Men Loose!” Ensign, Aug. 1995, 66–67
In August 1897, seventeen-year-old William Hansen left his home in Ogden, Utah, to serve a mission in North Carolina. Several months later he and his companion, also a Utah native, arrived in the town of Lillington to proselyte. They were promptly arrested and charged with disturbing the peace because, as Elder Hansen reported in his journal, “The people were afraid of [us], especially the womenfolks, believing that we were there trying to get them to go to Utah.”
The mayor, the chief of police, and the judge visited the missionaries in the town jail and told them they would not be released until they signed a paper denouncing their religion and promising they would leave the city. The young men agreed to leave, but they refused to deny their faith.
Twice that afternoon the town officials returned and confronted the missionaries with the same ultimatum. Each time the elders adamantly refused. Finally Elder Hansen declared that he would rather die than renounce his religion. The judge responded, “Then you will die!”
Threatened with their lives and denied food and water for the rest of the day, the young men prayed to the Lord for deliverance. When the officials returned, they were “accompanied by one more man,” Elder Hansen wrote. “He was a colored man, fine-looking and neatly dressed. He stood about six feet two inches. He was dressed in a dark suit and had on a derby hat. We could tell from his language that he was well-educated. At first we became more or less frightened.”
The newcomer stepped up to the missionaries and asked, “Where do you men come from, and what are you doing here?”
The elders told him about their homes and their missions, and then the man asked, “Do you know a man in Utah by the name of George Q. Cannon?”
The young men said yes, they knew who President Cannon was. He was a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion they were representing.
Without further questioning, the man faced the officials and said, “Turn these men loose!”
Before they left town, the elders learned that their benefactor was Mr. Williams, the town’s postmaster. When they asked him the reason for his kindness, he explained that several years ago, as he was walking down a hall in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., a door had suddenly opened in his path, knocking his silk hat to the floor. The gentleman who had opened the door picked up the hat and wiped it off with his handkerchief. Touched by his politeness, Mr. Williams asked who he was, where he was from, and why he was so caring.
The man said that his name was George Q. Cannon, that he was a representative of Utah, and that his religion taught him to respect all men regardless of color or creed. Mr. Williams thanked Mr. Cannon and told him that he would always remember his kindness and that if ever a time came when he could return the favor, he certainly would.
“When I heard you were in jail,” Mr. Williams said, “I felt the time had come when I could make good my promise.”
The missionaries departed with renewed vigor in the work of the Lord.