“Len and Mary Hope: Black Converts in the American South,” Liahona, February 2022
When Len Hope was about seventeen years old, he spent two weeks attending a Baptist revival near his home in Alabama, in the southern United States. At night, the young African American man would come home from the revival, lie down in the cotton fields, and look up at the heavens. He would beg God for religion, but in the morning the only thing he had to show for his effort was clothing wet with dew.
One year later, Len decided to be baptized in a local church. Soon after, though, he dreamed that he needed to be baptized again. Confused, he started reading the Bible—so much so that he worried his friends. “If you don’t stop reading so much, you will go crazy,” they said. “Already the asylum is full of preachers.”
Len did not stop reading. One day, he learned that the Holy Ghost could lead him to truth. At the advice of a preacher, he retreated to the woods to pray in an old empty house hidden in a tangle of bushes. There he wept for hours, pleading with God for the Holy Ghost.
A short time later, as Len waited for an answer to his many prayers, a Latter-day Saint missionary gave his sister a tract about God’s plan of salvation. Len read it and believed its message. He also learned that Latter-day Saint missionaries had authority to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost on those who accepted baptism.
Seeking out the elders, Len asked if they would baptize him.
“Yes, gladly,” said one of the missionaries, “but if I were you, I would read a little more.”
Len got copies of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and other Church books—and soon read them all. But before he could be baptized, he was drafted to fight in the world war. The army shipped him overseas, where he served bravely at the front. Then, after returning home to Alabama, he was baptized by a local Church member on June 22, 1919, and finally received the gift of the Holy Ghost.1
A few nights after his baptism, a mob of white men came to the house where he was staying and called out for him. “We just want to talk to you,” they said. In their hands were rifles and shotguns.
Len stepped outside. He was a Black man in the American South, where armed mobs sometimes enforced racial segregation with violence. They could injure or kill him on the spot and may never have to answer for their crime.
Someone in the mob demanded to know why Len had joined the Latter-day Saints. It was legal for Blacks and whites to worship together in Alabama, but the state also had a strict set of segregation laws and unwritten social codes to keep the races separate in public settings. Since nearly every Latter-day Saint in Alabama was white, the mob saw Len’s baptism as a challenge to the region’s deeply rooted color line.2
“So, you went over to the waters and learned a few things,” the man continued, referring to Len’s army service. “Now you want to join the whites.”
“I was investigating the Church long before I went to war,” Len finally said. “I found it was the only true church on earth. That is why I joined it.”
“We want you to go and have your name scratched off the record,” the mob said. “If not, we will hang you up to a limb and shoot you full of holes.”
The next morning, Len attended a conference of fellow Saints in the area and told them about the mob’s threat. He knew he was taking a risk by coming to the meeting, but he was willing to die for his newfound faith.
“Brother Hope, we could not scratch your name off if we tried to,” Church members reassured him. “Your name is in Salt Lake City and also written in heaven.” Many of them offered to help Len if the mob ever came after him again.3
But the mob never returned. Len soon married a woman named Mary Pugh in 1920, and they moved to Birmingham, a large city in central Alabama. Mary’s uncle, a Baptist pastor, predicted that she would join the Church before the year was over.
Mary read the Book of Mormon and gained a testimony of its truth. It took a little longer than predicted, but after five years of marriage she decided to join the Church. On September 15, 1925, the Hopes went with two missionaries to a secluded spring near Birmingham. Mary was baptized without incident, finally becoming a Latter-day Saint, like her husband.4
“I couldn’t be anything better,” she told her uncle, “and I can see no better church.”