Responding to the letter of a Turk seeking information, Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Constantinople in 1884. They found little opening for proselytizing among the Muslim majority and soon focused on Christian minorities in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, particularly the large numbers of Armenians living in Syria.
Those missionaries were modestly successful. After more than 20 years of effort, some Armenian converts had emigrated to the United States, paying their own way. Most, largely due to American racial prejudice, remained in Syria.
By spring 1909, with revolutions and counterrevolutions breaking out in the crumbling Ottoman Empire, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City brought all missionaries in the region back to the United States for their own safety. Mission President Joseph Wilford Booth of Alpine appointed local men to look after four branches, or small congregations, along the Turkish-Syrian border, then returned to Utah and began a yearslong advocacy for his Armenian converts. A 1912 letter from Syria, translated for the faith’s leaders, evokes Armenian desperation:
“We as a Branch of the Church of 70 souls are here in the world like sheep without a shepherd, torn by wolves. Our hope is in the salvation of ourselves and our forefathers thru the gospel. Our desires are not realized. Our leaders have left us. If you have forsaken us for sure, do write us and let us know and we will remain hopeless, and our children’s welfare be upon your heads.”
All three signers, the presidency of the Aintab branch, perished in the Armenian genocide that swept over the region during World War I. When Booth returned to Turkey in 1922, he could locate only 80 survivors of the 200 Armenians he had left there in 1909.
That phrase, “like sheep without a shepherd,” haunts me wherever I find it. Latter-day Saints, deprived of regular contact and counsel from church authorities, have used it many times to express their loneliness and their longing for leadership. It was applied to the Latter-day Saints of Athens, Greece, in 1911, when their branch was left without a missionary leader. The 126 Latter-day Saints in the French-speaking corner of Switzerland in 1902 felt “scattered” and like “sheep without a shepherd” when Utah missionaries were sent to work in the more productive German-speaking cantons, but not in the French-speaking areas.
Latter-day Saint missionaries, including future church President Heber J. Grant, arrived in Japan in 1901. A handful of missionaries labored there faithfully for more than 20 years. They struggled with the language, with making Christian concepts comprehensible to people with such a different religious and cultural background. They suffered setbacks when early converts left the faith. In 1923, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the region around Tokyo. American prohibitions against Japanese immigration and naturalization provoked Japanese hostility toward anything viewed as American.
In early 1924, acknowledging the faith’s failure to make significant headway in Japan despite years of valiant effort and great expense, former missionary Heber J. Grant closed the mission. Calling it “one of the greatest disappointments of my life,” he directed that a local member be appointed to oversee the two dozen Latter-day Saints left there.
The few Japanese Saints tried to maintain ties to one another and welcomed Latter-day Saint visitors who called in Japan on other business. They supported a small monthly newsletter circulated by their local leader. And they stayed in touch with Alma O. Taylor of Salt Lake City, a former missionary to Japan who, like Booth with his Armenian converts, translated the letters from his old mission field for the sake of church leaders in Salt Lake City.
It wasn’t enough. In 1926, that haunting phrase, “like sheep without a shepherd,” appears in their correspondence. They longed for regular and direct contact with both leaders and members beyond their own small circle. They craved the sense of belonging to something larger than their tiny congregation — a sense that would not come back until the end of World War II, first through contact with Latter-day Saints in the U.S. military, and soon with the reestablishment of a mission and regular visits from leaders.
In Mexico, greater religious freedom in the 1870s led to Latter-day Saint proselytizing efforts in and around Mexico City, and numerous converts were baptized. But the Mexican Mission was left without attention from the faith’s leaders, and no missionaries visited in the 1890s. Anthony W. Ivins, a former missionary to Mexico and future apostle, visited Mexico in 1900. He reported that members there “still adhere to the Truth, and beg that the mission be opened again and Elders sent to their assistance. They are like sheep without a shepherd, wandering on the mountains surrounded by raving wolves.”
Ivins noted that it would be difficult to reopen the mission – the same political forces that curtailed Catholic power and created an opening for Latter-day Saint missionaries now operated against those missionaries. Workarounds, such as appointing only Mexicans to preach, allowed the mission to function after a fashion, but it wasn’t enough. Without leadership acceptable to both local members and Utah headquarters, a schism occurred in the 1930s that was healed only by the personal visit of church President George Albert Smith in 1946.
These stories all suggest that regular, personal, direct contact with church leaders and teachers beyond the immediate circle of a congregation is necessary for stability and the strength of faith. When those contacts were again established between lonely Latter-day Saints and the leaders they respected as prophets, I didn’t see any indication in the records that anyone expected startlingly new teachings or practices. What they wanted, what they received, was the reassurance that they were not forgotten and a reminder of why they had embraced a new faith in the first place.
Those same reminders, that same sense of belonging, is what I expect from General Conference this coming weekend. I do not demand anything newer or more dramatic than, perhaps, the announcement of future temple locations. What I expect is what these members of my faith longed for when they were once left as “sheep without a shepherd” — personal reminders that I am not alone. That those leaders still believe and teach the faith. That I am not forgotten.
And this time, I will watch conference through the eyes of Latter-day Saints of the past and, perhaps, even the present, left without that privilege.
Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.