Located due south of Missouri, Arkansas enjoyed an early Church presence in this dispensation as missionary efforts extended from Latter-day Saint communities to the north. Wilford Woodruff, then a priest and serving the first of his numerous missions, left Clay County, Mo., and began preaching the gospel in Arkansas. Together with Henry Brown, they arrived in Bentonville on 28 January 1835. Preaching the first sermon four days later, they met with opposition from an apostate member, Alexander Akeman. Prophetically warned in a dream of this opposition, Woodruff bore powerful testimony to the truthfulness of the restored gospel, whereupon, according to his account, Akeman fell dead. This event, together with Wilford’s influential teaching, led to the baptism of a Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Hubbel, the first converts in Arkansas, on 22 February 1835.
When Woodruff focused his missionary efforts in Tennessee, Church influence dwindled in Arkansas. Elder Abraham O. Smoot returned to the area three years later, laboring for five months. Church authorities also assigned Andrew A. Timmons, John A McIntosh, Darwin Chase, and Nathaniel Levett to serve a political mission to the state in 1844 as part of the presidential campaign of Joseph Smith. But by 1846, the events of the martyrdom and subsequent preparation for the exodus west ended missionary activities throughout the South.
The year 1857 marked a tragic era in Church history in Arkansas. Hounded in his journeys in the area by Hector H. McLean, the ex-husband of Apostle Parley P. Pratt’s plural wife, Eleanor, Elder Pratt was acquitted of charges. Following him to the town of Van Buren, McLean murdered Elder Pratt on 13 May 1857. Today, a monument in the local cemetery marks his grave. Later the same year, a party of Arkansas immigrants heading for California were killed by a group of Latter-day Saints and Indians in southern Utah at Mountain Meadows. Negative feelings, and later the U.S. Civil War, kept the Church from the area for the next two decades.
After the war, the Church sent missionaries again to Arkansas in 1876. Elders Henry G. Boyle and John D. H. McAllister first preached in the state, establishing a branch in Des Arc. By 1877, 27 families totaling 125 converts emigrated west from this branch.
Arkansas converts continued to join the main body of the saints in Utah during the 1880’s, but eventually a permanent presence was established. Construction on the first Latter-day Saint meetinghouse was completed in White County on 30 May 1890. Benjamin Franklin Baker, an early influential convert, helped establish the Barney Branch in 1914 with over 100 members. By 1930, Arkansas had three organized branches (Barney, El Dorado, and Little Rock) and a total membership of 944.
During these years, Arkansas formed part of several Church missions. Originally a conference of the Southern States Mission, it later became part of the Indian Territory Mission, Southwestern States Mission, Central States Mission, Texas-Louisiana Mission, Gulf States Mission, and ultimately the Arkansas Little Rock Mission, formed in 1975 with Richard M. Richards as president.
As missionary efforts increased, so did the formal Church structure in Arkansas. Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve formed the first stake in Little Rock on 1 July 1969, with Dean C. Andrew as president. Shortly thereafter, a second stake was organized in Fort Smith on 30 April 1978, under the direction of Arthur Donald Browne. Church membership continued to grow, reaching 9,878 in 1980. This growth led to the creation of a third stake, the Jacksonville Arkansas Stake on 19 June 1983, presided over by Robert Michael McChesney. A fourth stake, the Rogers Arkansas Stake was formed on 11 August 1991 with David A. Bednar as president. By the year 2000, Church membership passed 20,000.
The increased growth has led to an increased public presence in local communities by members of the Church. The first institute building, adjacent to the University of Arkansas, was dedicated in the fall of 1999. Members are also frequently recognized by media and government officials for their volunteer service.
Membership in 2003 was 21,954.
Sources: Ted S. Anderson, The Southern States Mission: 1898-1971, 1973; LaMar C. Berrett, History of the Southern States Mission, 1960; Thomas Luther Brown, History of the Church in Arkansas, Church Archives; Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, 1941; Emogene Tindall, History and Genealogy of the Early Mormon Church in Arkansas: 1897-1975, 1983; George W. Rea, “The Arkansas Chapter of the Mountain Meadow Massacre,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1954, vol. 13, no. 4; Southern States Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Central States Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Little Rock Arkansas Stake, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Dorothy Maxwell and Don L. Brugger, “Little Rock Saints’ Foundation of Faith,” Ensign, Apr. 1995; Bruce D. Blumell, “Exodus from the South,” Church News, 21 May 1977; Sarah Jane Weaver, “‘Unsung Heroes’ in Storms’ Aftermath,” Church News, 8 March 1997; C. Alan Gauldin, “Arkansas Institute Building Dedicated,” Church News, 13 November 1999; “A Great Missionary,” Church News, 8 March 2005.