Northeastern Pennsylvania was the site of some of the most transcendent events of the early Restoration. Joseph Smith and his wife Emma spent most of the time between December 1827 and August 1830 living in Harmony (present-day Oakland). While there the Prophet translated the bulk of the Book of Mormon, with Emma, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery as scribes. On 15 May 1829, Joseph and Oliver were ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood by John the Baptist on the banks of the Susquehanna River, after which he directed the two to immerse each other in the first authorized baptisms of this dispensation. Shortly thereafter, Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph and Oliver in the same vicinity and conferred upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood. In addition, 15 of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received while the Smiths lived in Harmony.
After the 1831 establishment of Church headquarters at Kirtland, Ohio, northern Pennsylvania was frequented by missionaries traveling to their former homes farther east and preaching along the way. More than 140 people were baptized in Erie County during the early 1830s. Alpheus Gifford established branches in Rutland and Columbia, from which local Latter-day Saints preached northward into New York, some of them assisting in the conversion of the Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball families. Young’s brother [Phinehas], en route to Missouri during the winter of 1832-1833, organized the first branch in southwestern Pennsylvania at Pittsburgh, with more than 100 converts within a few years.
The Church was established in Philadelphia in 1839 by brothers Samuel and Lewis James and Benjamin Winchester, with more than 450 members in the city and adjoining counties by October 1840. By that time Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and most of the Twelve had visited the Philadelphia area.
During the 1830s, at least 13 branches were established in the state, the bulk of them in sparsely-settled rural areas. Most of these branches eventually ceased to function as converts gathered with the saints in Ohio and Missouri and missionaries shifted their attention to other places. During the Nauvoo era, with missionary work concentrated in the British Isles, fewer elders visited the eastern states, focusing their efforts on the nation’s largest cities — New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
After Sidney Rigdon’s 1844 break with the Prophet, he returned to Pittsburgh, the area of his birth, where he persuaded many of the saints in southwestern Pennsylvania to join him. When he established a new gathering place farther east in Franklin County, one of his followers, William Bickerton, founded a new splinter group (Bickertonites) that attracted many of the saints who remained in the Pittsburgh area.
Membership in the Philadelphia Branch generally remained loyal to the Twelve in Nauvoo, although apostate James J. Strang appealed to enough to organize a branch of his church in the city in 1846. Out of the ever-shifting balance of conversions, departures for Nauvoo, and European Latter-day Saints spending time in the area before traveling further west, Philadelphia’s LDS branch had a membership of more than 300 during much of the 1840s. After the relocation of the Church to the Great Basin in 1847, the number of Latter-day Saints in Philadelphia fell to about 150 and missionaries only occasionally visited the area. This situation was temporarily reversed from 1855 to 1857, when John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve presided over the re-established Eastern States Mission, with headquarters in New York City, and selected Philadelphia as one of the American ports of entry for LDS emigrants arriving from Europe. But Church activity was once again suspended when the elders were called home at the outbreak of the Utah War.
During the next 35 years, missionaries occasionally visited Pennsylvania. Two of them baptized Catherine W. Rock and her sons Andrew and Alexander in 1869 in Franklin County, near the settlement Sidney Rigdon had established more than 20 years earlier. In 1882, another pair of missionaries from the West baptized Emanuel Rock, the father in that family, and appointed him president of what was soon known as the Fairview Branch. Members of the branch built a stone meetinghouse at Waynesboro in 1904, the first LDS building erected in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, in the Pittsburgh area, George Barnes and others who left the Bickertonite group in 1873 met regularly in the village of New England to study the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. They wrote to a friend in Utah requesting a visit from LDS missionaries, and late in 1885 two elders serving in the Northern States Mission were sent to them, finding three branches “waiting for word from Utah.” The Pennsylvanians accepted the authority of the missionaries but wondered whether their earlier baptisms were valid. This was settled in December 1885 when the First Presidency advised those interested in the Church to be baptized again. In May 1886, branches were organized at Little Redstone and New England.
Occasionally, other elders from the Northern States Mission labored in Pennsylvania, with two of them arriving in Fulton County’s Buck Valley in December 1887 to hold meetings. Their first baptisms were performed in April 1889 and soon others joined the Church, holding meetings in the homes of saints and outdoors in groves of trees. The Buck Valley Branch was organized in 1896 and has functioned continuously since that time, currently as the Hancock (Maryland) Ward.
When the Eastern States Mission was re-established in 1893, its records listed only 55 Latter-day Saints in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Four years later, western Pennsylvania, Maryland and part of West Virginia were transferred from the Northern States Mission to the new mission. By 1900, its eight conferences — including the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, with headquarters in Philadelphia, and the Western Pennsylvania Conference, with headquarters in Pittsburgh — had a total membership of 975.
Church growth has been continuous in Pennsylvania during the last 100 years, although everywhere in the state it began slowly and continued slowly for many years. By 1940, the state’s 15 branches were home to nearly 900 Latter-day Saints, with about 450 more not being part of organized branches. By 1960, Church membership in Pennsylvania had more than tripled to 4,600 in 28 wards and branches. Another doubling took place in the following decade, and the number of Latter-day Saints in the state nearly doubled again during the 1970s, rising to 18,000 in 79 wards and branches — all but nine were included in Pennsylvania’s seven stakes. Not only were there many more Church units in the state, but they were also larger and more mature, the average number of members per unit having risen from 61 in 1940 to 228 in 1980.
As one illustration of these growth patterns, the Philadelphia Branch for many years included Latter- day Saints living in northern Delaware, southern New Jersey, and elsewhere in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1945, the first local district president was called, and soon groups of outlying members were organized into additional branches, including Allentown, Germantown, and Chester in Pennsylvania and Camden across the Delaware River in New Jersey.
As membership growth continued and leadership skills increased, the Philadelphia Stake was organized in October 1960, including six wards and branches in southeastern Pennsylvania (with 1,100 members) and other units in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Fourteen years later the stake had grown to the point that it was divided and all the units outside Pennsylvania became part of the Wilmington Delaware Stake. By 1980, the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake’s membership was approaching 3,000.
Similarly, a branch was established in Pittsburgh by the early part of the 20th century — in addition to the New England Branch (soon renamed the Wilson Branch) several miles out of the city — with many members being baptized in other outlying areas. Sunday Schools and other Church meetings under the direction of missionaries were held in members’ homes in places such as Carmichaels, California, Redstone, Waynesburg, Johnstown and Butler.
The Pittsburgh Branch bought a frame structure from another church, which was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant in September 1929, when the branch had about 100 members. By 1950, there were nearly 800 members in the West Penn District, with branches in Pittsburgh, Punxsutawney, Washington and Wilson, but the scattered nature of the Church membership is evident from the fact that nearly half the district’s Latter-day Saints were identified as “outlying” members who lived too far away to attend Church services regularly.
In 1965, the Pittsburgh and Wilson branches were realigned to form four branches in the greater Pittsburgh area. Four years later the Pittsburgh Stake was organized, with four wards in the city and its suburbs and additional units in nearby Pennsylvania communities. By 1970, the stake membership was nearly 2,700. Ten years later, after a division of the original stake, Church membership in southwestern Pennsylvania had risen to 4,500.
Church growth followed similar patterns in many other Pennsylvania communities. Typical was the experience of Reading, the state’s fifth-largest city, where Reading native George Yeager, who married a Latter-day Saint while traveling in the West, brought his family to Reading in 1920. They were joined six years later by G. Albin Schelin, a Utah native who married a Philadelphia girl while studying there. For several years the two families attended Church services in Philadelphia, 65 miles away, but then began holding cottage meetings and Sunday School in their homes in the early 1930s. As they helped the missionaries bring others into the Church, a local hall was rented and in 1939 the Reading Branch was organized. The first phase of what eventually became a larger branch meetinghouse was built in 1959-1960 and Reading became a branch in the Philadelphia Stake in 1960. After growing to ward status in 1966, Reading became part of the Gettysburg Stake in 1970 and the Harrisburg Pennsylvania Stake in 1979. With 600 members, the ward was divided in 1981, and a year later the Reading Pennsylvania Stake was organized, taking in an area nearly 100 miles long and 60 miles wide that previously had been part of the Harrisburg, Scranton and Philadelphia stakes. The majority of the Latter-day Saints in the new stake were Pennsylvania natives.
In the late 1970s, the Philadelphia Stake was composed of five wards, all of them located in the city’s suburbs. In 1980, the Church began a return to inner-city Philadelphia, with both the Metro Branch and the Philadelphia Spanish Branch being organized that year.
While much of Pennsylvania in the early 21st century is made up of small ethnically homogeneous cities and towns and rural areas, the highly urbanized southeastern corner of the state is characterized by the ethnic and racial diversity typical of other metropolitan areas on the Eastern Seaboard.
By 2004, the three stakes in southeastern Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Valley Forge, and Reading) included among their 27 units one Spanish ward and 12 other English wards and branches that were home to substantial numbers of Latter-day Saints whose primary languages were Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Cambodian or Vietnamese. Membership was 41,188 in 2003. In 2005, membership reached 44,855.
Andrew Jenson, “Eastern States Mission” and “Pennsylvania,” Encyclopedic History of the Church, 1941; Larry C. Porter, A Study of the Origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831, dissertation, 1971 (published, 2000); V. Alan Curtis, “Missionary Activities and Church Organizations in Pennsylvania, 1830- 1840,” thesis, 1976; Paul Zilch Rosenbaum, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pennsylvania (1830-1854),” thesis, 1982; Warren M. Avey, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Fairview, Franklin County, Penna., 1965, Church Archives; Lynn Matthews Anderson, From These Hills and Valleys: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1986 (the quote about “waiting for word from Utah” is from page 58); William L. Hendershot, A Brief History of the Buck Valley Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948, Church Archives; Joseph E. Jorgensen, History of Philadelphia Branch Relief Society, circa 1938, Church Archives; Ronald Bulkley, The Church in Southern New Jersey, 1980-1981, Church Archives; Peter M. Bowman, Donald F. Crego, and William F. Byers, A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Reading Pennsylvania Area, 1985.
- United States List of Stakes of the Church
- United States List of Mormon Temples
- TheChurchNews 2010 Almanac:Pennsylvania