Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Other Pioneer Day

In December of 1921, an event significant to Mormonism took place. This was an event so meaningful to those who experienced it directly or peripherally that "during the following years, its anniversary was celebrated. Stories and poems were written to immortalize it. Pageants were presented to remind the members of the goodness and mercy of God in their deliverance. This [event] became the rallying cry to induce repentance, just as the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt was by Moses and later prophets as a rallying cry."

What was this event? The escape from Aintab, Turkey, to Aleppo, Syria, of 50 Armenian Mormons, under the direction of an American missionary, Joseph Wilford Booth. When we lived in Syria, the date of these saints' arrival in Aleppo - 16 December 1921 - was referred to as the "other" Pioneer Day.

But my guess is that unless you've spent time in the Near East or sought out this story on your own, you had no idea that such a thing had happened. In honor of the 92nd anniversary of this Other Pioneer Day, let me tell you more. I will quote liberally from the only comprehensive source on this topic that I've ever found: a 1958 MA thesis entitled "A history of the missionary activities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Near East, 1884-1929," by Rao H. Lindsay.

A mission in Turkey had been established in the late 19th century, but by 1909, it had closed due to turmoil in the region, which eventually culminated in the Armenian Genocide and then World War I. In 1921, when former missionary Joseph Wilford Booth returned to the region and re-opened the area for missionary work as mission president, he found that the members had suffered horribly during the 12 years of absence. Entire branches in Turkey had been wiped out, or nearly wiped out, by several factors, including deportation, starvation, and murder. Booth learned of one member from Marash who was deported by the Turks to Iraq ("Mesopotamia" is the term used in Booth's journal) with his family, and then separated from them and death-marched to Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Once there, he was tied to other prisoners (there were 500 in all) and shot at. He was not hit, but played dead and later escaped with seven other survivors to safety among Arabs living nearby. He never saw his family again. He returned to Marash, only to die in a massacre there in 1920.

Things were bad for Armenians in Turkey, and the Mormons were no exception: "in 1909 there had been over a hundred members; whereas in 1921 only 35 were left." Rather than get to the traditional missionary business of proclaiming the gospel, Booth focused on preserving the lives of the remaining saints there. This meant getting them out of Turkey and into Syria, a place of safety. At that time, the French were temporarily in charge of Aintab, and they were very stingy about issuing the passports that were essential if one wanted to leave Turkey and go to Syria. How could Booth obtain passports for the 35+ destitute Mormons left under his sole care and direction? After a lot of prayer, Booth gained an audience with a French general in Aleppo:

"I then told him my mission and that we had about 50 members and relatives in Aintab who were poor and needing assistance also some 25 friends who are anxious to receive permission to come to this place; and begged him to grant us permission to bring them all here. He at first gave an unfavorable reply stating that it would not be a good precedent for him to set as it would likely stir up strife just at this particular time. I still urged that he allow us to bring the poor whom I could care for so much better here with the rest of our members in one group. I have prayed almost night & day for the Lord to open the way for us to rescue [the members]....They in Aintab have fasted for 8 days so they write, and I surely felt to thank God for his answer to my prayers when the Gen. at last said 'We will grant you permission to bring the 50 and you may present the matter of the 25 to the Aintab authorities.'"

The author of the thesis continues:

"For two days, Booth waited anxiously for news of the final approval which came about noon the second day...Upon arrival in Aintab on December 6, Booth found the list of fifty-three names already there; however, he learned that children under eight years of age needed no passports so he changed the list to include some close relatives of the members. Many people in the city came to President Booth and pleaded for assistance. This caused him to recall that twenty-two years previously he and Elder Maycock had been driven from their midst by stones."

Finally, it was time to see if the passports would really come through. From Booth's journal:

"In late afternoon I called at the passport office. The whole court below was filled with hundreds of people anxiously waiting to hear their names read out from the upstairs window. I sat and waited in an adjoining upper room and soon the window near me was opened. The roar and tumult of the crowd below was hushed at once on the harsh command of the man who appeared before the multitude to read the names. There was a thrill of joy for everyone whose name was read out, but with its corresponding sadness for all who were disappointed. About 150 names were read out in a clear ringing tone and then the words, 'Now come the Mormons' was followed by the reading of 51 names of my list..., which ended the number of passports issued today...Mormons were famous in Aintab today."

The Mormons paid $250 for wagons to carry them to Aleppo on a horribly muddy road. In true Middle East fashion, the wagon drivers agreed to take them, then cast off some of their baggage along the way to take on other paying passengers. But on Friday, December 16, 1921, after a five-day journey, "the wet, muddy, tired, refugees arrived in Aleppo."

This Other Pioneer Day is really just the middle of the story. There are so many interesting stories to tell about things that happened with Mormons in the Near East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like the time when the members in Aleppo staged a home theatrical of First Nephi, re-titling it "Death of a Drunkard and Five Weddings in One Night."
The cast of "Death of a Drunkard and Five Weddings in One Night"

Joseph Wilford Booth continued to spend his time tending to the considerable needs, both temporal and spiritual, of the members in Aleppo, until his death in 1928 from a heart attack brought about by overexertion.

He is buried in Aleppo. Here is his grave, as it was 70+ years ago:

and 2005. I can't believe the angle is almost the same - I had never seen the above photograph until today.

As I was writing this, I stumbled upon a page on the Church History website: The Armenian Exodus. So maybe this event will be more well-known now. Take a look at the site - it has so many interesting photos, a few of which I've used above.

And now you know more about the Other Pioneer Day.


Sarah Familia said...

Thanks for sharing this! I vividly remember visiting Booth's grave in the Armenian Cemetery, and hearing the story of the escape from Turkey as only Ustaaz Kirk could tell it. I love the page on What a treasure trove!

Liz Johnson said...

THAT IS FASCINATING! I had no idea! Thank you for sharing all of this!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Gosh, I just emailed you about Booth a little while ago. A few years ago I put his and Huber's graves on

James Goldberg said...

Glad you're helping keep this memory alive and that you enjoyed the piece.


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