With the picturesque Bibb Graves Bridge in the background, Sister Jane Parsons, on the left, points to a large framed photo of the predecessor covered toll bridge in Wetumpka, Ala., that her third-great grandfather John P. Lee crossed in 1847. He paid five cents to the gatekeeper and crossed again as a Mormon missionary to Wetumpka two decades later in 1867. Sister Kelsey Waters, on the right, is Sister Parson's missionary companion in Wetumpka.
Editor's note: The following story by John Enslen was also published in The Wetumpka Herald.
In 1847, John Percival Lee and his wife Eliza Foscue Lee were living on a farm in that part of Coosa County, Alabama, that would become Elmore County shortly after the Civil War. During that year of 1847, their second child, Sarah Lucinda Lee, was born. As was common with many residents of Alabama during the late 1840s, the Lees decided in 1849 to cast their lot in Texas. Stories are commonly told of Alabama families who wrote or carved “GTT” (Gone to Texas) on some wooden object around the homestead they were leaving.
Not long after departing Alabama, Lee was in DeWitt County, Texas, and considering the purchase of a suitable homesite when a missionary from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints introduced Lee to the missionary’s 17-year-old American-founded religion. Lee and his family were touched by the message, joined the LDS Church in 1849 and decided to gather with the main body of their fellow religionists who two years earlier had taken refuge in Utah. The Lees traveled south and then by ship along the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. From there they traveled by riverboat up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to a temporary Mormon gathering place in Kanesville, Iowa.
In the spring of 1850, the Lee family traveled with a wagon company of Mormon pioneers across the plains, over the Rockies and into the Salt Lake Valley. After their arrival in Utah, the Lee family quickly became part of a group assigned by Brigham Young to colonize San Bernadino, California. All of the outlying colonists, including the Lees, returned to Utah in 1858 at the outbreak of a large federal army’s invasion of Utah designed to squelch a non-existent Mormon rebellion.
The family resided safely in Utah throughout the Civil War. On May 20, 1867, Lee left his family in Utah in order to serve a 15-month mission to his former state of residence, Alabama and other nearby southern states, with a strong desire to visit relatives and friends. Lee was concerned about how his relatives and friends in Alabama may have been adversely affected by the Civil War.
Avoiding marauding Indians who were burning travel stations along the route, Lee arrived unharmed in Omaha, Nebraska. After traveling next to St. Louis and then passing through Kentucky, Tennessee and part of Georgia, he made his way to Wetumpka, Alabama, the county seat of Elmore County — the place of his former residence exactly two decades earlier. Lee, who was in Wetumpka by September 1867, was the first Mormon missionary to preach there. In a post-mission report published in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News on March 3, 1869, Lee wrote of his then recent missionary work:
“In Wetumpka, Alabama, I met many old acquaintances, and so numerous were the questions asked me that I found it impossible to answer each one separately, so by invitation I entered a large hall and publicly answered many questions relative to my country, customs and religion. My answers seemed to give general satisfaction, allaying in a great measure their prejudices.”
Lee's preaching in Wetumpka in 1867 drew the attention of the local newspaper. In The Elmore Standard edition for Friday, Sept. 27, 1867, the editor gave the following summation:
“We had a Mormon with us this week, who expounded the scriptures to us according to his understanding of them, on Tuesday night last, and who gave us considerable information in regard to his people, their manners and customs. He said that there was very little use in Utah for lawyers or doctors. Disputes were settled by arbitration, and when any were sick they sent for the elders, who effected a cure simply by laying hands on them. In the exercise of their religion, he said that the Mormon's were liberal and tolerant. When preachers of other sects came among them they opened the doors of their places of worship to them, and went out themselves to hear them. In this respect, they set an example well worthy of imitation. He said that all was peace and quietness, harmony and love among them. No wrangling, no broils or fighting, no tippling shops or houses of ill-fame.
"The speaker had a good deal to say in regard to faith, repentance and baptism, on which subjects his remarks were unobjectionable, being quite orthodox. The people, he said, there paid the tenth of all they possessed for the support of the church, and yet were exceedingly prosperous.”
Lee had a daughter named Ann Eliza Lee Wixom, who had a daughter named Lillian Lenore Wixom Parsons, who had a son named Leonard Garth Parsons, who had a son named Leonard Dean Parsons, who had a daughter named Jane Parsons. Jane is the third great-granddaughter of Lee and is currently serving part of her 18-month mission in Wetumpka.
Sister Parsons, as she is customarily called while serving her mission, is tracing the steps of her ancestor as she walks (and rides a bicycle) along the same streets that Lee walked. Sister Parsons of Austin, Texas, the state of her ancestor's conversion, is one of more than 85,000 LDS Church members presently serving at their own expense as fulltime missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world. She is assigned to the Alabama Birmingham Mission and has previously labored in the Gadsden and Sylacauga areas.
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When asked about her family legacy of missionary service in Wetumpka, she replied: “Wetumpka is a delightful place to me, and I am grateful for the same warm and friendly reception that my ancestor received almost 147 years ago. My companion, Sister Kelsey Waters, and I are enjoying our missionary experience in this special place that has always been dear to the hearts of my extended family members for many generations. I am confident that Elder Lee, my ancestor, would be surprised by the fact that today one out of three missionaries in the church is a female. On the other hand, I actually don't think he would be surprised at all by the fact that the church now has organized congregations in (more than) 150 countries in the world, including a large congregation in Wetumpka, Alabama, where he was the first Mormon missionary to preach.”
John Enslen is the first Mormon elected to a contested judgeship in Alabama, a former missionary to Cambodia, a history consultant for T. C. Christensen and the author of "The Bible and The Book of Mormon, Connecting Links." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org