Sunday, November 21, 2010

Developing Local Leadership

Based on a paper presented at the John Whitmer History Association conference, Rockford, Illinois, September 24, 2010: “LDS Outpost in the Mission Field: The Old Aurora Branch (1932-1965)”

Around the turn of the twentieth century Church leaders began encouraging members to stay where they were and not “gather” to Utah. Members were to begin building up the Church in their own hometowns, far away from the intermountain West. In some larger cities, like Chicago, the new approach worked reasonably well and a core of strong leaders emerged, who were largely transplants from Utah. But for some forty years, members in the small, outlying branches struggled with sparse numbers, long distances, and lack of experience.

The Aurora Branch provides an excellent case study of how the local leadership was gradually developed. When the Greers arrived in Aurora, missionaries presided over all of the meetings. Elders who grew up in Utah simply had more experience in the Church than the new converts in Illinois. They even presided over the Relief Society.

Batavia Branch Relief Society, late 1930s

Minutes of the Relief Society meeting held October 2, 1928, record the testimony of Elder Bertrand Beck, a new missionary. “I did not know nor do not yet know much about Relief Society work but I do know it is the work of the Lord. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God and that Jesus is the true Son of God. Ask all the favors and blessings in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen” (LDS Church History Library, microfilm LR2975, Box 1:12, 14, RS minutes 1928-31). Missionaries also collected and recorded tithing donations and performed baptisms.

It is interesting to note that James T. Greer did not baptize his daughter Louise in September 1932. Elder Elsworth P. Romney took care of that. (Photo left.) Yet by 1939, there are many stories of his exercising his priesthood and gift of healing. What happened in those brief seven years to cause such a change?

First of all, Jim Greer showed up and kept showing up. Thus he was present to be tutored by missionaries, mission presidents, stake presidents, and General Authorities. Visitors from Salt Lake City attended mission and quarterly stake conferences, and Jim and Myrtle Greer were always there. For example, in 1933 both George Albert Smith and David O. McKay, counselors in the First Presidency and later presidents of the Church, presided and spoke at a mission conference. In 1936 President Heber J. Grant organized the Chicago Stake.

(Right) The Greer family after stake conference held at University Ward in Chicago, ca. 1941

According to his son-in-law Bob Erekson, Jim Greer remembered everything he heard. So in spite of being barely literate at first—having only a few months of education in a country school in southern Illinois—Jim Greer was able to learn quickly. He apparently applied himself to study. With the help of Myrtle, who had an eighth grade education and a teaching certificate, he gradually improved his reading skills. In 1934 she gave him a copy of Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage, a formidable volume (now in possession of Ginger Hamer). Whether he read the book himself or she read it to him is not known, but Jim learned to read well enough to read Church instruction manuals and everything else that was needed.

He also learned by doing. He was called by the missionaries to conduct the Aurora Branch Sunday School in April 1932. He also conducted the evening meeting for the first time on May 22, 1932.

(Left) James T. Greer, flanked by two young women in the branch and two elders, ca. 1936. Note the sign: "No collections" being the main attraction to the meetings.

James T. Greer gradually gained confidence and grew in his calling, yet even into the late 1950s, his style of conducting meetings was casual, “down-home,” and entirely his own.

During the 1930s the Aurora Branch remained painfully small, and when Robert L. Erekson arrived in 1941, the membership still consisted of fewer than fifteen people. The Lord took time to build a leader first, and when the branch began to flourish, he was ready.


  1. I am Elizabeth Kettley, youngest daughter of William and Marlene Kettley. I am interested in getting some of the photos in their entirety to add to the work our Mother started. My email address is