Columbia—The members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fulton spent 2006 packed into an old bowling alley that is now the Callaway Convention Center.
But, last Saturday, beneath sunny skies, the congregation officially moved back to its meetinghouse on Kingswood Drive, which has been expanded and renovated to accommodate the church’s growing membership.
When the LDS — also known as the Mormon church — first came to Fulton in 1979, there were 43 members, representing 12 families. Today, the Fulton ward numbers nearly 400.
The Fulton ward is one of eight wards — large, well established congregations — in the Columbia stake of the LDS, which extends from Macon to Jefferson City and from Fulton to Boonville. In addition to the growth of the Fulton ward, the mid-Missouri LDS has also added a Spanish-speaking branch — a small, developing congregation — in Columbia. A branch has also sprung up in Fayette, said Karen Smith, of the Columbia stake’s public affairs committee.
Smith said the growth of the LDS in mid-Missouri reflects a statewide trend. According to the church’s official Web site, lds.org, Missouri is home to 136 active Mormon congregations with a total membership of 61,181.
However, 150 years ago Missouri was considered hostile territory to Mormons, who believed that the state was the original Garden of Eden and that when Christ returned, it would be to Missouri.
But, by 1838, seven years after church founder Joseph Smith arrived in Missouri, then-Gov. Lillburn Boggs sanctioned the religious prosecution of Mormons with an executive order that stated, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary.”
The Mormon wars that followed culminated in the Haun’s Mill Massacre, in which approximately 240 armed men descended on a small group of LDS members living in Caldwell County, killing 17 persons and wounding 30. The event, which is legendary in the LDS church, essentially drove the Mormons out of Missouri.
It wasn’t until 1976 that then-Gov. Kit Bond rescinded Boggs’ executive order.
Today, more than 30 years later, a spirit of pride fills the hallways of the Fulton meetinghouse, like the soft melody emitted from the chapel’s piano. The 5,000-square foot addition doubled the original size of the meetinghouse. New classrooms, a reconstructed chapel and expanded clergy offices will be able to accommodate the future growth of the Fulton ward.
Posters that spoke to the LDS’s values hung on the walls, alongside photographs of church members, representing the fabric of a community whose foundation is its religion.
Pamela Brown has been a member of the Fulton ward for seven years. Growing up, her mother was a LDS member. When her parents divorced, Brown lived with her father and she lost her connection to the church.
When her sister, who lived in Fulton, lost her house and most of what she owned in a fire, Brown moved from Arizona to be with her. That holiday season, members of the Fulton ward brought presents that were originally intended for their own families.
“The love that I saw then has led me to keep coming back ever since,” Brown said, “and I am surprised that I have been away so many years.”
Smith said the growth of the Fulton ward “is not a phenomenon.” The church is growing here because, like many others, Mormons find mid-Missouri a good place to live. It has a strong job market, affordable housing and, in a smaller town like Fulton, it exudes strong family values.
Crystal McCracken has lived in Missouri all her life. She met a Mormon man, and his decision to spread his faith through missionary work sparked her interest in the LDS church.
“I spent the two years that he was away reading and learning about the church,” McCracken said.
McCracken and her friend, whom she would later marry, exchanged letters, but in the end she came to the church on her own, without her husband’s influence.
“I wanted to know for myself, not him,” McCracken said.
Randy Stevens joined the Fulton ward three years ago after a job promotion led him to relocate to the area. Stevens was a LDS member in Washington and Utah, so joining a new congregation was an easy transition.
“It took awhile to get to know everyone, Stevens said. “But we were welcomed with open arms.”
The growth of an LDS ward is not without its dilemmas. Church officials are unpaid, and it relies on its members to teach church principles to new congregants.
But, while this facet of the church may put burdens on members who are also working and raising families, congregants see it as a unique quality that can only strengthen the church and help it grow.
“When you are part of a worldwide church,” Stevens said, “you are welcomed with open arms as part of a family instantaneously, no matter where you go.”