Port Elizabeth of Yore: Saga of Mormon Converts

The first Mormon missionaries from the United States arrived at the Cape in 1853 and several months later were propagating their new doctrine in the Eastern Cape. The two leading converts were Eli Wiggill and Henry Talbot.  As the epicentre of the religion was Salt Lake City, Utah in the USA, the converts decided to relocate to America.

Only three unusual incidents regarding Mormon members will be covered in this blog.

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In 1855, the original three missionaries in South Africa, Jesse Haven, Leonard I. Smith and William H. Walker, went home and encouraged their fellow Latter-day Saints to emigrate to Utah. To facilitate this process, they assisted the South African converts to raise funds for them to do so. When local boat captains refused to transport Mormons, John Stock, Thomas Parker, and Charles Roper of Port Elizabeth sold their sheep and bought their own boat. Between 1855 and 1865, some 270 church members emigrated to the United States from Port Elizabeth. In 1858, only 243 local members remained.

On Wednesday 9th March 1859, the first local converts to Mormonism left on the “Alacrity” for Salt Lake City. Several parties left in I860 and 1861. In December 1862 John Stock returned to P.E. to make more converts and left with them in March 1863.

Hilarious failed conversion
The pretentious Commercial Hall building which was later demolished to make way for the Public Library, was often used for public and ratepayers’ meetings, balls and dances. A flight of steps led up from the street to the main entrance and offices. In those days, the town was visited at various times by several Elders from the Mormon city of Utah in search of converts or straying lambs for their fold where many women and girls were needed to become wives. Polygamy as espoused by the religion necessitated the recruitment of females in greater quantities than males.

St. Mary’s Church on the right of the Commercial Hall in which Francis held two shares

The propaganda of this religious body was openly preached in our Market Square and large gatherings on Sundays were usually held in front of the Court House (which in those years was held in the CommercialHall). On one Sabbath afternoon, the usual crowd of listeners assembled on the higher steps and porch of the building whilst the Elders preached, exhorted and addressed them from the roadway below.

Amongst the multitude eager for enlightenment of this new creed was a semi-intoxicated coloured woman, well-known as Mickie Rhebok, with arms akimbo, prominent on the highest of the steps and listening intently to the new doctrines of future bliss being expounded. At the conclusion of his discourse, the Elder exclaimed: “I hear a voice from Heaven“, whereupon Mickie shrieked: “Jy lieg, ou kerel! Ek is hoer na die Hemel as jy, en ek kan niks hoor nie!” which reads in English: “You lie, old chap! I am nearer to Heaven than you, and I can hear nothing.” Needless to say, she did not become a convert and in the roars of laughter that followed, the Elder’s remarks were lost in the noise.

Loss of children
This is a verbatim account regarding the melancholy experience of a female convert  from the E.P. Herald dated 13 April 1860 entitled Singular and Melancholy Bereavement.Amongst the Mormons who embarked at Port Elizabeth on board the Alacrity, for Boston, en route to the Sat Lake Settlement, was a Mrs Huey and six children. The vessel requiring water, however, had to put in here, and advantage was taken of the circumstances by Messrs. Fairbridge and Hull, as attorneys for Mosenthal Brothers, to secure the arrest of Mrs Huey for a debt of £85 owing to their clients. A writ was at the same time issued for the Mormon leader, Stock, who had chartered the vessel, but Mr. Geyer, the sheriff’s officer, not finding him, was only able to attach Mrs. Huey, who on Wednesday evening conveyed to the town prison. As it appeared [that]she felt confident of being able to regain her liberty [the] next day, on presentation of her case to the judges, she only took one of her six children, a baby, ashore with her, leaving the others and all her luggage on board the Alacrity.

On Thursday morning, through the medium of Mr. Buissine and the Attorney General, she was brought up in custody before the judges in chambers, with a view of seeing whether the surrender of her estate would not be an effectual means of securing her release. She stated to the lordships  that she had left moneys in the hands of Mr Harriers, at Port Elizabeth, for the payment of her debts, and that, so far from her attempting to give her creditors the slip, he intended departure for America had long been publicly known. After a short discussion between their lordships, the Attorney General, and Mr. John Reid, who appeared for Messrs Openshaw and Unna, holders of a Bill for £174, not yet due, a private consultation was held in an inner room, and after a little delay, the Chief Justice intimated that, considering the circumstances of the case, they had resolved to accept the surrender, and appoint a provisional trustee. Almost concurrently with this announcement, it was intimated that the Alacrity had sailed out of the Bay, carrying off the children and luggage of the unfortunate woman, who, on hearing this, burst into a flood of tears and bewailed her sad condition. The state of affairs being thus completely altered, a fresh discussion took place as to what should be done, and ultimately it was decided that no surrender need be then made,  that Mrs. Huey should be released from custody, and that Mr. Harries should be communicated with. The poor woman then took her departure view of testing the hospitable disposition of a Mormon “brother” at Mowbray.  

Petulant convert
In the correspondence columns of the E.P. Herald dated 5th February 1858 contains an attack on Mormonism by “Tammy Coofit” written in the Scottish dialect. The address given is Balmoral so the correspondent was probably the eccentric General John Nixon, who set up the estate Balmoral which later became Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s estate Amanzi.

En passant
The last contingent of converts, comprising about eighty adults and children, left Port Elizabeth for the Great Salt Lake City in February, 1860.

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
Latter Day Saints in the Eastern Province in the Mid-19th Century by HE Meyer [Looking Back, Vol. XVI, No. 2, June 1976


  1. Details of converts per ship


2. Parties emigrating

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