Mormons and Real Estate in Philadelphia

October 11th, 2012, by Kent Larsen

This past week I came across a couple of newspaper articles suggesting that Mormons were looking to rent or even acquire real estate in Philadelphia in the 1840s. Given that there were perhaps 300 Church members in Philadelphia at the time, the idea seems improbable. But, these claims made the newspapers at the time.

The first of these claims appeared in the February 1842 issue of The Religious Cabinet, a little-known religious periodical. But the Cabinet‘s report credited the information to the Boston Pilot, a then large newspaper. The report indicated that:

… Mormons are making a location in the very heart of Philadelphia—having taken a room in the Assembly buildings, which they are about to fit up for their mummery. …

The Assembly Building, located on 10th and Chestnut Street, was built in 1839 and was a fairly popular, perhaps because it was inexpensive, location in the city. The Church was growing in Philadelphia at the time, and in the previous year Philadelphia hosted an independent LDS periodical, the Gospel Reflector, edited by the presiding elder in Philadelphia, Benjamin Winchester. This may have led to an attempt to obtain an office for the Reflector or a place where meetings could be held (the Assembly Building evidently included a large ballroom).

The reference to the “mummery” apparently had to do with Joseph Smith’s 1835 purchase of 4 mummies and related papyri, which led to the publication of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses. Winchester or whoever was the source for the Assembly Building rumor must have suggested that the mummies could be brought to Philadelphia for exposition. The mummies were on display at this time in Quincy, Illinois as well as in Nauvoo.

The second real estate related item was more audacious and more improbable. It appeared in a May 14, 1842 article in the New York State Mechanic, another new, short-term publication. But the Mechanic doesn’t indicate where it got its information. Its news item about Mormons was just one line long:

The Mormons of Philadelphia have proposed for the purchase of the Chestnut-street Theatre.

Likely based on rumor and error, such a purchase would have been audacious. The Theatre, located on the corner of 6th and Chestnut, was the second to go by that name. The first, destroyed by fire in 1820, had been the first building in the U.S. constructed as a theater and was one of the leading auditoriums in the United States at the time. This second theater was completed two years later and was still one of the principal theaters in Philadelphia, if not in the entire U.S. It seated well over 2,000 people.

The idea that the theater was for sale is not surprising. Theaters in the U.S. changed hands fairly frequently, as far as I can tell from a few hours of browsing theater histories. Before 1842 the Chestnut Street Theater seems to have changed hands at least twice since its construction 20 years earlier. But it hadn’t changed purpose—no one had tried to use it primarily as a Church or other meeting hall. Nor is it likely that the Mormons would have sought such a large hall—it was well beyond their needs.

One potential source for this rumor comes from John S. Lindsay’s book The Mormons and the Theatre (1905). There Lindsay describes the conversion of a popular Philadelphia actor at the time:

The story of “Tom” Lyne’s conversion to the Mormon faith created quite a sensation in theatrical circles of the time, and illustrates the great proselyting power the elders of the new religion possessed.

Lyne, when he encountered Mormonism, was a skeptic, having outgrown belief in all of the creeds. It was in 1841 that George J. Adams, a brother-in-law of Lyne’s, turned up suddenly in Philadelphia (Lyne’s home) where he met the popular actor and told him the story of his conversion to the Mormon faith. Adams had been to Nauvoo, met the prophet and become one of his most enthusiastic disciples. Adams had been an actor, also, of more than mediocre ability, and as a preacher proved to be one of the most brilliant and successful expounders of the new religion. Elder Adams had been sent as a missionary to Philadelphia in the home that his able exposition of the new evangel would convert that staid city of brotherly love to the new and everlasting covenant.

In pursuance of the New Testament injunction, the Mormon missionaries are sent out into their fields of labor without purse or scrip, so Elder Adams, on arriving at his field of labor, lost no time in hunting up his brother-in-law, “Tom” Lyne, to whom he related with dramatic fervor and religious enthusiasm the story of his wonderful conversion, his subsequent visit to Nauvoo, his meeting with the young “Mohammed of the West,” for whom he had conceived the greatest admiration, as well as a powerful testimony of the divinity of his mission.

Adams was so convincing and made such an impression on Lyne that he at once became greatly interested in the Mormon prophet and his new revelation. This proved to be a great help to Elder Adams, who was entirely without “the sinews of war” with which to start his great campaign.

The brothers-in-law put their heads together in council as to how the campaign fund was to be raised, and the result was that they decided to rent a theatre, get a company together, and play Richard III for a week. Lyne was a native of Philadelphia and at this time one of its most popular actors. It was here that Adams had met him a few years before and had given him his sister in marriage.

The theatrical venture was carried through, Lyne playing Richard and Elder Adams, Richmond. The week’s business, after paying all expenses, left a handsome profit. Lyne generously donated his share to the new cause in which he had now grown so deeply interested and Elder Adams procured a suitable hall and began his missionary labors. His eloquent exposition of the new and strange religion won many to the faith; one of the first fruits of his labors being the conversion of Thomas A. Lyne.

Lyne soon after left for Nauvoo, where he was soon producing theatrical performances featuring actors like Brigham Young. But since Lindsay doesn’t mention what theater Adams and Lyne rented for Richard III, I have to wonder, could the theater have been the Chestnut Street Theatre?

Unfortunately, the Chestnut Street Theatre is no longer extant. It was also the victim of fire in 1856. A third version, also no longer extant, was constructed in 1862, but 7 blocks to the west of the original, at Chestnut and 13th. Lyne stayed in Nauvoo until the martyrdom, and then wrote an account of Nauvoo at the time of the martyrdom, which was published as a pamphlet. He then returned to acting in the East, eventually passing through Salt Lake City with an acting company. And along with other Mormons in the East, those in Philadelphia either gathered with the Saints to Utah or left the Church, leaving Philadelphia without much of an LDS presence until the 1890s.

But, in both these cases the newspapers seem to have been mistaken. So I guess you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper!

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6 Responses to “Mormons and Real Estate in Philadelphia”

  1. Mark B. Says:

    An online dictionary gives the following as a definition of “mummery”:

    2. A pretentious or hypocritical show or ceremony.

    I think it much more likely that the writer was using the word in this sense, rather than making any reference to Egyptian mummies that the Saints acquired a few years before this report.

  2. kent Says:

    Really! I’ve never heard that definition. But now that I hear it, that does seem like the more likely usage.

  3. Mark B. Says:

    It also seems related somehow to the Mummers Parade, held every year on January 1 in Philadelphia. (With roots, apparently, back to the 17th Century.)

  4. kent Says:

    Wow Mark, how do you know about this stuff? I’ve never heard of the Mummers Parade either!

  5. Last Lemming Says:

    The Mummers Parade is nothing if not pretentious.

  6. Mark B. Says:

    You busy next January 1? Maybe it’s time for a field trip.

    I must have seen a note in the paper about it once, and somehow it stuck.

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