A Mormon Memorial Service in New York, 1915

March 28th, 2013, by Kent Larsen

It is unusual these days for LDS congregations in Manhattan to experience death. Members of the Church here are generally young, and longtime members often move away by the time they arrive at retirement age—so we don’t see funerals or memorial services very often.

That was probably true in the early 20th century also. Newspaper accounts of the Church here often refer to the bulk of members here as the “Utah colony” and speak of why members have arrived (usually for work or school) and how they are returning back “home.”

But, of course, there were occasional deaths and the associated memorial services—which were held in place of funerals because the deceased was sent back “home” for a funeral.

I recently stumbled across a memorial service held in New York City for Willard S. Langton, from Logan, Utah, who was in New York serving as a missionary, pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics at Columbia University and teaching at Cooper Union. His story is unusual, and so different from our missionary experiences today that I found it fascinating.

Langton was born in Smithfield, Utah (near Logan) in 1872 and attended the University of Utah, graduating in 1893. He returned to the Logan area and joined the faculty of the Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State University), as professor of Mathematics, although he also taught biology. He also started the physical education department, and at his death was honored as the “father of athletics” at the school. By 1900 he had also married and had an infant son.

After teaching at UAC for 17 years, Langton was called on a mission to the Eastern States in 1910. By soon after he arrived, Langton had arranged to enroll at Columbia University in the Mathematics department, in pursuit of a Ph.D. Whether that arrangement was made before or after his call, I haven’t been able to determine, but it was apparently acceptable to the Eastern States Mission President Ben E. Rich because within 6 months he called Langton to serve as mission secretary (replacing Arthur V. Watkins, later U.S. Senator for Utah).

In many ways, Langton’s missionary service seemed more like today’s senior missionaries than like the service of a traditional unmarried 18 to 21+ year old. Langton entered the mission at 38. His wife and son joined him in New York in early October 1910, apparently staying the school year. He returned to Logan for the summer of 1912, returning in the Fall.

Apparently he worked hard at his degree, along with his missionary work. He was awarded an MA in Mathematics in 1911, producing a thesis titled The integration of discontinuous functions. But he also kept up his work for the mission. One missionary reports in his diary that Langton gave out the assignments of where new missionaries would serve, and a newspaper report says that he traveled to Wheeling, West Virginia in early December 1911 to debate an RLDS missionary on the succession question. By this time his workload must have been substantial, since the news report indicates that he was also teaching mathematics at the Cooper Union.

Langton kept this up until early in 1915, including through the death from illness of the mission president, Ben E. Rich, in September 1913. Rich’s successor, Walter P. Monson, retained Langton as mission secretary. It is possible that Langton was one of those who accompanied Monson when he “rushed” the stage at a Carnegie Hall speech by Mormon turncoat Frank J. Cannon in April 1914.

Less than a year later, Langton became ill with an unspecified “intestinal trouble.” He underwent an operation in early February, 1915 and lingered until the 22nd, when he died. The reactions to his death were unusually strong.

While his body was being transported home to Logan, Utah, the mission held a memorial service at Hawthorne Hall (151 West 125th Street)—apparently near the mission headquarters and one of the meeting places used by the New York congregation. Mission President Monson opened the service, praising Langton’s “untiring labors” and saying that “there never had been a time when a requirement had been made but what our departed brother has cheerfully responded…”

President Monson was followed by Horace Cummings, then Commissioner of Church Education (why he was in New York I haven’t been able to discover), who observed that “he realized that he was going to go, but faced it willfully and with courage and even with resignation. I might almost say joy.”

Then spoke Dr. C. R. Richards, Director of Cooper Union and a non-Mormon. Richards observed that Langton

came to us quietly and modestly four years ago, and in those four years he won our affection, our respect, and our regard for his high qualities as a man and a teacher. In his chosen field of mathematics he was possessed of fine scholarship and high ability. He was indeed an artist in his appreciation of the meaning of mathematics in life and in its relation to engineering and to industry. On our side our loss is great, but it is not for the scholar that we grieve but for the man.

Here in Cooper Union our conditions are very different from those of schools in smaller cities and in the newer parts of the country. There the homogeneity of student body and faculty makes natural a feeling of sympathy and fellowship between teacher and pupil. Here we face a different situation.

Yet this man came to us from the West to our new and strange conditions, to a student body of many races and many creeds, and brought a sympathy, and understanding, a fellowship, a brotherliness, so warm, so kindly and so insistent to serve that he won the affectionate regard of every student with whom he came in contact as he did every one of his colleagues.

No request from students for help—no demand upon his time—was so trivial but what he responded with all that he could give. His time outside of his school work even was not spared, and he opened his home to students who specially needed help, and who were welcomed there as friend with friend.

It is by these things that we shall best remember him.

He was a simple, manly, faithful servant of the Lord if there ever was one: To serve, that was the truest instinct of the man.

After a solo rendition of “One Sweetly Solemn Thought” by Robert C. Easton, Dr. Dean Brimhall introduced a resolution that the congregation adopted, and then made his own remarks, ending with a hymn by his father, George H. Brimhall (then President of BYU), “O, may I know the Lord as friend.”

The service ended with a solo by E. F. Tout, accompanied by a trio of Elenora Tout, piano, Hazel Tout, violin and Irving Tout, cello and a benediction by Edward P. Kimball (organist or assistant organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1905 to 1937).

Langton’s body reached Logan a few days later and his funeral on March 3rd, which followed a memorial service at the UAC, filled the Logan Tabernacle. There he received equally high praise from local leaders and the administration of the college, led by UAC President John A. Widtsoe.

What I found unusual in the sermons given in the memorial service in New York and the funeral in Logan (aside from the resolution passed in New York) is the level of praise for Willard S. Langton. Funeral addresses tend to be laudatory, often exceedingly so. But these were somehow more. And in New York, the remarks of Dr. Richards of the Cooper Union were especially unusual, given that he came from outside of the Mormon community that Langton grew up in. He must have been an unusual man.

But even more unusual, at least from our modern perspective, was Langton’s presence and activities in New York. From what I’ve seen it wasn’t unusual at that time for LDS missionaries to work to support themselves in their missionary life. And missionaries did often stay or return to New York to go to school (Langton’s predecessor as mission secretary, Arthur V. Watkins, was back the year after he completed his mission to attend Columbia Law School). But to actively serve a mission AND pursue a Ph.D. AND teach? Seems like a lot—more than what any but an unusual person can accomplish.

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