Today, a branch organized without local priesthood leadership – with children organized into Primary and women into Relief Society, but with no functioning priesthood quorum, no assignments or leadership roles for the men who attended church regularly – would be remarkable, if it existed at all. Yet outside the western Mormon region, that was the norm until surprisingly far into the 20th century: Men in branches in the Midwest, or the eastern states, or in the South, or along the Pacific coast, or outside of the U.S., might serve as local missionaries or teach Sunday School or be MIA officers, but there were noorganized quorums and no responsibility for local administration.

The first elders’ quorum organized outside the intermountain west was that of Chicago, sometime in the late 1920s; I have not yet found enough about that quorum to write about it. The second such quorum, however, in Washington, D.C., leaves enough mark on history to see how those men conceived of their quorum duties.

The Washington quorum was organized on 6 October 1929, under direction of the Eastern States mission presidency headquartered in New York City, with four men selected as presidency and secretary: Reed Walker, Merlo J. Pusey, J. Herbert May, and Arlo B. Seegmiller. I haven’t yet dug into the biographies of all four men, but those I do know were western men temporarily in Washington for education, business, or government assignment.

These four men were left entirely on their own to decide what their duties as a quorum would be. The branch presidency would still be made up of transient missionaries with no stewardship over local members as we think of it today – missionaries’ duties were to proselytize, to preach and hold meetings, and visit scattered members annually if they could, but the welfare of individual members or the building up of a local church was really outside the scope of their work. So Elders Walker, et al., invented their duties, adapting the model they had known in the west.

First, they decided they would take full charge of the sacrament each week – not the meeting itself, but the blessing and passing of the sacrament, along with preparation and cleaning up.

Next, they assumed responsibility for blessing the sick and asked local members to let them know when they were needed, rather than looking for the traveling missionaries. They appointed a standing committee among the quorum members to be on call to visit the homes of the sick.

They took charge of the Sunday evening MIA meeting, turning it into a hybrid MIA-Priesthood meeting. The elders conducted the opening exercises, organized genealogy training for the women who might come, and convened the men as an elders’ quorum to work out the details of their most ambitious plan: block teaching, or as we know it now, home teaching.

The only block teaching these young men had ever known was that of the western states, where visits were literally made by blocks, since virtually everyone in their home communities was LDS. The situation that faces every elders’ quorum outside of today’s Mormon strongholds was completely new to them: branch members in Washington, D.C., were scattered all over the district. There could be no walking up and down the street calling on many families in an evening, or even visiting farm by farm as it was done in rural Utah. They would have to travel a distance to each home, making individual visits over a number of days or evenings, rather than making a single sweep through an assigned district. And they would have to do it with a limited number of men who were already, for the most part, carrying double loads as both students and employees.

Second Counselor May took charge of the project. He divided the city into districts, appointing a captain over each. The captains were asked to appoint teachers who lived in their districts, whose first duties would be to find out exactly who and how many Saints did actually live in Washington. By calling on known members, following leads from home, and compiling the first correct record of branch members, the teachers discovered 20 additional Saints whose membership records had not yet been sent to the branch, and for whom the quorum assumed responsibility.

The teachers held monthly meetings at which some “outstanding member” – and in Washington, they had many such to draw on – would teach a lesson, which the teachers would then carry to their assigned homes. In January 1930, the elders called at 76 homes. In February, the number of visits had grown to 151. Average monthly visits for the first year (I’m drawing on an end-of-year report for that year and I do not have numbers beyond that) topped 110 – {ahem} evidently the keeping of statistics was an early and enduring plague duty.

Enthusiasm among the men of the branch continued to grow, as young men were encouraged to prepare themselves to be advanced to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Sacrament meeting attendance climbed. Home teaching numbers remained high throughout the first year. The quorum raised money to send as a Christmas present to two men serving as local missionaries, and began efforts to hold regular cottage meetings to introduce friends to the full time missionaries.

All these duties and activities may seem obvious to us today. The reports from 1929-30, though, evidence a real tentativeness, a feeling-the-way uncertainty. I like that. It suggests a line upon line thoughtfulness, a willingness to adapt and try something new. The fact that it doesn’t seem at all new to us is also reassuring – they pretty much got it right the first time.

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