From Siamese Prison to Mormon Memory

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From Siamese Prison to Mormon Memory

“…the King confined bro. [Trail] 71 days in a Siamese prison, 14 feet square, with 50 other prisoners, some were confined for debt others for stealing &c several ware put to the rack to draw out a fu [teekals (tikal money)]…”  –Elam Luddington April 1854


A day after Elam Luddington baptized his first and only convert in Siam, Captain James Trail, the King of Siam thrust the convert into a debtor’s prison without food.  The captain’s crime was misunderstanding a command and firing a salute from his ship in the rhodes of Singapore.


With only one baptism, is it possible that Luddington’s apparent failure washed him from our collective Mormon memories?  Have we lost harrowing tales of Mormons in Asia in the 1850s because missionaries didn’t baptize and retain thousands?  Maybe we don’t remember Elder Luddington’s story for a more pedestrian reason.  Church leaders may have found his main missionary journal difficult to decipher not only due to the handwriting and misspellings but also its archaic Asian words and references.  Without a ready google search in the 1850s, only the limited books in the libraries of Great Salt Lake might illuminate the scale of Luddington’s peril.


Luckily Luddington did leave an account of British soldiers, ship wrecks, gilded pagodas, and a mutiny.  Fortunately his companion Levi Savage recorded his own missionary journeys multiple times exposing the story of their parting, something Luddington never mentioned.

Elder Elam Luddington looked over the precipice of a fading Asian order as he disembarked onto the shores of Southeast Asia.  The fault lines between the old and new hierarchies widened during his missionary tenure.  Four years after Luddington arrived, Indians would plant the initial seeds of an independence movement during the Sepoy Rebellion.  The Burmese were fighting their second of three losing wars against the colonizing British.  Just months later, Chinese would push one more time against the British for the Second Opium War.  These defining skirmishes imprinted Asian memory and defined our modern Asian reality.


Yet Mormon memory is reluctant to register a missionary whose story of survival not only changed him as a person but contributes to the larger context of those tumultuous times.  Luddington landed in Bangkok on April 6, 1854.  Ending nearly 150 years of isolation, the Siamese only just began welcoming missionaries and merchants to their homes and hinterland for the previous twenty years.  When we look beyond Elder Luddington’s abysmal baptismal record we unlock the dynamics between Euro-American missionaries and Asians.  Unique to Mormon missionaries, though, he traveled the region without ‘purse or scrip’ and still survived the turbulence of impending or ongoing wars.  His contributions to a broader history nuance our understanding of interactions between Asians and foreigners.


But if Mormons are not interested in Burmese struggle, not interested in the interpersonal bureaucracy of Thais and outsiders, and don’t care about the timing of his arrival in Hong Kong, still there is another compelling reason to thirst for the story of Elam Luddington.  Luddington was a man of adventure who like many, faced an uncertain ocean without money but found ways to overcome.  Elder Wilford Woodruff reflected on setting Elam Luddington apart for his mission,

In blessing br. Luddington I recollect that I was mouth, and I well remember that I could see nothing but seas, waves and storms.  The seas appeared to be heaped up and I knew that he was going to see storms and be exposed to troubles and dangers, but there was one thing that we did bless those brethren with, that I rejoice in, and that is that they should return home again.  (Remarks Elder Wilford Woodruff, Bowery, Sunday Morning, Sep 27, 1857 pg 246 newspaper clippings (Karen Bush Family Association).)


We all reach for home in our individual quests.  Some like Elam made that quest in a ship and nearly died.


Building on the work of Mormon/Asian historian, Lanier Britsch, and former mission president to Thailand and Brigham Young University professor, Michael Goodman, a narrative non-fiction book is in process to bring the tale to a wider audience.


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Twitter: @AudreyBastian

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