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New Jersey Church members celebrate 150 years

In 1838 - eight years after the Church was organized in New York - the first branch of the Church was established in the neighboring state of New Jersey. The Hornerstown (N.J.) Branch, about 15 miles southeast of Trenton, had just 50 members.

This year, almost 12,000 Church members in New Jersey are celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Church in their state.A summer of music festivals, parades, booths and floats will be capped off Sept. 25 with a sesquicentennial fireside at Toms River in eastern New Jersey. Elder John K. Carmack, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the North America Northeast Area presidency, is scheduled as the keynote speaker.

The Church in New Jersey had a humble beginning. In 1832, the state's first missionaries, Elders Orson Pratt and Lyman E. Johnson, began preaching the gospel in that state. It took almost seven years before there were enough converts in the area to establish the Hornerstown Branch in October of 1838. However, before the end of the year, another branch with some 20 members was organized in Toms River, approximately 20 miles west of Hornerstown.

The Church began to grow. By 1848, when Brigham Young issued the call for all members to immigrate to the West and "help build up the kingdom," 21 branches had been organized in New Jersey. As more and more members in the New York/New Jersey area responded to "Brother Brigham's" call, the number of members in those states dwindled. During the next several decades, growth in the area decreased dramatically. Most new converts followed other Church members and left for Utah. By 1893, there was only one active branch, the Brooklyn Branch, and 55 members living in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania combined.

During the next several decades, Church membership in the area gradually increased. In an April 28, 1921, letter to Elder George Albert Smith, an apostle who was then serving as mission president in Liverpool, England, the First Presidency counseled the saints to stay where they were living and build up a corner of Zion in their home countries. That counsel, which was extended a few years later to include members in the United States, marked the beginning of the settling period for members in the East, and an increase in Church membership in areas outside Utah.

Today there are stakes in Caldwell, Cherry Hills, East Brunswick, and Morristown, New Jersey. In addition, the New York New York City Mission was divided last year, and New Jersey's first mission was created in Morristown.

Many prominent Church leaders, including President Heber J. Grant, have New Jersey ties. Among them was Rachel Ivins, who disregarded her doctor's orders and left New Jersey in 1853, walking across the plains with her sister. After arriving in Utah, Rachel met and married Jedediah M. Grant, a counselor to Brigham Young. On Nov. 22, 1856 - just nine days before her husband's death - Rachel Ivins Grant gave birth to their son, Heber J. Grant, who later became the seventh president of the Church.

Anthony W. Ivins, a cousin of President Grant, was born in New Jersey and crossed the plains with his parents when he was a year old. He later served as a counselor to President Grant.

Ernest L. Wilkinson served as counselor to the president of the Newark (N.J.) Branch, which more than tripled in size during the 1920s. Wilkinson was president of Brigham Young University from 1951-1971.

"The saints here are proud of their heritage and are excited about the activities we have had," said Elder George Sorensen, public communications missionary in the New Jersey Morristown Mission. "The anniversary events have been an excellent opportunity to help people in the area become more aware of the Church and its history. It the sesquicentennialT has been a good missionary tool."