Since William Penn came to Pennsylvania for religious liberty in 1701, and the Charter of Liberties extended religious tolerance to settlers and Native Americans, Philadelphia has been a city of spiritual freedom and brotherly love.
Today, members of the Church in the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake - as seen in the many faithful faces of its members - enjoy the added dimension that comes of blending a variety of cultures, as seen in many wards, including one ward that is comprised of members from Nigeria, India, Sweden, Korea, Puerto Rico and those with Pennsylvania Dutch lineage.Branches in the Philadelphia Metro District serve immigrants from Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines. Suburban branches also take spiritual strength from a cultural variety that includes immigrants from South America and former professional African American football players.
The gospel has long been taught in the area and roots of the Church in eastern Pennsylvania extend to the 1830s when Joseph Smith came to Philadelphia.
Edward Hunter, a strong advocate of religious freedom at the time, had agreed to lease his West Nantmeal Seminary in Chester County, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, to anyone who wanted to preach there.
When some suggested that the Mormons not be allowed to speak, Hunter threatened to reclaim his seminary and deny any preaching there if such a restriction were applied.
Local preachers acquiesced to Hunter's demands, allowing the Prophet to preach in the hall on several occasions. This event, and others, contributed to the baptism of many, including Edward Hunter, who served as Presiding Bishop from 1851-1884. Because of the many baptisms, an area adjacent to the hall was nicknamed Mormon Hollow.
A few years later, on approximately Jan. 14, 1840, the Prophet preached in historic Philadelphia to 3,000 people who convened in a Universalist Church that had opened its doors to all who would attend.
This is believed to be the largest congregation that heard the Prophet preach. At the time, Parley P. Pratt, who accompanied him, described the Prophet as a "lion about to roar . . . and a lasting impression was made . . . and as a result multitudes were baptized in and around the area."
Since 1894, the Universalist Church has been the Kesher Israel Synagogue. Constructed in 1793 and located at 412 Lombard St., the building underwent an extensive restoration project, which was just completed, that restored the Jewish synagogue to its original splendor.
The building's main beams originally came from the keel and spars of the ship that brought the Universalists to Philadelphia from England in the early 1790s. The plank floors, pews, ceiling tiles, balcony, stained glass windows and podium that were there when the Prophet preached were also restored to their original condition.
"It was brought to our attention about five years ago," said Rick Millan, one of the primary contributors to the restoration project, "that the Mormons had been here back when it was a Universalist Church, which adds additional variety to it's wonderful history."
Most members left the Philadelphia area by 1843 to join the other members in Nauvoo. During the next years, records indicate that more than 2,700 members passed through Philadelphia en route to the Salt Lake Valley.
Around 1930, some 90 years after the Prophet Joseph's sermon, Elder B.H. Roberts was traveling through Phildelphia and spoke to the members, who, at that time, were meeting in the parlor of a large home. They were converts from Europe who had dreams of continuing on to Utah.
But financial hardships and other reasons caused them to remain in Philadelphia. During his visit, Elder Roberts was moved by their faithfulness and dedication and encouraged them to stay and build the Church in the area. They accepted his direction and put aside their aspirations to move to the West.
Descendants of these pioneers continue to build the Church in the area.
By 1937, this small core of families had sacrificed much of what they had to build their first chapel. Their efforts were rewarded when President Heber J. Grant, accompanied by President David O. McKay and Elder Roberts, traveled by train from Utah to dedicate the building. This chapel on 46th Street was sold to another denomination in 1977 after much of the membership moved to the suburbs.
But the work continued to move forward. Less than 10 years later, due in part to an influx of African American and Hispanic converts, a new building was constructed less than 10 blocks from the 46th Street chapel. This building is now used by the Student Ward and inner city branches.
The growth of the Church in the Philadelphia area since that time has been largely due to members from throughout the world who have moved to the area to attend its universities and colleges or accept positions with its many large companies.
Since the mid-1980s, it was also a time when the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission was organized to "bring the Church to the people" by establishing 12 neighborhood branches serving members throughout the inner city.
These neighborhood branches were designed to reach out to new immigrants. Missionaries speaking Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Spanish joined with the English-speaking missionaries to serve these various cultures.
"Missionaries are bringing new members of all ethnic and national backgrounds to the joys of a Christ-centered life found in the Church," said Pres. James R. Michie of the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission.
"The work is accelerating," he said. Through the use of member referrals, the Church's influential media advertising, and tracting by the mission's 200 full-time missionaries, "
The gospel messageT is sweeping the three-state area of the Philadelphia mission," he continued.
In the last several years that Pres. John R. Crawford of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake has lived in the area after being relocated by his company, he has gained a perspective and appreciation for what the Church in the area can become.
"Members of the Philadelphia stake have the unique privilege of living in a place which is considered both the cradle of liberty and the City of Brotherly Love," he said. Their lives of service and faithfulness are threads weaving a fabric of cultural variety that now comprises the membership of the Philadelphia stake and other surrounding stakes.
"These descriptions not only refer to the roots of our American history, but also speak to the basic Christ-like attitudes of the people who live here. We are currently engaged in a marvelous mission of vision and vitality in our stake that embraces the variety of God's children that are our friends and neighbors.
"The 5,000 baptized members of the Philadelphia stake are busy making a difference in the lives of the 5 million un-baptized members of our stake and district," he said. "That takes a lot of brotherly love, vision and vitality."
In the 300 years since William Penn envisioned the religious tolerance that has evolved into modern-day freedoms, "the Lord has continued to tend and till this part of His vineyard for what is now becoming a rich harvest of cultural beauty," said Pres. Crawford.