Standing on the historic corner of 6th Street and Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Charles Muldowney points out the Mormon Preaching Place, the Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall. He talks about early missionaries and visits by early Church leaders to the city — where Joseph Smith organized the first branch in 1839 and where President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated a new temple last year.
For Muldowney, threads of American history, Church history and his own personal history weave together in Philadelphia.
An artist, historian and employee with the Church Educational System, Muldowney was born in Philadelphia and attended the Philadelphia College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
He joined the Church when he was 18 and now he and his wife, Judith, have 12 children and 30 grandchildren who all have deep roots in the historic city.
“This is their history. This is their heritage,” says Judith Muldowney.
It is a history claimed today by all Latter-day Saints.
In the 17th century, William Penn — an advocate of democracy — undertook a “holy experiment” and founded the city of Philadelphia on the principles of religious freedom.
Years later, Joseph Smith translated much of the Book of Mormon while living in Harmony, Pennsylvania. The priesthood was restored and Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were baptized in the Susquehanna River, about 150 miles north of Philadelphia.
Missionaries first arrived in Philadelphia in 1837. Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith’s younger brother, and then Jedediah Grant, who would later serve in the First Presidency, each preached in the city with great success. There were more than 100 Latter-day Saints in Philadelphia by 1838.
Muldowney, who has created walking tours of the Church in Philadelphia, loves the history of the Church here.
Pointing in the distance to the corner of Seventh and Callowhill Streets, Muldowney speaks of a brick building that no longer exists. It was there that in October of 1839, LDS missionary Benjamin Winchester secured the use of the structure for preaching.
Joseph Smith visited Philadelphia after meeting with U.S. President Martin Van Buren, where he had unsuccessfully sought redress for property lost by Church members in Missouri.
The prophet organized the first branch in Philadelphia on Dec. 23, 1839 — his 34th birthday. A few weeks after the branch was organized, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Orson Hyde and Parley P. Pratt participated in a conference in the city, held in the First Independent Church of Christ (now the Kesher Israel Synagogue) at 412 Lombard Street.
Muldowney said Parley P. Pratt’s journal records that 2,000 people attended the meeting. Elder Pratt wrote that Joseph “arose like a lion about to roar” and spoke with great power, he said.
In the early 1840’s the Philadelphia branch was the largest Mormon congregation on the East Coast. Then on May 29, 1843, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote a letter to the members in Philadelphia and counseled them to “move without delay” to Nauvoo, according to Muldowney.
The first LDS chapel built in the city, located at 316 South 46th Street in West Philadelphia, was dedicated almost a century later on May 22, 1938; President Henry B. Eyring was baptized in the chapel.
Like Muldowney and many others with ties to Philadelphia, President Eyring — before dedicating the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple last year — expressed appreciation for the Founding Fathers of the United States. These men, in the very place the Lord has built a temple, created “under the inspiration of God” a governmental structure that allowed for freedom of religion.
Today the temple, President Eyring said, represents the hand of God in Philadelphia, “as it must have been once as the country was founded.”
Walking near Independence Hall, Muldowney speaks of the new temple in his city as a tribute to the rich history of the area.
He speaks of the discarded cobblestones brought as ballast weight for British ships and used by industrious colonists to make streets. He loves to think of the early Church members who walked on those cobblestone streets.
“We are walking on sacred ground when you get right down to it,” he says.