No Law in Georgia for Mormons

Written by Randall Davis | Posted on 6 February 2024

(Photographed above is the Satilla River baptism of Joseph Adams on October 15, 1900. Joseph Adams was among the first to join what would become the Cumorah Church.)

In 1879, a mob of twelve locals gunned down Joseph Standing, a Mormon missionary traveling on a quiet country lane near Varnell, in Whitfield County, Georgia. A monument marks the location of his murder but no justice was to be had for Joseph and his family as there was no law in Georgia to protect Mormons during this era, and thus, his murderers evaded prosecution. He was laid to rest in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Latter-day Saints erected a monument bearing the words: “There is no law in Georgia for the Mormons.”

Portrait of Mormon missionary, Elder Joseph Standing. Courtesy of Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Joseph Standing began his mission work in 1875 and was one of seven men called to serve in the newly organized Southern States Mission. In early 1878, he was assigned to the state of Georgia. Joseph focused his proselytizing energies on the mountainous counties of northwest Georgia and missionaries were initially treated well. However, the majority of those who were baptized into the LDS faith followed the church’s advice to “gather with the Saints” and left their homes for Mormon settlements in Utah and Colorado. So as time went on, conversion to the LDS Church began to create a sense of separation—both physical and psychological—between converts and loved ones, which led some Georgians to view the Mormon missionaries as a threat to family and community.

Rudger Clawson and Joseph Standing, photographed in 1879.

On July 21, 1879, as Standing and missionary companion Rudger Clawson traveled from Whitfield County toward an LDS church conference in Chattooga County, they encountered an armed mob of twelve men. It is not clear that the mob intended murder, but by sundown Joseph Standing was dead, having suffered at least twenty gunshots to the head and neck. Clawson survived the encounter and resolved to return Standing’s body home to Utah. The Deseret News of Salt Lake City reported that 10,000 people attended the funeral service, which was conducted in the Tabernacle at Salt Lake City on August 3, 1879.

The Joseph Standing Memorial in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo courtesy of Ryan Reeder.

No Justice for Joseph Standing

By the time arrest warrants were issued for the twelve who participated in the mob, most had already slipped across the border into Tennessee. A posse finally captured three of the men and returned them to Whitfield County to await trial. When the grand jury met in Dalton in October, they returned indictments against all twelve members of the mob, charging them with murder and riot. Individual trials for the three captured men followed, but within days a jury acquitted them of the charges. The grand jury then moved to absolve the entire mob of blame. Mormon authorities reacted angrily to the decisions and publicly denounced the state’s failure to hold Standing’s killers accountable. 

Unable to secure protection for them, the church pulled out all missionaries in Georgia for the next decade. However, they didn’t abandon the mission field in Georgia completely- cautiously resuming their work here in 1899 when missionaries returned.

Historic image of the congregation at Cumorah Mormon Church in Coffee County, Georgia in 1912. This church was founded by Rudger Clawson. Photo courtesy of Satilla River Saints.

The LDS Church Returns to Georgia

Following the Mormon return to Georgia, a church called Litte Utah was established in 1905, founded by Elders Clawson (who had been traveling with Joseph Standing), Foote, Tate, Jensen, Brewer, and others. In 1907, the elders met and decided that another church was needed north of the Satilla RIver, and Cumorah Mormon Church in Coffee County was founded. Today, this empty church building is the oldest LDS church that is still standing in Georgia.

Cumorah Mormon Church in Coffee County. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Jennings.

Use of the church building ceased in 1975. Despite decades of controversy and persecution in Georgia, the LDS members eventually came to thrive here. In 1905, another church was founded nearby in Axson called Little Utah Church. By 1936, there were more than 1,800 Mormons in the state, and today, an estimated 84,500 members in 155 congregations. A temple, the most sacred of Mormon buildings, was dedicated in Sandy Springs, Georgia in 1983.

Information for this blog came from:

Article by Randall Davis “There is no Law in Georgia for Mormons” Published Summer 2018, Georgia Backroads Magazine.

John Adams; 1934: History of Cumorah Chapel.

The Satilla River Saints Website

The Cumorah Junction Blog

New Georgia Encyclopedia