Harmon, John Wesley Jr.


photo of  John Wesley Harmon Jr.

John Wesley Harmon Jr. (known as Wesley) was born on January 17, 1881, in Warwick, Delaware. He was the oldest of four children born to John Wesley Harmon Sr. and Amelia Ann “Annie” Street. Little is known about Wesley’s childhood, but it appears he spent his earliest years in Sussex County, Delaware, where his father was a farmer.[1]

Likely after the death of his father in 1890, Wesley moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to live with his aunt and uncle, Isabella and Charles Morris.[2] Wesley graduated from James Logan School in Philadelphia in June 1900.[3] It must have been around this time that Wesley met Latter-day Saint missionaries preaching in the area.

On June 15, 1900, at the age of nineteen, Wesley was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Elder Joseph John Gill, a missionary from Salt Lake City, Utah, performed the baptism. His companion, Elder Heber Charles Ballantyne of Baker City, Oregon, likely witnessed the event.[4]

The circumstances surrounding Wesley’s conversion are not clear from historical records.[5] However, Wesley shared his feelings about his new faith eight years later in the Liahona: The Elders’ Journal missionary magazine. He wrote: “I wish to add my testimony to those of the scattered Saints throughout the land. I was baptized [June] 15, 1900, since which time the blessing of the Lord has rested upon me in such a degree that I know the work is of God. Spread this fact to all the world: ‘Mormonism’ is Truth!”[6]

By 1904, Wesley had returned to Delaware. He owned and operated a flour mill in Sussex County.[7]

On April 22, 1907, Wesley married Lillian “Lilly” Blanche Clark, a daughter of William Russell Clark and Florence Drain. Lilly’s father William, also known as Chief Wyniaco, was the head of the Nanticoke Tribe at the Indian River District in Sussex County, Delaware.[8]

Whether Lilly was baptized as a Latter-day Saint is not known. But when two of the Harmon’s newborn children died in 1909 and 1911, Latter-day Saint missionaries from the East Pennsylvania District of the Eastern States Mission conducted the funeral services, according to notices in Liahona. Lilly is referred to as “Sister Harmon” in the 1909 notice, but there is no record of her baptism.[9]

In 1911, Wesley’s flour mill was destroyed by fire, and the Harmons relocated to Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where Wesley taught school for a short time. The family, however, soon returned to Dover, Delaware, where Wesley studied at Delaware State College for Colored Students.[10]

Wesley appears to have been an active Latter-day Saint between his baptism in 1900 and at least 1912. However, he spent most of that time in Delaware, where there was no official branch of the church. It is unclear if or how he participated in weekly worship services or how he maintained contact with Latter-day Saint missionaries in Philadelphia.

In 1912, Wesley began writing to Ben E. Rich, president of the Eastern States Mission, about concerns he had over priesthood ordination for people of African descent. Apparently, there was enough ambiguity around policies toward Black Latter-day Saints that Rich forwarded the letters to church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, for guidance. On May 1, 1912, the First Presidency responded to Rich. “Your correspondence with Brother J. Wesley Harmon, a colored member of the Church, was duly received,” their letter began. “The subject of Brother Harmon’s letters and your reply thereto involve a principle which he does not seem to fully comprehend, and which could not be properly taken up without some care and consideration for him and the race to which he belongs.”[11]

The First Presidency appears to quote parts of Wesley’s original letters, giving readers a glimpse into the case he made for priesthood ordination. Wesley cited apostles Peter and Paul, who both taught that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34–35; Romans 2:11). “The meaning which he attaches to the saying of Paul and of Peter on this matter,” the First Presidency wrote, “is not warranted by the texts.” They believed those scriptures referred to individual salvation, which was possible for every person regardless of race. But, they argued, those verses did not apply to exaltation in the celestial kingdom, which Latter-day Saints believed was the highest degree of glory in the afterlife—made possible through sacred rituals performed in consecrated temples unavailable to Black men and women at the time. “Now,” they wrote, “does this imply that every individual is to have the opportunity to become a priest, a king, a ruler? Not at all!”[12]

The First Presidency continued their justifications for a segregated priesthood. They explained that priesthood ordination had always been “conveyed through a certain lineage” throughout human history. In ancient Israel, for example, priesthood was given only to patrilineal descendants in the House of Aaron. No other Israelites, including those of the tribe of Levi to which the House of Aaron belonged, could be ordained priests. “Did this prove that God was a respecter of persons?” the First Presidency asked rhetorically. They further compared the modern-day race-based ban on priesthood to the gendered makeup of priesthood ordination. “The same might be said concerning the restriction to the priesthood confining it to one sex,” they wrote. “Women are not ordained to any office in the priesthood, yet they are ‘heirs of salvation’ and will enter into glory to a fulness and will enjoy all that they are entitled to according to their works.”[13]

Wesley must have heard similar claims from Latter-day Saint missionaries. He explained that he had white ancestors in his family tree and hoped that a mixed racial heritage might be grounds for priesthood ordination. “Our friend,” the First Presidency letter continues, “takes some comfort in the claim that he has ‘some of the blood of Ephraim’ in his veins. Does not that on its very face show that he conceives, to some extent at least, the effect of lineage as it relates to the priesthood?” By this time, however, church leaders—influenced by the hardening of legal segregation in the United States—had adopted a “one-drop rule” as it pertained to race and priesthood. No matter one’s complexion or mixed racial background, if a person had any Black ancestry—or one drop of “negro blood,” as it was understood—then they were barred from priesthood ordination.[14]

The First Presidency turned to scripture in justifying a race-based priesthood ban. “The revelations received in these latter times not only designate certain lines of lineage in which the authority of the priesthood is specifically bestowed,” they wrote, “but shows how the race to which our Brother Harmon belongs is excluded from the office of the priesthood.” They quoted from the Pearl of Great Price, a book of scripture produced by Joseph Smith, in claiming “the seed of Ham, through Canaan, formed the origin of the negro race.”[15] Yet, historians have shown that church leaders in the early twentieth century, in fact, misinterpreted these passages, reading their own cultural assumptions about biblical genealogy, lineage, and scientific racism into the scriptures. The so-called “curse of Ham” or “curse of Canaan,” though based on faulty reasoning, had long been popular justifications for slavery and segregation in the United States. Latter-day Saint leaders inherited these disputed theories and used them to fortify their own race-based policies.[16]

Despite stern statements regarding race and priesthood ordination, the First Presidency looked to reassure Wesley that salvation could still be achieved. Apparently quoting Wesley, they wrote, “The notion that one who cannot receive the priesthood is an ‘outcast from all the grand dominions of heaven and eternity,’ which seems to be entertained by our colored friend, is a gross error.” They continued: “The glories of salvation and eternal happiness and progress are secured to all the posterity of Adam, through obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who died for all, no matter what their color or race may be.” Yet, their closing argument essentially paraphrased Isaiah 55:8—that God’s ways are not man’s ways. They wrote: “As to the reasons why the Lord foreordained the ‘times before appointed and the bounds of the habita­tions’ of all the children of men, selected certain families and their descendants to hold his divine authority called priesthood, they are in His own mind and purpose, and no human being has the right to question His authority and wisdom and justice in regard to this matter.” The First Presidency looked to squash any chance at a Wesley rebuttal.[17]

Although church leaders in the twenty-first century have unequivocally denounced past racist justifications for the ban on priesthood (which was overturned in 1978), it was too late for Wesley Harmon.[18] There is no record of how Wesley reacted to the First Presidency’s 1912 response or how it was communicated to him. It is likely that he found the reasoning for the priesthood and temple bans unsatisfactory, as the Harmons gradually fade from church records over the next several years.

In 1914, Wesley graduated from Delaware State College for Colored Students.[19] One year later, he moved his now family of four to Washington, D.C., where he studied at Howard University. Wesley’s name is listed in an undated church membership record of Latter-day Saints living in Washington, D.C., suggesting that he may have been an active member of the church after his move from Delaware—and after receiving the letter from the First Presidency.[20] However, if so, he appears to distance himself from the Latter-day Saints not long thereafter. The undated membership list is the last time Wesley appears in church records.

When the Harmons moved to Washington, D.C., in 1915, there were not enough Latter-day Saints in the district to form an official congregation of the church. The Washington Branch of the Eastern States Mission would not be created until 1919. Still, informal Sunday evening sacrament meetings were held at the home of Reed Smoot, a United States senator from Utah and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. If Wesley was an active member of the church in Washington, D.C., per the undated membership record, then it is possible he attended meetings at the Smoot home.[21]

Although Wesley left the Latter-day Saint fold sometime after moving to Washington, D.C., his search for religion continued. He is listed in one of the Howard University yearbooks as a “chaplain” with the nickname “Rev,” likely short for Reverend.[22] Another yearbook reported that Wesley achieved top performance in his Greek language class—perhaps hinting at a study of the New Testament.[23] It is unclear where Wesley’s spiritual journey went from there but he may have become Methodist with other members of his family. According to his great-granddaughter, Lynn Locklear, Wesley’s son Robert was a devout Methodist. Wesley’s wife Lillie died fourteen years after him in 1954, and her funeral services were conducted in a Methodist church.[24]

Of note, Wesley is described in one of the Howard University yearbooks as “quiet, unassuming, likeable.”[25] 

After graduating from Howard University, the Harmon family remained in Washington, D.C., and Wesley opened a grocery store at 12th Street and S Street in the northwest part of the district. According to a 1939 article in the Afro-American newspaper, Wesley’s store had thrived over the previous twenty years. “I feel I have done a good job with my store all these years, because I have been able to raise a family of six children successfully,” Wesley told the reporter. “And now my future aim is to turn the operation of my business over to them.” His newspaper profile ends with this: “His philosophy on life is give all you have to the world—even if it hurts—as you will find the results return doubled.”[26]

Wesley died on October 30, 1940 in Fairmont, Delaware.[27] He was buried at Indian Mission Cemetery in Millsboro, Sussex County, Delaware. His tombstone reads: “Scholar, Educator, Businessman.”[28]

By Justin Bray

Primary Sources

“14 Negro Students Receive Diplomas.” The Morning News. May 30, 1914, 3.

Anderson, Harry B. “Meet Your Neighbor.” Washington Afro American. July 1, 1939.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. CR 375 8, box 1686, folder 1, item 9. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Deaths.” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.). November 2, 1940, A-8.

Delaware. State Board of Health. Division of Vital Statistics. Certificate of Death. Registered No. 1938. John Wesley Harmon. Delaware Public Archives. Dover, Delaware.

East Pennsylvania District general minutes. LR 2459 11, Folder 2. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Eastern States Mission statistical records. LR 2475 32, Folder 1. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

First Presidency to Ben E. Rich, May 1, 1912. As cited in Minutes of the Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 4 vols. Salt Lake City: Privately Published, 2010.

“History of the Washington D.C. LDS Ward: From Beginnings (1839) to Dissolution (1975).” M277.53 W319b 1990. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Howard University Catalogue, 1915–1916. Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1916.

Howard University Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1918.

Liahona: The Elders’ Journal.

“Pupils Promoted to Higher Schools.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. June 29, 1900, 2.

United States. 1880 Census. Indian River, Sussex County, Delaware.

United States. 1900 Census. Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County, Philadelphia.

United States. 1910 Census. Sussex County, Delaware.

United States. 1940 Census. Washington, D. C.

United States. Delaware. Dover. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. John Wesley Harmon. National Archives and Record Administration. Washington, D.C.

“William Russell Clark, Chief of Nanticokes, Is Dead.” The News Journal. October 10, 1928, 1.

Secondary Sources

Harmon, John Wesley Jr. FindAGrave.com.

Harmon, John Wesley Jr. (K63L-68Y), ordinance records at FamilySearch.org, accessed 16 December 2020.

“Race and the Priesthood,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

Reeve, W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[1] United States, 1880 Census, Indian River, Sussex County, Delaware.

[2] United States, 1900 Census, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County, Philadelphia.

[3] “Pupils Promoted to Higher Schools,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 29, 1900, 2.

[4] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, CR 375 8, box 1686, folder 1, item 9, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[5] In March 1900, Elders Gill and Ballantyne reported poor prospects in Philadelphia but “a nice opening in Camden, New Jersey.” In April, they wrote to their superiors that they were “making advancement” and that “a good work is being done.” That same month, they “organized a religious class with an enrollment of about twenty members, most of whom were non-church members and thus far were creating some little interest.” In May, they added that “some cottage meetings are held with fairly good success.” In June, they baptized Wesley, but he is never mentioned in their missionary reports. See East Pennsylvania District general minutes, LR 2459 11, Folder 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[6] “Testimonies,” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 6, no. 1 (June 20, 1908): 19. Wesley wrote that he was baptized on July 15 rather than June 15. But according to missionary records from the time, Elder Gill and Elder Ballantyne reported two baptisms in June and none in July. Further, a church membership record from circa 1915 lists Wesley’s baptism date as June 15, 1900. FamilySearch.org lists his baptism date as June 17, 1900, but there are no sources verifying that date. Suffice it to say that Wesley was baptized between June and July 1900. See Eastern States Mission statistical records, p. 66–67, LR 2475 32, Folder 1, CHL. See also East Pennsylvania District general minutes, p. 91, LR 2459 11, Folder 2, CHL.

[7] Harry B. Anderson, “Meet Your Neighbor,” Washington Afro American, July 1, 1939.

[8] “William Russell Clark, Chief of Nanticokes, Is Dead,” The News Journal, October 10, 1928, 1.

[9] “Eastern States Mission,” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 6, no. 42 (April 3, 1909): 1024; “Eastern States,” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 9, no. 28 (January 2, 1912): 447.

[10] Harry B. Anderson, “Meet Your Neighbor,” Washington Afro American, July 1, 1939.

[11] First Presidency to Ben E. Rich, May 1, 1912, as cited in Minutes of the Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Privately Published, 2010) 4:1576.

[12] First Presidency to Ben E. Rich.

[13] First Presidency to Ben E. Rich.

[14] First Presidency to Ben E. Rich.

[15] First Presidency to Ben E. Rich.

[16] W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 199–210. 

[17] First Presidency to Ben E. Rich.

[18] “Race and the Priesthood,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org, accessed November 2020.

[19] “14 Negro Students Receive Diplomas,” The Morning News, May 30, 1914, 3.

[20] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, CR 375 8, box 1686, folder 1, item 9, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[21] “History of the Washington D.C. LDS Ward: From Beginnings (1839) to Dissolution (1975),” M277.53 W319b 1990, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[22] Howard University Yearbook, 1918 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1918), 16.

[23] Howard University Catalogue, 1915–1916 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1916), 215.

[24] According to private correspondence with a surviving great-granddaughter, the children of Wesley’s daughter Ruth Harmon Walker, “in particular Evangeline, was Mormon.” I have been unable to locate records verifying this information.

[25] Howard University Yearbook, 1918 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1918), 16.

[26] Harry B. Anderson, “Meet Your Neighbor,” Washington Afro American, July 1, 1939.

[27] “Deaths,” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), November 2, 1940, A-8.

[28] John Wesley Harmon Jr., FindAGrave.com. In 1976, Harmon was ordained to the LDS priesthood by proxy and received proxy temple rituals in the Los Angeles California Temple. See John Wesley Harmon Jr. (K63L-68Y), ordinance records at FamilySearch.org, accessed 16 December 2020.


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