Willard Bean: Mormon missionary
Willard Washington Bean was a missionary sent to live in the Palmyra/Manchester area of New York and overcome bitter and hostile feelings toward The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so that members of the Church could return to the area.
Bean had served four full-time missions for the Church before his call to go live on the newly acquired Joseph Smith, Sr. farm near Palmyra, New York. Bean and his wife, Rebecca Peterson Bean, were directed to live in the home, farm the land, and befriend the local residents—no small task considering the prejudice toward the Church that had flourished since the Smith family had settled there in 1816. Many events in early Church history occurred in the vicinity, including the First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr., the heavenly visits from the angel Moroni, the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Living with Hostility
Beginning in February 1915, Bean and his family were the first members of the Church to live in Palmyra in eighty-four years.
- Word spread rapidly in upstate New York that Mormons were returning to their community. The citizens were irate. Entering Palmyra with a young wife and two children from a previous marriage, Willard was immediately branded as a polygamist. Few if any would speak to them; clerks refused to wait on them in stores; people walking their dogs crossed to the other side of the street to avoid them. For two years they had to drive their horse and buggy to neighboring towns just to buy groceries.
One of Bean’s first efforts was to get a copy of the Book of Mormon onto a shelf of the Palmyra public library, where the librarian and the library council only welcomed anti-Mormon publications. After the librarian died, Bean was invited to place a copy of the Book of Mormon at the library, so he acquired a special library edition from Salt Lake City and delivered it to the library.
The Fighting Parson
The Beans had lived in Palmyra only for a short time when townspeople held a meeting and sent three men to the farm to tell Bean and his family to leave. Bean replied, “Now, I’m sorry to hear that. We had hoped to come out here and fit in with you people and be an asset to this community. But I’m telling you we’re here to stay if we have to fight our way. I’ll take you on one at a time or three at a time. We’re here to stay.”
Bean knew the Bible well and was a well-seasoned Missionary. He was also a professional boxer. He was the middleweight champion of the United States and was known as “The Fighting Parson.”
Bean offered to put on a boxing exhibition and he challenged anyone in the community to get in the ring with him. The community provided three rows of the biggest men. During the exhibition, Bean knocked out each of his first seven opponents within fifteen seconds. The eighth contender declined to fight and no one else volunteered. During matches, while his opponents were being carried from the arena, Bean did back flips and gymnastic stunts to entertain his audience.
The exhibition warmed the community and Bean soon started holding street and cottage meetings. He soon preached to crowds of up to 400 regular attenders.
Prior to the arrival of the Bean family, no Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ existed in the area. Through the work of Bean and his wife and children and missionaries, three branches of the Church were established in the area.
Charged to Obtain Church Historical Sites
The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ also assigned Bean to arrange for purchase of Church historical properties in and around Palmyra. One of the properties Bean was anxious to acquire was the Hill Cumorah. The first time Bean took his family to the hill, a local farmer threatened them with a shotgun and wouldn’t let them set foot on the hill. The farmer did not own the hill.
James Inglis owned the west side of the hill and surrounding farmland. When Inglis decided to retire, he sold the property to Bean for the Church. The remainder of the hill was owned by local banker Pliny Sexton. He offered to sell it to George Albert Smith (Prophet) for an inflated price. He offered it to Willard Bean for $100,000, but Bean declined the offer at that price. When Sexton, passed away, the hill passed to several of his nieces who vowed never to sell it to the Church. In 1928, when each of the nieces had passed away, the lawyer for the Sexton estate called Bean and told him the time had come to arrange for the purchase of the hill. Bean bought the Hill, the three farms bordering the hill, and Grange Hall (more than 600 acres) for $53,000.
Over several years, Bean and his sons, Bean’s brother Virginius, local missionaries, volunteers, and hired workers, planted 65,000 young evergreen and 3,000 small hardwood trees to restore the natural beauty of the hill that existed at the time Joseph Smith received the gold plates. Bean made other improvements, including a road and parking. He laid the groundwork for the monument that was erected on the hill in 1935. He also directed the first theatrical production that was staged near the hill.
Although Bean and his family had been sent to Palmyra for approximately five years, they were released from their mission in 1939, after 24 years on the farm. They had been accepted and loved and had contributed to the community in many ways. Bean had been involved with the Lion’s Club, the PTA, the Businessman’s Club, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, and the Wayne County Boy Scouts of America.
- We had the satisfaction of seeing the prejudice gradually melt away, and respect for Joseph Smith and the Mormon people thoroughly established in Cumorah land. We had become fixtures. We learned the language and ways of the natives of Palmyra and the surrounding country and they had learned us.
Willard Bean and his family returned to Salt Lake City, where Bean died in September 1949.