In 1876 Mormon missionary John Morgan traveled to Georgia from Salt Lake City, Utah, in an effort to win converts for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). His most important accomplishment was the establishment of a Colorado colony for emigrating southern Latter-day Saints, an achievement rewarded when he was named president of the Southern States Mission.
John Hamilton Morgan was born on August 8, 1842, in Greensburg, Indiana, to Eliza Ann Hamilton and Garrard Morgan. He relocated to Illinois in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-65), and in 1862 he joined the Union army, mustering into service as a private with the 123rd Illinois Infantry. That regiment was assigned to Colonel John T. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” of mounted infantry, an innovative military creation used effectively during combat in north Georgia. As a member of Wilder’s brigade, Morgan participated in the battles of Chickamauga and Resaca, the assault on Kennesaw Mountain, and the siege of Atlanta.
He mustered out of service in 1865 and made his way to New York, where he completed a business curriculum at Eastman’s Commercial College. Opportunity led him to Salt Lake City, and there he became acquainted with and devoted to the LDS Church. In January 1867, with the support of church authorities, he established the Morgan Commercial College for young men and women seeking careers in business, thereby marking the beginning of a lifelong commitment to education. He was baptized in November 1867 and subsequently ordained an elder.
Morgan’s reputation grew quickly within the Mormon community, and in 1875 he was called as a missionary to the newly organized Southern States Mission. He did not immediately go south; instead, he labored for many months in Indiana and Illinois alongside missionary companion Joseph Standing, before making his way to Georgia in 1876. His mission field, established in the rugged and mountainous counties of northwest Georgia (with a base in Rome), produced so many converts that locals soon dubbed the region “Utah.” Morgan initially established small branches of the LDS Church in Georgia, then made plans to “gather” the new adherents to the West. In 1877 he led the first party of Georgians to Colorado, where southern Latter-day Saints established the cooperative settlement of Manassa in 1879.
In 1878, his first mission completed, the LDS Church called Morgan to resume his southern duties and gave him authority over the entire Southern States Mission. He was serving in that capacity in 1879 when Standing, his friend and fellow missionary, was murdered in Whitfield County by a mob of twelve north Georgians. Morgan pressed Georgia authorities to bring the murderers to justice, but he was intensely disappointed when Whitfield County juries acquitted the mob members of Standing’s murder.
During the 1880s, Morgan effectively divided his time between the South and the West. From his headquarters at Rome, he supervised the work of hundreds of missionaries assigned to southern mission fields. But frequent visits to Salt Lake City allowed Morgan to pursue other church and political activities. He served in the territorial legislature in Utah and worked in the campaign for statehood and the establishment of Utah’s Republican Party. His continuing efforts on behalf of the church—and his willingness to labor in the volatile southern states—were recognized in 1884 when he was chosen and ordained one of the First Seven Presidents of Seventies, an important position in the hierarchy of the LDS Church.
Morgan dedicated twelve years to the Southern States Mission. In 1888 he left his office as president and returned to Utah. He died on August 14, 1894, at the age of fifty-two.