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Filmmaker T.C. Christensen’s new movie The Fighting Preacher will open in theaters on July 24 and reminds us that we are people of poignant, unforgettable stories. We have our restoration stories, yes, with an inspired Joseph Smith carving out impossible tasks for the faithful. We have our pioneer stories so vivid that you can almost taste the dust of the trail.
These we must tell, but there are people beyond the 19th century whose faith and devotion are still breathtaking and inspiring. The story of Willard and Rebecca Bean is one of those, and if those names don’t sound familiar, they will work their way right into your soul in this new film.
A book is also available on this story, written by grandson Rand Packer, and called A Lion and a Lamb. This was drawn from, among other sources, Willard’s own journal, so detailed that he often included word-for-word conversations.
A Surprising Mission Call
They were newlyweds in February of 1915, when they attended a Richfield Stake Conference, longing to see President Joseph F. Smith, who was presiding at the conference. To their surprise, President Smith rose to the pulpit and addressed the congregation, “Willard Bean, will you please come to the stand?”
Willard was shocked to hear his name, but when he made his way to President Smith, he heard these surprising words, “Willard, I’ve got another mission for you.” The Church had just taken possession of the Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith family farm in Palmyra, after long years of owning it, and the Beans were asked to go live there, and re-establish the Church in the area.
It was a five-year call that the Beans could have never suspected would last 25 years and become the longest mission in the history of the Church. But it wasn’t just the length that would require every bit of willpower, strength and spiritual fortitude from them. Though it had been 85 years since Joseph Smith and his family had left Palmyra, rancor toward the Latter-day Saints was part of the culture of the town, and it blossomed like a poisonous plant, expressed as if it were a virtue determined to stamp out a heresy.
Their grandson, Rand, wrote, “Hatred is a powerful darkness. It makes normal people froth at the mouth like hungry wolves, changing their true identities. It separates reason and sanity from the soul…People of God are no strangers to hatred. Over the centuries hatred has found easy prey amongst good people in every land. They have tasted persecution and martyrdom and have been lured to hate those who hated them first. Hate plus hate equals more hate, which multiples exponentially into peoples, nations, and cultures hating each other simply because parents’ hatred before them. This evil cycle continues through millennia unless someone, somewhere, stands courageously and refuses to hate back in return, even at the peril of their lives.”
Not hating back was the mission of the Beans. It was their mission to transform hatred to friendship, and to, incidentally, buy the Hill Cumorah and other important church sites.
The Beans would be very much alone in a town that hated them, both individually and collectively, and made no secret of it. Even as they pulled up to the Joseph Smith house for the first time, Willard pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket where he had hidden it that read:
BEWARE OF THE MORMONS
$5000—OFFERED BY THE
Their first visitors were a group of three gruff men, who, when Willard invited them in, refused him, and indicated they merely wanted to say their piece and be gone. That piece was this. The citizens of Palmyra had met that night and it was the unanimous feeling that everybody wanted them to leave.
For a number of reasons, Willard knew no fear. He had already been under the most antagonistic circumstances in his mission to the southern states where the missionaries before him had been murdered. More importantly, he was a gifted boxer and had at one time been the middle-weight champion of the United States. “He was an absolute physical specimen and could throw a punch clear into the next county,” his grandson wrote.
Rebecca, who was expecting a baby, when they arrived, tasted her own kind of bitterness. Though she knocked at door after door, no one would come and act as a mid-wife and help her through her birth.
When Willard went to the store to buy parts to fix the crossbar on his wagon, a man in the store stepped forward and told him, “We do have those parts, but they are not available at this particular time. “
When Willard asked when they would be available, the answer was, “It all depends on whose buying them.”
When Willard answered that it would be him, the storekeeper answered again, “It’s not for sale. We’re pretty particular here.”
Willard soon realized that to buy supplies, they had to take the extra time to drive to another town. Palmyra would not sell goods to any Mormons.
Rebecca and Willard also tried to hike up the Hill Cumorah to visit that place they had been charged to somehow purchase. A man chased them off the hill with a gun and told them never, never to return. Willard responded with his characteristic optimism. He thanked him for making them feel so very welcome in Palmyra.
If it was tough for the Beans, their young daughter, Palmyra, was left to face the wolves at school nearly on her own. While all other children had desks that faced the teacher and the blackboard, Palmyra was placed in a corner facing away, in a desk bolted to the floor. The teacher was as cruel to her as the children were as they taunted and mocked and pushed her. She didn’t go out to recess, but watched forlornly through a window knowing that in the brawl of the play yard her vulnerability would only be worse.
Things changed only inch by inch for the Beans. First and foremost, they made is clear that they were there to stay, no matter what hatred was heaped upon them. As Packer wrote, “this little family had glue on their boots, and…they were stuck with them no matter what.” When they tried to talk to their neighbors about the gospel, they were quickly rebuffed, so they turned to street meetings. Rebecca’s high soprano tones singing the songs of Zion caused traffic jams at the main intersection in Palmyra.
Willard also used his gifts of boxing and physical prowess to great advantage. As Packer wrote, “As the years rolled precipitously along, Willard’s unrelenting and unyielding defense of the Church became acceptable to the community. He was not afraid to bring his fighting spirit into play and even into a fight if necessary. The residents began to respect this man of principle who would not back down, and just as a fighter in the ring gains respect for his opponent as the rounds tick by, so it was with the Beans and everyone else. Some of the hatred had finally been replaced with respect.
“The local newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and found excellent reading fodder for their subscribers. Names such as The Fighting Parson, Kid Bean, and The Mormon Cyclone were front-page news in a small community, and Willard maneuvered to take advantage of the newly found press coverage.”
Mostly what the Beans did was endure with grace, turn the other cheek and treat their neighbors with extraordinary kindness. Their service in a community that once hated them became legendary. They turned the tide in Palmyra.
Rebecca’s Remarkable Experience
But the work load was tremendous. Everyone who came east wanted to see the Joseph Smith home and the Hill Cumorah, and they might stay for several days to many weeks. Missionaries who had served in many locations wanted to stop and see these sacred sites on their way back to Salt Lake City. One of these was Gordon B. Hinckley. Heber J. Grant found his way there as to many others.
The brunt of the work of cleaning and preparing meals fell on Rebecca who also had a large family to care for. She became exhausted.
The following is an account of one of her most sacred experiences from Rand Packer’s book and based on a fireside she gave hundreds of times when she returned to Salt Lake.
“It was a hot summer day and we had a lot of visitors that day. It had been a hard day for me; I had a baby. He was just a year old and I had carried my baby around on my arm most of the day to get my work done. It was too warm and everything had gone against us and nighttime came and we had lunch for our visitors, and we had supper at night and I had put my children to bed and we had a very nice evening.
“Dr. Talmage was there with some missionaries and we had a really wonderful evening talking together. So, they all seemed tired and I took them upstairs and showed them where they could sleep. When I came down I thought, ‘Well, I will pick up a few things and make things easier for me in the morning.’ But I was so weary and so tired that I was crying as I went and straightened things around in my house. Everybody was in bed and asleep but me. I looked at the clock and it was eleven o’clock and I can remember that I had said I had better call it a day. I went into my room and my husband was sound asleep and my baby also. It was peaceful and quiet. I got myself ready for bed. I said my prayers and I got into bed.
“I was crying on my pillow, and then this dream or vision came to me. I thought it was another day. It had been a wonderful morning. I had prepared breakfast for my visitors and my children were happily playing around and I had done my work and cared for the baby and he was contented and happy and then I prepared lunch and I called our visitors into lunch and we were all seated around the table, my little baby in his highchair and everything was just peaceful, wonderful and sweet.
“There was a knock on the front door and I went in and opened it and there was a very handsome young man standing there and I just took it for granted that he was just another missionary that had come to see us. I said, ‘You’re here just in time for lunch. Come with me.’
“As we walked through the little hall into the dining room, I noticed he laid some little pamphlets down at the end of the table there. We walked into the dining room and I introduced him around. Then I said, ‘Now, you sit right here by Dr. Talmage and I’ll set a plate for you.’
“I thought, of course, he was strange to all of us, and yet he and Dr. Talmage seemed so happy to see each other and they talked about such wonderful things while we were eating, some of them we could hardly understand, but the spirit that was there and the room was so peaceful and nice and everyone seemed so happy to be together. After the meal was over, Dr. Talmage said to the missionaries, ‘Now let’s go outside and just linger here and enjoy the spirit of this wonderful place, because we will soon have to leave.’
“I put my baby to bed and the other little ones went out to play and then I was alone with the young man. He thanked me for having him to dinner and told me how much it meant for him to be there. He told me he thought that the children were so sweet and well-trained and I felt so happy about that.
“Then we walked in the hall together and he said, ‘I have far to go, so I must be on my way.’ I turned from him for just a minute to pick up these little pamphlets he had laid on the table, and when I turned back to him it was the Savior who stood before me. He was in His glory and I could not tell you the love and the sweetness that He had in His face and in His eyes. Lovingly He laid His hands on my shoulders, and He looked down into my face with the kindest face that I had ever seen. Then He said to me, ‘Sister Bean, this day hasn’t been too hard for you has it?’
“I said, ‘Oh no, I have been so happy with my work and everything has gone so well.’
“He responded, ‘I promise you, if you will go about your work everyday as you have done it this day, you will be equal to it. Now remember these missionaries represent me on this earth and all that you give unto them you give unto me.’
“I remember I was crying as we walked to the hall out onto the porch and He repeated the same thing. Then He started upward. The roof of the porch was no obstruction for Him to go through, nor for me to see through. He went upward and upward and upward. I wondered how I could see Him so far away. And then all at once He disappeared.
“Then I was crying in my pillow like I was when I went to bed. And I bear humble testimony to you that never again was there any frustration in my life. Never again did too many missionaries come that I couldn’t find beds for them to sleep on or enough food to give them. The great love that I had for the missionaries even then became greater after what the Savior said to me. How I wish that every missionary that went out in the world could feel that His love and His guidance are only a prayer away in preaching His gospel. Oh, how much they mean to Him.”
When the Beans left in 1939, Palmyra had transformed toward not only them but their faith. The Beans had been instrumental in purchasing the Hill Cumorah, the Martin Harris home, and the Peter Whitmer home and they left behind many new members of the Church. As if a 25-year mission had not been enough, both Rebecca and Willard went back to Salt Lake and immediately became temple square missionaries.
Rand Packer, who is the son of their first daughter, Palmyra, only remembers Willard as an older man, who died when he was five years old, but Rebecca, who was much younger than Willard lived another twenty years, and he often stayed with her when his parents would travel.
“We were always laughing and reminiscing and thinking back and talking about Willard and Palmyra. In her older years, it was difficult for her to walk, so she used a cane, but she was very active. I remember every Sunday night, someone would come and pick her up and take her to give a fireside about her experiences in Palmyra. She did 100 firesides a year.”
He also remembered that her Palmyra experiences had shaped her. “I remember once when I was a little boy I got upset when we were in the park at my siblings. They teased me and I started crying. She didn’t side with me. She came and told me to buckle up and be tough. She was the kindest, most wonderful, spiritual lady.”
So how was it for the Bean family to see their grandparents’ story made into a movie? Packer said he couldn’t have been more pleased, and he was made historical consultant on the set. “T.C. Christensen was very open to our family being there. We were welcome on the set at any time. I would sit there and pinch myself thinking that this is actually happening. He constantly involved me in the process.”
In fact, wherever there are extras in the scenes, many of them are Bean family members.
“What I love about their lives is that they deeply portray the ministering concept. That is what they did. So much attention is often paid to Willard because with his boxing he is a colorful character, but Rebecca was equally there, making a difference.”
The Fighting Preacher film opens July 24. Rand Packer’s book, A Lion and a Lamb is available through Amazon.