Jedediah M. Grant in 1837 was among the first to begin LDS missionary work in Delaware. Local missionary William I. Appleby, a resident of nearby New Jersey, preached in Wilmington in January 1841 and attended a conference of the Wilmington Branch in November of that year. Appleby also recorded in his journal that he made a number of visits to Delaware in 1843, where he held a debate in Wilmington and preached in that city and surrounding areas. Heber C. Kimball and Lyman Wight of the Quorum of the Twelve presided at a June 1844 conference in Wilmington attended by about 100 people, where the Latter-day Saints voted unanimously to follow the First Presidency and the Twelve to whatever gathering place they might select in the western United States.
In the years that followed, Delaware Latter-day Saints followed through on that commitment, either by moving to Nauvoo or later to Utah, with some of them possibly among the 70 who left Philadelphia, Pa., in April 1849 for the West with William Appleby. During the next half century, there is no evidence of missionary work or other Church activity in Delaware.
Church representatives labored sporadically in Delaware during the first four decades of the 20th century. In 1901, missionary John E. Baird left Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit missionaries in several eastern cities, including Wilmington. In 1914, Stanley A. Lawrence and Alphonso W. Taylor reported teaching a Delaware woman who had gained a testimony of the Book of Mormon. Two years later a pair of elders reported renting a hall in Wilmington where meetings were held during the winter of 1916-1917. Other meetings were held in members’ homes and some of the Church’s auxiliary organizations were established and held classes and activities during the 1920s and 1930s. Latter-day Saints in Wilmington asked the Eastern States Mission for help, and missionaries again worked in the area for a while during the late 1930s. Meeting attendances varied between 10 and 20, without the group developing a self-sustaining nucleus of Church membership.
In the late 1920s, what local historian Helen Stark called “a reversal of migration, this time from West to East” began to take place as Latter-day Saints from Utah and other western states came to Wilmington seeking employment. Delaware was re-opened to missionary work in April 1940, and the Church’s presence in the state has been continuous since then. A branch was organized in Wilmington in September 1941 that became part of the district based in Philadelphia. Initially, the Wilmington Branch stretched some 200 miles to the south, but as members reached out to Latter-day Saints living outside of Wilmington, a group was organized at Salisbury, Md., — about 10 miles south of the Delaware state line — which became a branch in June 1953. Although it involved a 300-mile round trip, for a time Saints from Wilmington visited the new branch two Sundays a month to give aid to their fellow Church members. Later in the decade, another branch was established in Dover, the state capital.
There were approximately 100 members of the Church in Delaware in 1950. The next year the Wilmington Branch began raising money to build a meetinghouse, but it was 1955 before they succeeded in acquiring a site on which neighbors were willing to allow an LDS building to be erected. Ground was broken in 1958 and the branch moved into Delaware’s first Church-built facility in May 1960, although it was another six years before the local saints could fully pay for the building so it could be dedicated. In the fall of 1960, the Philadelphia Stake was organized, including wards and branches in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, the Wilmington Ward in Delaware, and the branches in Dover, Del., and Salisbury, Md. Of the new stake’s 2,000 members, some 400 lived in Delaware.
Missionary work accelerated during the 1960s and, although no new Church units were formed in Delaware, by 1970 the membership of the Philadelphia Stake had risen to 4,600, with nearly 1,100 of them residing in the two Delaware units and the Salisbury Branch. Continuing growth during the 1970s led to a division of the stake in December 1974, with the new Wilmington Delaware Stake taking in all of Delaware, the southern part of New Jersey, the Salisbury Branch in Maryland, and several communities in southeastern Pennsylvania that were part of the Wilmington Ward. Five years later, in November 1979, the New Jersey wards and branches of the stake in Wilmington were organized as the Pitman New Jersey Stake. By August 2001, all the Pennsylvania territory of the Wilmington Delaware Stake had been transferred to stakes based in Pennsylvania. At the end of 1980, Church membership in Delaware was 1,410, with another 716 members of the stake living in Maryland.
Church growth has been the greatest in recent years in the Wilmington metropolitan area, where there has been an influx of Latter-day Saints from other states not only to work for several large chemical companies but also in the banking industry. Southern Delaware is less industrialized and most members living there have joined the Church in that area.
With the Delaware economy growing rapidly and new housing developments springing up on the western edge of the Wilmington metropolitan area, a new stake center was built at Newark in 1989 and ward and branch boundaries in northern Delaware and Maryland were realigned to shorten the distances members traveled to weekly meetings. By 2004, the Wilmington Delaware Stake was composed of eight wards in Delaware, the Salisbury Ward in Maryland, branches that met in Cambridge and North East, Maryland, and a Spanish branch that held its services in Dover, Del.
Membership reached 4,073 in 2003. By 2005, membership reached 4,279.
Sources: Andrew Jenson, “Delaware,” Encyclopedic History of the Church, 1941; General mission annual reports and stake statistical recaps, 1950-1980, Church Archives; Helen Candland Stark, The L.D.S. Church in Delaware: A Book of Remembrance, 1966 (quotation is from p. 19); Afton Hepworth Hobbs, Reflections on the Salisbury Branch: A history of the early growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the lower Delmarva Peninsula, 1989; Susan Buhler Taber, Mormon Lives: A Year in the Elkton Ward, 1993; Kevin Stoker, “Church grows larger in 2nd smallest state,” Church News, 3 December 1988; “Setting a worthy example among friends,” Church News, 9 May 1998; Sharon Lance Sundelin, “The Wilmington Delaware Stake: No Small Wonder,” Ensign, March 2001.