This article originally appeared in Vol.62, No.2 (2015) of Pioneer Magazine.
by Fred E. Woods, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine
The glorious news of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ included the doctrine of the gathering—the coming together of God’s covenant people. Adherence to this doctrine would result in dramatic life changes and, for many, would require an arduous journey to a new homeland.
During much of the first decade of the restored Church of Jesus Christ the call to gather did not extend, beyond the boundaries of North America until the necessary priesthood keys were restored on April 3, 1836, just one week after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. Moses appeared and restored to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery “the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth” (D&C 110:11).
In the Kirtland Temple on June 4, 1837, Joseph Smith approached one of his trusted associates. Apostle Heber C. Kimball, and confided in him, “Brother Heber, the Spirit of the Lord has whispered to me: ‘Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my Gospel, and open the door of salvation to that nation.'” A short time later. Elder Kimball, with fellow apostle Orson Hyde, prepared to lead a small group of missionaries across the Atlantic to England to gather converts from afar. The members of this group included Willard Richards, Joseph Fielding, Isaac Russell, John Snyder, and John Goodson.
During the space of just nine months, these early missionaries to the British Isles brought more than fifteen hundred converts into the told and organized many branches. After this nine-month period. Apostles Kimball and Hyde returned to America April 20, 1838, while Fielding, Richards, and English convert Wiliam Clayton served as an interim British Mission presidency.
This initial success was bolstered less than two years later when eight members of the Twelve— Brigham Young, Heber C, Kimball, Parley P Pratt, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, George A, Smith, and Willard Richards—embarked on another mission to Great Britain (January 1840 to April 1841). They were Joined later in 1840 by a ninth member of the Twelve, Orson Hyde, who was with them until early 1841 when he departed on his mission to Palestine.
The Twelve found great success, and by the spring of 1840, the desired foothold had been secured. Following a motion to allow foreign converts to emigrate, the British Saints began their gathering to Nauvoo with the launching of the sailing vessel Brittania on June 8, 1840, from Liverpool. This Mayflower company consisted of forty-one Saints, led by British convert John Moon.
After safely arriving in Illinois, John Moon’s brother Francis wrote back to his British homeland to describe the temporal and spiritual advantages of immigrating to Nauvoo:
“What I might say upon this subject [I hope] might have the tendency of encouraging my fellow Englishmen in the point of gathering… And [I] would say if you can get to this land, you will be better off than in England, for in this place there is a prospect of receiving every good thing both of this world and that which is to come.”
Just two months after the first British proselytes left Liverpool to gather to Nauvoo, the First Presidency issued an official call to erect the temple. At this time, the call to build the Nauvoo Temple seems to have been the greatest stimulus for converts from afar to gather to Nauvoo.
Letters home to England bearing glad tidings from British immigrants also paved the way for nearly five thousand other British converts to follow them to Nauvoo between June 1840 and January 1848, sailing on thirty-four voyages chartered by the Church, By the time the Saints began their forced exile from Nauvoo (February 4, 1848), over one-fourth of the city was made up of British converts.
The maiden voyage of the Britannia would be followed by over four hundred additional voyages carrying Latter Day Saint passengers which continued to embark from Liverpool from 1840-1890. With the exception of a few LDS voyages out of Southampton. In 1894, the Mormons continued to use Liverpool as their main port of embarkation throughout the nineteenth century.
Mormon maritime historian Conway Sonne observed that Liverpool was highly accessible to Irish Saints via rail connections to the ports at Hull and Grimsby, In addition, the Mersey River was easier to navigate than the Thames, and it was a day closer than London, Sonne further notes, *Most Important In Liverpool’s growth was a 200-acre dock system, forming a belt along the waterfront that attended three and eventually seven miles.
Latter-day Saints enjoyed an extra blessing in that during the latter half of the nineteenth century Liverpool served as headquarters for both their European and British missions and therefore created an additional reason to focus migration efforts from this important communication center. By 1851, the British census noted that Liverpool had a population of 387,000, the second largest city In all of England.
Nearly 90,000 Latter-day Saint converts migrated through the city during the nineteenth century.
Besides the British proselytes, other European converts also used the port of Liverpool, especially the Scandinavians Saints heeding the call to come to Zion. Faithful Scandinavians generally departed from the harbor at Copenhagen, crossed the North Sea to the port of Hull on the eastern coast of England, and took the rail to Liverpool and its docks. Between 1852 and 1894, over 24,000 Scandinavian Mormons traveled to Utah through England. Nearly two hundred vessels carrying Latter-day Saints left Scandinavia bound for Hull.
Rail services from Hull to Liverpool began in 1840 when the rail line between Liverpool and Selby was extended all the way to Hull. The North Eastern Railway (NER), which took control of this route in 1851, chartered emigrant trains from Hull to Liverpool when trade necessitated. The journey lasted up to seven hours. The rail route out of Hull varied according to arrangements made in advance between the railway and steamship companies and the agents for the Latter-day Saints. One Saint recorded:
“We left Hull for Liverpool on a special train at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and came through the towns of Howden, Selby, Normington [Normanton], Brandford [Bradford], Leeds Hudbersfild [Huddersfield], Manchester and Bolton to Liverpool.”
Regardless of the route they took, all migrants traveled the 140-mile journey from Hull to Liverpool by steam train. The scenery they passed through varied as greatly as the diverse backgrounds of the passengers on board.
After arrival at Liverpool the Mormon passengers also received counsel to obey all rules and follow their designated Church leaders. For example, John Williams wrote:
“Before leaving Liverpool, Elders Calkin and Williams, from the Millennial Star office, came on board, and exhorted the Saints to observe cleanliness and order during the voyage.” promising that, if they would obey the counsel and carry out the instructions given them by those who presided, they should have a prosperous voyage, and not one soul should be lost.”
For many, the decision to emigrate did not come easily but demanded rare courage and sacrifice. Many experienced the anguish of leaving their family, friends, and homeland. Reflecting upon her commitment to make the journey to Zion, Priscilla Staines wrote:
“I left the home of my birth to gather to Nauvoo. I was alone. It was a dreary winter day on which I went to Liverpool. The company with which I was to sail were all strangers to me. When I arrived at Liverpool and saw the ocean that would soon roll between me and all I loved, my heart almost failed me. But I had laid my idols all upon the altar. There was no turning back.”
Yet for Staines and many other converts, such as William Clayton, the sacrifice eventually brought joy:
“It is impossible for pen to describe to you the difficulties you will have to endure. You must come or suffer the vengeance of heaven and for my part I will say that if I was in England now and had experienced all the journey it would not in the least deter me from coming for I have often found that in the greatest seasons of suffering we have the greatest cause of rejoicing.”
Such inspiring words touched the hearts of thousands of converts, who soon reached the shores of North America. With the exception of a few early ships that landed in New York or Quebec, the remaining ships launched from Liverpool between 1840 and 1846 disembarked at New Orleans. Apparently the decision to use this southern United States port (commencing in December 1840), rather than New York or Quebec, came as a result of a letter Joseph sent to the Twelve in England in October 1840. In it he mentioned, “I think that those who came here this fall, did not take the best possible route, or the least expensive.”20 Six months later the Millennial Star reported an “Epistle of the Twelve,” wherein counsel was given regarding when and how converts should immigrate to Nauvoo:
“It is much cheaper going by New Orleans than by New York. But it will never do for emigrants to go by New Orleans in the Summer on account of the heat and sickness of the climate. It is, therefore, advisable for the Saints to emigrate in Autumn, Winter, or Spring.”
Not only did this route up the Mississippi prove cheaper, but it also allowed the prophet Joseph to be aware when groups of converts were coming upriver from St. Louis. Here on the banks of the Mississippi, Joseph met the foreign Saints who had gathered to receive instruction from their prophet, to help build the temple, and receive their endowment. A number of accounts demonstrate how the Prophet Joseph led the way in welcoming the eager converts who had come from afar.
For example, in a letter to the Millennial Star, Heber C. Kimball described the welcome the Twelve and over a hundred immigrating Saints received the summer of 1841: “We landed in Nauvoo on the 1st of July, and when we struck the dock I think there were about three hundred Saints there to meet us, and a greater manifestation of love and gladness I never saw before. President Smith was the first one that caught us by the hand.”
To new converts of a religion that claimed to be a restoration of God’s ancient covenant church, complete with apostles and prophets, the thrill of being greeted by the Prophet Joseph Smith must have been overwhelming. Robert Crookston testified,
“As we approached the landing place to our great joy we saw the Prophet Joseph Smith there to welcome his people who had come so far. We were all so glad to see him and set our feet upon the promised land so to speak. It was the most thrilling experience of my life for I know that he was a Prophet of the Lord.”
Joseph Smith succored these weary Saints and greeted them with the warmest possible affections. Their faith now strengthened and the desire of their hearts realized, they were ready to meet the challenges that would confront them as they began to build Zion in a new land. The same prophet who first issued the call to gather was he who stood to welcome the Lord’s chosen people who had crossed the awesome Atlantic in answer to the call to gather with the Saints. With this divine power, the Saints not only had strength to establish another Zion in the West, but were equipped to obtain a far greater land of promise.