This article originally appeared in Pioneer Magazine 2010, Vol.57 No.3
by Kenneth Mays, Trustee, Mormon Historic Sites Foundation; Instructor, SL University Institute of Religion
In the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the importance of the first missions to Great Britain cannot be overstated. History of the Church quotes Joseph Smith as saying:
“God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church” (HC 2:489).
That “something” was the opening of the british mission. The strength, energy, and faith gained by the infusion of converts from this area was desperately needed. It came just when the periods of apostasy and persecution in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois were pummeling the Church. British Saints began arriving in Illinois before the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and continued thereafter for decades. Those Saints played key roles in the development of Nauvoo, the exodus west, and settling Utah and neighboring regions.[/vc_column_text][vc_media_grid style=”load-more” items_per_page=”6″ item=”mediaGrid_SimpleOverlay” grid_id=”vc_gid:1570292611003-25612229-868b-7″ include=”11718,11721,11717,11713,11705,11691,11688,11687,11686,11682,11681″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]
The first of the British Saints to join the Church were baptized in the River Ribble, near Preston, beginning in July 1837. Those baptisms were followed by thousands more. The faith and sacrifice demonstrated by these converts are second to none. However many of these stories are not well known by us today—the very people now in line to maintain the legacy of those from a century and a half ago.
Elder Heber C. Kimball served two remarkably productive missions to Great Britain, primarily in the ribble valley near Preston, Lancashire. Heber was the only missionary to serve in both the first (1837–38) and second (1839–41) missions as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Willard Richards was there for both missions, including the time in between Heber’s missions, but he was not ordained an apostle until Brigham Young and others arrived during the second mission. Orson Hyde served with Heber C. Kimball during the first mission and joined the Twelve for a short time during the second mission. However, he had been called to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jews. Soon after his arrival in Great Britain, he was blessed by members of the Twelve and continued on to Palestine.
During the first mission, Elder Kimball and his companions experienced great success. Although several of the original seven of the first mission returned to America after just a few months of service, an estimated 1500 souls joined the Church. The number of converts made during the second mission was even greater. This time, more than before, new British members assisted the American missionaries in the rich harvesting of souls.
Beyond these first two missions, dividing or classifying missions to the british isles is difficult. It might be based on numbers, events, or traditional chronological units of measure. However subsequent missions might be distinguished—the first two missions remain in a class of their own.
Knowing exactly how many baptisms there really were is subject to question. It is easy to let hyperbole slip into our stories recounting the success of wilford woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, Dan Jones, and others. There is, however, no doubt that the number of converts taught and baptized by these and other brethren is truly remarkable.
The number of Latter-day Saints in Great Britain listed for each decade shows that membership peaked relatively soon after the missionaries first arrived in 1837. That was in 1850, when over 30,000 members of the Church lived in the British Isles. A decade later the number had dropped significantly. Without question, the emigration of thousands of British Saints contributed to the decline and drastically altered the historical landscape. For example, the first missionaries were known to have baptized 60 or more souls in towns like bedford or alston over the short period of several months. The missionaries would subsequently be reassigned or return home, leaving leadership duties with the new, inexperienced converts. With the withdrawal of many of the members—perhaps, the strongest—leaving for Zion, the Latter-day Saint presence diminished, becoming almost as if the missionaries had never come.
A second major factor in the numerical decline of Latter-day Saints in Great Britain may well have been an aftereffect of the Church’s public announcement of plural marriage in 1852. News of that nature spread quickly to the various fields of labor where missionaries were serving. Emigration and fewer baptisms led to a low point of British membership in the year 1890, with 2770 souls listed on the records of the Church.
Historical inquiry beyond the main story can be intriguing. One might ask, for example, whether there was any more than a coincidental connection between the Church in Great Britain and the reign of Queen Victoria. Heber C. Kimball’s call to take the gospel to england came just 16 days before 17-year-old Victoria was awakened in the night to be told that William IV had passed away. As she then ascended the throne, the reaping of Latter-day Saint converts in her kingdom began in dramatic fashion. Contrast that with 1901, the year Victoria died, when young Elder Joseph Fielding Smith faithfully served in England without the privilege of baptizing a single person.
Presently, there are sites, structures, and stories of faith from the British Isles that have been all but forgotten. Key elements in the storyline of the Church in Great Britain are well known to some, but much more needs to be learned and appreciated.
Fortunately, a mechanism to ameliorate the current situation is falling into place. Books, scholarly articles, Church publications and the like certainly help. Major undertakings such as the restoration of the Gadfield Elm Chapel and the construction of the Preston Temple are likewise of great benefit. Lesser known are the people—both members and nonmembers of the Church—who have taken an interest in particular areas where LDS history unfolded. They have researched and learned much about their particular regions.
Students of history and historical sites, such as this author, are the direct beneficiaries of their work. Particularly helpful are the efforts of people like Richard Lambert, a descendant of Wilford Woodruff and a trustee of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. Since serving as a full-time missionary in England decades ago, Richard has learned its history, walked the land, and loved the people. His warm and outgoing personality has led to the establishment of a network of both new and longtime friends in the UK. A facilitator of sorts, he is framing a latticework of the learning of locals who have much to share and the desire to do so. As a result, significant headway is being made in identifying the sites and structures linked to stories unknown to most.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”11715″ img_size=”large”][/vc_column][/vc_row] Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in