The Inspired Mission of the Quorum of the Twelve

This article originally appeared in Vol.65, No.4 (2018) of Pioneer Magazine.
by Ronald K. Esplin

The proselytizing mission that would forever change the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—and the Church itself—began inauspiciously. In the predawn hours of April 26,1839, seven members of the Quorum—Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, John Page, and newly ordained Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith—and several other members of the Church met secretly at the temple site in Far West, Missouri. They met in obedience to a July 1838 revelation charging them to “take leave of my Saints”from this spot and on this date and “to go over the great waters”on a quorum mission.1

Apostates and adversaries in Caldwell County were determined to prevent the accomplishment of the July 1838 revelation, thus supposedly proving Joseph Smith to be a false prophet. Some Saints thought it foolish to even consider making the trip to Far West in the face of threats to kill anyone who tried to fulfill the revelation. Brigham Young and his associates thought otherwise, traveling the nearly 200 miles from Quincy, Illinois, to the spot where their fellow Apostle, Heber Kimball, was in hiding outside Far West. Together, and before sunrise on April 26, they accomplished at Far West what the revelation required. They then turned east, quickly returning to the temporary headquarters of the Church in Quincy.2

Willing sacrifice in the face of challenge became a hallmark of the Quorum of the Twelve under the leadership of Brigham Young. As he and his fellow quorum members were making their way to and from Far West in fulfillment of prophecy, Joseph Smith and others were returning from Missouri imprisonment and making their way to the body of the Saints in Illinois. After a joyous reunion in Quincy, Church leaders prepared to move the Saints fifty miles north to what would become Nauvoo. Following a season of teaching and preparation, quorum members departed in late summer for New York and passage to England.3

Preparation for this mission, however, had its beginnings in early 1835, when the Quorum of the Twelve was first organized. The Twelve were declared to be special witnesses of Christ “in all the world,”4 and their first quorum mission—that same year—was to “eastern branches” of the Church. But quorum members understood this to be preparation for much more expansive assignments—and that their work abroad would begin in the English-speaking mother countries of the .5

In June 1837, with Kirtland in turmoil, Joseph Smith whispered to Heber Kimball in the Kirtland Temple that God had revealed “that something new must be done for the salvation of His church”—and that even if Kimball were required to act alone, the work in England must be initiated.6 Only days later, Joseph set apart Elders Heber Kimball and Orson Hyde to open the work in England, assisted by other men including Willard Richards and Joseph Fielding.7

The eight-month mission of Elders Kimball and Hyde in 1838 laid the foundation upon which the Quorum of the Twelve would build eighteen months later. Their ministry was blessed with success from the moment they spoke to the congregation of Rev. James Fielding in Preston.  The better-educated Hyde proved well-suited to Preston residents, while Kimball’s humble, direct approach brought spectacular success in the villages around. Soon, newly converted local members, including William Clayton, joined the American missionaries in teaching and baptizing nearly 2,000 people. Even after numbers of recent converts left England to join the Saints in the US, almost 1,500 members remained behind in organized branches.8 The foundation of the Church in the British Isles had been established.

As Elder Jeffery R. Holland points out in his introductory article for this issue of Pioneer, members of the Twelve who departed Illinois in late summer 1839 demonstrated profound commitment and sacrifice. Uncertain of their own health, and leaving their families in the hands of God, they were determined to obey divine directives regardless of personal cost. In this they diverged from two of their fellow quorum members, William Smith and John E. Page, who, unable to muster the necessary faith, elected to remain in the United States and thereby missed a singular opportunity for service and growth. Orson Hyde, the remaining quorum member, would be reunited temporarily with the other eight in Great Britain in April 1841, joining them en route to a separate mission to Palestine.

The arrival of Elders John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff in England in January 1840 marked the effective beginning of the mission. Two months later, in March, Woodruff and William Benbow, a recent convert, introduced the message of the Restoration to the United Brethren in Herefordshire. Within eight months, more than 300 former members of the United Brethren had been baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

In early April 1840 Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Parley and Orson Pratt, and George A. Smith arrived in England, and on April 14, the quorum mission was launched by way of a formal quorum meeting in Preston—a meeting that Woodruff designated “The First Council of the Twelve among the Nations.”9 At this meeting, Brigham ordained Willard Richards an apostle and set him apart as a member of the Twelve. The eight men present then sustained Young as “standing President of the Twelve.”10

The following day, these eight members of the Twelve presided over a conference of the British Saints. In addition to strengthening the faith and resolve of those attending, the Twelve received the conferences approval to publish a periodical and a hymnal, the first step toward what would become an important Church publishing enterprise.11

On April 16, the Council of the Twelve reconvened to determine specific assignments. It was decided that Parley Pratt would edit the now-named Millennial Star. Kimball would return to the villages where he had enjoyed success during his earlier mission. Orson Pratt would go to Scotland. Taylor would initially proselytize in Liverpool, then briefly in Ireland, and later on the Isle of Man. Smith would be assigned to the Staffordshire Potteries, and Young and Richards would join Woodruff in overseeing the flourishing work in Herefordshire.12

Brigham Young perceived the Twelve of the Kirtland Period as having been divided.13 Indeed, Joseph Smith had been contemplating these same concerns in March 1839 when he received the inspired caution recorded in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—that the powers of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

Young determined that his own leadership would help unify the quorum. The founding documents of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, including the 1835 revelation on priesthood authority and responsibility, urged unity. So did more recent instructions to the Twelve from the First Presidency before the Twelve left Illinois for the British Isles.

During this important April 14 council meeting, Young emphasized quorum unity once again, as Richards noted in his diary.14 As previously noted, the eight men often worked in teams. But there were also times when quorum members received individual assignments—as in the cases of Pratt, Smith, and Taylor. When apart from one another, the men kept each other informed, counseled one another, and buoyed each other up through letters. They also shared thoughts of home and family, especially as the New Year of 1841 dawned and the time drew closer for returning home.15 Throughout their time in Great Britain, the eight members of the Twelve were united in ways they had not been before, and this surely contributed to their impressive success.

Young made concerted efforts to lead by example, treating colleagues respectfully, seeking their counsel, and writing frequent letters to them when they were not nearby. He also tried to be an exemplary missionary, giving his all in working with Richards and Woodruff in Herefordshire. And despite administrative burdens, he traveled as widely as he could, blessing and strengthening new members of the Church. In October 1840, for example, he and Heber Kimball preached in Hardin, Wales, an experience he reported in a letter to his wife Mary Ann:

We have hered from Wales whare Br Kimball and I went, a grate meny of the people was sorry they did not obey the gospel when we ware there. The report went out that we had the same power that the old apostles had, [and] it is true we did lay hands on one young man that was quite low with a fevor; we rebuked his fevor and he got well. We laid our hands on a woman that had verry bad eyes, and she emeditly recovered. They have a [great deal] to say about our preaching. They say that Elder Kimball has such sharp eys that he can look wright through them, and Elder Young Preashes so that every Body that heres him must believe, he preaches so plane and powerful.16

Describing this same short mission, Kimball later wrote that although he and Young only preached two formal sermons in Wales, “the people almost universally received our testimony.” The power of God was manifest, noted Kimball, in several blessings, including that of a young man “lying at the point of death” who was healed and then, only a few days later, was baptized.17

The experience of George A. Smith, the youngest of the Twelve (he turned twenty-three while in England), illustrates the outsized demands he faced and the personal growth he experienced from meeting difficult challenges with no one but the Lord to rely on. In January 1841, Elder Smith wrote to his younger brother, John, about the blessings of being assigned to the Staffordshire Potteries, where he directed the work alone. He shared the news that eighty-eight male employees of the Potteries had been baptized members of the Church and had received priesthood offices. He also shared that so many of these brethren came to seek counsel from him that he seldom got to bed before midnight:

[H]ow foolish it makes me feel to Be Looked up to with So much Earnestness by Persons Who have been Professers of Religion and Preachers of the different Sects. I thank the Lord for the Wisdom he has given me and the Success I have had in the teaching thes[e] men [who] all look to me for instruction as Children to A Father and this makes me feel vary Small indeed and Causes me to Cry unto my father Who is in Heaven for Wisdom and Paetence to do my fathers Work18

In all aspects of their missionary labors, Brigham Young encouraged and supported his brethren of the Twelve. Indeed, Brigham had been divinely prepared to lead the first mission in the British Isles, perhaps especially by his experiences in leading the 1838-39 exodus of the Saints from Missouri while the Prophet Joseph and others were imprisoned in the Liberty Jail. Once Young and his fellows boarded the England-bound ship in New York in early 1840, they were forced to rely on each other and on the Lord, receiving no additional instructions from Joseph Smith until late 1840.

From their first days in Great Britain, Young and his associates moved forward with confidence, managing pressing tasks and setting all hands to work. But soon enough they encountered situations where they longed for Josephs advice.

On May 20, 1840, Brigham Young, Willard Richards, and Wilford Woodruff hiked atop the Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills for prayer and discussion. Though they recognized how urgently the Saints needed publications, especially the Book of Mormon, they had left American shores uncertain whether they had Josephs authorization to publish the book in England. They wondered, should they proceed without the Prophets direct permission? After fervent prayer, Willard Richards recorded the decision of the three men on a slip of paper which all three signed and which Young carried with him back to Herefordshire:19

We having obtained the funds to print a Hymn Book & Also the Book of Mormon it is our feelings that Broth[er] Young repair immediately to Manchester & join his Brethren previously appointed with him on a committee for the printing of the Hymn Book & that they cause 3000 copies to be issued without delay &

Also that the same be a committee to cause 3000 copies of the Book of Mormon to be printed & completed with as little delay as possible & cause an index to be afficed [affixed] to the same—the form of the Book to be at the disposal of the committee.

On the way to Manchester, Young consulted with George A. Smith about the plan, and Smith added his endorsement and signature to the document: “I perficldey concur with the feelings of my Broetherin abov named.” In Manchester, Young met with Parley Pratt, John Taylor, and Heber Kimball, all of whom gave their approval and signed the document. Orson Pratt, in more distant Scotland, learned of the plan soon after work began; he ratified the decision of the others.

Young and those with him had also assumed heavy responsibilities for the emigration of the Saints from the British Isles, and more letters were sent to Nauvoo imploring the Prophet Josephs direction. While Young was not paralyzed by the lack of responses from Joseph, as the weeks and months went by, he worried: he and his associates had proceeded prayerfully, but would Joseph concur with their decisions? In early September 1840, Brigham Young and Willard Richards wrote again to Joseph, reporting their decisions and asking for counsel. They rejoiced “that the Church has a Moses in these last days (and an Aaron by his side) of whom the Saints may enquire, as in days of old, & know the mind of the Lord” They nevertheless shared their determination to shoulder their responsibilities and advance the work as best they could:

Our motto is go ahead. Go ahead.—& ahead we are determined to go—till we have conquered every foe. So come life or come death we’ll go ahead, but tell us if we are going rong & we will right it.20

The Twelve held the keys for taking the gospel to the world, and Joseph apparently felt it right to let them counsel with the Lord and make their own way. Not until only weeks before the end of their mission did answers come from Nauvoo. Joseph essentially endorsed what the Twelve had done or intended to do, including their decision to leave the British Isles and return home in spring 1841.21

Thus, in late March, each of the Twelve completed obligations in his area of service and traveled to Manchester. There, the eight men who had opened the British Isles to the preaching of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ were joined by a ninth member of the Twelve, Orson Hyde, who was on his way to Palestine with a special assignment from the Prophet Joseph. For nearly a week these nine dedicated men would meet together in private councils and in conferences with the Saints. April 1 was a day of reunion, of sharing experiences and testimonies. On April 2,3, and 5, the Twelve met in private councils to plan how, in their absence, the work would move forward and prosper. During one of these councils, quorum members endorsed the work of the Publication Committee and agreed unanimously that Parley Pratt, whose family had recently crossed the Atlantic to join him, would stay in Great Britain to preside over the mission and oversee its publications. Under Pratts direction, Amos Fielding would superintend emigration matters.22

When the Twelve met with the Saints in conferences on Sunday, April 4, all nine men “bore testamoney to the Bible Book of Mormon J. Smith as a prophet,” wrote Elder Woodruff in his diary “It is seldom that any congregation is privileged with such testimony”23 On April 6,1841, a final conference was convened, and members of the Twelve presented to the assembled Saints decisions that the Twelve had made that week in councils. The Saints were asked to sustain each decision in turn, which they did. Local leaders then reported the number of members in their respective branches—a total of 5,814 members in organized branches and an additional fifty not part of any organized branch. This was nearly four times the number of members in the British Isles when the collective work of the Twelve began there in early 1840.24

Before leaving Manchester on April 15, the nine men finalized for publication in the Millennial Star a farewell letter—“An Epistle of the Twelve—directed to Church members throughout the British Isles.25 The departing Apostles thanked the Saints for their diligence in receiving “the counsel of those whom God has seen fit to send among them, and who hold the keys of this ministry”; the Saints were commended for the union and spiritual power resulting from their humble faith. The members of the Twelve conduded the letter with an expression of abiding love for the Saints, a love dearly reciprocated. Though most new members of the Church were poor, a contingent of Saints from Manchester travded with the departing elders to Liverpool and provided funds to aid them as they returned home.26

Saints throughout the British Isles looked to the nine missionary Apostles as fathers in the gospel. Many of the Saints had been taught personally by one or more of these faithful men, and the Saints’ confidence in and love for them ran deep. Relying on Heaven and on one another, the Twelve had been blessed with a unity they had never before enjoyed and a capacity to fulfill heavier demands than they had previously experienced. As a quorum, they were blessed by God with an enduring spiritual power.

On April 20 seven of the returning Apostles, together with a significant number of emigrant Saints, set sail aboard the Rochester, known to be a fast ship. But their journey was fraught, not speedy. At midnight on April 24, the contrary winds which had blown since soon after their departure increased to gale strength and destroyed the fore topsail By the following morning, the waves seemed “mountain high,” and virtually all aboard the pitching ship were desperately seasick. Through the next two days and nights, the fierce wind continued and seasickness increased until some among the passengers feared their children would die. Then, during the morning of April 28, the storm worsened. Berths crashed down and some of the baggage broke loose, threatening to crush the passengers. At this point, members of the Twelve called upon Heaven to still the seas. The next day Woodruff noted simply, “The Sun Shines plesent & we have a fair wind for the first time since we left Liverpool”27 The following week, Brigham Young recorded this same event in his diary, noting that when the winds ware contr[ar]y the 12 a gread to humble them selves before the Lord and ask him to calm the seas & give us a fair wind, we did so & the wind emeditly changed and from that time to this it has blone in our favor.28

The British Mission of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had a lasting impact on the quorum itself, on the life of the Church in the British Isles, and on the strength and richness of the broader Church. Impressive numbers of convert baptisms tell only part of the story. Perhaps the more significant story is that the Twelve established a vital, adaptive organization of dozens of congregations and hundreds of humble and prayerful leaders. They taught the crucial significance of regular conferences. And they created an effective system of emigration that would be used for decades. Before emigrant Saints departed from Liverpool or other ports, they were organized into companies, each having priesthood leadership.

Company members were expected to be loyal and supportive of one another, and many became fast friends. The firsthand experiences of the Twelve in overseeing emigration enabled them, in the years following their return to the US, to develop programs and funding that would enable hundreds and then thousands of European Saints to journey to Zion. In addition, the Twelve established a printing enterprise that blessed the Saints in the British Isles with Books of Mormon, hymnals, and other vital publications, including a periodical— The Millennial Star—that gave generations of Church members access to teachings of latter-day prophets, inspiring words from local members and leaders, and meaningful Church-centered news.

During their time in the British Isles, the Twelve had been molded into a spiritually mature and well-prepared priesthood quorum. So great was the need for their proven leadership that, once most had returned to Nauvoo, the Prophet was unwilling to wait until October general conference to put them to work. Thus, on August 16,1841, he convened a “special conference of the Church” to make a constitutional change in its leadership. The result, as Willard Richards noted tersely in his diary, was “Business of the Church given to the 12.”29 While the 1835 and 1836 revelations on the priesthood make it clear that this was always the Lord’s plan, only after the quorum had proven itself to be united and spiritually prepared could it be implemented.30

Not by chance would those nine members of the Twelve who sacrificed and served together in the British Isles remain loyal to the Prophet Joseph for the remainder of his life. Not by chance would they receive additional keys and the “fulness of the Priesthood” at Josephs hand. And certainly not by chance would they bear the burdens of the Church following Josephs death. These nine faithful quorum members provided divinely inspired, crucial, and singularly effective leadership to the Saints for more than half a century, and three of them would serve as the Lord’s chosen prophet. □


  1. Doctrine and Covenants 118:5-6; see Joseph Smith Papers, Journals 1:284-5 for the original text of the revelation. See also Minutes, 26 Apr 1839, General Minutes Collection, Church History Library (CHL); and Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 26 Apr 1839, CHL. With the ordinations of Woodruff and Smith, there were ten apostles in the Quorum. In addition to the seven at Far West on this date, Orson Hyde was temporarily disaffected, Parley Pratt was in prison, and William Smith was with family in Illinois. Willard Richards, already serving in England, was yet to be ordained.There would not be a full quorum until Lyman Wight was ordained in 1841.
  2. Ronald K. Esplin,”The Emergence of Brigham Young and theTwelve to Mormon Leadership”BYUStudies (2006): 144-5.
  3. Esplin 149-55.
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 107:23.
  5. See Ronald K. Esplin and Sharon E. Nielsen,”The Record of theTwelve, 1835: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles’Call and 1835 Mission,”BYUStudies 51.1 (2012): 4-52.
  6. See James B. Allen, Ronald K. Esplin, and David J. Whittaker, Men with A Mission, 1837-1841 —The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles (1992), 23. Kimball, perhaps the least educated of theTwelve, resisted going to England alone—and was undoubtedly relieved when Hyde was assigned as his companion. That the work in England opened without him at the helm infuriated quorum president Thomas Marsh, who complained to Joseph Smith, resulting in the 24 Jul 1837 revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 112.
  7. Esplin 105.
  8. “‘A Great Work Done in That Land’: The Mission of Elders HeberC. Kimball and Orson Hyde to England, 1837.”Ensign 17 (July 1987): 20-7.
  9. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 14 Apr 1840.
  10. Minutes, 14 Apr 1840, Brigham Young Papers, CHL.
  11. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 15 Apr 1840.
  12. Minutes, 16 Apr 1840, Brigham Young Papers, CHL; Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 16 Apr 1840.
  13. Historian’s Office Journal, 16 Feb 1859, CHL.
  14. Doctrine and Covenants 107:27. The day he was ordained, Willard Richards wrote in his diary a plea to God that he might act in righteousness “with My Brethren the Twelve, that we may ever be of one heart & one mind in all things.”
  15. For a sampling of extant letters, see Allen, Esplin, and Whittaker, Appendix B, documents 7,10-11,13,16,18,24.
  16. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 12 Nov 1841, Blair Collection, University of Utah.
  17. Heber C. Kimball to readers, 4 Aug 1841, Times & Seasons 2 (16 Aug 1841): 508.
  18. George A. Smith to John L. Smith, 8 Jan 1841, in Allen, Esplin, and Whittaker 420.
  19. Certificate, 20 May 1854, Miscellaneous Papers, Brigham Young Papers, CHL.
  20. Brigham Young and Willard Richards to Joseph Smith, 5 Sep 1841, Joseph Smith Papers, online.
  21. See, especially, Joseph Smith to the Twelve, 15 Dec 1840 Joseph Smith Papers, online.
  22. Esplin 180-1.
  23. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 4 Apr 1841, CHL.
  24. Minutes, 6 Apr 1841, Millennial Star 1 (Apr 1841): 304; Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 6 Apr 1841, CHL.
  25. Millennial Star 1 (Apr 1841): 309-12.
  26. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 19 Apr 1841, CHL; Esplin 181-2.
  27. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 29 April 1841; also, 23 April-5 May 1841; see also, Esplin, Emergence of Brigham Young, pp. 182-183.
  28. Diary of Brigham Young, 5 May 1841, Church History Library.
  29. Diary of Willard Richards, 16 Aug 1841, CHL; Minutes, 16 Aug 1841, CHL, and also in Joseph Smith Papers, online; Esplin 190-1.
  30. Doctrine and Covenants 107:22-24; Diary of Joseph Smith, 16 Jan 1836, in Joseph Smith Papers: Journals 1,158.

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