Wilford Woodruff and the Latter-Day Saint Missionaries in the British Mission 1839-1841

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

by Thomas G. Alexander1

Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles responded to an 1838 revelation given to Joseph Smith and took up their missions to Great Britain in 1839. They left their families and fellow Saints in difficult circumstances and embarked on their journeys despite their poverty— they were to travel without purse or scrip and rely on donations to support themselves—and debilitating illness. was suffering from malaria, as was his wife Phoebe.2 When he left with John Taylor on August 8, 1839, Taylor’s wife, Leonora, and their three children were ill with the same disease.3 As Joseph Smith greeted them before their departure. Woodruff commented that

“I feel and look more like a subject for the dissecting room than a missionary.”

Smith told him to “Get up and go along; all will be right with you!”4 Malaria struck Taylor just beyond Indianapolis.5 When Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Theodore Turley, and Reuben Hedlock left Nauvoo on September 20 and 21, they were all afflicted with malaria.6

After sailing from New York, the missionaries arrived in Liverpool at various times. Hiram Clark, Alexander Wright, and Samuel Mulliner arrived before the Apostles on December 8, 1839. Woodruff, Taylor, and Hurley arrived on January 11, 1840 after a gale-ravaged voyage that added seasickness to their suffering. Young, Kimball, Smith, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, and Hedlock did not arrive until April 6.7

This historic 1839-41 mission to the is significant not only for the perseverance of the illness-plagued missionaries, but to a greater degree for the large number of convert baptisms that resulted. In 1839 when the missionaries left Nauvoo, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles consisted of ten men (Brigham Young, Heber C Kimball, Orson Hyde, Parley P Pratt, William Smith, Orson Pratt, John E. Page, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and George A. Smith). All of them except William Smith and John Page accepted the mission call.8

The first missionary effort to Great Britain had taken place in 1837-38 when Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Willard Richards, Joseph Fielding, John Goodson, Isaac Russell, and John Snider served there with initial success. Willard Richards remained in England and continued to labor after the others returned to the US in 1838.9 Richards was ordained an Apostle on April 14, 1840 by newly arrived Brigham Young, becoming the ninth Apostle to serve in Great Britain during the crucial years of 1840-41.10 Their shared mission experiences in Britain welded these young men into a unit of extraordinary solidarity and personal affection as they solidified their status as the core of Church leadership.11

The first area in which these missionaries proselyted was industrializing very rapidly. Although large-scale manufacturing had begun in the British Isles during the eighteenth century, it intensified when Great Britain became the dominant world power following Napoleons defeat in 1815. Lancashire, west Yorkshire, and Manchester formed the heart of the worlds preeminent cotton textile manufacturing.12 Further to the south around Birmingham, Britons had established the worlds foremost iron foundries.

Describing this region. Woodruff said that he “never saw anything that comes so near the description of the Lake of fire & Brimstone Spoken of by the Revelator John.”13

Industrialization generated both unprecedented wealth and abject poverty. Those who worked in the factories experienced chronic disease and abusive child labor. Unimaginable poverty and debilitation plagued those who were unemployed. Most Latter-day Saint converts came from the working classes, which experienced both sets of conditions.14

An acute observer. Woodruff described these oppressive conditions. After reaching Preston on January 13, 1840, Wilford encountered “streets crouded with the poor both male & female going to & from the factories with their… Clogg Shoes… The poor,” he said, “are in as great Bondage as the children of Israel in Egypt” Nevertheless, although the Saints lived in poverty, they had “warm hearts.”15

On January 18 Woodruff, Richards, Clark, and Turley met William Clayton in Manchester, an industrial city of 320,000. Factories filled orders seasonally, so between orders factory workers were “flung” into the ranks of the unemployed and into “uter starvation.” Harsh working conditions and unemployment brutalized many into physical and mental illness. Woodruff wrote that after healing eleven sick members in the Manchester area, the missionaries also cast a devil from a deranged child.16

Woodruff visualized such conditions as evidence of the proximity of Christ s second coming and the fulfillment of the prophecies of Daniel, John, and Joseph Smith: “Signs that are appearing in the heavens & earth,” witnessed “the fulfillment of the word of God.”17

In council at Preston on January 17, the Apostles assigned John Taylor and Joseph Fielding to Liverpool, Hiram Clark and William Clayton to Manchester, Wilford Woodruff and Theodore Turley to the Staffordshire Potteries, and Willard Richards wherever the spirit directed him. Alexander Wright and Samuel Mulliner remained in Scotland, where they had proselyted since December 1839.18

Changing economic and social circumstances ripened many in the British working classes to accept the new religion, and Woodruff found converts not only in industrial cities but also in rural areas in southern Herefordshire and nearby Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Those who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—especially in Herefordshire, Preston, and their environs—were much like the primitive restorationist Christians whom missionaries had converted in the United States and Canada. They had been seeking charismatic manifestations reminiscent of the primitive church and doctrines founded on New Testament Christianity that emphasized Christian love and concern. In their search they had generally followed one of three roads: they had divorced themselves from organized religion, become independent restorationists, or joined dissenting religious organizations.19

After the January 1840 council in Preston, Woodruff and Turley traveled to the Staffordshire Potteries, a locale famous for its production of ceramics. Centered in the Trent River Valley about thirty-five miles south of Manchester, the area had become famous after Josiah Wedgewood established a manufacturing plant at Hanley in the eighteenth century.20 British members who converted during the 1837-38 missions established branches in the region. The largest was at Burslem, where Alfred Cordon presided. In June 1840 when the Apostles organized a local conference, they called Cordon as presiding elder.21

Wilford Woodruff remained in Staffordshire from January 21 to March 3, 1840. He preached and baptized in many towns in the area, and he learned the local culture by visiting with people and touring manufacturing plants. On February 10, 1840, England celebrated the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  In a whimsical mood. Woodruff “thought it no more than just & right that [since the people are celebrating the marriage of the Queen] I should honor the King of heaven by… preaching the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.” Woodruff, Alfred Cordon, William Bradbury, and George Simpson “preached the gospel” in Longton, Staffordshire on that date.

On March 2, 1840, “The Lord warned [him]… to go to the South.” In company with William Benbow, a Hanley shopkeeper. Woodruff traveled to the home of William’s brother John and his wife Jane at the 300-acre Hill Farm, Castle Froome, near Ledbury in Herefordshire.

Wilford’s journey to Herefordshire launched the most remarkable missionary success in the history of the Church. The Benbows belonged to the United Brethren, an offshoot of primitive Methodism.22 After two days of preaching, Woodruff baptized six people, including John and Jane Benbow and four United Brethren ministers. He continued preaching, and after two weeks he baptized Thomas Kington, superintendent of the United Brethren circuit.23 After thirty-six days, the Church in southern Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and northern Gloucestershire consisted of 163 members including forty who were formerly United Brethren ministers.24

On April 18 the Apostles gathered for a conference in Preston. They assigned Heber C. Kimball to visit the Lancashire churches he had established earlier. Orson Pratt went to Scotland, John Taylor to Liverpool, the Isle of Man and northern Ireland. Parley P. Pratt went to Manchester to begin a publication program, and George A. Smith left for the Staffordshire Potteries. Brigham Young and Willard Richards accompanied Woodruff to Herefordshire, remaining there until June 26 when they departed for a conference in Manchester25 Woodruff then returned to Herefordshire with George A. Smith. Converts such as Kington and Benbow had also begun preaching and baptizing, so that by early August nearly 800 members lived round about.26

The labors of Woodruff and the others in Herefordshire were significant for various reasons. Under British law only licensed ministers could preach; places of worship had to be formally licensed; and churches were required to be officially recognized. On March 16 Woodruff obtained a license from the justice of the peace of Hereford County. He must have choked when he had to declare himself “a Protestant” and swear allegiance to Queen Victoria.27

A few days later, the Anglican parish’s rector sent a constable to arrest Woodruff for preaching without a license. Woodruff verified he had a license and invited the constable to hear his sermon. The constable listened to Woodruff1s sermon and then offered himself for baptism. Afterward, the rector sent two of his clerks to gather information on Woodruff, and they too asked for baptism.28

On June 11, 1840, missionaries converted the Bran Green and Gadfield Elm Branch of the Froomes Hill Circuit of the United Brethren to the Bran Green and Gadfield Elm Latter-day Saint Conference with former superintendent Thomas Kington as presiding elder. The Latter-day Saints thus became licensed owners of the Gadfield Elm Chapel and of forty-one other preaching places.29

Some converts in Herefordshire enjoyed above-average economic status. Several contributed substantially to the missionary work. Donations of £200 came from the Benbows and £100 from Kington.30 With these funds, Young returned to Manchester to publish the Book of Mormon and a hymn book.31 On May 27 Pratt, as editor, began printing The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.31

These conversions generated fierce opposition from the Anglican clergy and others. They petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to support a law banning Mormons from preaching in Great Britain. The archbishop refused, citing his belief in religious toleration. He told them to concern themselves more with the souls of their parishioners and less with the sermons of Latter-day Saint elders.33 Missionaries also encountered violent antagonism from mobs at various places. During one baptismal service, a mob pelted Woodruff’s “Body with stones.”34

Such violence did not surprise Woodruff and his colleagues since they expected it as the devils reward.36 Woodruff had dreams of serpents, but he had little trouble besting the reptiles.36 He dreamed one night that a large church and the surrounding countryside caught fire; and he imagined it to be symbolic of the Saints’ continued success in gaining new converts.37 Woodruff and other missionaries also dreamed of fishing, perhaps thinking of Jesus’ admonition to follow him and become fishers of men.38 George A. Smith dreamt of catching fish in November 1840 at Birmingham.39

Woodruff conceived a historical context for their success. In May 1840, in “a lonely walk & meditation [and having read Parley] P. Pratt’s remarks upon the eternal duration of matter’ he ascended the Herefordshire Beacon, a prominent peak north of Ledbury. Viewing abandoned entrenchments and contemplating forgotten warriors who had made them, he reflected on past history, on Pratt’s treatise; and on his understanding of ancient and modern revelation.

“God,” he thought, “will soon level all hills exalt all valies & redeem the earth from the curse of sin 8c prepare it for the abode of the Saints of the MOST HIGH.”  Further, “upon the rise, progress, decline; & fall of the empires of the earth, & the revolutions which must still transpire before the winding up scene & the comeing of Christ,”40

After proselytizing in southwest England, Woodruff, Smith, and Kimball left for London on August 18. A city of L5 million inhabitants, London was the center of the world’s largest empire.41 The apostles found conditions in London contrasted with those of the cotton towns, potteries, and farm villages. They encountered the usual opposition from ministers, but here they also found many working class people indifferent to their message.42

During the nineteenth century, the city had spread outward quite rapidly. After meeting with Mrs. William Algood, Theodore Turley’s sistar-in-law, Woodruff and his companions rented lodgings near her.43 After finding little success in the inner city they moved to the rapidly urbanizing parishes of St Luke’s Old Street, Shoreditch, and ClerkenwelL44 They settled at No. 40 Ironmonger Row near St Luke’s Church and near the home of their first convert, a watchmaker named Henry Connor.

Finding it difficult to secure buildings in which to preach, they held meetings in the open in Tabernacle Square just off Old Street and in Bough Court near Shoreditch High Street. Eventually, Woodruff rented a hall at Barrett’s Academy on King Square (now Cyrus Street) just off Goswell Street in ClerkenwelL They baptized their converts in a private bath in Tabernacle Square.

London exhibited considerable class distinction and the extreme poverty seen elsewhere, but it had not undergone the rapid industrial growth that drew countless people into the rootless conditions that plagued the Midlands and north. Woodruff and his fellow missionaries met with primitive restorationists such as the New Christian Movement led by Scottish minister Robert Aitken. Discussions with Aitken and his ministers revealed they had no interest in following the United Brethren into The Church of Jesus Christ.45 

Followers of the millennialist Joanna Southcott, who believed she would be the mother of the returning Christ, turned a deaf ear and disrupted Latter-day Saint meetings. The missionaries had little success with followers of Edward Irving, a former Presbyterian and founder of the Catholic Apostolic church. Woodruff and Kimball converted an Independent (Congregationalist) minister, James Albon, together with some of his family, but his congregation did not follow their pastors example.46 Under these circumstances. Woodruff’s ordinarily confident attitude flagged considerably.

On October 18, a personage—Woodruff thought he was the Devil—appeared and tried to choke him. Prayer saved Wilford from destruction.47 He dreamed again about serpent attacks, and though a tiger protected him from one attack, another serpent bit him.48 Woodruff came to believe that the lack of success in London accounted “for my dreams about serpents.”49

After the conversion of the Albon family some things changed. Kimball baptized Dr. William Copeland, a physician at the College of Surgeons at Lincolns Inn Fields, and eight others.50 In early February, they baptized Susanna M. Sangiovanni, wife of one of Napoleons Italian officers.51 By February 13, shortly before Lorenzo Snow assumed leadership in London, they had converted forty-nine people.52

In addition to preaching the gospel, the missionaries visited sites of culture and history. These included the British Museum, the College of Surgeons at Lincolns Inn Fields, St Pauls Cathedral, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, the Queens Stables, the National Gallery of Art, and the anchor chains and cables test facility in Woolwich.

Concerned with rumors of war between the US and Britain in December of 1840, Joseph Smith advised the Americans to leave England. New York state officials had arrested a British officer near the Canadian border, and Britain threatened war if he were detained.53 The missionaries anticipated that a third war with Great Britain might foreshadow Christ’s second coming. Except for Parley Pratt and Orson Hyde, the members of the Quorum of the Twelve left England to return to the US in April 1841.  Pratt remained in England to publish the Millennial Star, the Book of Mormon, and a hymn book; and Hyde began his historic journey to the Holy Land

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Apostolic mission of 1839-41. By late December 1840, nearly 6,500 members had been converted With Joseph Smith’s emphasis on gathering, many of the converts soon left or planned to leave for Nauvoo.54 Not only did the British Saints constitute an important addition to church membership, most remained loyal to the Twelve following Joseph Smiths martyrdom. Their impact continued after the trek west to Utah.

Historian Dean May calculated that more than half of the Saints in Utah during the 1850s were British converts and their children.

These missionaries had found an extraordinarily ripe field. During the years between 1837 and 1852, Mormon missionaries “reaped ‘the most spectacular harvest of souls since Wesleys time.” They tapped the large body of working class British dissenters, primitivist seekers, restorationists, and millennialists. Of these, by far the largest contingent came from Wesleyan traditions, including the Methodists and others.55 These people resented the growing irreligiosity of society and the increasingly secular values of middleclass Britons. They were looking for the restoration of Christs primitive church with its charismatic gifts and prophecy and were awaiting his second coming □

  1. Thomas G Alexander is the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor Emeritus of Western American History at Brigham Young University. Portions of this article appeared previously in Thomas G Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, A Mormon Prophet [1991). Reprinted with permission of Signature Books.
  2. Wilford W Woodruff. Leaves from My Journal (1882), 69.
  3. Samuel W. Taylor, The Kingdom or Nothing: The life of John Taylor, Militant Mormon [1976), 60-1.
  4. Woodruff. Leaves, 69.
  5. Taylor,63—4.
  6. Wiford Woodruff,” Wiford Woodruffs Journal, 1833-1898′ [1983- 1984), ed. ScottG Kenney, 9 vols^ 1:356-7 [29 Aug-2 Sep 1839).
  7. Woodruff, ‘Journal,’ 1:360-75 [21 Sep-31 Dec 1839), 401-3 [1-11 Jan 1840); Taylor, 65-6.
  8. Smith and Page would later leave the Church during the chaos following Joseph Smith’s murder.
  9. For more details of the first , see James B. Allen and Thomas G. Alexander, Manchester Mormons: The Journal of William Clayton, 1840 to 1842 [1974); James R Moss, “The Gospel Restored to England” in V. Ben Blotharp, James R Moss, and Larry C Porter, eds. Truth Will Prevail: The Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Isles, 1837-1987 [1987), 71-103.
  10. Willard Richards, ‘Journals and Papers’ 1821-1854,’vol. 6, image 14.
  11. See Ronald K. Esplin, “The 1840-41 Mission to England and the Development of the Quorum of the Twelve;” in Richard L Jensen and Malcolm R Thorp, eds. Mormons in Early Victorian Britain [1989), 70-91.
  12. Malcolm R Thorp,’The Setting for the Restoration in Britain: Political, Social, and Economic Conditions,’ in Bloxham, Moss and Porter, eds.,45.
  13. Woodruff,’Journal,’ 1:471-72 [26 Jan 1840).
  14. See Thorp,’Setting,’47-51; and John F. C Harrison, “The Popular History of Early Victorian Britain; A Mormon Contribution,” Journal of Mormon History 14 [1988), 3-15.
  15. Woodruff, “Journal,’ 1:405 [20 Jan 1840); George A Smith,’My Journal,’ Instructor 82:10 [Oct 1947),477 [16 Aug 1840).
  16. Woodruff,’Journal,’ 1:409 [20 Jan 1840).
  17. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:408-10 [18-20 Jan 1840).
  18. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:406-7 [17 Jan 1840).
  19. WHG Armytage, Heavens Below: Utopian Experiments in England, 1560-1960 [1961), 260, quoted in Malcolm R Thorp, “The Religious Backgrounds of Mormon Converts in Britain, 1837 52,’ Journal of Mormon History 4 [1977), 52
  20. Woodruff ‘Journal,’1:410 [21 Jan 1840).
  21. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:474 [29 Jun 1840)
  22. Lee E Grugel, Society and Religion During the Age of industrialization: Christianity in Victorian England [1979), 29-30.The Primitive Methodists had been organized in 1810. Upset with the increasing centralization of Methodist organization and what they believed to be Wesley’s simple teachings They emphasized millennialist principles and moral reforms, especially temperance. 
  23. Woodruff ‘Journal,’1:423-26 [4-21 Mar 1840).
  24. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:437 [15 Apr 1840); ibid., 1:440 [Ap r 1840); Baptismal Record, ibid. 1379-83. Later Woodruff would remember that he baptized 600 in the first thirty days [Deseret News, 31 Oct 1896). This memory does not coincide with the record he kept at the time.
  25. Woodruff ‘Journal,’1:441 [18 Apr 1840); fora colorful narrative of John Taylor’s brief experience in Ireland, see Taylor,70-72
  26. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:488-9 [2 Aug 1840).
  27. English Preaching License; 16 Mar 1840, ‘Wilford Woodruff Unprocessed Correspondence;’CHL
  28. Woodruff Leaves, 81; Woodruff,’Joumal,’ 1:435,440,461 [April 1840, pass irp, 15 Apr 1840,18 Jun 1840). There are inconsistencies in the dates in these references suggesting that Woodruff may have prepared the manuscript for Leaves from memory.
  29. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:440,457-59 [April 1840, passim, 14 June 1840).
  30. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:449,451 [14,19 May 1840).
  31. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:451 [20 May 1840).
  32. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:454 [30 May 1840).
  33. Woodruff Leaves, 81.
  34. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:432-3,449 [5,9 Apr 1840,14 May 1840).
  35. Woodruff ‘Journal,’1:428-9 [26 Mar 1840).
  36. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:430 [28 Mar 1840).
  37. Woodruff ‘Journal,’1:456-7 [8 Jun 1840).
  38. Matthew 4:18-22 KJV.
  39. Smith, ‘Journal’ Instructor 83 [Feb 1948): 71 [10 Nov 1840).
  40. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:446-7 [11 May 1840).
  41. Thorp, “Setting,’45.
  42. James B. Allen and Malcom R Thorp, “The Mission of the Twelve to England, 1840-41”: Mormon Apostles and the Working Classes,’ BYU Studies 15:4 [1 Oct 1975), 509.
  43. Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball, Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer [1981), 72
  44. Allen and Thorp,’Mission,’509-10.
  45. Smith, ‘Journal,’ Instructor 82 [Dec 1947): 579 [7 Sep 1840). Smith said that they visited Aitken, who told them he was afraid of the Mormons because their doctrines were so near the gospel that it would be impossible to detect their errors. When Kimball and Smith reported this visit to Woodruff, he interpreted their impression of Aitken to be that the minister had acknowledged the correctness of their doctrine. Woodruff, ‘Journal,’ 1509 [7 Sep 1840). At Doncaster about twenty-five Aitkenites became Mormons. John F. C Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenialism [1979), 189.
  46. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:549,568,577-^8, 225,232 [15 Nov 1840), 6,10-11 Dec 1840, 8,23 Jan 1841). On Southcott, see Harrison, Ihe Second Coming, chap. 5.
  47. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:532 [18 Oct 1840).
  48. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:586 [29-30 Dec 1840).
  49. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 224 [6 Ja n 1841).
  50. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 1:553;228,30 [30 Nov 1940,1217 Jan 1841).
  51. Woodruff ‘Journal,’ 232 39-40 [23 Jan 1841,7 Eeb 1841).
  52. Woodruff ‘Journal,’245 [14 Feb 1841).
  53. Woodruff ‘Journal,’241—4,47 [1215 Feb 1841) .
  54. Allen and Alexander, eds. Manchester Mormons, 172 Woodruff ‘Journal’ 292 [20 Apr 1841); Wilford Woodruff to Heber C Kimball and George A Smith, 12 Sep 1840, “Woodruff Unprocessed Correspondence; CHL
  55. Thorp,’Religious Backgrounds; 60-63.

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