Members Celebrate 175 Years of the Church in Britain
By David M. W. Pickup, Church News correspondent
On Saturday evening, July 7, 2012, more than 1,000 members, friends, and local dignitaries from across the United Kingdom gathered in Lancashire, England, at Preston’s Avenham Park to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Church in Britain.
On July 19, 1837, seven missionaries dispatched by the Prophet Joseph Smith, including Apostles Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde, landed at Prince’s Dock in Liverpool. They soon made their way to Preston, where they arrived in the marketplace on a busy Saturday, July 22. It was the middle of a general election, called following the ascension of the young Victoria to the throne of Great Britain. As the missionaries descended from the coach, a political banner was unfurled from a window above them.
“Truth Shall Prevail,” it proclaimed. The missionaries thought it a provident sign, and with resounding “Amens” they immediately adopted it as the motto of their mission to England.
That evening the missionaries were invited to preach the following day at Vauxhall Chapel to the congregation of the Reverend James Fielding, the brother of Joseph Fielding, one of the missionaries. They preached the restored gospel and invited the people to be baptized. Within the week, nine of the Reverend Fielding’s flock desired to be baptized. The baptisms took place on Sunday morning, July 30, 1837, in the nearby River Ribble with a crowd of some 8,000 watching the spectacle.
That simple event in Preston was but the opening of a remarkably successful missionary effort. This first trickle would soon become a virtual torrent of converts, with some 1,600 joining in the eight months of this first mission, and many thousands more from across Great Britain over the following few years. Elders Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow were among many other missionaries who crossed the length and breadth of Britain, reaping a plentiful harvest of converts.
By 1870 some 100,000 Britons had joined the Church, and more than 45,000 of these converts would emigrate to provide much-needed strength to the fledgling Church in America. From 1840 they began to come in shiploads across the Atlantic to New York and New Orleans, first making their way to Nauvoo and later crossing the plains in wagons and handcarts to the Salt Lake Valley.
The British influence in the Church was significant, and Joseph Smith’s inspired decision to send missionaries to England proved to be providential at a time when the Church was suffering turmoil and persecution. It is said that for some 50 years after the 1840s the predominant accent of members in the Salt Lake Valley was British, and many of today’s members trace their ancestry through these British pioneers from the towns and villages of Great Britain.
Since 1837 the Church has retained a presence in Preston. In fact, the Preston Ward is the oldest continuously functioning unit of the Church in the world. Almost 100 years after those first missionaries, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who became the 15th President of the Church, was himself a young missionary in Preston, walking the same streets and preaching from the same obelisk in Preston’s marketplace as had Elder Heber C. Kimball.
Today the strength of the Church in Lancashire is marked by the Preston England Temple, which was dedicated by President Hinckley on June 7, 1998, and thousands of members fill LDS chapels in towns throughout the area that the temple serves.
It was to celebrate this remarkable history that today’s Latter-day Saints—some in 19th-century costume—their friends, and many civic and religious dignitaries gathered for an uplifting and spiritual concert of music and narration on a pleasant Saturday evening alongside the River Ribble. The site of those first baptisms near the Old Tram Bridge was little more than a stone’s throw from the concert.
Despite torrential downpours, unseasonal flooding, and severe weather warnings across the country threatening a washout, the sun shone for most of the day on Saturday, drying out the soggy parkland where the concert was to be held. Where the day before ducks had paddled on flooded fields, by Saturday evening members were able to sit in sunshine to enjoy the 200-member choir directed by John Saunders, bishop of the young single adult ward in the Manchester England Stake, and accompanied by Lindsay Preston. Although there was a light rain shower during the concert, no one thought to leave; they had come prepared.
Choir members donned transparent waterproof capes, umbrellas were distributed, and the concert carried on until the clouds cleared and the evening sun shone down once more. As Area Seventy Elder Stephen C. Kerr joked during his keynote address, “This weather reminds [us] British why we are called ‘plucky.’” Remarking that England never looked greener in July, Elder Kerr wryly observed it was a perfect symbol of the land that people were waving waterproof Union Jack flags.
The 90-minute concert program included choir renditions of traditional hymns, congregational singing, costumed readings from the missionary journals of Elder Heber C. Kimball and others, and solo and ensemble musical items. Richard Walker, president of the Preston England Missionary Training Center and a son-in-law of President Hinckley, read President Hinckley’s account of his missionary experiences in Preston and his father’s advice that he should “forget [himself] and go to work.”
Closing the celebration, Elder Kerr reminded the audience that the doctrine taught by the early missionaries at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria 175 years ago is the same doctrine of faith that the Church proclaims to the world today.
Reading from Elder Heber C. Kimball’s account early in June 1837, Elder Kerr recounted that Joseph Smith told Elder Kimball in the Kirtland Temple, “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.’” Within a week the small missionary party of four had set out from Kirtland, to be joined by three Canadians in New York.
Elder Kerr recounted from the early missionary’s journal how that on seeing Liverpool come into view from onboard their ship, Elder Kimball felt the Spirit of the Lord rest upon him as he poured out his soul to God and covenanted to dedicate himself to the Lord.
Elder Kerr also told the story of Ann Elizabeth Walmsley, an invalid whom the doctors had given up to die. She asked the Lord that if she could repent and be baptized, would He heal her. She was carried to the water to be baptized. In her confirmation she was blessed that the disease would be rebuked. Not only was she healed, but she also went on to cross the Atlantic and the plains and lived on to old age in Idaho.
“Why did the missionaries come here to preach?” asked Elder Kerr. “With what message was the door of salvation to be opened?” Answering his own questions, Elder Kerr remarked that the first missionaries were people of faith who expected and received miracles.
“The message of the missionaries in 1837 is the message of missionaries in 2012,” said Elder Kerr. “The message is that God visited Joseph Smith in a grove of trees, that angels subsequently visited him, and that he translated the Book of Mormon, the word of God.” He continued, “We testify of Jesus Christ today.
“We don’t say, ‘We are more holy than you.’ We say that we have found something more wonderful than you already have, which adds color and purpose to our lives. Our best and only hope is to follow Jesus Christ. Of these things, on behalf of all of you, I raise my voice on the banks of the River Ribble on the 175th anniversary of the first missionaries to come to England to say we will be true to these things that we know.”