The story of Mormonism in Great Britain is an intense human drama going back almost to the very beginnings of the restoration of the gospel in this dispensation. Thousands of British lives have been touched, regenerated, and uplifted. The goodness and power of God have been manifest, the sick have been healed, the needy cared for, the sorrowing comforted, the wayward returned to paths of righteousness, and the troubled and tormented given peace. Truth-seekers have found the sure way to eternal goals.
From the British Isles has come stalwart stock—defenders of the faith, carriers of the glad message, men and women, brothers and sisters who have had the courage of their convictions. Based on studies of information submitted to the Genealogical Society, it is estimated that 80 percent of the members of the Church today are of British extraction. All of the presidents of the Church except the Prophet Joseph Smith have, at one time or another, accepted the call and performed full-time missionary labors in Great Britain.
It would be pleasing to record that all was well with the Church when the gospel first came to Britain in 1837, but history deals with stern realities, and such was not the case.
That year a financial panic had swept over the United States, and financial institutions were forced to close their doors. The distress, a nationwide problem, affected the Church at its headquarters at Kirtland, Ohio. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote:
“At this time the spirit of speculation in lands and property of all kinds, which was so prevalent throughout the whole nation, was taking deep root in the Church. As the fruits of this spirit, evil surmisings, fault-finding, disunion, dissension, and apostasy followed in quick succession, and it seemed as though all the powers of earth and hell were combining their influence in an especial manner to overthrow the Church at once, and make a final end. …
“In this state of things, and but a few weeks before the Twelve were expecting to meet in full quorum … God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church.”1
Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve later recalled: “On Sunday, the 4th day of June, 1837, the Prophet Joseph came to me, while I was seated in front of the stand [of the Kirtland Temple], and whispering to me, said, ‘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.”’”2
The thought was overpowering to Elder Kimball. Three companions—Elder Orson Hyde, Elder Willard Richards, and Brother Joseph Fielding, a priest—were called in just about as dramatic a manner, and the four departed from Kirtland on June 13, 1837. That day a neighbor, Robert B. Thompson, stepped to the partially opened door of the Kimball residence. He recorded what he observed:
“I would have retired, thinking that I was intruding, but I felt riveted to the spot. The father [Heber C. Kimball] was pouring out his soul to that ‘God who rules on high …’ that he would grant him a prosperous voyage across the mighty ocean, and make him useful wherever his lot should be cast, and that He who ‘careth for sparrows, and feedeth the young ravens when they cry’ would supply the wants of his wife and little ones in his absence. He, then, like the patriarchs, and by virtue of his office, laid his hands upon their heads individually, leaving a father’s blessing upon them.”3
Three missionaries from Canada, John Goodson, Isaac Russell, and John Snyder, joined them in New York, and on July 1 the seven took passage on the sailing vessel Garrick; they arrived at Liverpool on July 20.
Two days later the missionary party went by coach to Preston. It was election day in Preston, and just as their coach arrived, the missionaries noted a large banner unfurled almost above their heads; in bold gilt letters it bore the inscription “Truth Will Prevail.” With joy in their hearts the missionaries cried aloud, “Amen! Thanks be to God! Truth will prevail!”
Joseph Fielding was invited by his brother, the Reverend James Fielding, to bring the missionaries to Vauxhall Chapel the morning of July 23 to hear the Reverend Fielding preach. At the close of the service, in answer to the prayers of the missionaries, it was announced that an elder of the Latter-day Saint Church would preach in Vauxhall Chapel at three o’clock that afternoon.
As the first speaker, Elder Kimball “declared that an angel had visited the earth, and committed the everlasting Gospel to man; called their attention to the first principles of the Gospel; and gave them a brief history of the nature of the work which the Lord had commenced on the earth; after which Elder Hyde bore testimony to the same, which was received by many with whom I afterwards conversed; they cried ‘glory to God,’ and rejoiced that the Lord had sent His servants unto them. Thus was the key turned and the Gospel dispensation opened on the first Sabbath after landing in England.”4
The Reverend Mr. Fielding opened Vauxhall Chapel to the missionaries two additional times; then, seeing that he was losing his flock, he closed the chapel to them. But the work had begun. Nine persons were baptized in the River Ribble on July 30. One of them, Ann Elizabeth Walmesley, was an invalid whose case had been given up by the doctors. She was promised by the missionaries that if she would believe, repent, and be baptized, she would be healed. She was carried to the water, and after her baptism she began to recover. During her confirmation a blessing was pronounced and the disease rebuked. Her recovery was immediate; soon she was attending to her household duties. She later immigrated to Utah and died several decades later in Montpelier, Idaho.
A large auditorium in Preston, called the “Cockpit,” had been obtained for use as a meeting place early in September, and by the time the first conference of the British Mission was held there on Christmas day, 1837, branches had been organized in Preston, Walkerfold, Alston, Bedford, Eccleston, Wrightington, Exton, Euxton Bath, Daubers Lane, Chorley, Whittle, Leyland Moss, Ribchester, Thornley, Clitheroe, Waddington, Downham, Barshe Lees, Askin, Hunter’s Hill, Stoney Gate Lane, Chatburn, Penwortham, and other places.
A second conference was held at the “Cockpit” April 8, 1838, with between six and seven hundred assembled. The mission membership at that time was between fifteen hundred and two thousand. The Preston Branch had about four hundred members.
At the conference Joseph Fielding was sustained president of the British Mission with Elder Willard Richards and Elder William Clayton as counselors. Elders Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde left Preston the following day and departed from Liverpool for home on April 20.
The first council meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve on British soil was held in Preston on April 14, 1840, at the home of Elder Willard Richards. On this occasion Elder Richards was ordained to the apostleship and Brigham Young was unanimously sustained by the Brethren as the President of the Council of the Twelve.
A general conference of all the Saints in the British Isles was held in Preston the following day. Here it was decided to publish a hymnbook and a monthly publication, under the direction of the Twelve, for the benefit and information of the members of the Church in Great Britain. Thus the Millennial Star came into being, a periodical true to its trust until it ceased publication with the December 1970 issue.
A year later, President Young wrote: “We landed in the spring of 1840, as strangers in a strange land and penniless, but through the mercy of God we have gained many friends, established churches in almost every noted town and city in the kingdom of Great Britain, baptized between seven and eight thousand, printed 5,000 Books of Mormon, 3,000 Hymn Books, 2,500 [copies] of the Millennial Star, and 50,000 tracts, and emigrated to Zion 1,000 souls, established a permanent shipping agency which will be a great blessing to the Saints, and have sown in the hearts of many thousands the seeds of eternal truth, which will bring forth fruit to the honor and glory of God, and yet we have lacked nothing to eat, drink or wear; in all these things I acknowledge the hand of God.”5
Incomplete records show that over thirty-three hundred British Saints immigrated to Nauvoo between 1840 and 1846. President George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency, a native of Liverpool, recalled leaving England as a boy of fifteen in September 1842. The day after his arrival in Nauvoo, “there was a large gathering of people at the steamboat landing to meet a company of Saints who had arrived from St. Louis. Among them were the Prophet Joseph, his brother Hyrum, and a number of other leading men who had gone there to welcome the people. Though no one had pointed the Prophet out to George Q., and he had never seen a portrait of him, he knew him instantly.”6
Before President Young left England in April 1841, he directed that a copy of the Book of Mormon be taken to Queen Victoria, who had begun her golden reign in 1837, three weeks before the gospel had come to her land. Richly bound copies were made for her and for Prince Albert, and Elder Lorenzo Snow received an audience in 1841, at which time he presented the book to Her Majesty.
Two valiant sons of Scotland, Elders Samuel Mulliner and Alexander Wright, who had embraced the gospel in Canada and had in 1839 both received mission calls, were called to introduce the gospel in Scotland. They arrived in Glasgow on December 20, 1839, and left the following day for Edinburgh, where they were welcomed by Elder Mulliner’s parents.
Elder Wright remained with the Mulliners only three or four days, being anxious to reach his parents and friends and relatives in the north of Scotland. There were no boats running that way during the winter, but Elder Wright—a hardy Scot and a true missionary—crossed the Firth of Forth and set out on foot in midwinter.
Exposure, irregularity, and poor food began to tell on him. Some nights he slept in the open, with little or no covering. In spite of a persistent illness, which he himself could not identify, he doggedly covered the distance to Aberdeen, more than one hundred miles. There a druggist diagnosed his ailment as smallpox. On the strength of this information he rested, but not for long. Within two or three days, still afoot, he continued his journey to his father’s home in the neighborhood of Banff. After a brief rest he was well again, with no apparent permanent ill effects. Despite his illness and other difficulties, he had proclaimed the gospel on many occasions during his strenuous journey.
Elder Mulliner stayed with his parents in Edinburgh for a few days; then he began systematic missionary work at Bishopton, near Paisley. On January 10, 1840, in a small meeting room that had been procured for the purpose, he first proclaimed the gospel in public meeting in Scotland. Four days later Alexander Hay and his wife, Jessie, were baptized in the River Clyde, near Bishopton.
Elder John Taylor of the Council of the Twelve was called to take the gospel to Ireland. Brothers James McGuffie and William Black were his traveling companions on a missionary journey from Liverpool to Ireland. On July 29, 1840, they arrived at Newry, a village in the hills of rural Ireland, some thirty miles from Belfast. Because of the influence and connections of Brother McGuffie, the courthouse was placed at the disposal of the brethren. The village bell ringer was dispatched to give notice of the pending meeting, which was to be held at seven o’clock that evening. Between six and seven hundred persons gathered at the appointed hour, and Elder Taylor preached the first public gospel discourse in Ireland. One such discourse satisfied the curiosity of most of the congregation, for the meeting the next evening was attended by only a few, and the time was largely spent in friendly and informal discussion.
Following the second night’s meeting in Newry, it was decided that other places should be visited. Accordingly, the next morning Brothers McGuffie and Black, with a Mr. Thomas Tate, a Liverpool acquaintance, accompanied Elder Taylor in a jaunting car trip through rural Ireland.
The next day they proceeded on foot in the direction of Lisburn, still accompanied by Mr. Tate, who, as Elder Taylor had previously prophesied, was to be the first person baptized in Ireland. As they walked along, Elder Taylor explained the eternal purposes of God for the welfare of man. As they topped a hill, at the foot of which lay Loch Brickland, Mr. Tate suddenly exclaimed, as did the New Testament eunuch: “See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 8:36.)
The first conversions in Wales were made through the preachings of elders from America and local missionaries who labored around Liverpool and who, in 1840, crossed into Cheshire and thence into northern Wales. “The brethren at Overton have baptized 56 converts and some more are ready,” reads a report dated December 13, 1840.
One of the most memorable stories is the one of Captain Dan Jones, a riverboat owner on the Mississippi, who heard the gospel and was baptized at Nauvoo. Thereafter he was a close associate of the Prophet and was with the Prophet at Carthage Jail. On the night before the martyrdom, June 26, 1844, after the other men were apparently fast asleep, the Prophet whispered to Dan Jones, “Are you afraid to die?” Dan said, “Has the time come, think you? Engaged in such a cause I do not think that death would have many terrors.” Joseph replied, “You will yet see Wales, and fulfill the mission appointed you before you die.”7
The following summer Dan Jones went to Wales; and at a special general conference held in Manchester, England, Wilford Woodruff said of him that Brother Jones was “the only person we had in this country who could speak, read, write, and publish in the Welsh language. We therefore proposed that he receive the sanction of the meeting in his appointment and that he preside over the Church in Wales.”8
Dan Jones was a giant among missionaries in an age of great missionaries. Directly and indirectly he was the means, in the hands of the Lord, of converting thousands of his countrymen, and while he was by no means the first missionary to preach the gospel restoration in Wales, he has often been called the “father of the Welsh Mission.”
One of the most memorable missionary experiences happened to Elder Wilford Woodruff on the John Benbow farm in Herefordshire, England. He had been directed there by the Spirit early in 1840.
“When I arose to speak at Brother Benbow’s house, a man entered the door and informed me that he was a constable, and had been sent by the rector of the parish with a warrant to arrest me. I asked him, ‘For what crime?’ He said, ‘For preaching to the people.’ I told him that I, as well as the rector, had a license for preaching the gospel to the people, and that if he would take a chair I would wait upon him after the meeting. He took my chair and sat beside me. For an hour and a quarter I preached the first principles of the everlasting gospel. The power of God rested upon me, the spirit filled the house, and the people were convinced. At the close of the meeting I opened the door for baptism, and seven offered themselves. Among the number were four preachers and the constable. The latter arose and said, ‘Mr. Woodruff, I would like to be baptized.’ I told him I would like to baptize him. …
“The first thirty days after my arrival in Herefordshire, I had baptized forty-five preachers and one hundred and sixty members of the United Brethren, who put into my hands one chapel and forty-five houses which were licensed according to law to preach in. This opened a wide field for labor, and enabled me to bring into the Church, through the blessings of God, over eighteen hundred souls [this number is given at a lower estimate in other accounts; it is approximate only] during eight months, including all of the six hundred United Brethren except one person.”9
The British trait of fair play has stood the Church well over the decades. In the 1860s Charles Dickens, in search of a story, went to the docks to visit an immigrant vessel chartered by Church authorities. He said in his Uncommercial Traveller:
“I afterwards learned that a dispatch was sent home by the captain before he struck out into the wide Atlantic, highly extolling the behaviour of these Emigrants, and the perfect order and propriety of all their social arrangements. What is in store for the poor people on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, what happy delusions they are laboring under now, on what miserable blindness their eyes may be opened then, I do not pretend to say. But I went on board their ship to bear testimony against them, if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; to my great astonishment they did not deserve it; and my predispositions and tendencies must not affect me as an honest witness. I went over the Amazon’s side, feeling it impossible to deny that, so far, some remarkable influence had produced a remarkable result, which better known influences have often missed.”
Through good times and bad, in war and in peace, the work in the British Isles has been one of strength for the Church. As missionary work in Europe expanded, the president of the British Mission, often a member of the Council of the Twelve, also served as president of the European Mission. This meant he was often in consultation with the other mission presidents in Europe or touring the missions on the continent. In 1928, during the administration of Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Council of the Twelve, Elder A. William Lund was called to be president of the British Mission and the position was separated from the office of the European Mission president.
During World War II the missions of the Church in the British Isles and Europe had to function without full-time missionaries from the United States. In each of the missions a presiding elder was set apart as acting mission president by the departing authorities. Andre K. Anastasion, Sr., was set apart as the acting president of the British Mission. To hear the story of the Church in the mission fields during those difficult war years brings firm testimony that God was with the Saints.
The postwar years have been bright. A temple has been built at New Chapel near Lingfield, Surrey; this house of the Lord was dedicated by President David O. McKay on September 7, 1958, in a dedicatory prayer that was a magnificent appeal for peace, freedom, and righteousness.
The Manchester Stake, the first stake in Britain, was organized March 27, 1960. On that same day the British Mission was divided to form the North British and the British missions.
The missions functioning in Great Britain as of June 1971 are England Central, England East, England North, England South, England Southwest, Ireland, and Scotland. The stakes are Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, London, London North, Manchester, and Sunderland.
How grateful the Church is to Great Britain, for Great Britain has contributed many great leaders to the leading councils. President John Taylor, third president of the Church, was English-born, as were Presidents George Q. Cannon, John R. Winder, and Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency; Elders George Teasdale and James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve; Elder John Longden, Assistant to the Twelve; Presidents George Reynolds and Brigham H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy; and Bishop John Wells of the Presiding Bishopric. President Charles W. Nibley of the First Presidency was a native of Scotland, and Elder Charles A. Callis of the Council of the Twelve was born in Ireland.
How grateful the Church is to Great Britain, for Great Britain has contributed greatly to the musical heritage of the Church. English-born Joseph H. Ridges was following the lure of gold in Australia when the gospel found him. He sent an organ by sailing vessel and mule train to Great Salt Lake City, as it was then known, and later came himself to build the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ. Wales has given to the Church many native sons, two of whom—John Parry and Evan Stephens—served as conductors of the Tabernacle Choir. Much that is cherished in Mormon music was created by members of British descent.