“We consider that there is no instance on record where men have been called to so great an undertaking, under the same circumstances of poverty, sickness and distress; both ourselves, families, and brethren; but yet through the mercy of God, we think the mission will be accomplished, and will stand on record, for the wondering gaze of succeeding ages, and to God and the Lamb be all the praise and glory” (Times and Seasons, vol. 1, March 1840, p. 70).
So wrote Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and Parley P. Pratt from New York on 19 February 1840 as they prepared to sail to England. The preaching of the gospel in Great Britain, beginning in the summer of 1837 and continuing to the present day, bears testimony to the truth of this prophetic declaration. Born of two powerful apostolic missions, nurtured by succeeding generations of inspired leadership, the Church in the British Isles has brought forth a rich heritage of faithful Saints. Their testimony, sacrifice, and service have proven to be important factors in ensuring the growth of the Church and spreading the gospel throughout the world.
The opening of the British Mission may properly be recognized as the beginning of the internationalization of the Church. Until 1837, the Church was confined to North America. Although several elders had taken the gospel to Canada, Church leaders looked upon the mission to Britain as the first “foreign” mission of this dispensation. The revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith to send the gospel to the British Isles was similar to the revelation to Peter in former days to take the gospel beyond the society in which it was first established. As the apostle Paul became the herald of the gospel message to foreign lands in that day, so Elder Heber C. Kimball was the chosen minister to Britain in our day. The branches of the early Church in Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessalonica had their British counterparts in Preston, Chatburn and Eccleston.
The establishment of a mission headquarters outside the United States signaled a tremendous outward thrust in the work of the Church. It was soon followed by the calling of hundreds of local Church leaders in Great Britain and the organization of standing districts or conferences, the holding of the first international area conferences of the Church in 1837 and 1838 in Preston, England, and the British publication of the scriptures, a hymnbook, and a mission periodical, The Millennial Star. These events marked a major step in the “gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth” (D&C 110:11).
The selection of the year and the country for this first foreign mission were also auspicious in that they coincided with the ascension to the English throne of the seventeen-year-old girl who would help bring the British Empire years of great glory and power—Queen Victoria. As British influence grew throughout the world during the Victorian age, so the gospel spread to the most distant parts of the empire. Many of the countries of the earth first heard the gospel message not from official missionaries of the Church, but from British Saints who were traveling throughout the world on business ventures or military service, or who were emigrating to other lands within the far-flung British dominions. It was partly as a result of their success that missions were established in many of these countries. If the United States may appropriately be called the host country for the restoration of the gospel, the British Empire must be recognized as an important vehicle by which God moved men to open the door for the restoration to many nations of the earth.
Britain’s role in the restoration began when Elder Heber C. Kimball baptized the first British Saints in the River Ribble at Preston, just ten days after he stepped ashore at Liverpool on 20 June 1837. Convert baptisms in Britain increased from an estimated 600 that year to over 8,600 in 1849, with a total of over 34,000 in the 1840s and over 43,000 in the 1850s. Had these Saints all remained in Britain it is possible the Church there today would be one of the largest in the land. But the gospel message brought by Elder Kimball and others included the principle of gathering, and many British members willingly left their native land to join the struggling Saints in the United States, first at Nauvoo, then at Salt Lake City, then at the numerous new colonies established by the Church.
About one-fourth of those who joined the Church in its first decade in Britain emigrated, while about one-third baptized in the following decade did so. Over 12,000 left the British Isles in the 1850s, and nearly 10,000 emigrated in the 1860s. Additional tens of thousands left Britain in the following hundred years to gather to Zion. Many of these were among the strongest and most capable members of the Church, and their loss to local branches was deeply felt. Entire regions of the country were affected by the early gathering, and in recent years many new branches have been organized where once-flourishing districts previously existed. In other areas, only a crumbling foundation or a yellowed newspaper in the village library remains to testify of the once-filled meetinghouse and the hundreds of Latter-day Saints who once lived there.
But Britain’s loss was America’s gain, for these new members provided strong support for the leadership of the Church in critical times, and the skills of British craftsmen were greatly needed and appreciated in frontier settlements. The names of such Utah towns as Leeds, Croydon, Chester, Newcastle, Leamington, and Kenilworth testify to the memory of these British Saints transplanted from the fields and factories of England to the wilderness of Deseret. It was the “flower of England” that helped make the desert blossom as a rose, and the old cemeteries of many small Western towns are dotted with headstones marked with such birthplaces as Manchester and Birmingham and other cities in Britain.
Of equal significance to their followership have been the contributions the British Saints have made to the leadership of the Church. Other than the United States, no land has given as many General Authorities to the Church as have the British Isles, including the one President of the Church not born and raised on American soil—John Taylor of Milnthorpe. Four British-born Saints have served as counselors in the First Presidency: George Q. Cannon of Liverpool, John R. Winder of Biddendew, Charles W. Penrose of London, and Charles W. Nibley of Hunterfield, Scotland. Three others served in the Quorum of the Twelve: George Teasdale of London, James E. Talmage of Hungerford, and Charles A. Callis of Dublin, Ireland. George Reynolds of London, Brigham H. Roberts of Warrington, and Derek A. Cuthbert of Nottingham have all served in the First Council or Quorum of the Seventy, John Longdon of Oldham served as an Assistant to the Twelve, and John Wells of Carlton was a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. These men gave dedicated leadership to the Church for many years, and their record is a testimony to the strength and abilities of the British Saints.
Not only did Great Britain serve as a source of leaders for the Church, but it was a significant training ground for leaders from America as well. A case in point is the training the Quorum of the Twelve received during their historic second mission to Britain. Led by Brigham Young, a total of nine members of the quorum served together as missionaries in the British Isles in 1840–41. There could have been few better preparations for their eventual leadership of the entire Church following the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph than the months they spent together leading the Church in Britain. Brigham Young provided strong administrative leadership and directed the work throughout the land as president of the Twelve. John Taylor opened the gospel door to Liverpool, the Isle of Man, and Ireland. Orson Pratt established the Church in Scotland on a solid foundation. Wilford Woodruff converted two entire districts in the west of England, including nearly all of a religious group called the United Brethren. Parley P. Pratt edited the new mission publication and oversaw the printing of numerous pamphlets and tracts. Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards traveled throughout the land providing supportive leadership of the kind that prompted Brigham to call them as his counselors when the First Presidency was reorganized in 1847. Each of the members of the Twelve contributed to the success of the work, and through their trials and sacrifices were bonded together in a unity of tremendous strength that assured the Church of continued leadership in the years ahead.
It is significant that the nine members of the Twelve who served on this mission in Britain remained as a group together in the Church following Joseph’s death, while the three members of the quorum who did not go on the mission all left the main body of the Church. It is also important to remember that among the congregation of the Saints gathered in Nauvoo to hear the claims of leadership for the Church following the martyrdom were several hundred Britishers. These members now provided strong support for the Twelve in their new responsibilities as the presiding quorum of the Church, first with their sustaining vote and then with their hearts and their hands in following the Twelve to the West.
Another important but less known area in which the British Saints have made a notable contribution to the Church has been in their enrichment of our musical heritage and the development of our most famous musical institutions—the Tabernacle Choir and its famed organ. The choir owes its origins in part to a group of Welsh Saints organized by John Parry, an 1849 immigrant from Wales. Another Welshman, Evan Stephens, conducted the choir for many years and wrote many of the hymns used in our Church services, among them the stirring “Shall the Youth of Zion Falter?” “For the Strength of the Hills,” and “Let Us All Press On.” Several other Britishers conducted the choir in its early years, among them George Careless and Thomas Griggs. Most of the hymns Careless wrote were for choirs, but his “Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire” has also become a favorite for congregational use. Griggs contributed the beautiful “Earth, with Her Ten Thousand Flowers” and “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain,” which is sung often in our LDS worship services.
The Tabernacle organ also evidences the inspiration of the British Saints. Joseph Ridges from England was assigned the important task of designing and building the organ. Although many additions and improvements have been made to it over the years, it still retains the quality of Ridges’s craftsmanship. The first organist was yet another Englishman, Joseph Daynes. For over thirty years, Daynes both played the organ and wrote such uplifting hymns as “Lord, Accept Our True Devotion” and “As the Dew from Heaven Distilling.”
These trained musicians are the better-known contributors to the development of our LDS musical heritage. But other Britishers have also added to it. Richard Smyth from Dublin, Ireland, gave the Church one of its most-loved hymns in “Israel, Israel God Is Calling.” And Ruth May Fox of Wiltshire is perhaps better known today for her authorship; of “Firm as the Mountains Around Us” than she is for having served as general president of the YWMIA for many years. Charles Penrose also shared his musical as well as administrative talents with the Church, writing such hymns as “O Ye Mountains High” and “God of Our Fathers, We Come unto Thee.” And William Clayton, father of the Manchester Branch of the Church and a former counselor in the British Mission presidency, wrote what is probably the most famous LDS hymn as he walked across the plains to Utah—“Come, Come Ye Saints”—utilizing the music of a familiar English tune and an idealism without illusions that both encouraged and comforted the Saints in their westward exodus. Through it all, the Welsh among them added their love of music and gift of singing to the valleys and mountains, lightening the hearts and lifting the spirits of the Saints as they struggled to carve a home in the desert.
This British contribution to the music of the Church has an even more important counterpart in the written word—the Pearl of Great Price. This book of scripture, so unique in many ways, could be called our British scripture. It alone among the standard works began not by announcement from the leadership of the Church, but as a local publishing effort. In 1851 Elder Franklin D. Richards, president of the British Mission, compiled the material into a pamphlet as an effort to provide the British Saints with instructional materials for gospel study. This mission pamphlet continued in publication in Britain for over thirty-five years before it was first printed in the United States, and it wasn’t until 1880 that it was officially accepted as a standard work. Today the Pearl of Great Price is studied as one of our standard works by Latter-day Saints throughout the world, a testimony to the inspiration of Elder Richards and a continued blessing to the descendants of the British Saints who first received it.
All of these contributions to the Church should not overshadow the equally important spiritual heritage of the Saints in Britain itself. Their legacy of faithfulness provided the sure foundations upon which the Church there now builds. The history of the Church in Britain provides numerous examples of service, such as the Moon family of Eccleston who sent all five of their sons into the mission field and led the first company of Saints across the Atlantic. Prosperous farmers like John Benbow and Edward Ockey, both of whom sold their property and all their possessions to share their substance with the less fortunate, typify the willingness of the British Saints to sacrifice so that others might have the same blessing as themselves in gathering to Zion. And few greater examples of courage and commitment can be found in this dispensation than the five earnest investigators of the gospel who were willing to undergo the ordinance of baptism in a little pond at Hawcross, all the while being pelted with the bricks and stones of a raging mob gathered around the edges of the water.
Such faithfulness was all too often met with even greater calls for sacrifice as scores of loving parents consigned their children to a watery grave in the Atlantic or a shallow hole beside a pioneer trail as they obeyed the command to move west. The famous handcart pioneers were largely made up of such Saints. Among the many instances that could be cited of their dedication, President Spencer W. Kimball chose the following to review in his address at the British Area General Conference: “We remember particularly the Willie Handcart Company. One of many, these were Britishers who, with all of their belongings and little two-wheeled carts, climbed the mountains, forded the rivers, braved other dangers, buried their dead, and crossed a great country to the West where they finally came to have even greater problems for some time. Here they built houses out of mud, and they dug sego roots out of the hills to survive upon. These were Britishers; these are a great people with a great heart, a great devotion. We must not ever forget.” (Official Report of the First British Area General Conference, Aug. 27–29, 1971, p. 22.)
Surveying the rich spiritual heritage of the Saints in Britain and their many contributions to the Church, one may appropriately ask why it all happened. Why was Britain chosen as the first foreign mission of the Church? Why did the mission produce such great results? Surely part of the answer lies in the common culture and history shared by the British and American peoples. The former colony returned to the motherland with the richest gifts a grateful child could possibly offer a parent. Social, economic, and political conditions in Britain also provided a setting conducive to the gospel message, although these were secondary in their impact on the success of the mission.
New members of the Church in the United States and Canada retained close ties with friends and family remaining in Britain. Correspondence between them brought the good news of the Restoration, and these family referrals provided the early missionaries with their first opportunities for sharing the gospel in places such as Preston, Liverpool, Manchester, and London. Equally important were the missionaries, prepared in most cases with extensive experience and bearing the keys of apostolic authority to open the doors of the nation for the gospel. These factors alone would have assured the success of the mission.
But there is a deeper reason for the great response of the British people to the restored gospel. It is a spiritual reason largely hidden from the world but known among those who are aware of God’s purposes and sensitive to the workings of the Spirit. These people had been spiritually prepared to receive the gospel because they were among those foreordained to be gathered first in the house of Israel. They were of Ephraim, to whom was given the birthright in order that he might lead out in sharing the gospel with his brethren of Israel in the last days.
The Prophet Joseph Smith visited the small branch of the Church in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1834, and while there told the Stevenson family with whom he was staying, “There are thousands of good people in England and those old countries who are waiting for the fullness of the gospel, and it will not be long before they will flock to Zion, for Ephraim dwells largely in those parts” (Joseph Grant Stevenson, The Life of Edward Stevenson, master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1955, p. 25). Brigham Young spoke of the focus upon the “sons of Ephraim” in the early gathering of Israel, whom he identified with Britain when he told the Saints, “They are the Anglo-Saxon race” (Journal of Discourses, 10:188). It was the inspiration of God that prompted Joseph to send Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde to the Ephraimites of Britain in 1837, that they might be gathered in to begin the great exodus to Zion from the four parts of the earth.
The British Mission had also been seen in vision and prophetically described by apostles. In a vision in the Kirtland Temple on 6 February 1836, William Smith saw the Twelve in England, and “prophesied that a great work would be done by them in the old countries, and God was already beginning to work in the hearts of the people” (History of the Church, 2:392). Heber C. Kimball made a similar prophecy to Parley P. Pratt and later to Willard Richards. In April 1836, Elder Kimball prophesied that Pratt would fill a mission to Canada and find a people prepared for the gospel in the city of Toronto, and “from the things growing out of this mission, shall the fulness of the gospel spread into England, and cause a great work to be done in that land” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964, pp. 130–31). The prophecy was literally fulfilled, resulting in the conversion of John Taylor and other British immigrants, many of whom accompanied the Twelve on their missions to Britain and introduced them to their families and friends.
These apostolic witnesses were but confirmation of a revelation which came to the Prophet Joseph Smith. He recorded that during the trying summer of 1837, when many Church leaders had become disaffected and the Church was facing heavy economic and spiritual pressures, “God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church. And on or about the first of June, 1837, Heber C. Kimball, one of the Twelve, was set apart by the spirit of prophecy and revelation, prayer and laying on of hands, of the First Presidency, to preside over a mission to England, to be the first foreign mission of the Church of Christ in the last days.” (History of the Church, 2:489.) Seldom has any new mission been announced in a time of greater difficulty for the Church, with the attendant realization by those involved of the necessary success the mission must have in helping to ensure the very salvation of the Church.
But the Twelve of this dispensation were not the only special witnesses of the gospel to Britain. An experience of Heber C. Kimball reveals that other prophets in other times have also shared the gospel message in that land, and perhaps in this fact lies something of the great reason for the history of the Church in Britain today.
Elder Kimball visited the small villages of Chatburn and Downham in the winter of 1837. Set just below Pendle Hill some twenty miles upstream from Preston, they remain today a site of picturesque beauty. Although warned by members in Preston that the people in these villages had been unresponsive to other ministers, Elder Kimball preached to them and found an immediate and overwhelming response. He returned three times, and felt overpowered each time by the spirit of these people and of the countryside itself. On his final visit, the children linked arms and walked with him for a distance, singing the songs of Zion. He recorded in his journal that he was so affected he had to leave the road three times to bathe his eyes in the stream because he was weeping so profusely. This incident left a profound impression on Elder Kimball, for, he said, “I felt as if the place was holy ground. The Spirit of the Lord rested down upon me and I was constrained to bless that whole region of country” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, Salt Lake City: 1967, p. 187). He later reported, “I went through the streets of that town feeling as I never before felt in my life. My hair would rise on my head as I walked through the streets, and I did not then know what was the matter with me. I pulled off my hat, and felt that I wanted to pull off my shoes, and I did not know what to think of it. When I returned, I mentioned the circumstance to brother Joseph, who said, ‘Did you not understand it? That is a place where some of the old Prophets travelled and dedicated that land, and their blessing fell upon you.’” (JD, 5:22.)
In referring to this incident between his grandfather and the Prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball told the British Saints, “I should like to think that the whole of this great land is blessed and still carrying a blessing from our Heavenly Father from great and holy men who have walked upon its shores” (Official Report of the First British Area General Conference, p. 21). That blessing has been fulfilled in many ways. The British Isles have produced some of the finest literature, greatest industrial advances, most efficient governments, and most important scientific discoveries known to man. And one of the greatest contributions Britain has given to the world has been the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish Saints of these latter days.