Wilford Woodruff could not help but wonder what would be the effect of the inspiration he felt that March day in 1840, during his first mission to England. He and Elder Alfred Cordon were already having some success at their missionary work in the Staffordshire Potteries district. But the voice of the Spirit was telling him to go elsewhere.
In February of 1873, he recalled:
“I went one evening to fill an appointment at the town hall, in the town of Hanley. There was a very large congregation, and I had appointments out for two or three weeks in that town and adjacent villages. As I went to take my seat the Spirit of the Lord came upon me and said to me, ‘This is the last meeting you will hold with this people for many days.’ I was surprised, because I did not know, of course what the Lord wanted me to do. I told the assembly when I rose, ‘This is the last meeting I shall hold with you for many days.’ They asked me after meeting where I was going. I told them I did not know. I went before the Lord in my closet and asked him where he wished me to go, and all the answer I could get was to go to the South. I got into a stage and rode eighty miles south, as I was led by the Spirit of the Lord.”1
This response to inspiration initiated one of the most fruitful missionary journeys in the history of the restored Church.
President Woodruff spoke of the ensuing months in Herefordshire as one of the highlights of his life. He rejoiced in the revelation that called him there, always acknowledging the hand of the Lord in the rich spiritual harvest he helped gather.
Wilford Woodruff was born and grew up in Connecticut. In 1832 he moved with a brother to New York, where, a year later, he was converted to the Church after hearing two Latter-day Saint missionaries preach on the restoration of the gospel. Shortly after his baptism in December 1833, he journeyed to Kirtland, Ohio, where he first met Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders. He participated in the Zion’s Camp march to Missouri in 1834 and labored as a missionary in Arkansas and Tennessee that fall and the next year. He was back in Kirtland by the fall of 1836. In Kirtland, he saw the temple, received his patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr., and married Phoebe Carter in April 1837. He continued to do active missionary work, including traveling to the Fox Islands, off the coast of Maine.2
While proselytizing along the Atlantic Seaboard in 1838, he received notice that he had been called to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and to prepare himself to preach in England. Delayed by illness and the tasks of organizing the immigration of about fifty of his converts to Missouri, Wilford was unable to get any farther than Rochester, Illinois, when he learned of the forced expulsion of his fellow Saints from Missouri, late in 1838. He stayed in Illinois, moving his family to Quincy in the spring of 1839.
To fulfill an earlier commandment that those leaving for the British Isles ought to depart from the temple site in Far West, Missouri (see D&C 118:5), Wilford and his fellow missionaries traveled back to the area from which the Saints had recently been forceably evicted. On 26 April 1839, Wilford, along with George A. Smith, was ordained an Apostle. He then returned to Illinois, settled his young family in Montrose, Iowa, and in spite of serious personal illness, started for England on 8 August 1839.3 With several other members of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Woodruff arrived in Liverpool on 11 January 1840.
The first LDS missionaries had arrived in England in July of 1837. Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, and several others had concentrated their efforts in the areas north and east of Liverpool, particularly in Preston and Manchester. By early 1840, there were approximately 1,500 members of the Church in England. The coming of the group of apostolic missionaries would see the work greatly expanded.
Six days after his arrival, Elder Woodruff was assigned by a conference in Preston to accompany Theodore Turley to the “Potteries,” where they were to preach and further organize branches of the Church. Several months later, Elder George A. Smith wrote of the Staffordshire Potteries: “The greater portion of China and Earthen ware sold in America is made in this district; about 70,000 persons obtain a good living when there is employment but vast numbers are now out of work, in consequence of the depression in trade; consequently, in a state of starvation. I have seen more beggars here in one day than I saw in all my life in America. I have seen delicate females gathering manure to get a living for their famishing children.”4 Elder Woodruff described a similar situation in Manchester as he was heading south: “There is trouble this morning in this town. … About 3,000 souls is flung out of employ at the factories because of the pressure of time & the lowering of the wages & they are standing in every corner of the streets in groups counciling what to do, & their are at the present time (I have been informed) thousands of Souls [who] are almost in a State of uter starvation.”5
On January 22, when he was in the midst of the Potteries, he wrote in his journal, “The potteries include the following Market towns: Tunstell [Turnstall] Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Laneend, & several other villages. The whole population of the Potteries in 1838 was 65,000.” The area to the south was even more industrial. He described the consequences of the Industrial Revolution for that area in detail:
“It would be a difficult task to give a description of the country from Birmingham to Woverhampton. I never saw any thing that comes so near the description of the Lake of fire & Brimstone Spoken of by the Revelator John as several miles of that country for it is one universal mass of coal pits & Iron mines & while thousands of human beings are under ground at work in the midst of fire, Brimston, sulpher, Gas & cole &c. the whole face of the earth & heavens air & horizon men, women, & houses, are filled & Coverd with the composition of fire, cinders, Gas, sut [soot], & smooke of their miserry & labours that assended up out of their piles, firnesses, & pitts from day to day & from year to year.”6
His missionary work in the Staffordshire Potteries illustrates the proselyting techniques of early missionaries. Traveling without purse or scrip, they usually made their first contacts with Church members, or members’ friends or relatives. Various individuals willingly shared their houses and food with the missionaries. Then the elders used these homes as bases of operation for sorties into the regions nearby. Elder Woodruff thus preached at William Hume’s home in Stoke, dined and slept at Isaac Whittaker’s in Burslem, and preached at a Brother Wood’s in Newcastle. Through these people, he gained access to dozens of other homes.
He preached basic principles of the gospel, rehearsed the early history of Joseph Smith, discussed the Book of Mormon, and bore testimony about the importance of the Restoration. He answered questions, sometimes dodged rotten eggs from hecklers, and distributed tracts to those who wished to read further about the restored gospel. Almost all his traveling was done on foot. He regularly recorded in his journal the distance he had walked; during this period he averaged between four and eight miles per day.
From January 22 to March 2, Elder Woodruff worked hard as a missionary in the various towns around Stoke-on-Trent. Of particular interest was his relationship with William and Ann Benbow in Hanley. William was the keeper of a provision store at the Hanley Market Place. He and his wife had already joined the church through the efforts of Alfred Cordon and were strong in the faith. It was probably through the Benbows of Hanley that Wilford learned of John Benbow of Herefordshire—and more particularly of the United Brethren, of which John was a member.
The day after he celebrated his thirty-third birthday, Elder Woodruff recorded in his journal, “The Lord warned me to go to the south.”7 And so he began his eighty-mile journey. Herefordshire would subsequently prove to be one of the most successful missionary areas in nineteenth-century Britain.
Unlike the Potteries area, Herefordshire was predominantly rural, with most of the land devoted to agriculture, particularly to a variety of fruit orchards. Its farms and orchards helped to supply industrial towns with foodstuffs; no doubt William Benbow’s store in Hanley was supplied with Herefordshire produce.
William’s brother John was a well-to-do farmer who lived near Ledbury. He seems to have been a tenant farmer, essentially leasing about three hundred acres of land. (Following his conversion to the Church, he was evicted from the property.) Thus, in company with William Benbow, Wilford Woodruff arrived in Herefordshire and sought out John Benbow.
It was John Benbow’s home that provided Elder Woodruff his first preaching location in the Herefordshire area.8 This was particularly important because of John Benbow’s connection to the United Brethren, a break-off from the Primitive Methodists. It was a connection that soon opened many other homes to Elder Woodruff.
In a real sense, the United Brethren were to early LDS missionary work in Herefordshire what the Campbellites had been to Latter-day Saint proselytizing in 1830 in Ohio.9 For here was a group, just like the followers of Sidney Rigdon earlier, who had been prepared for the message of the Restoration. About six hundred individuals living in the larger Herefordshire area, many of them from among the poorer classes, had broken with the Methodist movement begun by John Wesley because of its growing wealth and formalism. They had gathered around the leadership of Thomas Kington, and about 1834 the group had been expelled from the Primitive Methodists, a smaller schism from the Methodist movement. They had about forty lay preachers who were providing leadership and preaching when Elder Woodruff arrived in March 1840.
Members of the United Brethren were living in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire and had formed into two conferences (circuits), centered at Froome’s Hill and Gadfield Elm. Influenced by John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the early Puritan work which stressed deep personal piety and the need for the true Christian to view this life as a pilgrimage back to God’s presence, this group was open to the new revelation Elder Woodruff brought. Their habit of daily prayer and their stress on family life also assured his message a warm and honest reception.10
Elder Woodruff took every opportunity to preach to these people after his arrival on March 4. By March 16, he had obtained a preaching license from a local magistrate. The fact that many of the homes of the United Brethren had been already licensed as preaching locations provided ready-made centers for his work.
The pivotal convert was Thomas Kington, Superintendent of the United Brethren. Elder Woodruff recorded that on March 17 he “lade the whole work of the fulness of the gospel before him & he seemed to receive the testimony.” On March 21, Brother Kington was baptized, and the next day Elder Woodruff ordained him an elder.
Within a short time, many members of the United Brethren followed his example, investigating and joining the Church. In April, with the work well underway in Herefordshire, the young Apostle returned to Preston for a general conference. At this conference, a more formal organization was given to the Church in England, and it was decided to publish a hymnbook and to begin a periodical. Representing 160 members of the Church in Herefordshire, Elder Woodruff gave a detailed report of the work there. Its prospects were so good that Brigham Young and Willard Richards decided to return with him. Elder Young used this opportunity to acquaint himself with the area and its members. Several times he and Elder Woodruff climbed to the top of Malvern Hill to pray, meditate, and plan more carefully their activities in England. From a point called the Herefordshire Beacon, they could survey the surrounding countryside and enjoy the solitude of an area that is still generally rural.11
During Brigham Young’s visit, the Church leaders obtained from John Benbow a donation of £300 to be used for printing the Book of Mormon.12 This first European edition consisted of 5,000 copies and appeared in 1841. (Always a generous man, Brother Benbow later gave £100 to help about fifty individuals emigrate to America.) Shortly afterward, Brigham Young returned to Manchester to see several publishing projects through to completion.
John Taylor, writing from Liverpool about this time, provided Church leaders in the United States with a glimpse of Wilford Woodruff’s activity: “Elder Woodruff, has lately left the Potteries where he was and has gone to another neighborhood, and is making Methodist preachers scarce, he baptised 32 persons in one week thirteen of them were Methodist preachers.”13
By the middle of May 1840, it is estimated that more than 320 people in the area had joined the Church.14 Elder Woodruff’s journal records the variety of spiritual experiences that accompanied this growth. There were healings (a woman, Mary Pitt, who had walked only with crutches for eleven years, was healed through the laying on of hands) and various visions and dreams that united new members and strengthened their faith. These experiences helped to create more fully a community of Saints.
By June it was clear to Elder Woodruff that a more formal organization was needed for the Church in the area. Using the two conferences established by the United Brethren (since a large percentage of the converts were from this group), and following the counsel of Brigham Young, he organized them into LDS conferences. On 14 June 1840, the Gadfield Elm Conference (in Worcestershire) was organized. It consisted of twelve branches, at Dymock, Kilcott, Twigworth, Haw Cross, Bran Green, Lime Street, Ryton, Deerhurst, Apperly, Norton, Leight, and Gadfield Elm; about half of them were on the south side of the River Severn, the rest on the north side.15 One week later the Froome’s Hill Conference was organized, consisting of twenty branches.16 Thomas Kington was made president of both conferences. In his journal on 22 June 1840, Elder Woodruff wrote that total membership for the area was 541; of these, he had personally baptized 300.17
In July 1840, Elder Woodruff traveled to Manchester to attend a general conference. On July 6, he reported 1,007 members in the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire areas.18 Four days before, he had recorded in his journal a vision of Ann Booth,19 in which she had seen the redemption of John Wesley and many of his followers. Perhaps he sensed a connection with his own very successful work among the United Brethren.
With a firm foundation established, Elder Woodruff felt no need to confine his activities to this area. Thus, after a short visit to the Ledbury area, he left to help open the city of London to the gospel on August 17. He visited the Herefordshire area briefly again in September, but feeling the members there were remaining strong in the Church, returned to London.
He stayed in London until February 1841, helping to lay the foundations of the Church there. He once again visited the Herefordshire area in March on his way to Manchester for a final conference prior to returning to America. On 6 April 1841, Elder Woodruff reported 1,410 members in the Gadfield Elm and Froome’s Hill Conferences.20 Combined, they were the largest single group of LDS converts in those early years.
In 1875, Elder Woodruff looked back on his work among the United Brethren and recalled, “They as a people were prepared for the word of the Lord, and I wanted to catch them in the gospel net.”21 He took great delight in his later years in proclaiming that very few of the converts from this area had left the Church.22 But he took no credit to himself for their conversion. “I brought eighteen hundred into the Church in that mission, and I will say that the power of God rested upon me and upon the people. There was a spirit to convince and a people whose hearts were open and ready to receive the gospel.”23