Gospel Seeds in Scottish Soil

Orson Pratt planted and nurtured the message of the restored gospel.

Near the rockstrewn northern coast of Scotland, sometime in the winter of 1837–38, an elderly couple named Wright received a strange package from America.

The Wright children had dispersed long before—several sons farmed the Banffshire heath, one daughter kept house for a clergyman in town—but none had drifted as far as Alexander. Three years earlier, he had emigrated to Canada, and the old couple entertained no illusions about seeing him again. So the Wrights must have opened Alexander’s package with tenderness and anticipation.

In his letter he introduced his parents to his new religion, to his newfound testimony of a prophet called to restore the true Church of Jesus Christ, and to a pamphlet by Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning. Together they read the little book, cherished it, and circulated it quietly among their children for years afterward.

The humble Wrights were thus probably the first family in Scotland to hear the good news of the restored gospel. Through Parley P. Pratt’s classic missionary pamphlet, the first seeds of testimony began to grow in that austere land. From this very small beginning, nearly ten thousand Scots would join the Church within twenty years, and more than seven thousand would emigrate to the new Zion in Utah. Scotland soon became one of the fertile mission fields of the Restoration, and her own children made it so. The first two elders who broke the ground for those to follow were Scots themselves. One of them was Alexander Wright.

Orson Pratt

Pioneer Missionaries in Scotland

Born in 1804, Alexander had emigrated to Canada in 1835, joined the Church there, and was sent back to Great Britain on a mission in the early months of 1839. He walked from Ohio to New York City “at the rate of twenty or twenty-five miles a day,” 1 and there met another native Scot who would accompany him on the first Latter-day Saint missionary journey to Scotland.

Samuel Mulliner, five years younger than Alexander, had also moved to Canada from his birthplace in East Lothian. He had married Catherine Nisbit of Berwickshire and emigrated with the intention to settle in Australia. Diverted to Toronto, the Mulliners heard the gospel message from Parley P. Pratt and joined the Church (along with Theodore Turley, a lay preacher in the Methodist church). 2 Samuel and Catherine gathered to Kirtland and moved with many of the Saints toward Missouri during the summer of 1838. Stopped by lack of money and ominous news of the persecutions in Missouri, they settled temporarily at Springfield, Illinois, where a thriving branch of the Church took them in. At a general conference the following spring, Samuel was called to accompany the twelve Apostles on a mission to Europe.

In New York, at the beginning of their missionary journey, Alexander and Samuel were counseled by Elders Parley P. Pratt and Wilford Woodruff to take the gospel to their homeland. 3 After earning money at odd jobs, the two missionaries left for Britain aboard the packet Tarolinta on 1 November 1839.

Upon arrival at Liverpool, they counseled with Elders Joseph Fielding and Willard Richards, and, on 18 December 1839, left for Scotland. Winter gales rocked the ship all the way to Glasgow. Alexander stood on deck, fighting what he thought was a bad cold, rather than suffering seasickness and the odor below decks.

The two elders decided that the logical place to begin their missionary work was with their own families, so they sought out Samuel’s parents in Edinburgh. Received with “great rejoisen” on the evening of December 22, they “let them [k]now our erand to scotland.” This home evening saw the first preaching of the restored gospel in that country. (In this journal entry and the following that are quoted through 13 January 1840, Elder Wright described his journey to his home village and his missionary labors there. 4 )

The next morning, Alexander tried to shave and discovered that his face “was all braking out and all over my head B[rother] Millener said his was so too and he had got a bad cold he wished me to anoint him and lay hands on him so I did and requested the same blising from him.”

Despite his sickness, Alexander was determined to take the gospel to his own family as soon as possible, so the two ailing elders “took the partin han[d]” and Alexander crossed the Firth of Forth to Kirkcaldy by ferryboat. While Samuel stayed behind to teach his family, Alexander walked across Scotland to his hometown, the little village of Marnock in Banffshire.

It rained very hard Christmas Eve as he made twenty-two miles on foot to Aberdeen. Christmas morning he awoke in a boarding house to find “my face and all over me brock out in large nots … I was all covered one of my eyes I could only see like mist I [k]new nothing what was the mater with me.” Frightened, he went to a druggist who immediately recognized Alexander’s ailment as smallpox, telling him he “could do nothing more.” A doctor he consulted was amazed to learn he had walked from Edinburgh in that condition and advised him to rest and take medication, but Alexander decided to push on, “pox or not,” to his family home. He arrived three days later, having walked more than one hundred miles through winter storms. The family “did not [k]now me on account of the pox,” but strangely he had no further sickness or pain, and the eruptions eventually cleared up.

Alexander confined himself for ten days in order to protect his family. But on 11 January 1840, he came out of seclusion, walked a mile to the village, and began talking to old friends about “the things of the kingdom.” The next evening he taught his mother, brothers, and sisters about “the origin of the book of mormon and the proof that the bible gave of it.”

The little pamphlet he had sent his family two years before had ended up in the hands of his sister, Jean Wright, who kept house for a Presbyterian minister. Alexander learned that the minister wanted to see him: “I spent 2 hours with him I was enebled to answer all his questions and show him the order of the gospel by the asistance of the Lord. … I told him I had a testemoney such as paul told the church in his day was given them to save them from being caried about with every wind of doctren. … he concluded by asking me for a reed of the Book of mormon which I promised him the first apertunity.” Pleased that many of his relatives had read A Voice of Warning, Alexander busily made the rounds of all his “conections and aquentences” and “improved every apertunity to mak nown my beleif” before returning to Edinburgh to join Samuel Mulliner.

Scottish Latter-day Saints

Having cultivated the gospel in their own families, the two elders turned energetically to public preaching. Samuel had already begun work in the neighborhood of Glasgow with a systematic plan to cover Scotland from west to east. 5 At Bishopton he met with one James Lea, an English convert who had moved to Scotland as a railway timekeeper. Lea introduced Samuel to some friends—Alexander Hay and his wife Jessie—who were baptized in the River Clyde on January 14, the first Scottish converts. 6 Samuel Mulliner also conducted the first sacrament service in Scotland, with the Hays and their children. With eight members by the end of March, Elders Wright and Mulliner conducted their first meetings at Paisley, in the home of a Sister Grace McMaster. 7

The 1840s were a period of religious tension in Scotland and produced many dissatisfied seekers after truth. The two missionaries found some of their earliest converts among these religious seekers. One of the first dozen, John Leishman of Johnstone, had migrated from Methodism to the Relief Church, a break-off from the “Kirk,” Scotland’s long-established Presbyterian Church. After eight years in the Relief Church, he became dissatisfied with its doctrine and began to study other religions, as he said, “hoping to find something more in accord … with the teachings of the Savior and His apostles.” Eventually, he abandoned the search and was “consequently in a forlorn state of mind” concerning his salvation. One night in late March of 1840, he went with some interested friends to hear Alexander and Samuel preach. As he arrived at the door of the meeting place, Samuel had begun the opening prayer, so he stopped and bowed his head respectfully. Before the prayer ended, although he was not even in the room, he became convinced that Samuel was “sent of God.” 8 On April 2, while conversing with the missionaries on the road to Paisley, John asked to be baptized. The elders took him to their customary baptismal font, a stream with a little waterfall on Muckle Ridge Farm near Johnstone, and baptized him. 9

By 8 May 1840, when Elder Orson Pratt arrived to supervise the work, Alexander and Samuel had baptized eighty such converts, nineteen of them in one day. 10 These converts would form the nuclei of branches in Bridge-of-Weir, Bishopton, Greenock, and Paisley, towns encircling Glasgow. 11

Orson Pratt’s Scottish Ministry

Elder Pratt, one of the original Twelve Apostles called in 1835 and younger brother of Parley P. Pratt, had arrived on April 6 with the bulk of his quorum on their memorable British mission. Assigned to labor in Scotland, he went to work immediately upon his arrival there, organizing the first Scottish branch of the Church at Paisley.

At the age of twenty-eight, Orson Pratt was an extraordinarily single-minded missionary. Among the Latter-day Saints, Elder Pratt was known as the “Gauge of Philosophy” because of his intense habits of study and scholarship. His driving missionary fervor led to a second nickname: the “St. Paul of Mormondom.” 12

In the summer of 1840, Elder Pratt sent for two more missionaries to work in Scotland—Hiram Clark and Reuben Hedlock. (Reuben had just opened missionary work in Belfast, now capital of Northern Ireland.) They labored at Paisley with Alexander Wright while Elder Pratt and Samuel Mulliner continued on to Edinburgh to begin the work there.

Edinburgh had as yet been relatively untouched. A sophisticated capital city, it gave the elders little encouragement. Late in May, Elder Pratt climbed a hill above Edinburgh Castle to dedicate Scotland for missionary labor and to ask the Lord for two hundred souls in that place. This hill, connected in Scottish lore with the King Arthur legend, is known as “Arthur’s Seat,” but the many thousands of Latter-day Saints converted in Scotland ever after called it “Pratt’s Hill.” 13 From the summit, Orson surveyed a city that had just experienced a half-century of rebuilding—the “Golden Age” of Edinburgh. The new, Classical-style city of 136,000, called “the Modern Athens,” was a center of learning and art and the philosophical capital of the English-speaking world at the time.

Elder Pratt and Elder Mulliner put forth a prodigious effort there. They preached every night in the streets and seven times each Sabbath. 14 By the end of the summer, twenty-three had been baptized, seven of them relatives of Samuel Mulliner. 15

Impatient with the slow rate of conversions, Orson Pratt poured out his heart in prayer that his goal of two hundred members would be reached. He later wrote:

“I found it almost impossible to awaken the attention of the people so as to get them out to hear, but I called upon the Lord with all my heart, and persevered in preaching and testifying to the few who did attend; and after a few weeks I began to see the fruits of my labors. … I had one discussion with a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, which lasted two evenings, and was the means of convincing many of the glorious principles of the ancient gospel, and they came forth and were baptized.” 16

Not satisfied with preaching in the street, Elder Pratt decided to approach the people in a different way. Through that relatively unproductive summer of 1840, he turned to writing a missionary tract. His brother’s success with A Voice of Warning, combined with a wish to reach the more literate populace of Edinburgh, led to his first publication—a thirty-one page pamphlet, Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, published in Edinburgh by the firm of Ballantyne and Hughes. Commonly known as Remarkable Visions, the booklet consists of two parts. One part contains the first published account of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and Son, along with a history of the Book of Mormon. The second portion of the pamphlet constitutes what was termed a “sketch of the faith and doctrine of the Church,” one of the earliest digests of Latter-day Saint beliefs. Later republished in Liverpool, the pamphlet was eventually translated into Danish, Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, and Welsh, and became a classic of LDS missionary literature. This was only a beginning for the great Apostle. He went on to write fifteen more works which introduced thousands to the faith of the Latter-day Saints during the nineteenth century.

The Foundation Laid

For ten months, Orson Pratt preached and distributed his pamphlet in the streets of Edinburgh, and by the time of his departure his dedicatory prayer for two hundred souls had been answered. He wrote to the Millennial Star: “On the 30th of March (1841) I left upwards of 200 disciples under the watch-care of elder George D. Watt, a faithful and humble brother from Preston in England. The prospect is still cheering in that city, and no doubt there will be hundreds who will yet … embrace the message which God has sent to them.” 17 Elder Pratt returned to Britain seven more times before his death in 1881, presiding over the British and European missions and visiting Edinburgh for the last time in 1864.

Samuel Mulliner sailed back to the United States in the autumn of 1840. Reunited with his family at Springfield, Illinois, he found that his wife had provided for their two daughters by doing laundry for “a fine young lawyer … by the name of Abraham Lincoln,” among others. 18 Samuel remained a faithful Latter-day Saint all his life, emigrating to Utah in 1850 and establishing tanneries and mills at Lehi and Orderville before his death in 1891.

Alexander Wright continued to labor in Scotland long after Samuel and Elder Pratt returned to America. He made his beloved northern Scotland his mission field, “covering the country pretty much from Aberdeen to Inverness.” 19 He slept in grain fields and among rocks on the seashore, wintered with the Paisley Saints, and then went back to the Highlands when spring returned. Unable to make more than a few pennies at a time on odd jobs, he mowed grass “as I was allmost berfoted so that I might git me shoes.” He even made some attempt to preach to remote Highlanders, who “spoke the galek [Gaelic] and are very much pregadiced against anything but the tradition of their fathers,” he wrote. 20 In 1842, Alexander Wright sailed with seventeen of his relatives for the gathering place at Nauvoo. Later, he emigrated to the West and died at Virgin City, Utah, in 1876. 21

On the foundation laid by the earliest missionaries, the work of the Church in Scotland flourished through the next two decades. By 1848, seventy branches had been organized, mostly in the urbanized central part of the country on an axis from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Almost entire villages were joining the Church. For example, of the ninety inhabitants of Hunterfield, a mining town near Edinburgh, seventy belonged to the branch. 22 The Millennial Star recorded that “150 in one small town in Scotland had almost simultaneously obeyed the Gospel, and many were ready for emigration.” 23

All this growth did not go unopposed. Angry at the success of missionaries in Clackmannan, a mob burned Joseph Smith in effigy in 1842. More temperate in their opposition, many Scottish clergy were disconcerted at the inroads into their flocks. One, a Dunfermline cleric named Joseph Paton, protested against LDS doctrines in his pamphlet, Remarks on Mormonism, with the Approbation of Clergymen of Different Denominations, published in 1849 at Glasgow.

Back in Liverpool as British Mission president and with his eye on Scottish affairs, Elder Pratt lost no time in countering with his Reply to a Pamphlet Printed at Glasgow, in print by April of the same year. Despite the furor, Scottish missionaries at this time saw their greatest success. The number of baptisms in 1850 was 793, a figure not reached again in the 1850s. 24

Partially because of growing opposition, but primarily because of the rapid emigration of Scottish saints to Utah, membership began to decline during the 1850’s. Between 1852 and 1856, more than one thousand Saints emigrated. 25

John Murdoch, of New Cumnock in Ayrshire, composed these lines of farewell to his homeland:

Oh Scotland my country, my dear native home,
Thou land of the brave and the theme of my song,
Oh why should I leave thee and cross the deep sea,
To a strange land far distant lovely Scotland from thee …
But why should I linger or wish for to stay.
The voice of the Prophet is “haste, flee away. …” 26

Emigrating in 1861, teenager Elizabeth Adamson and her brother Andrew of Kirkcaldy entertained other Scottish Saints aboard ship by dancing the Highland Fling in their colorful plaids. Several years before, her future husband, Thomas Leishman, had walked across the plains at age nine in company with his father and mother, John and Jean Leishman. The Leishmans, Adamsons, Nibleys, Jardines, and many other Scottish families gravitated to Wellsville—Utah’s “Scotch town,” in Cache County. But Scots could soon be found all over Utah and the neighboring states. By 1900, more than seven thousand Scottish Latter-day Saints had immigrated to the region. 27

Scots provided much leadership for the early Church. Richard Ballantyne founded the first Sunday School and opened missionary work in India. Utah’s important sugar industry received major impetus through the efforts of David Eccles, once a peddler of rolling pins in the streets of Glasgow and later a noted Utah businessman. Much of the stonecutting skill for construction of the Salt Lake Temple was provided by John Sharp, later a railroad executive and bishop of the Salt Lake Twentieth Ward. Charles W. Nibley served in the Presiding Bishopric and became Second Counselor to President Heber J. Grant in 1925. And in 1951, David O. McKay began his nineteen years of service as President of the Church; he had been Thomas Leishman’s junior missionary companion in Scotland during the 1890s. 28

Long after the gathering to America, the Church flourishes once more in the hills of Scotland. On New Year’s Day 1976, President Derek A. Cuthbert of the Scotland Edinburgh Mission climbed “Pratt’s Hill” again. Looking over the city, he offered a prayer to rededicate himself, his missionaries, and the land of Scotland to the work, asking the Lord for three hundred new members to strengthen the Church there. And again the Lord answered. Before President Cuthbert, now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, completed his mission, almost exactly that many were baptized in and around Edinburgh. 29

Today, the number of Saints continues to grow. Just as it began a century and a half ago in the cottage of Alexander Wright’s parents, the gospel still is nurtured in the homes of Scotland.

[illustration] Orson Pratt about 1852

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann

Breck England, a high school English teacher and doctoral candidate in English literature, serves as a counselor in the bishopric of his Bountiful, Utah, ward.

Show References


  1.   1.

    Andrew Jenson, “Alexander Wright,” Latter-day Saints’ Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1920), 3:571.

  2.   2.

    Lavon Brunt Eyring, comp., Chronological History of Samuel Mulliner and His Families (published by compiler, 1976), p. 1.

  3.   3.

    Alexander Wright, Journal (1839–44), Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 21 October 1839. Spelling of the original here and hereafter has been retained.

  4.   4.

    See footnote 3.

  5.   5.

    Frederick Stewart Buchanan, The Emigration of Scottish Mormons to Utah, 1849–1900, master’s thesis, University of Utah, 1961, p. 9.

  6.   6.

    Andrew Jenson, “The Scotch Mission,” in Historical Record, Salt Lake City, published by author, 1889, 6:348.

  7.   7.

    Eyring, p. 6.

  8.   8.

    J. A. Leishman, “Biography of John Leishman,” typescript in possession of Barbara Manfull, Bountiful, Utah, p. 1.

  9.   9.

    Wright, 2 April 1840.

  10.   10.

    Eyring, p. 7.

  11.   11.

    Jenson, “Alexander Wright,” p. 572.

  12.   12.

    Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1973), 7:435; Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Company, 1904), 4:29.

  13.   13.

    Richard L. Evans, A Century of Mormonism in Great Britain (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1937), p. 81.

  14.   14.

    Millennial Star, December 1840, p. 214.

  15.   15.

    Eyring, p. 8.

  16.   16.

    Millennial Star, May 1841, p. 11.

  17.   17.


  18.   18.

    Eyring, p. 11.

  19.   19.

    Jenson, “Alexander Wright,” p. 573.

  20.   20.

    Wright, 22 June, 17 July 1842.

  21.   21.

    Jenson, “Alexander Wright,” p. 573.

  22.   22.

    Buchanan, pp. 18, 26.

  23.   23.

    Millennial Star, 15 August 1848, p. 253.

  24.   24.

    Buchanan, p. 27, 34; Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985), pp. 147–48.

  25.   25.

    Buchanan, p. 27.

  26.   26.

    Ibid., p. 172.

  27.   27.

    Marvilla Nielsen, “The Life of Elizabeth Adamson,” typescript in possession of Barbara Manfull, Bountiful, Utah, p. 1; Leishman, “John Leishman,” p. 1; Buchanan, p. 111.

  28.   28.

    Buchanan, pp. 119, 129, 130; Thomas A. Leishman Journal, 1898–1901, in possession of author.

  29.   29.

    Ensign, Sep. 1984, p. 19.