Five Church Leaders Look Back at their British Isles Mission Experiences
From the time that the gospel was introduced into the British Isles in 1837, missionary service there has been a blessing to convert and missionary.
Among those who served as missionaries in the British Isles are five current members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve: President Ezra Taft Benson; President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency; and Elder Marvin J. Ashton, Elder David B. Haight, and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Some of their missionary experiences and impressions of the time they spent in the British Isles follow.
President Ezra Taft Benson
In 1923, near the end of my mission, I was serving as president of the Newcastle Conference, headquartered in Sunderland, England. The opposition to the Church had been very intense throughout Britain. It took many forms, including anti-Mormon articles in newspapers and periodicals and even plays on the stage.
Because of the intense opposition, the mission president instructed the missionaries to discontinue all street meetings. In some places, even tracting was discontinued. My companion, Elder Harris, and I had already announced a street meeting in Sunderland for the following Sunday, so we decided to hold it as scheduled and then discontinue all street meetings.
We began the meeting, and as it progressed the attendance increased greatly—especially when the pubs closed and the rougher element came out onto the streets. The crowd became so large that it was impossible to make them all hear, so my companion and I stood back to back, him speaking to half the crowd and I speaking to the other half.
Then some of the rowdier men in the back began yelling, “Let’s get the Mormons. Let’s throw them in the river!” They tried to sway the crowd and knock us down, but we were so tall we put our elbows on their shoulders and defeated the attempt.
They eventually separated us, however, and pushed Elder Harris down on one side of the railway station and me down the other. Then, when things seemed particularly threatening, an unusual thing happened. A man stood before me, looked me squarely in the face, and said, “Elder, I believe everything you’ve said tonight.”
At this point, an English policeman stepped in and took me by the arm. He said, “Young man, you come with me. You’re lucky to be alive in this mob.” He led me for three or four blocks and then said, “Now go to your lodging and don’t come out again tonight.”
I went to our quarters, hoping to find Elder Harris, but he was not there. I waited, and when he did not come, I put on an old English cap and a jacket and proceeded to the place of the meeting. I hadn’t gone far before I met the policeman who had rescued me. He said, “I thought I told you to stay in your lodge.”
I replied, “I got concerned about my companion. Do you know where he is?”
He said, “Yes, he got a nasty blow on the side of the head, but he’s all right. If you’ll go back to the lodge, you should find him there now.”
I returned to the lodge to find Elder Harris changing his clothes to go out to look for me. We threw our arms around each other and then knelt in prayer to thank our Father in Heaven for sparing us.
On another occasion, my companion and I were invited to travel to South Shields, on the northeast coast, to speak in sacrament meeting. The members there assured us they could fill the chapel. “Many of the people here do not believe the falsehoods printed about us,” they had written. “If you’ll come, we’re sure that we’ll have a great meeting.” We accepted.
We fasted and prayed sincerely that we would say only those things that would touch the hearts of the investigators, then went to the sacrament meeting. My companion had planned to talk on the first principles of the gospel. I had prepared a talk on the apostasy.
The hall was filled, and there was a wonderful spirit in the meeting. My companion spoke first and gave an inspirational message. I followed and talked with a freedom I had never experienced before in my life. When I sat down, I realized that I had not mentioned the apostasy. I had talked on the Prophet Joseph Smith and borne my witness of his divine mission and of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. After the meeting ended, several nonmembers came forward and said, “Tonight we received a witness that your church is true. We are ready for baptism.”
Experiences like those taught me the importance of following the counsel of my priesthood leaders, and the power of prayer. In many ways, my mission in England set the tenor for the rest of my life.
President Gordon B. Hinckley
The SS Manhattan on which I traveled to England docked at Plymouth the night of 1 July 1933. The three of us missionaries aboard took the boat train to London, arriving late at night. The next day I was assigned to go to Preston, Lancashire, the same city to which the first LDS missionaries had gone ninety-six years earlier to open the work in the British Isles.
After what seemed like a long, lonely train ride, I met my companion at the station, and he took me to our “digs,” a short distance from Vauxhall Chapel where the first LDS missionary sermon had been preached in 1837.
My companion then announced that we would go into town and hold a street meeting. I was terrified. Following supper, we walked to the marketplace. There we sang a hymn and offered prayer. Then he called on me to speak. A crowd gathered. They looked menacing to me. The world was then in the bottom of the Depression, and Lancashire had been particularly hard-hit. The people were poor. They wore wooden clogs on their feet. Their dress reflected the hard times in which they lived. They were difficult to understand; I was a westerner from the United States, and they spoke with a Lancashire dialect.
In the months that followed, I came to know them and to love them. I walked during those months where Heber C. Kimball and his pioneer missionary associates had once walked while laying the foundation for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Isles. Vauxhall Chapel, where they first spoke; the River Ribble, where the first baptisms took place; the location of the old cock pit and the Temperance Hall where they preached; and the obelisk in the marketplace all became familiar to me.
After five months in Lancashire, I was transferred to the European Mission office in London, where I worked as assistant to Elder Joseph F. Merrill of the Council of the Twelve, who presided over the missions in Europe. London was a great and interesting and challenging city. Each Sunday, weather permitting, the two of us in the European office would join missionaries from the British Mission office in holding street meetings in Hyde Park and other public areas. In addition to our office duties, we also tracted. We likewise taught in the branches, which were then small and weak.
Missionaries then in Britain were few. It was a time of severe economic difficulties across the world, and money was scarce. Relatively few went on missions. At one time there were only sixty-five of us in all of the British Isles.
Those mission experiences provided a great undergirding for my life. There were many faithful and wonderful Latter-day Saints in Britain whom I came to know and love for the strength of their testimonies in the face of opposition, and for their great, unwavering loyalty to the cause to which they had given their allegiance. I came to know and respect the strong and sturdy people of Britain. I came to know the rich beauty of England—its hills and its meadowlands, its vast, teeming cities, its literature, its art, its science. I have since learned also to love Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. As a young man engaged in a sacred work, I came to know, to a degree unrealized before, my Father in Heaven and my Savior, the Redeemer of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am grateful for that wonderful season of my life when I did the best I knew how to teach the gospel and build the kingdom.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton
Fifty years ago, I had the great honor of serving in the British Isles during the centennial of the Church’s presence there. It will be a wonderful privilege to be there again, if the Lord is willing, for the Church’s sesquicentennial celebration there.
When I served as a missionary, our proselyting was done by selling subscriptions to the Millennial Star, which was the Church’s oldest publication. During the last ten months of my mission, I had the opportunity of serving as an associate editor of the Star, under my mission president, Hugh B. Brown. I’ve always been grateful for his trust and the many responsibilities he gave me.
To break down deep prejudices and improve our public image, we were involved in many activities as missionaries. I played for the missionary baseball team, the Catford Saints, and captained the team that won the British grand national crown and all-Europe championship.
We proselyted and tracted then without the benefit of any discussion materials, without any lessons. We tried to make friends through athletics and through the music of the Millennial Chorus. We hoped when we sold nonmembers the Millennial Star that reading its messages would eventually lead them to conversion, or at least help dispel the misunderstandings that were so great. Where an attempt to sell a Book of Mormon or other Church books would have been resisted and resented, a friendly British-published magazine going into their homes each week was accepted.
Most of the people we contacted seemed very reserved initially, but I found that if I used the right door approach, I could make friends with them and engage them in Christian conversation. They impressed me as a friendly, charitable people who were proud of their traditions and steadfast in what they believed.
As a missionary, I found early that if we as guests in that wonderful country kept our eyes and ears open, we could learn a great deal from the British people. They have a great loyalty to their country, and most of them have a strong belief in God. They have a fine system of law and a history of outstanding leaders.
I believe one of the great contributions of the British Isles is the leadership they have supplied the Church over the years. In the early days, it was the people who were willing to sacrifice and migrate who did much to build a solid base in those early pioneering days in the Salt Lake Valley and elsewhere in the United States. They endured great hardships and trials in building God’s earthly kingdom.
The Church in the British Isles today is strong because the committed members are willing to remain there and build it up locally. They offer examples of steadiness and outstanding leadership today as they did from the beginning of the introduction of the gospel into their wonderful country.
Elder David B. Haight
Sister Haight and I had served in many callings before, but the call to go to Scotland in 1963 was a tremendous spiritual blessing. When you are presiding over a mission, your life is immersed in the challenge of motivating young men and young women to become something far greater than they might have ever envisioned. We had seven hundred missionaries during the time we served. As we pleaded with the Lord to bless them, we saw many of them become spiritual teachers and leaders whose testimonies brought the message of the Savior directly into the hearts of people.
We succeeded Bernard P. Brockbank, who, as mission president, had done a great service in expanding the missionary work.
When we arrived, the Church had already established the Glasgow Stake, and there were many branches throughout Scotland. An important part of our work was the training of leaders. The Lord greatly blessed us, and leaders began to come forward from among the members. We had the blessing of seeing the construction of the first fifteen LDS meetinghouses in Scotland. Years later, as a member of the Council of the Twelve, I had the privilege of returning and organizing stakes encompassing the entire country. We now have five stakes in Scotland.
The people are wonderful to work with. Christmas cards continue to come every year from many people there who remain dear friends and who are currently leaders in the Church.
When we were set apart before leaving for our mission, President David O. McKay, a great Scotsman who served his mission as a young man in Scotland, told us about his great love of the people and of a special experience in Stirling, Scotland.
One day, he and his companion were feeling quite discouraged because the people were not listening to their message. They watched with interest as some workmen hoisted a large stone into place onto the second story of a building. On the stone were chiseled the words: “Whate’er thou art, act well thy part.” That unusual stone and its message changed the attitude and spiritual direction of a young man who was to become the prophet, seer, and revelator of the Church. He and his companion had a spiritual feeling that the Savior, whose work they were doing, was communicating a message to them—that perhaps they had not been working or praying as they should. They humbly rededicated themselves to testifying of the Restoration and were blessed with success—and David O. McKay remembered the words on that stone throughout his life. (See Improvement Era, Oct. 1959, p. 726.)
While I was mission president, two missionaries in Stirling saw that same building being torn down, and they helped acquire the stone. They took it to the mission home, where I used it as a teaching tool, telling the missionaries the story of David O. McKay and how we can be blessed if we live the gospel as we should, continuing humble and prayerful. The stone is now in the Church Museum of History and Art, and a replica is at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
From the firstfruits of the gospel in Scotland—the Hay family who were baptized in the cold waters of the River Clyde in the middle of winter, 1840—to the most recent convert today, many faithful Scottish people have helped in the growth of the Church. I am grateful for the privilege I had of working among them.
Elder M. Russell Ballard
When I entered the mission field in May of 1948, the British Mission covered the whole of the British Isles. During the war, the General Authorities hadn’t been able to travel throughout the world to “build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations,” as they are charged in section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 107:33), so there was much rebuilding to do.
We were not having a great deal of success with convert baptisms. The British are a conservative people, and it sometimes wasn’t easy to get them to listen to the gospel message. But they are spiritually sensitive, and when they would open themselves to the things of the Spirit and be baptized, they would become very committed members.
I learned from a friend who was serving in the Northwestern States Mission about the missionary success they were having with the “Anderson Plan,” a new teaching plan that helped missionaries teach the gospel in an organized series of “discussions.” With the permission of President Selvoy J. Boyer—surely one of the great priesthood leaders of the Church—I put it into use among the missionaries of the Nottingham District, where I was president. It was a very direct approach, centered primarily around the Book of Mormon. We had a tremendous increase in baptisms. Later I was called as a counselor to President Boyer, and I toured the mission once a month, teaching all the missionaries this plan.
Early in 1950, President Stayner Richards succeeded President Boyer. President Richards asked me to stay on as his counselor and extended my mission so I could help him implement the plan throughout the mission. The missionaries were able to increase convert baptisms by nearly two-thirds in 1950, and by an even greater margin the following year.
In England, I was able to verify some details of an event that has become one of the great genealogy stories in the Church. As the Logan Temple was being dedicated on 18 May 1884, Bishop Henry Ballard, my great-grandfather, was at home writing temple recommends. His little daughter brought him an English newspaper that had been handed to her by two strangers in the street. It was the Newbury Weekly News—of May fifteenth! A story in the paper contained names and other genealogical data for more than sixty people, then deceased, from Henry Ballard’s birthplace, Thatcham, England. Later, after their temple work was done, it was learned that many of these people are related to the Ballards.
I visited the Newbury Weekly News and verified that the newspaper had never been postdated or mailed out early. I held the issue of 15 May 1884, in my hands and photographed it. There is no mortal way that, in 1884, it could have reached Logan from Newbury within three days.