It seems natural for us today to think of the Church as spanning four oceans and reaching into six continents.
But in 1837 it was a different story. Nearly all of the members were then living on the American frontier—either at Kirtland or in Missouri. A few Canadians had joined the Church, but that was about the extent of Mormonism.
So it came as a stunning announcement to the Saints that the small, struggling Church, with so many local areas unproselyted, would send missionaries across the Atlantic to the most sophisticated and powerful empire on earth.
Probably no one but the Lord would have known that such a plan would find many converts; and indeed, the great success of those early missionaries is only partial testimony that it was the Lord who sent them there.
How did they do it?
What was it like to be a missionary then?
Here in their own words, from their personal accounts and accounts written about them, is a brief outline of how they went forth to harvest the believers, and how no one could stop their divinely appointed progress.
1. Kirtland: “Let my servant Heber go. …” The story begins in this room. It is Sunday, June 4, 1837. Said thirty-five-year-old Heber C. Kimball: “… the Prophet Joseph came to me, while I was seated in front of the stand, above the sacrament table, on the Melchizedek side of the Temple, in Kirtland, 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. Liverpool: “… my soul was filled with love. …” Six weeks later, with six companions, Elder Kimball’s boat anchored in Liverpool’s River Mersey, perhaps about where this modern steamer lies. “When first we sighted Liverpool,” said Elder Kimball, “I went to the side of the vessel and poured out my soul … and my soul was filled with love and gratitude. I felt humble, while I covenanted to dedicate myself to God, and to love and serve Him with all my heart.”
3. Into this harbor. Thursday morning, July 20, the elders boarded a small boat and entered this now unused old harbor. Their names: Elder Kimball, Joseph Fielding, John Goodson, Isaac Russell, John Snyder, Orson Hyde, Willard Richards.
4. Onto these steps. Small boys drop fishing lines from the steps upon which Elder Kimball probably alighted: “When within leaping distance, Elder Kimball sprang from the boat as if impelled by some superior power and alighted on the steps of the dock, followed instantly by Elders Hyde and Richards, all three of whom had not a farthing on earth at their command. …”
5. Union Street: “Go to Preston.” Three youth from Liverpool Branch walk the one-block-long Union Street. Perhaps Elder Kimball was speaking of the interior of one of these red-bricked buildings when he said, “… we found a room belonging to a widow. …” Once there, two days were “spent in council, and in calling on the Lord for direction. While thus engaged, the Spirit of the Lord was with us and we felt greatly strengthened. ‘Go to Preston,’” said the Spirit of the Lord. On Saturday they left for Preston, a town thirty-one miles to the northeast.
6. Preston’s Vauxhall Chapel: “I declared that an angel had visited the earth. …” On Sunday, July 23, Elder Kimball and several other elders sat in this chapel belonging to the Reverend James Fielding, brother to one of the elders. Said Elder Kimball, “We sat … praying to the Lord to open up the way for us to preach. The prayer was answered. Without any request for the privilege … Mr. Fielding announced that an Elder of the Latter-day Saints would preach … at three o’clock that afternoon.” Unknown to Elder Kimball, some of the congregation had seen “dreams and visions [of] the very men whom the Lord was about to send into their midst. Heber C. Kimball, especially, on his arrival in Preston was recognized. …” Elder Fielding had been writing letters to his brother, telling him of the doctrines of the restored gospel. The Reverend had then read the letters to his congregation, many of whom began praying for the elders to come. Of that Sunday afternoon, Elder Kimball said, “I 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. …” In Reverend Fielding’s own words, “Kimball bored the holes, Goodson drove the nails, and Hyde clinched them.” Numerous people prepared to join the Church—and the Reverend closed his chapel to Mormon elders.
7. Wilfred Street: “Pray … that I may be delivered from the evil spirits. …” Preston Branch youth stand at the corner of the house where the elders lodged and in which a great testimony of the power of the Lord and the priesthood was received. During the week the elders had taught in the homes of members-to-be and announced a Sunday baptismal service. But Satan’s forces were not idle, either. Early Sunday morning, Elder Russell came to Elder Kimball’s room and called out, “Brother Kimball, I want you to get up and pray for me that I may be delivered from the evil spirits that are tormenting me. …” Elder Kimball wrote in his account, “I immediately arose. … Elder Hyde [and I] laid hands on him, I being mouth, and prayed that the Lord would have mercy on him, and rebuked the devil. While thus engaged, I was struck with great force by some invisible power, and fell senseless on the floor … my agony was so great I could not endure it, and I arose, bowed my knees and prayed. I then arose and sat on the bed, when a vision was opened to our minds, and we could distinctly see the evil spirits, who foamed and gnashed their teeth at us. We gazed at them about an hour and a half (by Willard’s watch). We were not looking towards the window, but towards the wall. Space appeared before us, and we saw the devils coming in legions, with their leaders, who came within a few feet of us. They came towards us like armies rushing to battle. … I perspired exceedingly, my clothes becoming as wet as if I had been taken out of the river. … We distinctly heard those spirits talk and express their wrath and hellish designs against us. However, the Lord delivered us from them, and blessed us exceedingly that day.”
8. River Ribble: “… between seven and nine thousand persons assembled. …” This same Sunday, at about 9:00 A.M. on the far side of the River Ribble at a spot below where the Preston youth are standing, Elder Kimball baptized nine persons, “hailing them brethren and sisters in the kingdom of God.” On the bridge and on the photographer’s side of the river, a concourse of between seven and nine thousand persons assembled on the banks of the river to witness the ceremony.” How come? On Saturday the elders had spread word that they would baptize the next day at the river bordering Preston’s spacious Ribble Park, where many Sunday visitors would be. Word passed quickly because “it was the first time baptism by immersion was administered openly.” What better way to advertise their presence and purposes!
9. The Cockpit: “… our lungs were often sore. …” Here in this natural little amphitheater, where tired pensioners now rest, there once stood a building called the cockpit, “which had formerly been used by the people to witness cock fights. …” Elder Kimball said it was a “commodious place to preach in,” and by the first Sunday in September he rented it for a meeting place—the first meeting place of the Saints in England. A place was badly needed: “Calls from all quarters to come and preach were constantly sounding in our ears, and we labored night and day to satisfy the people,” said Elder Kimball. “Consequently our lungs were often very sore, and our bodies worn down with fatigue. Sometimes I was guilty of breaking the priestly rules—I pulled off my coat and rolled up my sleeves and went at the duty with my whole soul, like a man reaping and binding wheat, which caused hireling priests to be very much surprised.” So, after obtaining the cockpit, “the work seemed to gain momentum, and to roll forth with greater power and breadth.”
10. The Work Spreads. As the map indicates, shortly after being founded in Preston, the gospel, carried by the missionaries, spread outward—and one by one, family by family, the Church established firm roots.
11. The Cockpit: First British Conferences. Here on this site on Christmas Day, five months after Elder Kimball arrived in Liverpool, about three hundred Saints, “representing a much larger membership residing in branches extending thirty miles and more around Preston,” attended the first British conference. Ordinations were performed and about one hundred children blessed, and the typical Mormon conference spirit was felt by everyone. By next April 8, when the second British Conference was held, Elder Kimball announced his departure for America. Twelve days later, he and Elders Hyde and Russell sailed from Liverpool in England. They had given birth to a membership of nearly two thousand English Saints. Elder Kimball had honorably opened “the door of salvation to that nation.”
12. Far West: “… next spring let them depart. …” About two months after Elder Kimball returned home, the Lord let it be known that his purposes in the British Isles were just beginning. On July 8, 1838, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation calling for a second major mission to Britain—and the mission was to begin from this grassy field that had been dedicated for a temple. “Verily, thus saith the Lord … let the Twelve be organized … And next spring let them depart to over the great waters, and there promulgate my gospel, the fulness thereof, and bear record of my name. Let them take leave of my saints in the city of Far West, on the twenty-sixth day of April next (1839), on the building-spot of my house, saith the Lord.” ( D&C 118:1, 4–5.)
This is the only time in the history of the Church that the Lord has sent the Council of the Twelve together on a lengthy and distant mission. Whereas the first British mission established the gospel in one general area, the second mission would establish the gospel in the other countries of the British Isles. It was a mission that would see a majority of the Twelve in the British Isles for an entire year—1840–1841—and a mission that would change the makeup of the Church for ever after.
It should be noted that it is surrounding this call that some great incidents in Church history occur. By the next spring, April 1839, the Saints had been driven out of Far West, and bitter enemies swore that the prophecy concerning the April 26 gathering of the Twelve would not be fulfilled. But in the early morning hours of April 26, a majority of the Twelve met here at this Far West site and made their preparations for their mission. Within weeks the Saints were moving to Nauvoo, where severe malarial sickness and fever soon raged. Then came the times of separation of husband and wife and family that have become so legendary—Wilford Woodruff, so sick he could hardly stand, leaving his wife “without food or the necessities of life”; Heber C. Kimball, leaving a wife and children ill, so weak himself he could hardly “carry a couple of quarts of water … to assist in quenching their thirst.” It was out of this kind of sacrifice that the second great mission began.
13. John Benbow’s Farm: “… until two o’clock in the morning. …” Arriving before most members of the Twelve, Elder Wilford Woodruff began working south of Preston. On Sunday, March 1, 1840, his thirty-third birthday, while singing a hymn with the Saints in Hanley, “the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me and the voice of God said to me: ‘This is the last meeting that you will hold with this people for many days.’ In the morning I went in secret before the Lord, and asked him what was his will concerning me. The answer I received was that I should go south; for the Lord had a great work for me to perform. …”
This farmhouse is the home to which he was directed. It belonged to John Benbow and is in the farming country of Herefordshire. After walking a number of miles, Elder Woodruff arrived here and walked up to the door: “I presented myself to him as a missionary from America … who had been sent him by the commandment of God. … He and his wife received me with glad hearts [and] we sat down together and conversed until two o’clock in the morning.” The next day Mr. Benbow sent word that Elder Woodruff would preach in his house that evening.
14. Benbow Pond: “… I afterwords baptized six hundred persons. …” Herefordshire Branch members examine the pond of which Elder Woodruff said, “I spent most of the following day in clearing a pool of water and preparing it for baptizing. …” That evening he baptized the Benbows and four others. “The first thirty days … 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.” Elder Woodruff continued, “I afterwords baptized six hundred persons in that pool of water,” and “over eighteen hundred souls during eight months. …” That the power of the Lord was operating through Elder Woodruff is shown in an incident at the Benbow farm in which a constable was sent to arrest Elder Woodruff for preaching. “I told him that I … had a license for preaching the gospel … and that if he would take a chair I would wait upon him after the meeting. At the close of the meeting I opened the door for baptism. … Among the number [baptized] were four preachers and the constable.” Shortly thereafter, two clerks from the Church of England were sent “as spies, to attend our meeting, and find out what we preach. They both were pricked in their hearts, received the word … and were baptized. The rector became alarmed and did not venture to send anybody else.”
15. Scotland’s Arthur’s Seat: “… feelings which would lead to contriteness. …” In May 1840, Elder Orson Pratt became the first apostle to carry the gospel outside of England. On the morning of May 19, a day after his arrival in Scotland, he climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a tall hill overlooking Edinburgh. Here, perhaps between craggy rocks (almost no foliage is found on the sheep-grazed hill), “a humble Mormon elder … asked his maker to enable him to develop within human souls those feelings which would lead to contriteness of heart. His prayer was answered. Two hundred souls were added …” to the eighty other members whom two Scottish-born Saints, converted in Canada, had already converted in their own homeland.
16. Ireland’s Newry: The Village Bell Ringer. The first announcement in Ireland of the gospel’s restoration was made in front of this courthouse in Newry, thirty miles south of Belfast, Northern Ireland, where on July 29, 1840, “between six and seven hundred nearby residents gathered” to hear Elder John Taylor. Traveling with him was an Irishman from Newry, converted in England, who arranged for the village bell ringer to give notice of an unusual meeting to be held that night. But, sadly, little interest was shown in the message of Elder Taylor, who had been sent to Ireland after a July conference in Manchester attended by a majority of the Council of the Twelve, including President Brigham Young.
17. Loughbrickland: “… what doth hinder me. …” The next day, however, walking southward and discussing the gospel “along country lanes on that fresh summer morning,” a Mr. Tate, who was traveling with them, suddenly said as they “topped a hill, at the foot of which lay Loughbrickland … ‘See, here is water, what doth hinder me to be baptized.’” His was the first baptism in Ireland. A few months later, thirty Saints had been baptized in Belfast. The work was slow, but many choice Saints have been baptized in Ireland.
18. Douglas Harbor. Between Ireland and England lies a ten-by-thirty-mile island country known as the Isle of Man, and into this beautiful half-moon harbor of Douglas, the isle’s capital, sailed John Taylor on September 16, 1840.
19. Wellington Rooms: “… the largest and finest. …” Shortly thereafter, Elder Taylor walked down this narrow street and rented, in the building with the chimney, the “Wellington rooms, the largest and finest hall in Douglas, with seating accommodations for a thousand persons.” About forty persons came into the Church by the year’s end. Elder Taylor was not confined to the city, however: “I went to a country place … and sat down in a chimney corner, and talked to a few neighbors who came in, and baptized eight and confirmed them the same night, before I left them, nor would they wait until the morning.”
20. Wales: “… before you die.” Into this city of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, in 1845, came one of the great missionaries in Church history—Dan Jones. Although elders had been in Wales as early as 1840, it was not until five years later that Dan Jones arrived and really established the Church. He had been raised in Wales, spoke Welsh, and had received a college education. He went to America and bought a small steamship, the Maid of Iowa, and took people up and down the Mississippi. He met the Prophet Joseph at Nauvoo and ended up joining the Church. The thirty-three-year-old Welshman was with the Prophet the night before his martyrdom in Carthage Jail. That night the Prophet had turned and said to him, “You will yet see Wales, and fulfill the mission appointed you before you die.”
21. Merthyr’s Streets: Tears and waves of laughter. A year later, Dan Jones was walking these same streets of Merthyr, where “his tongue, fast and piercing like machine-gun fire, was his greatest weapon. With it he could bring tears to the masses and still the pen of the clerk recording his sermons. He could bring waves of laughter. He could hold audiences, often loaded with oppressors, for hours. In fact, on some occasions, the little orator with deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and long, thick hair could speak almost all day long. …”
22. Into These Waters They Came. Water from Merthyr’s River Taff glides slowly by Dan Jones’ favorite baptismal site. At the conclusion of his mission in 1848, he reported the “total number of branches in Wales to be 55, and 17 new branches organized that year. … Baptized since last conference, 1001, total members 3,603. …” One time he said that he had baptized the “only remaining two of an active church of baptists.” The chapel, minister, and entire congregation came into the Church!
23. Liverpool: “Come to Zion.” By 1841 the call “Come to Zion” was being sounded by the apostles and all the missionaries. The Lord’s plan for building up his Church was beginning to show itself. Most of the British Isle Saints in the years ahead left from Liverpool, where along such a pier as this they tearfully said good-bye to friends and relatives. Once they were out into the River Mersey, they could not help but be fearful of sailing off into the unknown, to a distant foreign land, to cross seemingly endless dusty American plains and fiercely rugged mountains in order to eventually mingle with common believers in “the tops of the mountains.” At the end of the second great mission, April 1841, the President of the Twelve, Brigham Young, said prior to his and six other apostles’ leaving for Nauvoo: “We landed … as strangers … 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 thousands … and emigrated to Zion one thousand souls … and yet we have lacked nothing to eat, drink, or wear: in all these I acknowledge the hand of God.” By the end of the decade, about 6,000 Saints had sailed to Zion—ten years later the total was 18,000 and the final total was nowhere in sight.
24. London Temple: “… the greatest building in Britain. …” No story of the Church in the British Isles would be complete without including the London Temple, on whose hallowed grounds these youth of the Surrey Branch are pictured in contemplation. The temple symbolizes the Lord’s call today: Stay and build up the Church in your own homeland. In 1958, 121 years after Heber C. Kimball leapt to Liverpool’s shore, the temple was dedicated to bless the 70,000 Church members in the British Isles with the most important ordinances that our Father has revealed. As one of the youth pictured said, “For us, this is the greatest building in Britain. It is where I want to marry my wife. It is part of my dreams and my prayers. It represents all that is eternal, peaceful, and beautiful about life and God. To a Mormon a temple says it all.”
Photographs by Jay M. Todd and Doyle L. Green, Editor