On the morning of Thursday, July 20, 1837, the merchant ship Garrick slipped quietly into the River Mersey and anchored opposite the bustling English seaport of Liverpool. To the uninformed bystander, the vessel, newly arrived from New York, was no different from any other. It was the dawn of the Victorian age, and Liverpool was already establishing an ascendancy as the greatest English port, which it retained for half a century.
But among the weary passengers were seven men whose presence made the Garrick far from insignificant—men whose simple but provocative message was soon to send thousands of English men, women, and children to the United States. The seven Americans were Mormons—the first missionaries to preach the restored gospel in this dispensation outside North America. Their unheralded arrival and the dramatic events of the next few months came to form a fascinating chapter in the history of northwest England and left an indelible stamp on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today their names stand boldly among the spiritual giants of the Church: Heber C. Kimball, grandfather of President Spencer W. Kimball; Joseph Fielding; Orson Hyde; Willard Richards; John Snyder; John Goodson; and Isaac Russell.
To British Saints and thousands of Americans whose ancestry springs from this part of England, Liverpool and Preston are as much a part of the rich Latter-day Saint heritage as Nauvoo and Kirtland. And it was the word heritage in a letter from the First Presidency to all units of the Church that triggered a chain of events leading to one of the most unusual and spectacular joint activities ever organized by the Liverpool and Preston districts.
That letter urged Church members to organize significant activities to commemorate their history as part of an international heritage year. Rod Fullwood, seminary supervisor in the Liverpool District, and his counterpart in the Preston District, Arthur Hardy, had already talked over the possibility of a joint seminary graduation. From that it was a short step for them to come up with the concept of a major commemorative program telling the story of the first missionaries to arrive in England and the events leading to the first baptisms in the River Ribble in July 1837.
Once the plan had been approved by the Preston and Liverpool district presidencies, the next few weeks were marked by frantic activity as seminary groups in each branch worked on their own projects. Branches in the Liverpool District were assigned to re-create the atmosphere and scenes of 1837 by staging an “English Fayre,” complete with stalls from the period. They also wrote a dramatic production telling the story of early Mormon emigrants. Period dress for the nearly 200 young people and adults who attended was mandatory, but forseeing the likelihood of a few arriving in 20th century dress, the organizers assigned the Southport Branch to construct a set of stocks to “discipline” offenders.
The play, “The Emigrant Ship,” was based on the Charles Dickens’ novel, The Uncommercial Traveller, not one of the great author’s best-known works but certainly the most significant from the point of view of Church history. The fact that Dickens commented on the Church is little known, and even among Latter-day Saints it is not widely appreciated. But his reference to 800 Mormon emigrants as “the pick and flower of England” was one of the first recorded compliments paid to the English Saints by anyone of standing.
The script, by David Irwin, closely followed Dickens’ original prose, but other characters were interjected into the story during the production. Well-performed, it gave members a valued insight into the atmosphere of those early days.
Dickens: (To audience) Now, I have seen emigrant ships before this day, and these people are so strikingly different from all other people in like circumstances whom I have ever seen, I ask the captain … what would a stranger suppose these emigrants to be?
Captain: What indeed!
Dickens: When did they arrive here?
Captain: Most of them came aboard yesterday evening.
Dickens: And from where did these people come?
Captain: They came from various parts of England in small parties and had never seen one another before.
Dickens: They had never seen one another before? How have they settled down on board?
Captain: They had not been a couple of hours on board when they established their own police, made their own regulations, and set their own watches at all the hatchways. Before 9:00 the ship was as orderly and quiet as a man-of-war. A stranger would be puzzled to guess the right name for these people.
Dickens: Indeed he would.
Captain: If you hadn’t known who they were, could you ever have supposed?
Dickens: How could I? I should have said they were the pick and flower of England.
Captain: So should I.
Dickens: How many are there?
Captain: Eight hundred.
Dickens: Eight hundred of the pick and flower of England! What has motivated these emigrants of all ages?
Later Dickens says, “Afterwards I learned that a dispatch was sent home by the captain before he struck out into the wide Atlantic, highly extolling the behavior of these emigrants, and the perfect order and propriety of all their social arrangements.
“What is in store for the poor people on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, what happy delusions they are laboring under now, on what miserable blindness their eyes may be opened then, I do not pretend to say. But I went on board their ship to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; to my great astonishment they did not deserve it; and my predispositions and tendencies must not affect me as an honest witness.
“I went over the ship’s side feeling it impossible to deny that, so far, some remarkable influence had produced a remarkable result, which better known influences have often missed.”
The afternoon following the “Fayre” and the dramatic production the Liverpool Saints joined those at Preston for the second half of the program—a sermon on the banks of the Ribble and a commemoration of the baptisms that took place there in July 1837.
The weekend’s events provided a natural attraction for newspapers, radio, and television, and they were widely publicized. The events were relayed in a four-minute spot on BBC television, which also included an interview with Brother Fullwood. In addition to newspaper reports of the weekend, at least one Lancashire paper began plans for a full-scale feature on early Church history.
Appropriately winding up the commemoration, a 24-member Brigham Young University ballroom dance team, which had been performing in international competition in nearby Blackpool, gave a brief display for members immediately before the seminary graduation. As if to underline the point, it was then announced that Preston seminary students had beaten all other districts in Britain in enrollment and work completion for the year.
Said Brother Fullwood: “I think the weekend’s events and all the work that went in beforehand have given the members here a greater appreciation for those early missionaries as well as for our own heritage. The fact that an ambitious program like this was so successful will encourage us to shoot for high goals in the future.”