They were strangers in a strange land, upon their own resources, separated from home aid and home news by a month’s travel, with no precedent to follow, no headquarters in Britain to communicate with, no human source of advice or direction. The work was before them. The task loomed mountain-high—everything to do, no trails broken, no paths beaten (Richard L. Evans, A Century of “Mormonism” in Great Britain, Deseret News Press, 1937, p. 22).
It was summer of 1837 when Heber C. Kimball and his associates stepped for the first time onto English soil. They were penniless and, as they walked the streets of Liverpool, were becoming increasingly worried about the difficulty of spreading the gospel in England. They were pioneering a work, marking a trail, beating a path that literally thousands would follow by accepting the message of the restored gospel.
Now, nearly 150 years later, the young people of the Bristol metropolitan area in western England take seminary trips to the historic Church sites that are a decade older than anything that exists in Salt Lake City. Their Church heritage predates the Utah pioneers and is the basis for great things that occurred in both England and the United States.
When the first missionaries went to England, the inspiration they received often led them to groups of people just waiting for the truth. How converts around the Bristol area heard the gospel is one of the most inspiring stories in the history of the Church in England.
In 1840 Wilford Woodruff was preaching in the Potteries of Straffordshire. He was finding success and was able to preach to large congregations. During the opening song of one meeting, he was suddenly impressed that this would be the last meeting he would preside over for a while in the area. It surprised him since he had many appointments set up. But having faith in the source of the inspiration, Elder Wilford Woodruff announced to the group that he would be leaving.
Elder Woodruff traveled south to Herefordshire, where he felt directed to a farm owned by John Benbow. The Benbows were independent, wealthy farmers, living in a rural mansion. They belonged to a religious society of 600 persons, including 45 preachers. Elder Woodruff was invited to preach and converted all but one member of the society. He even converted a constable sent to arrest him. The society turned over to the Church the chapel they owned and 45 houses used for worship. Thus the first chapel ever owned by the Church was in England.
The Benbow farm, the pond where so many were baptized, the first chapel—these are the historic sites that the seminary students of Bristol Stake visit. They are reminded of those hundreds of Saints in previous generations who had found the correct path. But in a way, these Bristol youth are forging their own way through the undergrowth of everyday life. Some steps are personal, but others are more visible. They are still taking first steps. For example, the first daily early-morning seminary in England was organized in the Bristol Stake.
Bristol and the surrounding towns, including Bath and Weston Super Mare, make up an industrial area of England, an area that is rich in history. The Roman baths, from which the town of Bath got its name, were constructed at the site of a natural hot spring when emissaries of the Roman Empire lived on the island that would become Great Britain. The classic columns and heroic statues seem transported from a different age and climate. Although the baths are as old as history, the visitor cannot resist testing the naturally warm water and being a little tempted to take a plunge.
It is obvious on first contact that the youth of the Bristol Stake and their leaders love to get together. There is plenty of good-natured teasing and much laughter as they begin to talk about themselves and their lives. They laugh about how Americans tend to mispronounce the name of Bath. They draw out the vowel while wrinkling their noses at the sound. The correct pronunciation of Bath should rhyme with moth.
But when it comes to important subjects like the Church and their testimonies, the young people get serious and it becomes obvious that their answers reflect some deep thought.
Tim Jones, seminary president and member of the Weston Super Mare Ward, was raised in the Church and remembers the beginnings of his testimony. “When I was about 12,” said Tim, “it struck me that church is a place you can enjoy yourself. There are other things you can enjoy like going out with your mates [friends], but you are not entirely as happy as you are when you come to church activities.”
Tim is not the only one who has found that good friends in the Church help teens stay active. Rachel Bull of the Bath Ward said, “I think if you have friends in the Church, they help you. You stay active. When we have youth conventions [conferences], we have such good times. I think, ‘I had such a wonderful time, I cannot give it up.’”
Rachel’s friend Fiona Greenman, also from the Bath Ward, has carefully considered her commitment to the Church. “I started thinking about it,” said Fiona. “For a time I stopped praying and everything. Then I was at school one day and some friends were talking and swearing away, and it suddenly hit me that I didn’t like their way of life. I chose the Church.”
Talking about Church friends led to a discussion of other friends from school and work. For these English youth, their peers did not place undue pressure on them. Tim said, “When my friends ask me for a cigarette, I say, ‘No, I don’t smoke.’ When I say that I don’t drink either, that’s all I have to say. It doesn’t go any further.”
“Not drinking or smoking,” Louisa Klein of the Bristol Third Ward added, “is much more accepted because it’s taught in the schools that it’s bad for you.”
Terry Withington of the Weston Super Mare Ward chimed in, “You are even looked up to because you don’t drink.”
Although most of the youth have resolved how to deal with peer pressure, they still have problems that dominate their lives. When asked about the biggest challenge in their lives, the comments often came back to money. It is difficult for young people to find jobs, and being short of funds for transportation can affect their participation and attendance at Church meetings and activities.
Another challenge is religious studies classes at school that require answers that conform to theories printed in textbooks rather than individual beliefs. Heather Jones of the Weston Super Mare Ward explains that in the religious education class, “you have to answer like they want, rather than what you believe.” Heather went on to say, “There was a kid in our school that failed the exam because he put down that God created the earth. It was marked incorrect. He had to put down another theory to pass.”
Teenagers in Bristol are like their contemporaries everywhere. They like to have fun with their friends, and they love stake dances. They are partial to fast food like hamburgers and chips, and they especially like fish and chips, served the old-fashioned way wrapped in newspaper. They groan about having to get up early for seminary each morning, but are proud of the things they learn and the example they are setting.
With each girl or boy who chooses the Lord’s way, the path becomes more clear cut. The youth of the Bristol Stake know the path leads to eternal truth and are willing to follow.