Taking Root

After 20 years, seminary in Great Britain has come of age.

In Nottingham, England, there stands a famous oak, marking the place where Robin Hood and his men supposedly got the best of a corrupt sheriff. Even though the old tree is massive, in some ways Robin Hood’s oak seems but a sapling when compared with another seedling planted in Nottingham, England, 20 years ago. This seedling has grown and spread, sinking roots throughout Great Britain. In September 1968, the seminary programme was introduced to the youth of the British Isles.

“And now we’ve come of age,” says David Cook, area director for the Church Educational System. “From just a handful of students, we’ve matured to 2,270 teenagers studying in units as far north as the Shetland Isles of Scotland and as far south as Helston on the toe of Cornwall—from the Republic of Ireland across to England’s East Coast.” To commemorate seminary’s 20th birthday, one of the 1968 classes held a reunion in April under Robin Hood’s famous oak tree.

“I think I’m the first second-generation seminary graduate in the country,” exclaimed Janet Beardsmore, 18. “My mother, Briony Green Beardsmore, was one of the original students to graduate.”

In those days, teachers were only called for three areas, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Manchester. From these roots, scripture study branched steadily across the country.

Mary Nash, another student from the past, who married classmate Clive North after his mission, comments, “I have rich memories of rising early to catch the 7:25 A.M. train from Birmingham to Leicester to be present for the 8:30 A.M. devotional at Wakerley Road Chapel one Saturday each month. There were a handful of us from all over the stake, but our teacher, John M. Madsen (Church Educational System Regional Coordinator), made those classes so much fun. I still recall his saying, ‘Welcome to cemetery,’ as tired, bleary-eyed youngsters sat yawning through his opening remarks. I remember the struggle I had at first with homework and daily scripture study, but through practice and Heavenly Father’s help, I coped with both and succeeded.”

Sheila Cuthbert Young, daughter of Elder and Sister Derek A. Cuthbert, said, “I remember John Madsen to this day. He must have had many people’s names to memorize. He would only see us once a month, yet he would stand at the door and greet me by name. This amazed me, as I thought I was a very insignificant human being at the time. I was quiet, shy, wore glasses, and lacked self-confidence. His recognition gave me a great feeling of self-worth.”

Regional coordinator for Seminaries and Institutes, Julian Jones, has connections with this anniversary year too. In 1968, whilst attending Loughborough University to become a P.E. teacher, he also came under the influence of Brother Madsen.

“I think I could easily have drifted into a wilderness if it hadn’t been for that seminary year,” says Brother Jones. “I was away from home for the first time since joining the Church five years previously. The challenge of that strong nucleus, enjoying gospel study in such depth, drew me into the group activity at exactly the right moment.”

Brother Jones has since served as bishop twice, baptized his own father (now mission president of the Bristol England Mission), and served as a counsellor in the Wandsworth Stake presidency. “And my final connection with this 20th year is that our eldest daughter, Hannah, begins seminary this year.”

Completing home-study work, attending lessons, and committing to daily scripture reading, have been features of seminary for years. Many students taking up the challenge to be “consecutive” are awarded for 30, 100, 365, and 1,000 consecutive days of scripture reading.

Leaders and teachers have time and again made the promise. “If you put scripture study first, then you will do well in schoolwork and exams.”

Alice Goldthorpe of Kingston, currently studying French and Spanish at Oxford University, testifies of this. “When my teachers heard about seminary, they tried hard to make me give it up because of the time commitment, but I was convinced the Lord desired me to learn and gain a strong testimony. I was determined to put him first. That year I had better grades than ever before, coming top of my year. I went on to get all the results I needed for university.”

Putting the Lord first has proved vital for another student with opposition of a different sort. Right through school, Neil Withington, now living in Southampton, battled with dyslexia. “I had a lot of basic reading and writing problems. At 14, during a teacher’s interview about future final exams, I was told I would not pass any of them. I had the intelligence, but there wouldn’t be enough time to read and understand questions, let alone write out answers.

“Then I began attending seminary. I took up the challenge of putting scripture study first. Whereas most of the class would complete a week’s booklet in two hours on a Sunday afternoon, I had to arise at 6:00 A.M. and spend two hours on just one day’s work (four days to a booklet). I soon realized that on days beginning with seminary I did really well at school. On days minus seminary, the opposite happened.

“Dyslexia gradually disappeared. I passed seven O-level and two A-level exams. I failed the English language exam twice, but after completing a mission, I had another try and achieved that too. I now have a good job as a management consultant, involving plenty of reading and writing. I feel that without seminary, none of this would have happened.”

Determination and faith add yet another dimension to British seminary study—early-morning classes.

Five mornings a week, youth gather in a home, chilly chapel, or other meeting place, to dig into their scriptures before school and even before paper rounds. Some students face daunting obstacles. Like Philip Halford of Leicester, many live far away from where classes are held and public transport isn’t available. Philip was lucky. His brother had a milk round. Philip hopped on the milk float and rode part of the way.

Another class in Gillingham, Kent, has nine students. Two of these, Helen and Vicki Butcher, live on the Isle of Sheppey. At one stage they were arising at 4:00 A.M., walking one and a half miles to the local station, catching a train to the mainland, then walking another mile to Sister Isaac’s house for lessons. The return journey differed only a little. The walk from the station to school was two and a half miles.

Then an inspired bishop had the solution—telephone link teaching. With amplifiers attached to telephones in the teacher’s and Helen and Vicki’s homes, lessons went airbound.

“The first day was one big giggle,” said Helen. “I felt like someone in the Australian outback, but when we looked outside and saw snow settling on the ground, we were glad to be sitting in the warm house listening to the little box.”

Travelling in the early hours has its lighter moments. Amusing incidents have happened up and down the country. Suspicious policemen have stopped teenagers wandering down dark streets with heavy bags full of the standard works. One not-so-sleepy teenager from Leicester is Christopher Smith. “I always get up at 5:30 and jog before seminary. This particular morning I was finishing with my usual sprint, when a worried policeman stopped me. I had a hard time convincing him I wasn’t being chased by anyone as he hauled me off to the police station.”

“Seminary lessons are far better than school,” said 15-year-old Nicola Orrell of Rochdale, Lancashire. “I love the company, and we have a great teacher. Every morning as we arrive, eyes all bagged up, Sister Bereford is sitting ready in her corner, with a big smile on her face and a lively ‘good morning.’ We call her ‘Cheery Chris.’”

Persistence and energy know no age barriers when it comes to dedicated teachers. Sister Elsie Rock from Mitcham Ward, London Wandsworth Stake, is nearly 70. She gets up at 4:30 A.M., climbs into her bishop’s car at 5:30, and journeys with him as he picks up students.

Down on the tip of England’s toe, 18-year-old Joanne Crocker of Helston Ward, tells of her teacher, Hugh Dunbar. “The day before one monthly meeting, his car wouldn’t go. He had the engine in pieces until 3:00 A.M. Then he snatched two hours of sleep and finished the job by 11:30 Saturday morning in time to begin picking up his class of seven by 12 noon. Then we drove 70 miles to the Plymouth stake centre. And this was only six months after open heart surgery.”

This spring, the stakes of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, and Paisley got together at Inveralmond School for seminary scripture chase finals, followed by food and fun. There were rousing cheers as Glasgow won the shield amidst strong competition.

“I think seminary is the most worthwhile programme,” said 16-year-old Mark Stewart from East Kilbride Ward, Glasgow Stake. “Whenever I’m given a last-minute talk assignment, I just turn to my scriptures, find a Mastery passage, and using the cross-references, talk away.

“And I certainly enjoy big meetings,” he added. “They keep people strong in the Church. If you’re feeling down and come to one of these events, then you’re lifted up straight away. Also, we get to know friends from all over Scotland and can talk through our problems together. It’s really great.”

The seminary graduation certificate may seem like only a piece of parchment, but in the same way that paper is a product of living forests, with roots drinking deep from waters of the earth, so a graduation certificate represents 144 weeks of searching and pondering, drinking deep from the living waters of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Twenty years have brought miracles into the lives of students in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Seminary has indeed become rooted and established.

[photos] Photography by Julie Lowe, Arthur Hardy, John Phillipson, Paul Smith, and Anne Bradshaw

[photos] Twenty years after they posed for a seminary class portrait, seven of the original group gathered at the same ancient oak for a reunion photo. Left to right are Michael Rigby, Kevin Lowe, Georgia Smegburg Cottingham, Denise Stone Griffeths, Eileen Asher Flinn, Don Hezeltine, (kneeling) Wendy Lowe Wilson.

[photos] Two young men from Loughborough Ward, Leicester England Stake, talk for a moment after Sunday meetings. Scotland Seminary Scripture Chase finals brought classes together for some friendly rivalry.

[photos] Oxford student Alice Goldthorpe put seminary first. Velvette Brown of Wolverhampton Ward said, “My testimony has grown so much.” The seminary class in Redcar Branch got together after church.

[photos] Seminary students from the Middlesbrough Ward respond when asked to find scriptures. Young men from the Sutton Coldfield Ward catch rides to seminary when they can. The Loughborough seminary class continued its discussion outside.