“Seagoing Saints,” Ensign, Sept. 2001, 54
“I left the home of my birth to gather. … I was alone,” wrote Priscilla Stains of her 1844 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on the ship Fanny. “It was a dreary winter day on which I went to Liverpool. The company with which I was to sail was all strangers to me. When I arrived at Liverpool and saw the ocean that would soon roll between me and all I loved, my heart almost failed me. But I had laid my idols all upon the altar. There was no turning back. I remembered the words of the Savior: ‘He that leaveth not father and mother, brother and sister, for my sake, is not worthy of me,’ and I believed his promise to those who forsook all for his sake; so I thus alone set out for the reward of everlasting life, trusting in God.”1
This inspiring account reflects the spirit of thousands of converts who crossed the oceans to gather to Zion in the 19th century. While the story of Latter-day Saints crossing the plains is well known, the story for those who crossed the oceans is often neglected. It might be said that we “miss the boat,” however, if we overlook this significant part of Church history, which provides a more complete picture of the gathering experience.
Today Latter-day Saints are counseled to build Zion in their own lands, but in the early days of the restored Church the members were directed to leave their homes and gather to a central place. The call to gather was received in September 1830—less than six months after the organization of the Church:
“And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect; for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts;
“Wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the Father that they shall be gathered in unto one place upon the face of this land” (D&C 29:7–8).
The call was extended worldwide after Moses bestowed “the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth” (D&C 110:11) upon the heads of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836. The following year Elder Heber C. Kimball, Elder Orson Hyde, and five other elders opened up the preaching of the gospel to England, yet they were warned by the Prophet Joseph to “remain silent concerning the gathering … until such time as the work was fully established.”2 Less than three years later, the needed foothold was gained, and Latter-day Saints began to journey to Zion.
By 1840, Liverpool, England, was the most active international port of emigration in the world. This was due to its prime location for rail connections in the British Isles and its excellent navigable channels in the Mersey River.3 The British Mission office was also located there.
More than 80 percent of Latter-day Saints who gathered to America in the 19th century embarked from Liverpool. Most of these were converts from Great Britain, while the next largest group consisted of those from Scandinavia, many of whom began the first portion of their sea travels from Copenhagen, Denmark.
Commencing with the first group who gathered in Liverpool before embarking on the Britannia in June of 1840, the Saints were assisted by elders who worked at the Liverpool mission office. Hugh Moon recalled that as he stepped aboard the Britannia, “we found Elders Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball aboard. They had stretched a curtain across our cabin and commenced blessing the company. They bid us walk in.”4
Such blessings by Church leaders were augmented by counsel. In April 1841 the Twelve published an epistle that contained the following advice:
“We have found that there are so many ‘pick-pockets,’ and so many that will take every possible advantage of strangers, in Liverpool, that we have appointed Elder Amos Fielding, as the agent of the church, to superintend the fitting out of the Saints from Liverpool to America. Whatever information the Saints may want about the preparations for a voyage, they are advised to call on Elder Fielding, at Liverpool, as their first movement, when they arrive there as emigrants. There are some brethren who have felt themselves competent to do their own business in these matters, and rather despising the counsel of their friends, have been robbed and cheated out of nearly all they had. A word of caution to the wise is sufficient. It is also a great saving to go in companies, instead of going individually. First, a company can charter a vessel, so as to make the passage much cheaper than otherwise. Secondly, provisions can be purchased at wholesale for a company much cheaper than otherwise. Thirdly, this will avoid bad company on the passage. Fourthly, when a company arrives in New Orleans they can charter a steam-boat so as to reduce the passage nearly one-half. This measure will save some hundreds of pounds on each ship load. Fifthly, a man of experience can go as leader of each company, who will know how to avoid rogues and knaves.”5
In addition to such counsel, elders (mostly returning missionaries) were appointed at Liverpool to preside over the seagoing Saints. Wards were organized, and Church leaders made certain that while on board ship members adhered to daily and weekly schedules, which included daily prayers and designated Church meetings, and made sure that general good order and proper hygiene were maintained.6
Such organization, however, did not mean that Latter-day Saint immigrants did not encounter challenges along the way. One common difficulty in the early sailing years was overcrowding and the stench of seasickness caused by sickly steerage passengers (steerage being the large area below deck used for low-cost accommodations). William Clayton, who crossed the Atlantic in 1840 aboard the North America, stated, “Such sickness, vomiting, groaning and bad smells I never witnessed before and added to this the closeness of the b[e]rths almost suffocated us for want of air.”7 Most recovered after a few days out to sea, but others required continual assistance throughout the voyage. They were assisted by family and other willing Latter-day Saint passengers.
Ebenezer Farnes, who aided the sick on the 1862 voyage of the William Tapscott, wrote: “The first day out of the harbor all the emigrants were seasick, and I was called on to help give out water and provisions, which I did until we landed in New York. The trip on the ocean was a red letter day in my life. The first day out was rather rough and the second day rougher, and all the people were seasick. After the fourth day out things on board ship went smooth and some of the people came on deck, others lay in their berths afraid they would die, and others afraid they wouldn’t die.”8
Zebulon Jacobs, a passenger on the 1868 voyage of the Minnesota, was appointed to help the sea-weary Saints. Brother Jacobs was diligent in his duty to minister to the sick, but he noted how one elderly sister presented a bit of a problem:
“One old lady by the name of [Elizabeth] Ainsworth could not get out of bed, she was so sick. Several days passed. I visited her regular to see how she was getting along. Finally decided she must get out. Went to work. ‘Come now get up!’ ‘I can’t.’ ‘Yes, you can. Get up or I will pull your ears.’ ‘You pull my ears, you pull my ears. What do you mean?’ ‘I mean just what I say. If you don’t get up I will pull your ears, besides take this shoe to you.’ She replied, ‘You sauce box, get away from here.’ I replied I would not, at the same time caught hold of the bedclothes and commenced to pull. She commenced to scream. I pulled and she pulled. Finally she let go and gathered a shoe and let fly. I dodged. Another followed with the same result. Next came a tin cup [and a] dish plate. Finally she gathered a piece of board and jumped out after me. I ran and she ran until she saw how her clothing was arranged and started back to the bunk, me after her. ‘Don’t you get in there,’ I cried. ‘If you do, I’ll pull you out by the heels.’ Another race started amid screams of laughter from about 30 people. She went back about as mad as people generally get. So did I. When I could get near enough with safety, told her to dress and I would assist her on deck. She looked surprised and at the same time realized what I was doing for her. She dressed. I carried her up the companionway to the deck, placed her on the sunny side of the vessel, where she remained all the afternoon and was left to go below at night. It done all who saw me good, for they tried to get up. Whenever they saw me coming they would say, ‘Here comes Brother Jacobs. Let’s get up.’”9
However, there were those who, due to illness caused by dysentery, measles, and other diseases, never did get up from their beds of affliction. They were eventually consigned to a watery grave. This was done by putting the deceased in a canvas bag and attaching weights to the body (to avoid sharks) and sliding it on a board into the ocean. Such scenes were painful for loved ones to behold.10
In contrast, many were restored to health as the elders stood by both willing and able to bless the sick.
Several accounts testify of the power of the priesthood in harnessing the angry deep. Mary Ann Weston Maughan, who crossed the Atlantic in 1841, recalled one raging storm which was lulled by the Lord’s power:
“When near the banks of Newfoundland we had a dreadful storm. Our main mast broke off deck and the jib boom also broke, and as it came around on deck struck a sailor on his head nearly killing him. … Soon after our mast [broke], a young man in our company took off his shoes and went on deck going to the fore part of the ship. He raised his right hand to heaven and in the name of Jesus Christ rebuked the wind and the waves and prophesied that the storm should abate and the good ship Harmony would carry her load of Saints in safety to their destination and this came true, for all landed safe in [Quebec].”11
Isaiah M. Coombs relates a similar miracle of power over the elements on board the ship Montana in 1876. He wrote the following journal entry on 23 January 1876:
“At six o’clock this morning Brother Eccles came to my room and acknowledged that he was really uneasy. Just then I heard one of the stewards exclaim, ‘… If that wave strikes us we can never recover from it.’ I got up, dressed myself, and staggered into the saloon [dining room] just as the ship was shaking this huge wave from its decks. The sights and sounds outside were truly fearful. I went back into my room and, kneeling down, asked the Lord to give me power to rebuke the winds and waves that the ship might go safe into port for my sake and for the sake of the few Saints aboard. I then came back into the saloon and sat down. I had not been there long before Brother Eccles came running in to tell me that a huge wave that had just struck the ship had [smashed] in a window in the captain’s room and that he was hurt and nearly drowned. I allowed Brother Eccles to help me up the hatchway to the captain’s room. Found our good captain drenched to the skin but not otherwise injured. His room was covered a foot deep with saltwater, and the carpenter was replacing the windows while some boys and men were dipping up the water by the bucketful and throwing it out on deck. I went to the door that leads out onto the main deck and which had been tied partly open for the purpose of ventilation and looked out on the wildest and most fearful sight that my eyes have ever beheld. The wind was blowing fearfully and the waves were absolutely mountains high and sweeping the deck from stem to stern with relentless fury. It truly seemed as if we were about to be swallowed up in the depths of the ocean. I stood there at that door looking out at the fearful sight, and raising my heart to God for strength, I, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the holy priesthood, rebuked the winds and waves and commanded them to subside that our ship with its precious freight of souls might go safe into port, and called on God to seal the rebuke in heaven as I had on earth. My prayer was answered almost immediately. In less than half an hour the wind died away, the waves lessened, and the blessed sun was shining upon us. The infidel would say it would have been so anyway. I say give God the glory. Oh, praise God!
“I went to the breakfast table for the first time and ate a small piece of steak and then going to my room wept for joy.”12
Such experiences were part of the miraculous story of Heavenly Father’s preservation of the seagoing Saints. It is an impressive point that in the 19th century all Latter-day Saint voyages crossing the Atlantic, and all but one crossing over the Pacific, ended with their ships arriving safely.13 This is in sharp contrast to the fact that at least 59 vessels without Church immigrants sank between the years 1847 and 1853.
This kind of record in spite of storms left a memorable impression on passengers, captains, and crews who were not members of the Church. One such experience occurred when a severe Atlantic storm struck during the 1851 voyage of the Yankee ship Olympus:
“Captain Horace A. Wilson sent his second mate to Elder William Howell, president of the emigrant company. ‘You go to the captain of the Mormons,’ the master ordered, ‘and tell him from Captain Wilson that if the God of the Mormons can do anything to save this ship and the people, they had better be calling on him to do so, for we are now sinking at the rate of a foot an hour; and if the storm continues we shall all be at the bottom of the ocean before daylight.’
“Lying in his bunk, Elder Howell sent a message telling Captain Wilson: ‘Our God will protect us.’ Elder Howell summoned twelve men to join him in prayer. According to Wilson G. Nowers, as they were praying, the motion of the ship changed. The pitching and rolling eased, and the storm ‘suddenly abated.’ The Saints and Captain Wilson attributed their deliverance to Providence.
“After repairs were made, the skipper gave the Latter-day Saints permission to hold religious services for the entire ship. Members responded enthusiastically and preached to everyone who would listen. At first, a baptismal font was improvised from a large barrel, which could be entered via a ladder on deck; some time later, a platform was suspended from ropes and lowered into the ocean, where more baptisms were performed. During the 54-day passage, 50 converts were baptized, including one before sailing and one after arrival at New Orleans.”14
John S. Stucki, who was the company leader of a group of 70 Saints during the 1888 voyage of the Nevada, observed the following: “The captains of the different ships like to have our people [the Latter-day Saints] cross the ocean with them, because they [the Saints] are better behaved than some other people for one thing, and because they [the mariners] feel there is more safety in having Mormon people with them in crossing the ocean. So … the different ship companies are all anxious to get our people to cross the ocean with them. So I think that our captain favored our people to get their good will.
“It seems that even the captains of the ships had begun to find out that there is some supreme power watching over the Latter-day Saints, which should add to and strengthen anyone’s testimony.”15
Seafaring captains definitely noticed the order and hygiene among the Saints. Latter-day Saint immigrant John Jaques, who journeyed aboard the Horizon in 1856, wrote of their captain: “More than once did I hear him remark on the superior morality, order, and cleanliness which our people exhibited, when compared with ordinary emigrants. I knew this before, but still it is pleasing to me to hear Captains, as well as others, frankly acknowledge the truth about us. He was rather surprised that he had 850 people on board, and did not hear an oath from them.”16
James Thompson, who immigrated aboard the Lucy Thompson the same year, wrote: “Before we were long on board we were found to be the most clean in our habits. We kept our berths clean, washing them frequently. [Those not of our faith] were annoyed, as the officers only gave them half allowance of water till they went and did likewise. Towards the end of the voyage the officers seldom visited us, as they considered it unnecessary.”17
The Saints made time for singing and dancing. Fanny Fry Simons, who immigrated in 1859, recalled that aboard the William Tapscott there was “dancing and music every evening, with a very few exceptions.”18 John McAllister, who was a Latter-day Saint passenger aboard the Manchester in 1862, recorded: “Saints on deck dancing, singing, knitting, sewing, etc. Violins and concertinas in full blast.”19
Such social activities helped ease the memories of departing from family and friends, weeks of seasickness, and especially burying loved ones at sea.
Most immigrating Saints made it safely to American shores. Between 1841 and 1854 the primary port of arrival was New Orleans. However, plans changed due to dreadful effects of yellow fever and cholera, as President Brigham Young noted in a letter dated 2 August 1854 to Elder Franklin D. Richards, who was then the presiding Church officer and emigration agent in Liverpool: “You are aware of the sickness liable to assail our unacclimated brethren on the Mississippi river, hence I wish you to ship no more to New Orleans, but ship to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, giving preference in the order named.”20
Although several voyages were made with Latter-day Saint immigrants to Philadelphia and Boston in the mid-19th century, New York became the preferred port of entry. It served as the primary U.S. port of arrival for Latter-day Saint immigrants from 1855 to 1890. It was here that the immigration depot known as Castle Garden was located.
As there had been Church leaders to assist the Saints who embarked from Liverpool, and elders to provide direction and protection at sea, so there were Latter-day Saint agents to receive the immigrants in New Orleans and in New York. The Saints were then transferred to steamboats and rail cars to continue their journey west. They knew, however, before they began their land migration that they had crossed the longest portion of their journey—the mighty deep. As they reached Zion’s shores, some perhaps recalled this psalm reminiscent of their ocean experience:
“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
“These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
“For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
“They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.
“Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
“He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
“Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
“Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!” (Ps. 107:23–31).