“Reflections of a Missionary to Great Britain,” Ensign, Sept. 1971, 8
Reflections of a Missionary to Great Britain
For quite obvious reasons Great Britain and the people of those islands occupy a very special spot in my heart. My experiences there, starting as a young missionary in 1904, have been a great source of strength and testimony.
At the invitation of the Ensign, I am happy to share several of those experiences with you.
In 1904 I went to England on a mission. President Heber J. Grant, who presided over the European missions at that time, sent me down to Norwich. When I got into Norwich, the president of the district sent me down to Cambridge. He said, “I want you to go with Elder Downs (he was a man forty-five years old and I was twenty-one). Elder Downs will leave for France the morning after you get there, because his mission is completed. There is not another Latter-day Saint within 120 miles of Cambridge, so you will be alone.” He added, “You might be interested to know, Brother Brown, that the last Mormon elder who was in Cambridge was driven out by a mob at the point of a gun and was told that the next Mormon elder who stepped inside the city limits would be shot on sight. I thought you would be glad to know that.”
I wasn’t glad to know it, but I thought it was well that I did know it.
We went to Cambridge. There were signs all over the city—they had heard we were coming. They had signs indicating their antipathy. That was their method of welcoming us. One big sign at the railway station was of a large bearded man with a woman lying at his feet, her head on a block. Underneath it said, “Will you go into polygamy or won’t you?” That was the reception we received.
Elder Downs left the next morning after telling me how to prepare my tracts, and I went out on Friday morning and tracted all morning without any response except doors slammed in my face. I tracted all afternoon with the same response, and I came home pretty well discouraged. But I decided to tract Saturday morning, although it wasn’t required. I went out and tracted all morning and got the same results. I came home dejected and downhearted, and I thought I ought to go home. I thought the Lord had made a mistake in sending me to Cambridge.
I was sitting by that little alleged fire they have in England, with a big granddaddy clock at the side of the so-called fire. I was feeling sorry for myself, and I heard a knock at the front door. The lady of the house answered the door. I heard a man’s voice say, “Is there an Elder Brown living here?” I thought, Oh, oh, here it is!
She said, “Why, yes, he’s in the front room. Come in, please.”
He came in and said, “Are you Elder Brown?”
I was not surprised at the inflection in his voice, as my awkward and hesitating speech and conduct indicated my farm upbringing. “Yes, sir,” I said.
“Did you leave this tract at my door?” he said.
I answered, “Yes, sir, I did.”
He said, “Last Sunday there were seventeen of us heads of families who left the Church of England. We went to my home, where I have a rather large room. Each of us has a large family, and we filled the large room with men, women, and children. We decided that we would pray all through the week that the Lord would send us a new pastor. When I came home tonight, I was discouraged; I thought our prayers had not been answered. But when I found this tract under my door, I knew the Lord had answered our prayers. Will you come tomorrow night and be our new pastor?”
Now, I hadn’t been in the mission field three days. I didn’t know anything about missionary work, and he wanted me to be their pastor. But I was reckless enough to say, “Yes, I’ll come.” And I repented from then till the time of the meeting.
He left, and took my appetite with him! I called in the lady of the house and told her I didn’t want anything to eat. I went up to my room and prepared for bed. I knelt at my bed. For the first time in my life I talked with God. I told him of my predicament. I pleaded for his help. I asked him to guide me. I pleaded that he would take it off my hands. I got up and went to bed and couldn’t sleep, so I got out and prayed again, and I kept that up all night—but I really talked with God.
The next morning I told the landlady I didn’t want any breakfast, and I went up on the campus in Cambridge and walked all morning. I came in at noon and told her I didn’t want any lunch; then I walked all afternoon. I had a short-circuited mind—all that I could think of was “I have to go down there tonight and be a pastor.”
I came back to my room at six o’clock and I sat there meditating, worrying, wondering. (Let me tell you that since that time I have had the experience of sitting beside a man who was condemned to die the next morning. As I sat and watched his emotions, I was reminded of how I felt that night. I think I felt just as bad as he did.) The execution time was drawing near. Finally it came to the point where the clock said 6:45. I got up and put on my long Prince Albert coat, my stiff hat, took my walking cane (which we always carried in those days), my kid gloves, put a Bible under my arm, and dragged myself down to that building, literally. I just made one track all the way.
Just as I got to the gate, the man came out, the man I had seen the night before. He bowed very politely and said, “Come in, Reverend, sir.” I had never been called that before. I went in and saw the room filled with people, and they all stood up to honor their new pastor, and that scared me to death.
Then I had come to the point where I began to think what I had to do, and I realized I had to say something about singing. I suggested that we sing “O My Father.” I was met with a blank stare. We sang it—it was a terrible cowboy solo. Then I thought, if I could get these people to turn around and kneel by their chairs, they wouldn’t be looking at me while I prayed. I asked them if they would, and they responded readily. They all knelt down, and I knelt down, and for the second time in my life I talked with God. All fear left me. I didn’t worry anymore. I was turning it over to him.
I said to him, among other things, “Father in heaven, these folks have left the Church of England. They have come here tonight to hear the truth. You know that I am not prepared to give them what they want, but Thou art, O God, the one who can; and if I can be the instrument through whom you speak, very well; but please take over.”
When we arose, most of them were weeping, as was I. Wisely I dispensed with the second hymn, and I started to talk. I talked for forty-five minutes. I don’t know what I said. I didn’t talk—God spoke through me, as subsequent events proved. And he spoke so powerfully to that group that at the close of that meeting they came and put their arms around me and held my hands. They said, “This is what we have been waiting for. Thank God you came.”
I had dragged myself down to that meeting, but on my way back home that night I only touched ground once, I was so elated that God had taken off my hands a task insuperable for man.
Within three months every man, woman, and child in that audience was baptized a member of the Church. I didn’t baptize them myself, because I was transferred. But they all joined the Church, and most of them came to Utah and Idaho. I have seen some of them in recent years. They are elderly people now, but they say they never have attended such a meeting, a meeting where God spoke to them.
During that first mission to England, I had a great experience with President Grant. In 1905 I had an attack of kidney stones. The pain was so severe that the local doctors told me I must go home and have medical attention or I would die.
President Grant learned of this and made a special trip from Liverpool down to Norwich, where I was laboring, to tell me that I would be released and sent home.
This broke my heart, and I said to him, “President Grant, if you will give me a blessing, I will not have to go home. I will get well.”
He said, “If you have faith that that is so, it will be so.”
He blessed me, and I did not have another attack of kidney stones.
During the first world war I returned to England as an officer in the Royal Canadian Army. Much later, in 1937, I was called to preside over the British Mission and traveled to England with President Grant, who was then president of the Church. Along with the retiring mission president, Joseph J. Cannon, we went to northern England and visited Preston, where the missionaries first preached the gospel in England.
We went out to the spot, as nearly as we could tell, where they had done their first baptizing in the River Ribble one hundred years before. There, on the bank, we held a meeting that was well attended and quite inspirational. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., of the First Presidency had joined our party and spoke on this occasion, as did Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency.
In our meetings with the missionaries laboring in Preston we gathered at the old “Cockpit” of some fame in British Mission history and also the Vauxhall Chapel, which was generously given over to the use of the missionaries in the early days.
Upon returning to London, we went to 5 Gordon Square, the headquarters of the British Mission, and there on the front steps President Cannon handed me the keys to the building and figuratively the keys to the British Mission.
Early in 1939 it became clear that war was not very far away; therefore, I made arrangements with the United States Lines to hold a hundred berths on one of their ocean liners, to be called for as needed, probably all at one time. This they agreed to do. The day the war broke out, I telephoned them and said I wanted those hundred berths. They replied that ten thousand people were lined up trying to get out of the country, but they would honor the agreement.
Accordingly, I sent for all the missionaries to come to London. We held meetings for three days, awaiting the departure of the boat. Then the missionaries left on that boat for the United States, all except five who stayed with me for a time.
The lady missionaries had gone about thirty days prior to this, because we were certain that war was coming, and we wanted to protect them. Sister Brown and our children accompanied them home.
So I was left there with five of the elders. The boat that left just before our elders sailed was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean, and all members of the crew and all passengers were lost.
It was a rather exciting time, a time of deep humility for me, because I had taken it upon myself to put all those elders on one boat.
I left England in February 1940. Two years later I was asked to return, even though the war was still in progress. My responsibilities then included work as servicemen’s coordinator.
We had some rather interesting experiences, because it was during this time that London was under heavy air attack. Many of the buildings around our headquarters had been destroyed by bombing. In fact, the mission headquarters at 5 Gordon Square had been bombed out, and the new mission headquarters were located at 149 Nightingale Lane. The home was named Ravenslea.
One day when I was in the backyard at Ravenslea, I heard the noise of what seemed to be a plane. When it got within a certain distance of our place, which was just three blocks from a railway center, I heard the power cut off and saw the plane dive to the earth, striking just across the street from Ravenslea and destroying fifteen houses along that road.
When I heard the engine of that plane stop, I was sure what was going to happen, and I had a great affinity for the earth—I lay right down on the ground. The explosion broke every window in the mission home.
The bombing of the area in which we were living eventually became so severe that mission headquarters had to be moved to Birmingham.
What has happened to the Church in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales since the war is a great testimony to the divinity of this work. Who would have imagined when I began my first mission there in 1904 that there would eventually be seven missions and nine stakes of Zion in the British Isles? The Lord has certainly blessed his work.