“Will You Be Our Pastor?” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 32
In 1904, when I was 21 years old, I was called on a mission to England, and my mother accompanied me to the local railway station to tell me goodbye. Just before the train pulled out, she said, “Hugh, do you remember when you were a little boy and you often had nightmares? You’d wake up in the night and call out to me in the next room, ‘Mother, Mother, are you there?’ And I’d reply, ‘Yes, my boy, I’m here. Everything’s all right, just turn over and go to sleep.’”
Then she said, “You always did; you went right to sleep, and there was no more trouble. Now you’re going nearly 10,000 miles away. You’ll want to call to me, but I’ll not be able to hear you. There will be difficulties, and there will be nightmares in the daytime when your eyes are wide open. There will also be worries and problems to plague you.
“But I want you to understand that though I will not be able to hear you, someone will hear you. And if you’ll call out with the faith that you had when you were a little boy, if you’ll call out and say, ‘Father, are you there?’ I promise you, son, he’ll answer you. You may not hear his voice, you may not see his form, but he’ll answer you and you’ll receive comfort from the knowledge that he’s there and that he cares; and figuratively speaking, you’ll turn over and go to sleep no matter what the situation may be.”
When I came to Salt Lake City to be set apart for my mission, I was an awful-looking spectacle. I was bowlegged from riding horses so much. I was freckle-faced because of the sun, and my hair was white. I think no more unpromising missionary ever went into the field than I.
Arriving in the British Mission six weeks later, I was sent to Norwich. Upon arriving there, the district president told me, “Elder Brown, we want you to go to Cambridge. Elder Downs will go with you. He’s a man 45 years of age, and he has been given permission to leave for Paris the day after you get there, so you’ll be alone in Cambridge. Now, Elder Brown,” he continued, “I thought you might be interested to know that the last missionaries who were in Cambridge were driven out at the point of a gun and were told that the next missionary who set foot inside the city would be shot on sight. Elder Brown, you’re that missionary.”
We went down to Cambridge and saw anti-Mormon banners all over the city, because word had gotten out that the Mormons were coming back. Some of the signs were amusing; some were heartrending.
We found a place to stay, and Elder Downs helped me to prepare some tracts and put my name and address on them. He told me where to start tracting, and after he had gone the next morning, I began. I tracted all morning; I did not get a pleasant look, let alone a gospel conversation.
Ninety percent of the doors that were answered were slammed in my face. I came in at noon a bit discouraged, but I went back in the afternoon and repeated the experience. The next day was Saturday, and I thought I ought to try to get one conversation out of three days’ work, so I went out Saturday morning. But I got the same response, and I was sure the Lord had made a mistake.
I said, “Father, are you there?” And he answered, “I am here,” but he didn’t tell me to turn over and go to sleep. I tracted until noon on Saturday and came in. I thought, surely the Lord should have known better than to send me here. I feel so helpless, forlorn, and alone. There was not another Latter-day Saint within 120 miles of Cambridge.
While I was sitting by the little open fireplace trying to warm myself and pondering the folly of the Lord in sending me there, there came a knock at the door. The landlady answered the door and I heard a man’s voice say, “Is there an Elder Brown living here?” I thought, oh-oh, this is it.
She said, “Why, yes sir, he’s in the front room. Come in.”
He came in and he had a tract in his hand. He looked at me with a doubtful expression and said, “Are you Elder Brown?” And I couldn’t deny it. He said, “Did you leave this tract under my door?”
I said, “Yes, I did.”
He said, “Elder Brown, last Sunday 17 families left the Church of England. We’re all large families, and since I have a large home with a very large room in it, the crowd came and filled my house—all members of the Church of England until that day. We had prayer together, and we agreed among ourselves that all through the week we’d pray to God to send us a new pastor.”
Then he said, “When I came home tonight I was sure the Lord had not heard our prayers. I was dejected until I opened the door and found this tract lying on the floor. Then, as I read it, I knew the Lord had answered our prayers. I have come now to ask if you will come tomorrow and be our pastor.”
I hadn’t been in the mission field three days. I hadn’t held a meeting or attended a meeting in the mission field. No one could have been more helpless than I, and yet the man was asking, “Will you be our pastor?”
I didn’t know what a pastor was, but I did what any elder would do under those circumstances. I pulled in my chin, squared my shoulders, and said, “Yes, sir, I’ll be there.”
He thanked me and left, and he took my appetite with him. I called the landlady and told her I didn’t want my evening meal. I went up to my room and prepared for bed. I knelt at my bedside, and for the first time in my life I really talked with God. I had been taught to pray, and I had always said my prayers, but as I knelt by my bed that night, I really talked with the Lord. I told him of my situation; I told him that these people were leaving the Church of England to search for the truth, that they were calling for it, and that I wasn’t prepared to give it to them. I asked him to please take the responsibility off my hands. He didn’t seem to answer. I got up and went to bed and floundered around awhile. Then I got up again and continued in prayer all night long.
The next morning I went downstairs and told the landlady I was not going to eat breakfast that day, and I went for a walk on the campus of Cambridge University. I walked all morning, saw the happy young people and envied them, even as I used to envy the cows I was herding on the hillside as I would see them lying and chewing their cuds in perfect peace. My soul was in tumult, and these happy young students aggravated it. I went home at noon and told the landlady I didn’t want any lunch, and I went back to walk some more. I walked all afternoon. I remember I saw a little cloud in the sky, and I prayed to the Lord to let that cloud enlarge until it became such a storm that nobody would come to the meeting. But that prayer was not answered.
That evening I sat by the fire contemplating, praying for help. Finally, at a quarter to seven, I got up and put on my long Prince Albert coat. I put on some kid gloves, the first that had ever been on my hands. I took a walking cane which I had been instructed to buy, and I’d never carried one before. I put on a stiff hat, such as I had never worn, and I dragged myself down to that house. The man I had met the night before saw me coming, and he came out and bowed very low and politely said, “Come in, reverend sir.” That scared me to death.
I went in, and there was a whole roomful of people in a very large room, and they all stood up out of respect for their new pastor. That scared me pretty badly too. And not until then did I really think about what I was going to do.
I hadn’t realized before that I would have to do all the preaching and all the praying, and, as it turned out, all the singing. I said, “Let’s sing ‘O My Father.’” I was met with a blank stare; but I sang it—a terrible cowboy solo. Then, as I looked over my congregation, shaking in my boots, I said, “Would you folks mind turning around and kneeling down by your chairs while we pray?” I thought that was one way I could get their eyes off me.
They knelt, and I prayed. And for the second time in my life, I talked with God. I talked with him as one man talks with another on serious matters. I told him again of the situation. I told him that these people had assembled to hear the truth, and I remember saying, “Oh God, wilt thou teach them the truth tonight; if I can be an instrument, all is well. But, oh God, take over.” As soon as I started to pray, all fear and concern left me, and I did not again worry about what was going to happen.
When we arose from praying, most of the people were wiping their eyes. I dispensed with the second hymn and started to talk. I spoke for 45 minutes. God spoke through me such a sermon as I had never heard, and those people had never heard anything like it. When the meeting closed, they flocked around me and held my hands and kissed them.
I told you that I had to drag myself down to that place to attend that meeting. I can tell you now that I think I only touched the ground once on my way home. I was so elated that God had heard my prayer.
Within three months every man, woman, and child in that room became members of the Church. They emigrated to Idaho and Utah and other places in America. They sent their sons and grandsons back into the mission field, and as a result of that one meeting, one of the oldest of them told me just a short time ago in Salt Lake City that he knew of “more than 10,000 people who have responded to that one meeting through the emissaries that have gone out and carried the message to others.”
Do I know God lives? I know that better than I know anything else in life. I know that he is my friend, I know that he is there and that he hears me when I call, and with that knowledge, I am not afraid.