“In the Crucible: Early British Saints,” Ensign, Dec. 1979, 51
Author’s original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.
Brigham Young and Willard Richards were certainly no strangers to poverty and privation. Brigham Young, so ill himself he could hardly walk, had left his sick wife and children in an Illinois shanty without proper food or medical attention to go on his mission in 1840. But some of the conditions in England were still a shock.
In a joint letter written to Joseph Smith and the other members of the First Presidency, Elder Young and Elder Richards called conditions “a mighty revolution, in the affairs of the common people,” the rural independence of the farmers with their tidy cottages and little gardens demolished by enclosed farms and factory work. With shock and anger they charged: “Smoke must not go up [the] chimney in England without a tax, light must not come in at the window without paying duties, many must pay from 1 penny to 6 pence per week for water. … We scarce recollect an article without tax except cats, mice and fleas.”
With great sympathy for the poor, they noted, “The people have enough to do to keep from dying with hunger without taking much thought for the improvement of the mind. Many of the people cannot read, a great many cannot write.” Children began half-days of factory work at age eight, full days at age fourteen. Unemployment was so high that a strike could not increase wages. “There [are] thousands and tens of thousands who cannot get one days work in a month, or six months, so they continue to labor 12 hours in a day for almost nothing rather than starve at once. Their miserable pittance is mostly oatmeal & water boiled together, & they would be quite content if they could get enough of that.”
These two American missionaries were doubly grieved to see the religious leaders as oppressive as employers, and end their letter with anguish: “Brethren, our hearts are pained with the poverty & misery of this people, & we have done all we could to help as many off as possible to a land where they may get a morsel of bread.”1
England in the mid-nineteenth century was a crucible, seething with rapid social change and dislocation that disrupted families, sent unemployment, crime, and illiteracy skyrocketing, encouraged migration to other parts of the world, and made hungry people anxious for change.2 Some turned to economic and social movements; others were ready for the message of hope the gospel brought.
Who were the people of Great Britain who accepted the gospel? What were they like? A prime characteristic of Britain’s converts is that they were Zion builders. Nauvoo’s population was 25 percent British by 1845; between 1860 and 1880 almost two out of every ten Utahns were British-born; two out of every three foreigners in Utah were of British origins.3 Many of the fine craftsmen who worked on both the Nauvoo and the Salt Lake temples had learned their skills in the quarries and shops of England and Wales.
One of these Saints was Matthew Rowan, whose graceful and delightfully detailed reminiscence was written in 1864 in South Cottonwood, Utah. In many ways Matthew’s life typifies the lives of his fellow British Saints in the early days of the Church. His story began in 1827 in Scotland, where his father was a coal miner. His mother, pregnant with her fifth child, died after nursing a couple through cholera; the father took to drink and married a widow with three children of her own and an even more pronounced taste for the bottle. Matthew, still a boy, began working in the coal mines with his father on oatmeal porridge for breakfast and nothing for lunch or dinner. They were so poor and so in debt that they moved quietly from their lodgings one night without paying rent. Some time later Matthew, accidentally knocked into the mine shaft, ended up at the bottom of the sixty-six foot fall with two broken ribs and a left elbow joint so smashed that the doctor said it felt like “a bag of peas or nails” and set it bent, assuming he would never have a joint there. Unable to obtain more medical help, Matthew’s father unstrapped it, rubbed it with oil and hartshorne, and picked out the fragments of bone as they surfaced. The result was an arm “as strong and straight as the other one.”
Then Matthew’s father suddenly joined Matthew as an ardent member of the temperance society, and the stepmother’s drinking became even worse. The family was in this condition when the first missionary came in January 1844 to their little town of Knightswood by a road “so long and dirty” that the missionary vowed never to return. However, the president of the Glasgow Conference, Peter McCue, appeared in a dream and insisted he return.
Matthew, scoffing and joking, attended the second meeting out of curiosity and was struck by the youthfulness of the fresh-faced young English missionary. This missionary said nothing of Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, but “preached nothing but what he could read out of the New Testament. … The Great difference that I observed in his preaching, to that of the other Sect’s preaching was, that I could understand it.” Convinced that it was true, he felt such envy when three of his friends were baptized that he made an appointment for his own baptism, and returned with his father. It was 9 February 1844: “The night was cold and sleety, but the Spirit that we had that night was not to be daunted by cold; one burning desire for the principle we were about to honour kept all cold and fear from the heart. After being baptized we, like the Ethiopian, went on our way rejoicing.”
It is characteristic that Matthew was taught by a countryman. The work begun by the American apostles was rapidly set up in local organizations and converts in turn made converts.
It is also characteristic that they met “low ridicule,” not scriptural attacks for “we had too much Scriptural ground to fight upon to be beat off by their awkward and groundless arguments.” And it is further characteristic that the Saints met these attacks in two ways—by the closeness and support the new converts gave each other and by an outpouring of spiritual gifts.
Matthew recalls, “We were taught to believe in, and contend for, the Supernatural gifts of the Spirit.” Returning from a meeting one night and deep in conversation about these gifts, Matthew “felt a power come upon me by which my tongue was made to pronounce some strange words. I had never before felt such a power; and for a few moments my whole soul was spell-bound, accompanied with a pleasurable feeling.”
Later, trying to reclaim a friend who had drifted away because of ridicule, he felt the gift come upon him again, and he bore testimony in tongues so powerfully that it “made A[lexander] Hay shake, and … took away the strength from my body.” The next day, Alexander sought him out and told him that, at work in the coal pit, he had knelt to pray and had found himself praying in an unknown tongue. The next Sunday, both Matthew and Alexander “spoke in tongues in the branch of the Church in which we met and one Brother John Carmichael interpreted them; and we were led greatly to rejoice in our God.” He was eighteen years old at the time.4
He served several missions and went to Utah in 1855.5
Like Matthew, Elizabeth Briggs Welch first encountered the gospel from one of her own countrymen. She was a lacemaker in Chesterfield, Derby, and her husband, Nicholas, was a potter. Religious by nature, Nicholas was a Methodist preacher and Sunday School teacher, but Elizabeth wasn’t interested and had, in fact, “never given serious thought to his work.” However, one autumn afternoon in 1841, she was attracted by a large crowd on a street corner clustered around “a ‘little boy’ … standing on a box.” The boy was twenty-two-year-old Alfred Cardon, the future bishop of the ward in Willard, Utah. After the preaching, she introduced herself and asked him to come visit the family, went home, set her basket on the table and announced to her husband: “‘Nick, I’ve heard the Gospel’. He looked up, rather surprised, and said, ‘Oh, have you? That’s funny for you.’ She answered, emphasizing the fact with her forefinger, pointing straight to him. ‘Say, I’ve heard the Gospel, its the only Gospel and its true and I know it, and I have invited this young Elder to visit us and tell us more about it.’” The family was baptized a week later.
Elizabeth needed the strength of that instantaneous recognition of the truth: Her husband and two sons would die in Nauvoo. She would lose two more husbands before dying herself in 1867 in Utah.6
Thomas Wright Kirby had a similar experience when he heard the gospel. One of nine children born to a poor laboring family in Suffolk, he started work at age eight in the silk factory—a killing schedule that started the children at 7 A.M. and released them at 8 P.M., with a half hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner, and fifteen minutes for tea. He remembers—by name—the overseers for their brutality to the children. One favorite game was to threaten to whip a child and then, when the frightened child began to cry, to beat him for crying. Thomas could not describe his relief when his father took him from the factory to help him harvest grain in the fall. When he grew up, he became a sailor; on one visit home his three older brothers, George, John, and Amos, took him to his first Mormon meeting.
“The room was pretty well filled with People to listen to the new Sect,” he recalls. “The preacher stood in one Corner of the room with a table before him to hold books and Candle stick and serve as a kind of Pulpit. I was quite impressed with the simplicity and order and good feeling that seemed to Prevail and the honest open Countenances of all who sang prayed and Preached.” The preaching itself, he told his brothers, was like the Methodists (he later found out that the man speaking was a convert from Methodism), but he agreed to come back the next Sunday. This time, another man was preaching “and from the time he began to the end I do not think I hardly took my eyes of[f] him for cartenly I had never been so interested by Preaching in all my life.” This time he told his brothers, “That was the best sermon I have ever heard in my life. And if what we had heard was not the Gospel of Christ then the Bible did not contain it. … I felt so delighted and thankful that silent tears would run down my face. And I felt a joy and Pleasure I had never felt in my life. This was in about Feb. 1852. I continued to attend the meetings and the More I heard the greater was my desire to hear and More I was Persuaded I had found the true Gospel.”
Thomas wrote in his autobiography, “Every princaple … sounded as though it was something I had heard before but had forgotten. … I have never attributed it to my own Smartness or Education or goodness that I ever Embraced the Everlasting Gospel but to the mercy and goodness of God the Eternal Father that he so Blessed me with his holy Spirit by which I was able to so love the truth as to Embrace it and rejoice therein Ever since I first heard it Preached.”7
England’s social and economic conditions were a crucible of another sort for the Saints when their former friends turned against them. Thomas, at least, had the pleasure of having his employer defend him when his fellow employees mocked him for refusing to drink and assure him of work “as long as I want a man.” Another nonmember friend threatened to knock down an acquaintance who taunted Thomas for being a Mormon.8 Matthew Rowan gratefully recorded the kindness of an elderly Baptist woman, Mary Stuart Chisolm, who had “a heart full of love and a head full of Scripture,” who received him as a missionary into her small home “with all that warmth of feeling, and hospitallity peculiar to a Mother in Israel,” giving Matthew and his companion her own bed while she slept on the floor.9 Brigham Young, in a rare letter to his wife Mary Ann Angell, reassured her that he was well. “The Brethren and Sisters would pluck out their eyes for me if it were necessary. They do all they can for my comfort. They feed me and give me clothes and money. They wash my feet and wait upon me as they would a little child. And may the Lord bless them for it, and He will, and they shall stand upon Mount Zion.”10
But others had different experiences. Mary Ann Weston, at age twenty-three, joined the Church in Gloucestershire, her second view of a Mormon being Wilford Woodruff sitting by the fire and singing, “‘Shall I for fear of feeble man, the Spirit’s course in me restrain.’” Young Mary Ann remembers thinking “he looked so peaceful and happy, I thought he must be a good man, and the Gospel he preached must be true.” That same year she married John Davis, also a member, on Joseph Smith’s birthday. Four months later, she was a widow, her husband having been kicked and beaten so badly by a mob that he never recovered. On board the emigrant ship to America the next month, “sick and quite overcome with greif and sorrow,” she laid aside her mourning clothes and forced herself to chatter gaily with the others to elude her father’s lawyers who searched the ship for “the young widow with black eyes.” In 1841 she married Peter Maughan, a widower with five children, and in 1856, eight months pregnant, drove the first wagon into Utah’s Cache Valley.11
Charles Smith, a missionary in the Liverpool area, records his own experience with terror just before the branch from Lightwood Green left for America. The local opponents of the Church interrupted a meeting and, when one was expelled, started a free-for-all. The Saints succeeded in getting them outside and locking the door, but reinforcements arrived, determined to take revenge, and soon “the whole house was as it were beseiged. They commenced to throw stones in at the windows. One of the sisters hapend to be passing the second story window. One of them threw in a stone and cut her a dreadful gash on the side of the head.” The mob scattered only when one of the Saints fired a gun over their heads.12
The opposition was not all from mortals, however. Several Saints record chilling opposition from the forces of evil. George Whitaker, a sincere and humble spirit, “fell in love” with the gospel as soon as his sister Sophia taught it to him and requested baptism after the first sermon he heard (coincidentally from the same Alfred Cardon who had taught Elizabeth Briggs Welch’s family). As he began studying the scriptures, “everything seemed plain and easy to understand,” and he was astonished when others ridiculed him. Hurt and puzzled, he wondered why his perception was so different from theirs, and received the answer; “‘They do not want any more light. They have all the religion they want, but you have desired more light and have embraced My Gospel: therefore, I have given you My Spirit. Your light is growing brighter, and you are able to discern the darkness more plainly.’”
In the next few months, a little branch of-forty or fifty people gathered and “the gifts of the spirit were given to us. … We were a blessed and happy people,” but their faith was tested terrifyingly at an evening prayer meeting when one sister, speaking in tongues, “was taken in a fit and fell on the floor.” Administration brought only partial relief, and they discovered that she was under possession of an evil spirit who literally struggled with them for control of the woman.
It was an all-night education for them in learning how to use faith, as the cycle of destructive possession, administration and prayer, relief, and repossession repeated itself. Finally George prayed for power to rebuke the evil spirit, a prayer which was granted, and after a great struggle, the evil spirit left the woman, only to take possession of another sister. Again they commanded it to leave her; again it did but entered a third woman. This time they commanded it to leave the house and it did. Exhausted, the little group of members separated after “giving thanks to our Heavenly Father for the great mercies and blessings He had bestowed upon us.”
Humbly, George adds that he had related this circumstance in detail as a witness of “our great faith and union. It was not by our knowledge and experience, for we were all very young in the church. It tried the faith of some and strengthened the faith of others.” He had been a member of the Church for less than a year.13
Missionary work was an important part of an English member’s life. Thomas Hunt’s earnest, understated journal, faithfully preserving his country accent, introduces us to that world. Born at Denby near Derby in 1826, he began working “in the pit” at age twelve. Even as a child attending Methodist Sunday School, “I always had a desire to be religious but never could fix on no society. They diferd so much from the scriptures which I always believed to meane what they sead.”
At age twenty-one, when a co-worker “got kiled in the pit,” he began thinking “very ernesly about my sowl salvation” and thus felt motivated to go hear a Mormon, “Mack Fletcher from Chesterfield,” preach. “I liked ’is preaching very well and he brought forward a deal of scripture which was wat I beleved.” Three months later he and his wife were baptized, he was ordained an elder in 1849, and from there his journal is a catalog of meetings and activities. Those journal entries could well have been made by any one of many early British Saints. Their testimony of commitment and faith is an eloquent one: “July the 29th and Hiham a very good attentive congregation and some acknowledged the truth of our principles. Wednesday night at Claycross where I rejoice greatly to hear the testimony of my brethren and sisters to the worke of God. August at Hiham good attendance. On the 6th of August Brother John Cresswell, a priest, was taken violently ill. … He had something to do to get home and go to bed. I was called for … and I administered the oil in the name of Jesus Christ, and he declared that all the pain left him and he got up well to the astonishment of all who seen him. August 12th preached at Auton. Had a good assembly, was attacked by primitive spirit, but with the weapons of truth soon stormed ’is castle. Claycross in the afternoon, Higham at night. On the 16th of August before we got up we was disturbed be [sic] knock at the door, when we found that Brother Wardbe, a priest, had got bad burnt by an explosion of fire in the pit. He desired the ordinance and so great was the pain that he could scarcely contain himself wile I anointed him, but when wee laid our hands upon him he was free from pain, and wee could see the fire go out of his hands and face and in ten minutes he was singing the songs of Zion.” Several pages later, Thomas pauses and summarizes simply: “I still rejoice in the great work of God.”14
The Thomases, the Elizabeths, the Matthews, and the Mary Anns—those who recognized the truth when they encountered it, those who made their commitments despite mockery and persecution, sought the spiritual gifts and learned to use faith as both a shield and a sword. These early Saints came out of the crucible of nineteenth-century Great Britain tempered and refined. The Church needed that strength.