Breakthrough in Britain
July 1987

“Breakthrough in Britain,” Ensign, July 1987, 28

Special Issue:
150 Years of the Church in the British Isles

Breakthrough in Britain

The 1950s, 60s, and early 70s brought great growth and stability to the Church.

Little did my wife and I realize what an exciting future would unfold following our baptism in January of 1951. The small converted house with threadbare carpet where our Nottingham Branch met was typical of the LDS meeting places in the British Isles at the time. Although the war was five and a half years behind us, things were still not back to normal, and there was not a single car or telephone among the branch membership. Most members had to travel on one or two buses to church, spending around 10 percent of their income to attend church meetings with their families.

The Saints were very dedicated and determined, however, and despite the distances and costs involved, attendance at district conferences was good. Those who traveled to conference from different towns were accommodated in the homes of those who lived where the conference was held so they could stay for all the sessions. In a nation of more than 55 million people, only 6,500 belonged to the Lord’s church; a hundred years of emigration had taken its toll. Since 1937, the centennial year, the net increase in members had been less than a hundred.

But 1951 was a turning point. That year almost one thousand converts entered the Church—the highest number in forty-three years. We were happy to see them listed in the Millennial Star, which we eagerly read each month to learn what was taking place throughout the country.

Three things had come together to bring about the increase in conversions: the first set of missionary discussions, adapted from the Anderson Plan; an increased use of the Book of Mormon in tracting; and the largest missionary force yet seen in the British Isles—250 strong. Then the great challenge of newly sustained President David O. McKay, “Every member a missionary,” was taken up in our district conferences, and many responded. Less than a year later, in a report on the Nottingham Branch, it was recorded that “the priesthood are very hard at work; a good percentage go out regularly with the missionaries.” Happily, I was one of these, often proselyting with the missionaries two or three times a week.

Later in the year, the new mission president, A. Hamer Reiser, faced with a diminishing missionary force due to the Korean War, called for district missionaries. By early 1953, almost a hundred had been called, set apart, and were being trained. This was the first of four district and stake missions I was privileged to serve, and it helped me to maintain the enthusiasm and zeal we had gained from the missionaries who led us into the Church. The increasing participation by members helped to feed the pioneer spirit that was developing. There was less and less reference to emigration, and we felt we were building on firm foundations at last.

Perhaps the greatest boosts the British Saints had in the early fifties were the visits of President David O. McKay and some members of the Quorum of the Twelve. The first time I met a prophet of the Lord was at the Battersea Town Hall, London, in June 1952. Excited groups of Saints numbering one thousand, from ten of the fourteen mission districts, journeyed to hear President McKay. Later he shook hands and spoke briefly with almost everyone there. Elder Spencer W. Kimball toured the British Mission in 1955 and challenged the Saints to remain in their own land, giving apostolic endorsement to what we were striving toward.

That same year the Tabernacle Choir paid their first visit to Britain. It was exciting to see handbills and posters throughout London that publicly recognized the Church in a positive way.

The Choir’s visit coincided with the groundbreaking for the London Temple, the site having been dedicated in August 1953. This building project became the center of focus for the British Saints and removed the main reason for emigration in this century—namely, the lack of a temple. Despite meager means, the Saints traveled hundreds of miles by chartered bus for the site dedication, groundbreaking, cornerstone-laying, and eventually the dedication of the temple itself. By using all of our savings, I was able to attend the dedication of the Swiss Temple in September 1955. I returned home with a new resolve to prepare my family for the day when we would enter the London Temple and become an eternal family. When that time came three years later, we were the first family to be sealed in our very own house of the Lord.

It seemed that our hopes and dreams of the previous few years were being fulfilled and we were moving forward. The media was becoming more aware of the Church, and 140 newspaper and magazine articles, mostly favorable, were published about the Church in Britain at the time of the temple dedication.

In the early 1950s there was a dearth of leadership in Britain. Almost all of the branch and district presidents were young American missionaries, but things began to change by late 1952. Korean War restrictions depleted the number of missionaries allowed to serve, and local leaders began to emerge.

The following spring I was called to serve as Nottingham branch president. In response to the mission president’s challenge, we set about the task of branch teaching (home teaching) and reaching out to every member. Our efforts had a strengthening effect throughout the mission, as did the establishment of the first elders quorums during 1955. Although there were less than six hundred brethren holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, including the less active, this historic development gave us renewed hope for the future growth of the Church. By 1957, local district presidents were being called.

Despite the fact that we met in converted houses and rented halls, we had a constant desire to upgrade our meeting places. Building funds were set up in most branches, but since there was little money to spare after paying for necessities, the Church in Britain relied on fund-raising projects rather than direct donations for building funds. We knew that just as chapel-building had followed temple building in the United States, so the London Temple would bring exciting developments to the British Saints.

Then came the declaration and challenge of President McKay in September 1958: “This is a great day for the members of the Church in Great Britain. … The temple is the opening of a new era.”

The words new era caught the imagination of the British Saints. We had experienced steady growth and training under the leadership of A. Hamer Reiser and Clifton G. M. Kerr, but now came dynamic growth under T. Bowring Woodbury. A full mission board was set up on which I was called to serve, and at the first board meeting in January 1959, the “Prospectus for the New Era” was presented to us. This was a three-pronged thrust: to reduce and eliminate emigration, to develop local leadership, and to launch a concerted meetinghouse construction program.

Progress toward those ambitious goals during this historic year were indeed dramatic. Emigration dropped to less than 1 percent and continued to decline. Leadership training and development was so successful that by the close of the year every one of the fifteen districts was under the presidency of local brethren, most of whom had been baptized during the decade. Almost every one of the branches, now numbering a hundred, was in local hands.

Meetinghouse construction got off to a flying start with the Hyde Park Chapel, commenced in August 1959 when Elder Marion G. Romney broke ground. The following month, the building program was launched in earnest; over the next six months, fourteen projects were started and sixty-three sites purchased. The British Saints were delighted with the announcement that fifty new chapels would be constructed in the next five years.

Meanwhile, many other “New Era” activities were shaping the Church in Britain toward stakehood. Important strides were made in priesthood activity, with the strengthening of elders quorums, the reactivation of many less-active brethren, and a concerted effort to prepare the young men of Aaronic Priesthood age to become elders. We held mission-wide conventions for the Aaronic Priesthood, for the senior Aaronic Priesthood—as prospective elders were then called—and for the youth. Those tremendous events drew the members together from all parts of the British Isles, and there was a feeling of oneness and growing strength.

Convert baptisms were mounting rapidly, and in the first twelve months following the temple dedication they exceeded 1,200, double the level of the previous few years. A quarter of these were due to the efforts of local members, 600 of whom had responded to the call for district missionaries. District mission presidents were serving in all fifteen mission districts, and there were branch mission supervisors in almost every branch. They were the nucleus of a great member-missionary program which, together with the leadership development and general quickening, brought us to stakehood on 27 March 1960. It was then that Elder Harold B. Lee organized the Manchester Stake, the first stake in Europe. The same day, the British Mission was divided to form the North British Mission, with Bernard P. Brockbank as president. There was even more excitement for our family, as Elder Lee set me apart as first counselor in the British Mission presidency under President T. Bowring Woodbury.

There are certain periods of time in each area of the world when the challenges of growth become pressing. The decade of the 1960s was such a time for the Church in the British Isles. The doubling of membership in the 1950s, representing a 10 percent annual growth, could be handled fairly easily. But now we accelerated to a 40 percent growth rate, a speed few of us had anticipated. As I wrote in The Second Century: Latter-day Saints in Great Britain:

“It was exciting but overwhelming, exhilarating but demanding.

“The three main challenges that were thrust upon us were, firstly, the need to integrate new members, whose influx became almost a deluge, considering the small base from which the Church was starting. Secondly, the need to accommodate these new Saints, for our facilities were inadequate and catered for 100 small congregations in a population of almost 60 million people. Thirdly, there developed a desperate need for supplies and curriculum materials. In the days before the New Era we could ‘get by’ with simple fellowshipping, converted houses, and a few manuals, often recycled year to year. New challenges called for new methods. Solutions to the three challenges needed to be found. Indeed, they were found, and the outcome was even more exciting than the prospect of starting again in a new land. The British Saints were starting again in their own land.” (Cambridge, England: Derek A. Cuthbert, 1987, pp. 51–52.)

One of our main concerns was the integration of new members who numbered 57,000 during the sixties. We met the challenge by inaugurating a program of building our own chapels. Most of the work was done by labor missionaries, later called building missionaries, assisted by local member volunteers. Our family was blessed to be numbered among those who spent many hours fixing acoustic ceiling tile and laying floor tile, and we enjoyed the excitement and satisfaction of helping to build the kingdom in both physical and spiritual aspects.

In February 1961, the Church in Britain received a significant boost by the assignment of a resident General Authority in Britain. Elder N. Eldon Tanner, a recently called Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, was appointed to preside over the new West European Mission. Within a month, new stakes had been organized in London, Leicester (where I was called as stake president), and Leeds. New missions were organized in Scotland and southwest England.

The rapid growth—in one year, from one mission to four missions and four stakes—required an efficient production and distribution system for curriculum materials and other Church supplies. A commercial company was set up to handle these activities, named Deseret Enterprises Limited, with President Tanner as chairman.

My appointment as general manager placed me in a good position to view what was happening throughout the country. For example, the full-time missionary force multiplied rapidly from 190 to 880 in two years, and by the end of 1964 it topped 1,000, bringing a ten-fold increase in convert baptisms.

The latter part of the 1960s was a period of consolidation, with no new stakes established until 1969 when Elder Spencer W. Kimball organized the Birmingham Stake, from a division of the Leicester Stake, calling me to preside. We needed that breathing space to catch up and develop the many more leaders needed to take care of the greatly increased membership.

The day following the stake organization, an outing was arranged for Elder and Sister Kimball to the Malvern Hills, where Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Willard Richards had met in 1840. There, Elder Kimball declared: “This is a place where the blood of Israel is richly concentrated, and there are many still to gather.” It was an unforgettable experience as we rededicated ourselves to greater efforts. We knew we were going to lift off again; we were on the launch pad and had the vision before us of 100 stakes in the British Isles, for the future prophet of the Lord had shown it to us.

As the 1970s opened, my call as a regional representative of the Twelve involved me deeply in one of the most significant events in the history of the Church in Britain. This was the area general conference held in Manchester in August 1971, to which 12,000 Saints gathered from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It became the forerunner for area conferences worldwide.

In announcing the area conference to the stake and mission presidents, Elder Boyd K. Packer stated: “This is to be a British Conference for the British Saints. Mission presidents will have local counselors represent them. We are establishing a pattern, crossing a line in Church history.” The full story of the planning of this great conference is told elsewhere. Suffice it to say that excitement was mounting as we met mid-June in our progress meeting. We had just heard that President Joseph Fielding Smith would, in fact, attend, accompanied by thirteen other General Authorities and all of the general auxiliary presidents. Never had such a group of Church dignitaries been together in a conference outside of the United States.

When conference time came, feelings of excitement were mingled with feelings of gratitude, rededication, happiness at being together, and reverence, as we listened to the President of the Church speak to us in our own land. “The Saints in Great Britain are entitled to every blessing and spiritual gift as rapidly as they can qualify themselves to receive them,” President Smith said. “We want the Church to grow and flourish here. … We hope to see the day when there will be stakes of Zion in every part of the land.” (In British Area Conference Report, August 1971, p. 6.)

President Harold B. Lee opened the general priesthood meeting by stating that it marked the first general priesthood meeting for all priesthood bearers in Great Britain. The spirit was as strong as I have ever felt it, with 2,000 brethren awaiting the vital messages. There had never been as large a body of priesthood bearers called together in Great Britain in the history of this dispensation.

One wonderful session followed another as the conference proceeded. Finally, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived, the special closing message and blessing from the President:

“I feel that the Church will prosper in Great Britain to a far greater degree than has been the case in the past. … Several stakes of Zion, a temple dedicated to the Lord, a considerable number of ward and stake buildings, and some highly successful missionary work—all testify to the fact that the Church is coming of age in Great Britain and is being built up and strengthened here among some of the best people on the earth.” (In British Area Conference Report, August 1971, pp. 175–76.)

The British Saints would never be the same; and in the sixteen years that have followed, thirty-two more stakes have been added to the eight existing when President Smith gave his challenge.

That we have reached the 150th anniversary year for the Church in the British Isles is an occasion for great jubilation. What an exciting and rewarding experience it has been over the thirty-six years of our membership to be part of the growth from 6,000 to 140,000 members, from 300 to 9,000 Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and from 80 to 400 wards and branches, 200 of which are housed in beautiful new chapels! The British Isles have a divine destiny. The quickening during the past four decades is only the beginning of even greater things yet to come.

Church growth in the British Isles in the 1950s and 60s led to many joyous occasions—groundbreakings, announcement of new buildings, and other indicators of progress.

President David O. McKay’s visits to Britain not only brought joy and strength to Church members, but also, from official quarters, recognition for the Church.

Official visitors joined with Latter-day Saints in singing the Welsh national anthem during a meeting in Wales.

Above: Press photographers focus on President Joseph Fielding Smith (center, with back to camera) and President Harold B. Lee (right), his First Counselor, at the Manchester Area Conference in 1971. Right: John Porter, Lord Provost of Greenock, Scotland, welcomes Church officials and Tabernacle Choir members in 1955.

The Tabernacle Choir performs at London’s Royal Albert Hall during their September 1955 tour of the British Isles.

Young women from the London Stake and the British Mission model costumes representing nine different countries; each girl made her own costume.