“Truth Prevailing: The Significance of the Nineteenth-Century LDS Experience in Britain,” Ensign, July 1987, 33
In a recent article, a non-LDS scholar gave a fresh and interesting perspective to the development of the Church and its spectacular growth throughout much of the world during its 157-year existence.
In his essay entitled “The Rise of a New World Faith” (1984), Rodney Stark, a sociologist specializing in religion at the University of Washington, describes Church growth as a “miracle,” a “rare event” which his fellow sociologists have not fully recognized. Establishment and growth of the Church has constituted, Stark says, “the rise of a new world religion” which “will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and the other dominant faiths. … Indeed, today they [Latter-day Saints] stand on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert.”1
Stark has been particularly fascinated with the consistency of Church growth against the backdrop of countless other “new” religions of the nineteenth century that sprouted, then quickly wilted and died. It is not just the steady increase of Latter-day Saints from six to six million that has caught his attention, but the rate of growth, which has never been less than 28 percent per decade, and in the past thirty years has exceeded 50 percent. And this has been achieved in an ever-more secularized world. Using his growth calculations, Professor Stark projects the possibility of 63 million Latter-day Saints in the world by the year 2080, if a 30 percent growth rate is maintained, and a dizzying 265 million if the higher 50 percent rate is used.2
Certainly nothing like what the Church has become could have been imagined by anyone, unless he were a visionary, during the dark days of Kirtland and Missouri in the 1830s. By June of 1837, the Prophet Joseph was beset on every side with difficulties; the fledgling Church over which he presided was in trouble—and it would get worse. The litany of problems included apostasy, internal strife, disunity among the leaders and threats on their lives, the difficulties and eventual failure of the Kirtland Bank, and the struggles of some Saints to erect the new Zion in Missouri.
As Joseph Smith wrote later, it was “in this state of things” that “God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church. And on or about the first of June, 1837, Heber C. Kimball, one of the Twelve, was set apart by the spirit of prophecy and revelation, prayer and laying on of hands, of the First Presidency, to preside over a mission to England, to be the first foreign mission of the Church of Christ in the last days.”3
Although Heber C. Kimball was shocked that he, an uncultured, rustic American, had been chosen to introduce the gospel to cultivated Europe, his mission did, in fact, begin a magnificent “something new” that brought not only the desired short-term results, but also a long-range “salvation” to the Church from which we still benefit.
From the beginning, Latter-day Saints have understood well the blessings that came from the restoration of the gospel in America. But we may not have appreciated fully the way in which the Church, like America itself, first became a melting pot of peoples from many lands as the kingdom gained enough members to survive; these members, in turn, became the basis for its universal destiny as a world-wide church.
No peoples have done more than those of the British Isles. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish Saints, early in the Church’s history and at critical times, brought new blood, faith, enthusiasm, commitment, and skills, first to strengthen the nucleus in Nauvoo and then to people and build the Great Basin kingdom.
During the nineteenth century, at least one hundred thousand English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish citizens—maybe more—became converts. These were common people, mostly poor, from the laboring and artisan classes, with an occasional person of wealth or education in the mix. Most were “seekers,” people who had been looking for the church of the New Testament for some time. Some had been Methodists or Primitive Methodists or Aitkenites or United Brethren seeking a church with Apostles and prophets, with continuing revelation, the gifts of the Spirit, and the promise of Christ’s triumphant return and millennial reign. All were waiting for the missionaries to find them, and when they heard the message, they believed, were baptized, told their friends, adored and cared for those who had brought the message, and prepared to leave the Babylon of the world for the kingdom of God being built in America.
Joseph Fielding, who accompanied Heber C. Kimball on his first mission in 1837–38, recorded in his diary for 9 April 1838 the reception the two of them received from converts and friends as they approached the Lancashire towns of Downham and Chatburn:
“Most of the way it was very wet and snowy, but we were paid for our pain when we came to Chatburn. As soon as we were seen, the people came to meet us in the street and we could hardly get along for shaking hands, etc. About 30, mostly children, from 10–15 [years] of age, followed us on to the latter place, joining hands across the street and singing “I am like a Bright and Morning Star.” Some said, ‘Oh I wish you would come and live with us always, and bring your wives and children; let me carry your topcoat; we should like to walk with you all night;’ and as they returned, they went aside into the field and held a prayer meeting by themselves. Some of them said that if they could but touch us they seemed better. They evidently believed that there is virtue in Brother Kimball’s cloak. This was the faith the Saints had in days of old. The work in general is going on well.”4
Two years later, when Brigham Young and eight other members of the Quorum of the Twelve were in Britain on their highly productive and successful missions, President Young wrote to Joseph Smith to describe the enthusiasm he and Elder Wilford Woodruff were encountering in the rich Herefordshire field:
“If we could go four ways at a time we could not fill all the calls we have for preaching. [These British people say that] it cannot be possible that men should leave their homes and come so far, unless they are truly servants of the Lord; they do not seem to understand argument, simple testimony is enough for them. They beg and plead for the Book of Mormon and were it not for the priests … the people would follow after the servants of the Lord and inquire what they should do to be saved.”5
Besides being willing to accept the missionaries’ testimonies about the restoration of the original Church of Christ spoken of in the Bible, these British Saints also obeyed the counsel to gather to Zion. Before the end of the century, some fifty-five thousand had crossed the ocean and the continental U.S. to make their homes in the West.
Not all were enthusiastic to come, but most, perhaps the most converted, scrimped and saved until they had enough to pay passage for a family, or perhaps just the mother and children. Or, on occasion, the father went ahead to earn money to send for his family. Some had to wait for years and could not save as rapidly as they wanted because they were going on missions themselves in their homeland or supporting missionaries, or because they were too poor or were out of work.
Some, like the more prosperous Edward Ockey, had, as Wilford Woodruff recorded, “helped many families to go from England to Nauvoo and ha[d] paid out 2 or 300 pounds of late for this purpose.”6 In addition, Brother Ockey gave Elder Woodruff $250, which he shared with his fellow Apostles, then leaving to return to the United States.
Many members from the British Isles were the artisans—the iron workers, potters, cutlers, millers, coal miners, farmers—and laborers that the Church needed to build the new society in the West. But as Frederick Buchanan has written in his informative treatise, “The British Occupation,” there were also businessmen, bankers, poets, musicians, intellectuals, and photographers among the thousands of British Mormons who settled in Utah’s valleys “in response to a prophet’s promise rather than the promise of profit.”7
Between 1860 and 1880, 22 percent of Utah’s population were British-born,8 and even as that number declined over the years with the decrease in British baptisms and emigrants, the number of their descendants increased. These rank-and-file members, most of whom gained no fame except that chiseled into the lives of a grateful and expanding posterity, became part of the bedrock of the growing kingdom. Not all remained with the faith that had brought them to Utah; but even many of those who left the Church contributed to the community or the culture in ways that strengthened the Church.
The British Isles have also played a major role in providing leadership for the Church throughout its history. Who can imagine the Latter-day Saints without John Taylor, George Q. Cannon, Charles W. Penrose, Charles W. Nibley, John R. Winder, James E. Talmage, George Teasdale, or B. H. Roberts? John Taylor, who joined the Church in Canada in 1836 after leaving England a few years earlier, distinguished himself as a devoted disciple of the Prophet Joseph in Nauvoo and as a powerful writer, missionary, and theologian before he became the third President of the Church.
John Taylor’s nephew, George Q. Cannon, was a Latter-day Saint whose career of service spanned more than half a century and touched virtually all phases of Church life. He was a counselor to three Presidents of the Church, was its representative in Washington, D.C., was European Mission president, and was an educator and publisher.
Members of the Council of the Twelve who served missions to England in 1840–41 found the specific prophecies of Joseph Smith upon their heads were fulfilled. Their experience was like that of the early Apostles on the day of Pentecost as thousands recognized their message and authority and asked them what they should do to be saved. Ronald K. Esplin has pointed out the considerable impact the year-long mission to Britain had on Brigham Young and the rest of the Twelve who were there. It was, he concluded, an “ideal laboratory for honing President Young’s leadership skills,”9—a place where, separated as they were from the Prophet Joseph Smith, they had to rely on their own abilities, creativity, and personal communication with God. They also gained in self-confidence, saw a clearer vision of the work to be done and their role in it, and were taught to work together in the spirit of unity and brotherhood. The individual and collective significance of this experience is enhanced if one traces the extraordinary and dedicated careers of these leaders throughout the rest of the century.
Success in Britain also provided the basis for the generally successful expansion of the Church onto the European Continent, to South Africa, and later to Malta, India, and other distant parts of the British Empire. From Britain, John Taylor went to France, Lorenzo Snow to Italy, Orson Spencer to Prussia, Erastus Snow to Denmark, T. B. H. Stenhouse to Switzerland, and Daniel Garn to Hamburg. Thousands of missionaries followed in their footsteps, eventually tracting through most of the cities and hamlets of Europe more than once. But for early missionaries, Britain was the training ground, the haven, the basis for confidence that in other countries converts could be found who had also been prepared for hearing and accepting the gospel.
From Britain went out counsel and encouragement, guidance and instruction. The long-lived Millennial Star proved to be a cherished companion of thousands of missionaries. From it, generations of missionaries and members were educated in the doctrines of the gospel, were admonished to good works, heard news of the Church and its members, learned what was going on in the world, were encouraged and informed about gathering to Zion, and were, in general, held close to the faith.
The Star also gave its editors and writers—both men and women—opportunities to explore the doctrines of the faith, defend them against the attacks of nonbelievers, and express their faith, joys, and sorrows in both prose and verse. Even a cursory reading of those early editions of the Millennial Star discloses the richness of their content, the understanding and talent of the authors, and the biblical and spiritual literacy required of those who read them. So successful was the Star that all other LDS European language groups called their magazine the Star and tried in some small way to emulate its record.
If Britain’s success as the “first foreign mission” led to similar successes elsewhere in the world, it also provided Church leaders and missionaries, especially the early brethren, with a better understanding of what the larger world, which they wished to convert, was like. Most had only known the society of young, rural North America, with its space, its religious and political freedoms, and its lack of tradition and rigid class structures. Nineteenth-century Britain was the leading power in the world; it had the largest empire, refereed the balance of power in Europe and the rest of the world, controlled the seas, and had enormous wealth in the wake of its agricultural, commercial, and industrial revolutions. It was “a great epoch,” a time of “England’s greatness and glory.”10
London in that day was the capital of the world. Britain was also the home for one of the most stable and advanced political systems in world history, one to which the rest of the world looked for an example. Here, too, were some of the most influential thinkers and philosphers of the age.
Latter-day Saints who came to Britain got an especially good education in the “quiet desperation” of the British lower classes and the poor, the people with whom they had the most contact. They knew, as did few others, of the straitened circumstances in which these people lived, but also of their goodness and spiritual striving. The missionaries were, therefore, quite sincere in offering British Saints not only the hope of eternal peace and salvation through the gospel, but also the hope of an improved standard of living in the here-and-now, in a land of almost unlimited opportunities.
Early LDS missionaries also encountered the evils of the world, especially in London. They easily became convinced that the world truly was the Babylon to which all Saints should bid farewell as soon as possible.
At the same time, LDS leaders also learned much in England about the refinements of culture. They took time to see and admire Britain’s architectural monuments, sampled some of its literature, and enjoyed the music and drama British society had to offer. If they tried to avoid the worst hypocrisies of the Victorian age, they appear to have been impressed by the comfort in which respectable Victorian middle-class families lived and by Victorian society’s concern for the life of the mind.
Many Victorian values later showed up in pioneer Utah. Even impoverished British converts to the Church treasured the hope of living like their “betters” once they got to America. Some were disappointed in the primitiveness of American life, but a majority proved that they could take full advantage of opportunities for advancement. Many of today’s well-educated, middle-class Latter-day Saints trace their genealogy back to poor members from the British Isles and other parts of Europe who were transformed in so many ways by the gospel light.
However, not all of the Latter-day Saint experience in Britain was sweetness and light. Missionaries and members repeatedly experienced vilification, persecution, and threats to their lives. During most of its existence in Britain, the Church has been considered another fanatical American sect, and its teachings considered ridiculous by both the mainstream of traditional Christianity and the expanding Nonconformist Church and chapel groups.
The public announcement of plural marriage in Utah in 1852 confirmed earlier rumors circulating in Britain and proved a major obstacle to proselyting efforts there for the next hundred years. On the one hand, the specter of plural marriage created a negative image in the public mind which kept many from inquiring about the Church as they had done earlier. At the same time, its defense loomed so large in the eyes of Latter-day Saints that unusual energy, time, and space was devoted to its defense in the Millennial Star and other media. In Britain and elsewhere, the name of the Church came to mean only one thing—polygamy. This, together with a declining interest in religion, led to a dramatic drop in convert baptisms during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.
Perhaps this was part of what the Lord intended—a testing and winnowing process. The decline in baptisms after 1856 did not deter faithful members from remaining true to the Church and emigrating. Nor did it keep the family of James E. Talmage from accepting the gospel in their Berkshire home in the mid-1870s. Still later, more and more British members heeded the counsel of their leaders to remain in their own areas and provide permanent foundations for the Church in the twentieth century.
If America was prepared as prophesied to be the necessary setting for the restoration and growth of the gospel in modern times, perhaps Britain’s role was to be a “nursing mother” for Latter-day Israel. (See Isa. 49:23; 1 Ne. 21:23.) Especially during the Church’s infancy and in its times of illness, the British Isles has been one source of strength by which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown and prospered, steadily moving toward its prophetic destiny.