In Search of God’s Truth

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“In Search of God’s Truth,” Ensign, June 1999, 46

A Great and Marvelous Work—
Part One: 1350–1805

In Search of God’s Truth

What was it like for a religious person who wanted to be a true follower of the Lord yet died before news reached him of the Restoration of the gospel to the Prophet Joseph Smith?

Though England’s Hugh Bourne (1772–1852) is not as widely known as Martin Luther and John Calvin, in many ways he exemplifies the spiritual awakenings of the period prior to or even slightly overlapping the ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Born in Staffordshire, England, on 3 April 1772, Bourne was taught to read and write by his mother while she performed household chores. “From her, I received my first religious impressions and to her care I owe a great deal,” wrote Bourne.1 “We were a large family, and my father a very drinking, violent, passionate man. But my mother’s industry and great labours kept the family from want.” She was a faithful member of the Church of England.

Bourne’s religious inclinations were manifest early. “The Lord began to work upon me when I was a child,” he wrote. “The very first thoughts that ever I can recollect were thoughts of God.” Bourne “greatly delighted to read the Bible and religious books, and learning Morning and Evening Prayer … by rote, and a good many of Watts’s hymns,” he recorded. “When I arrived at about seven years of age, by constant reading and studying, I began to understand the nature and spirituality of the commandments.” As a boy, Bourne conceived the idea that he would see God when it thundered. “Accordingly I would be out-of-doors at such times, and my mother could not keep me in the house,” he wrote. “I thought that the Lord was there, and I would be as near Him as possible, for my soul was filled with love to Him and I thought that I was greatly beloved by Him.”

Although Bourne left school at about age 12 to work on the family’s farm and in his father’s wheelwright shop, he did not give up his education. “My chief study was the Bible and religion,” he wrote. “After the hard day’s work, I frequently sat up till near midnight, reading. I gladly embraced it.” In addition to attending Church of England services on Sunday, he sometimes listened to Methodist preachers but didn’t particularly understand their sermons.

Through his youthful study and prayer, Bourne became convinced of his own sinfulness. “That conviction was a matter between God and myself; no human being knew of it, neither durst I speak of it to anyone,” he wrote. “It took place between me and the Lord when I was working in my little way in one of my father’s fields.” However, rather than leading him toward spiritual peace and joy, Bourne’s realization ushered in a season of spiritual frustration and fear that lasted 20 years. “I now felt the terrors of the Lord come upon me,” he wrote. “I soon began to despair of ever getting to heaven, as I found in the Scriptures that the soul that sinneth it shall die, and without holiness no man shall see the Lord: these Scriptures … did rend my very soul … and I had no one that I could open my mind unto … for all the people I met with seemed as if they cared for none of these things, so I was left to struggle alone. … I wished thousands of times that I had been a bird, or beast, or anything but a man.”

During those trying years, Bourne found some comfort in prayer “but was generally very dark, and harassed with a thousand temptations. I made constant resolutions against sin, but as they were made in my own strength, they were always swept away with the first wind of temptation.” He lamented that he “could not find out what Saint Paul meant by being enlightened and tasting of the heavenly gift, and being made partaker of the Holy Spirit.” He continued in this “dreadful state” until the spring of 1799.

Spiritual Conversion

As a young man Bourne began working with his uncle, who engineered and constructed windmills and water mills. In the course of his labors, Bourne traveled and met a wider variety of people. On one occasion he observed some Methodists on their way to a chapel. “It was impressed upon my mind, these have real religion: this startled me from head to foot,” he wrote. He was subsequently put off by the questionable morals of a Methodist working at a windmill construction site, but then he read a sermon by Methodist founder John Wesley (1703–91) that “cleared my way. It was like light rising in darkness: and it opened my mind.” Other Methodist and Quaker readings and sermons contributed to Bourne’s spiritual understanding, though he was not then aligned with a particular denomination.

“One Sunday morning I was reading and meditating and praying and endeavouring to believe,” Bourne wrote about the day he experienced his spiritual breakthrough in 1799. “Suddenly, the Lord was manifested to me, … and I heard an inward voice proclaim twice: ‘Thy iniquity is forgiven, and thy sin is covered.’ Light, life and liberty and happiness flowed into my soul, and such rapturous joy that I could scarce tell whether I was in the body or not.” Describing the feeling of the Holy Ghost, Bourne wrote: “All my desires were after God and holiness. I was as if brought into another world; creation wore a fresh aspect; the Scriptures were opened unto me and I read the Bible with new eyes, and every line was full of rich promises. I now began to live a new life, and everything seemed to rejoice with me.”

After his spiritual conversion Bourne desired to formally join a church. “Being quite in a dilemma,” he wrote, “I made prayer and supplication to Almighty God to manifest His will, and lead me right in this important matter, for I was sensible it was my duty to join some religious society; but until I received direction from the Lord no human persuasion could have prevailed with me to join any religious community. I waited some weeks for an answer.”2

It is interesting to note that when the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote of his own struggles to find the right church, he said, “My mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them.”3 As we know, the Prophet did not do so and soon experienced the First Vision.

Bourne’s manner of joining the Methodist sect was somewhat accidental. In June 1799 he heard about a Methodist gathering and decided to attend. A few days prior to the meeting, a traveling preacher was preparing Methodist tickets of membership and asked for Bourne’s name. “I am not one of you!” Bourne said, but he was told that a ticket was necessary to attend the gathering, so he consented, “little thinking that receiving the ticket constituted me a member.”

At the meeting Bourne felt that it was acceptable to God “for me to be a Methodist,” he wrote. “Notwithstanding my timidity, I was near rising up to speak, and at the close I was heart and hand a Methodist.”

Bourne’s Ministry Begins

In 1800 Bourne took up carpentry and timbering near Mow Cop, a bald, ruin-topped hill that would later figure prominently in his religious work. He felt considerable concern for the local citizens, “who were largely given over to ungodliness—bull-baiting, cock-fighting, plundering, drunkenness and profanity.”4 For the benefit of a blacksmith with whom he sometimes discussed spiritual things, Bourne wrote an account of his conversion that also influenced others.

Because no Methodists were preaching in the vicinity, Bourne and two colliers (coal miners) who also had been converted began teaching the gospel to individuals. “Our chapels were the coal-pit banks, or any other place,” Bourne wrote. “In our conversation way, we preached the Gospel to all, good or bad, rough or smooth. People were obliged to hear … and we soon had four other colliers in deep distress, deeply awakened.”

As opportunities to spread the word of God increased, Bourne faced a personality flaw that had dogged him since childhood. “I grew up in a state of timidity and bashfulness seldom equalled, and this timidity continued heavy upon me till I was more than thirty years of age,” he wrote. When he was asked to pray publicly for his first time, he wondered if he could do it. “By the blessing of God, it was as if heaven opened in my soul,” he wrote. Soon thereafter he preached his first sermon at a well-attended outdoor meeting, beginning a lifelong pattern. “Through reading Mr. Wesley’s writings, and other primitive records of Methodism, with the writings of the first Quakers, the desire of open-air worship was so implanted in me that nothing could shake it,” he wrote.

With religious momentum growing in the area, a group of colliers proposed building a chapel. Bourne donated timber and soon became “involved from head to foot” in construction. Of the area’s spiritual awakening, Bourne wrote, “Hymns were sung at almost every house, and the country far and wide was surprisingly moralized.” Besides his own breadwinning labors, Bourne preached and prayed with individuals and groups nearly every day and taught school at the new chapel. The mainstream Methodist church was slow to accept and support Bourne and his friends, but nevertheless by 1802 some 80 people had joined Methodism in the vicinity of Mow Cop hill.

In 1807, concerned about a decrease in converts and influenced by accounts of revivalist camp meetings in the United States, Bourne spearheaded arrangements for a large camp meeting to be held atop Mow Cop. After climbing a preaching stand at the meeting, he was surprised by the large crowd: “I had not before conceived that such a vast multitude were present; but to see thousands hearing with attention solemn as death, presented a scene of the most sublime and awfully pleasing grandeur my eyes ever beheld.” Bourne subsequently built a shelter on the hill and soon held other large camp meetings.

A New Movement

In England, Methodist authorities were strongly opposed to camp meetings and other revivalist practices. “Even supposing such meetings to be allowable in America,” the minutes of one ministerial conference read, “they are highly improper in England and likely to be productive of considerable mischief, and we disclaim all connexion with them.”5 Bourne felt torn: while he did not want to split with the Methodists, he felt to “stand by the camp-meetings.” Methodist leaders were also rankled by Bourne’s revivalist activism in publishing 4,000 copies of his tract titled The Rules for Holy Living and forming the Association for the Supression of Sabbath-breaking.

Describing his trip home from a June 1808 journey, Bourne wrote, “It suddenly came to my mind that I should be put out of the old Methodist society, and should be more useful out than in: but having never heard a hint of the kind, being also a chapel trustee, and having spent scores and scores of pounds in promoting the interest of the society, and hundreds of members having been raised out of the world: and feeling as if wedded to the society, I concluded it could not be, and put the thought from me, hoping it might not arise from a Divine impression: but it returned until I found it difficult to walk along the road.”

Sure enough, Bourne was soon expelled from the main church without a hearing. Seeking for spiritual direction about how to continue his labor of converting people to the Lord, he “was walking along the side of a field” and had a sacred, personal, religious experience that “filled my soul, and was as if it clothed my body … giving me light and holy instruction in regard to the ministry of the gospel.”

In cooperation with others, particularly another former Methodist preacher named William Clowes (1780–1851), Bourne built up a religious movement called Primitive Methodism, which “particularly seemed to foreshadow Mormonism,” says Brigham Young University professor Ronald W. Walker. “The Primitive Methodists preached early Christianity with an emphasis upon biblical literalism, employed a lay ministry, and found conversions in the new industrial towns as they took the gospel directly to the people.”6 The emphasis on open-air meetings and revivalist spirituality remained prominent. After Bourne felt to leave his preaching ministry in 1842, the Primitive Methodists subsequently were reabsorbed into mainstream Methodism.

Besides his personal activities with individuals and congregations, Bourne made considerable contributions in the printed word, ranging from his General Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs for Camp Meetings and Revivals to starting several religious periodicals. Never married, he not only supported himself through his own labors but also donated money for the upkeep of fellow ministers. He walked hundreds of miles throughout the English countryside, eventually developing foot problems that contributed to his death in 1852. He was known for his spartan habits of dress and diet, his tireless work ethic, his special attentions to children, and his disapproval of tobacco and alcohol use.

By the time the first Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Preston, England, in 1837, Hugh Bourne’s preparatory work was largely completed. While later Primitive Methodists may have sought converts among those who would also hear Latter-day Saint missionaries, no indications exist that Hugh Bourne knew of the restored gospel during his mortal life. His spiritual integrity and involvement in England’s religious revival likely helped prepare many to receive the message of the Restoration.

The words of Elder B. H. Roberts (1857–1933) of the Seventy apply to Hugh Bourne: “God raises up wise men … here and there among all the children of men, … speaking to them through means that they can comprehend; not always giving a fulness of truth such as may be found in the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but always giving that measure of truth that the people are prepared to receive. … Wherever God finds a soul sufficiently enlightened and pure; one with whom his Spirit can communicate, lo! he makes of him a teacher of men.”7

Such was the lot of Hugh Bourne, who in his day sought gospel truths prior to the full message of the restored gospel becoming available to enter his mind and heart.

Painting courtesy of Hartley Victoria College, Manchester

Illustrated by Greg Newbold

Below: Hugh Bourne went through an intensive process of study, prayer, and reflection as he sought God’s truth. (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London, England © Superstock Inc.) Right: Bourne often conducted outdoor worship in camp meetings, which were popular among religious revivalists of the day. (Illustrated by Greg Newbold.)