Uncovering Gospel Roots in Britain
previous next

“Uncovering Gospel Roots in Britain,” Liahona, Feb. 2001, 8

Uncovering Gospel Roots in Britain

Prophets walked this land. Now these teens are tracing their footsteps.

One bright Saturday morning, youth from the Cardiff Wales Stake, with lunches stuffed in backpacks and plenty of enthusiasm for the outing, set off for a special activity to commemorate the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood and to uncover the roots of the gospel in the British Isles.

Those roots run deep—back 160 years—to the time when Wilford Woodruff (1807–98) and Brigham Young (1801–77) walked the roads their bus is now traveling. Both Elder Young and Elder Woodruff, who were members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at that time, became Presidents of the Church.

Since many teenagers are in one vehicle, the noise level is high as the bus crosses the border from Wales into England. Everyone is talking and having a great time. The youth love being together any chance they get. They love being around friends who share their beliefs.

Charlotte Forward, age 15, of the Cwmbran Ward enjoys being with her friends Kathryn Elliott of the Blackwood Ward and Rachel Griffiths of the Newport-Gwent Ward. They usually get to see each other only at stake activities, and spending all day together is a huge treat. Charlotte says, “Wales is a beautiful place to live. Everyone is so great to be with. We all get along in the stake. I’m something like the seventh generation in the Church. Some of my ancestors emigrated to Utah, but some stayed. Now I seem to have relatives everywhere here.”

The bus pulls into the village of Ledbury. It’s a fairly ordinary country town these days except for the charming old covered outdoor market on the main street. Andrew Dearden, the stake Young Men president, tells the youth that the first missionaries in this area preached in the market square. A few of the young men, who will be serving missions themselves in a few years, get out of the bus and walk under the old roof of the market. Would they have the nerve to stand in that spot and talk about the gospel to the townspeople? How would they react if the crowd did not listen?

Some of the people 160 years ago who heard Wilford Woodruff give a single sermon asked to be baptized. The youth are astounded that the missionaries had such success spreading the gospel. Clive Wilkinson, age 18, who is looking forward to his mission, is awed to think that back then hundreds of people in this area listened to the missionaries and believed.

“It’s amazing that people would be converted by listening to just one talk,” says Clive. “I’m a stake missionary, and when we go out with the missionaries now, it’s nothing like that. We’re lucky to get in the door. It’s amazing that the missionaries back then could come over here with this new religion that no one had heard about and people would have enough faith to believe them and be converted straightaway like that.”

The next two stops are different from each other, but both are mentioned often in Church history. The first stop is the Malvern Hills. This spot is where Wilford Woodruff dedicated the area for the teaching of the gospel. After eating lunch, the youth hike up a trail, leaving the roads and houses behind, to the grassy slopes at the summit. From there they look one direction and can see the county of Herefordshire, England, spread out at their feet. Then they turn toward their homes and can see into Wales.

The second stop is the John Benbow farm. Although the farm itself is privately owned now, the small pond where hundreds of converts were baptized has been purchased and is maintained by the Church. The youth relax on the freshly cut grass and try to imagine the impressive scene when Wilford Woodruff was a missionary here.

In his journal, Elder Woodruff wrote that he felt the Lord guided him to this spot. He traveled many kilometers by coach, then walked many more kilometers. He met John Benbow, a wealthy farmer, who with his wife, Jane, belonged to a large group that had broken away from the traditional religious denominations of that time. Wilford Woodruff recorded:

“[John Benbow] sent word through the neighborhood that an American missionary would preach at his house that evening. As the time drew nigh, many of the neighbors came in, and I preached my first gospel sermon in the house. I also preached at the same place on the following evening, and baptized six persons, including Mr. John Benbow, his wife, and four preachers of the United Brethren. …

“… The parish church that stood in the neighborhood of Brother Benbow’s, presided over by the rector of the parish, was attended during the day by only fifteen persons, while I had a large congregation, estimated to number a thousand, attend my meetings through the day and evening” (quoted in Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors [1964], 117–18).

Many of those thousand listeners were baptized, and the converts formed some of the earliest branches of the Church in England. John and Jane Benbow and Thomas Kington also financed the first British edition of the Book of Mormon and a Latter-day Saint hymnbook.

During those few months in 1840, Wilford Woodruff preached to and baptized all the members of that breakaway group except for one man—a total of about 600 people. Elder Woodruff also baptized more than 1,200 from other denominations. Many of those baptized sold their land and possessions and left England to gather in Nauvoo, where they became stalwarts of the Church. They later were driven out of Nauvoo, crossed the plains, and established new communities in the western United States. Today their influence is felt throughout the earth, and many of their descendants continue doing the Lord’s work.

Although there isn’t a lot to see except the pond at the Benbow farm, the youth are quiet. The peaceful spirit of the place seems to penetrate every heart. “It feels really special,” says Suzy Taylor of the Blackwood Ward, “to think about those people who have been here before us. It is nice to see where our leaders were talking about.”

The final stop is at the remains of the Gadfield Elm chapel. At the time of their visit, just the rock walls are standing. The roof is gone, and nettles have grown up inside. The chapel was the first building owned by the Church outside the United States. It is easy to imagine what it must have been like 160 years ago, as people walked down the winding country road to the chapel. It is a little more difficult to imagine the power and spirit that must have been there when Wilford Woodruff preached. In one evening people learned the truth, and it changed the course of their lives.

The seeds that were planted then still bloom in the youth who come back to visit the places where such miracles took place. “It’s quite amazing, really,” says Joseph Parry of the Caerphilly Branch. “These places are around us. I’ve always thought of Church history as being in America. It was actually in Britain, too.”

Malvern Hills

The Malvern Hills are a high ridge in southwestern England, grassy on top and offering a spectacular view of about 50 kilometers in all directions. The highest spot is the Herefordshire Beacon.

Wilford Woodruff wrote in March 1840 about climbing the Malvern Hills: “In my walk to Colwell on the 9th, I had a great survey of nature and of the power of the Creator; this was while standing upon the summit of Malvern Hill, elevated from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred feet [360 to 460 meters] above the level. The surrounding country was before my view, stretched out many miles. … While upon this noted hill, beholding the grand and charming prospect before me, the thunder began to roll, and the lightning flashed in the vale below, on which the rain descended in torrents. The solemnity and grandeur of the scene was impressive as I stood upon the hill above the clouds, surveying the beautiful works of the Creator, and His majesty in the storm” (quoted in Wilford Woodruff, 148–49).

On Beacon Hill Elder Brigham Young, Elder Wilford Woodruff, and Elder Willard Richards (1804–54), all of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, prayerfully decided to authorize printing of the Book of Mormon and a hymnbook in Great Britain. These Brethren did not have access to a temple, so they often retreated to the Malvern Hills to discuss with the Lord various weighty decisions. These hills, and particularly Beacon Hill, are sacred places in Church history.

Gadfield Elm Chapel

The Gadfield Elm chapel was built in 1836 by a Christian congregation called the United Brethren. Donated to the Church by the United Brethren, who joined the Church during the spring and summer of 1840, the chapel was used extensively until most of the newly baptized Saints emigrated to Nauvoo. The chapel was sold at that time to raise funds for their emigration.

Although the Gadfield Elm chapel fell into disrepair, local members purchased it in 1995 and restored it to look as it did 160 years ago, based on original drawings and descriptions. In April 2000 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a descendant of one of the original United Brethren leaders, rededicated the chapel. It will be used for occasional Church gatherings; those interested in Church history may also visit the site.

Pond at John Benbow Farm

This small pool of water on the John Benbow farm was the scene of hundreds of baptisms in 1840. On 5 March, Wilford Woodruff baptized John and Jane Benbow and four preachers from the local congregation of a group called the United Brethren. Elder Woodruff spent most of the following day, as he wrote, “clearing out a pool of water and preparing it for baptizing, as I saw that many would receive that ordinance. I afterwards baptized six hundred persons in that pool of water” (quoted in Wilford Woodruff, 117).

Photography by Janet Thomas

The first missionaries in Great Britain preached in the village of Ledbury (above, center inset). On the Malvern Hills (background and far left), Wilford Woodruff dedicated the area for the teaching of the gospel.

Herefordshire Beacon, by Al Rounds

The Gadfield Elm chapel was the first building owned by the Church outside the United States. It has now been restored as an important Church historical site.

Gadfield Elm Chapel, by Al Rounds

Wilford Woodruff was guided to an area where an entire religious congregation had been prepared to receive the gospel. He baptized about 600 people in the pond on John Benbow’s farm (above, middle).

Benbow Farm, by Frank Magleby