The first missionaries in England arrived on this day in 1837 — see how they fared

A historic photo of Heber C. Kimball. He led a group of early LDS apostles and missionaries to the British Isles to open missionary work in Europe in the late 1830s. Credit: LDS image library, LDS image library
Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and Quentin L. Cook, former mission companions in England in the early 1960s, pose at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on June 23, 2017. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News
Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and Quentin L. Cook, former mission companions in England in the early 1960s, talk about the anniversary and continued missionary work in Great Britain at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on June 23, 2017. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News
The River Ribble, Preston, England, one of the sites where President Heber J. Grant celebrated the centennial of the British Mission.

Missionaries first arrived in England on July 19, 1837 — 181 years ago.

Not only was this the first mission in England, but the first mission outside of the U.S. It was formed just seven years after the organization of the Church during a period when it was facing financial and economic problems in addition to dissent from some members and leaders.

Despite this, the Prophet Joseph Smith was impressed to call Heber C. Kimball and a group of missionaries to journey to Great Britain.

"Brother Heber, the Spirit of the Lord has whispered to me, 'Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my gospel and open the door of salvation to that nation,'" Joseph told Heber.

Elder Kimball, Orson Hyde — a fellow Apostle — and five other missionaries arrived in Liverpool and felt guided to the city of Preston. They arrived in the middle of an election campaign with banners flying everywhere reading "Truth Shall Prevail," a foreshadowing of the success that was to come.

Within 10 days, the missionaries had baptized the first English converts in the River Ribble. Historical records claim that more than 8,000 people came to witness the baptism of those nine people. A week later, 50 more were baptized.

Just before the first baptisms were to take place, opposition came in the form of leaders from opposing churches. The missionaries were faithful and continued to preach the gospel. In the end, they baptized between 1,500-2,000 people in Preston and the surrounding area.

Today, Preston is known as "the cradle of the Church in the British Isles."

This time was pivotal in Church history. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the importance of those early English Latter-day Saints cannot be exaggerated.

"You could say those British immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s … and the later Scandinavian Saints who joined them … probably saved the Church numerically," Elder Holland told Church News.

After the inital success in Preston, four of the six missionaries moved on. Two, Joseph Fielding and Orson Hyde, stayed in the area. Fielding wrote home about his experience.

"The Lord is at work here, and many are believing and I think will come to the Church," he wrote. "The harvest is truly plentious and dead ripe, and much will go in the group for want of reaping. … The field is great and thousands are perishing for lack of knowledge."

When speaking about the first England mission, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, pointed out that it "got there through Canada."

The earlier mission to Canada by Parley P. Pratt resulted in the baptism of Joseph Fielding, whose brother in England, Rev. James Fielding, invited the missionaries to speak to his congregation at the Vauxhall Chapel.

Back in Ohio, increased economic problems had some members questioning the calling of Joseph Smith as a prophet. Despite the tension, the Prophet had called the missionaries to England. He later reflected, "God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of the Church."

Elder Holland said the Prophet had made "a brave move" to send away some of his closest friends and advocates at a time of such unrest.

As a direct descendant of Heber C. Kimball, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles once visited the River Ribble to think about the events that happened there.

Those first missionaries arrived in England without money, a place to live or a plan of where to go.

"The Lord blessed them and gave them special spiritual power," Elder Cook said.

The work of those first missionaries in England had a ripple effect that forever changed the Church. By 1900, more than 100,000 English converts had emigrated from Britain to join the Church members in America. By 1870, roughly half of the Utah population were British immigrants.

"The spiritual power that emanated from that was absolutely essential at that juncture of the Church," Elder Cook said. "Enormously significant."

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