In 1837, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced economic turmoil, financial panic and dissent among some of its leaders and members.
In the middle of those difficult trials, the Prophet Joseph Smith was inspired to call Heber C. Kimball and others on a mission to Great Britain, the first outside of North America.
What resulted from those and subsequent missionary labors in the British Isles proved to be a tremendous blessing for the Church, making it a pivotal event in Church history, said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“I think it’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of that first mission,” Elder Holland said. “You could say those British immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s and later the Scandinavian Saints who joined them probably saved the Church numerically.”
Wednesday, July 19, marks 180 years since early apostles Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde, along with Willard Richards, Joseph Fielding, John Goodson, Isaac Russell and John Snider, arrived in Liverpool, embarking on a historic mission that would bring thousands into the faith. In timing with the anniversary, Elder M. Russell Ballard, Elder Holland and Elder Quentin L. Cook, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who served missions in England, recently discussed the impact and significance of the first British mission and how its legacy continues to influence the Church today.
To appreciate missionary success in England, you first need to appreciate Parley P. Pratt’s 1836 mission to Upper Canada, Elder Ballard said.
That spring, Pratt was struggling with debt and caring for his sick wife, Thankful. Heber C. Kimball blessed Pratt that his wife would be healed and give birth to a son. He also instructed Pratt to take the gospel to Upper Canada, where he would find souls prepared to hear his message. Pratt’s faith was tested, but with divine help he reached Toronto, Elder Ballard said, and his efforts resulted in the baptisms of John Taylor, the third president of the Church, as well as Joseph Fielding and his sisters, Mercy and Mary (future wife of Hyrum Smith), among others.
One year later across the Atlantic Ocean in Preston, England, Joseph Fielding’s brother, Rev. James Fielding, helped ignite the work by inviting the Mormon missionaries (some of whom were Canadian converts) to speak to his congregation in the Vauxhall Chapel.
Elder Ballard fondly recalled standing at the very Vauxhall Chapel pulpit, where those early missionaries first preached, as a young missionary himself in 1948. The senior apostle later served as a mission president in Toronto, more than a decade after LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.
“When we talk about the gospel going to England, President Monson would always remind us that it got there through Canada,” Elder Ballard said.
‘Truth will prevail’
In 1837, Church members lived in Kirtland, Ohio, and Missouri. Despite completing the Kirtland Temple, the Saints faced increasing economic problems, including the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society. Some members questioned Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet.
It was under those unlikely circumstances that Joseph felt the Spirit prompt him while in the Kirtland Temple, saying, “Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my Gospel and open the door of salvation to that nation,” the apostle wrote in his journal.
“God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of his church,” Joseph recorded (see Joseph Smith Papers).
It was a brave move, Elder Holland said.
“Who would possibly send his best men and closest friends away when he was in real trouble? I would want them very near, as close as you could get,” Elder Holland said while putting his hand on Elder Cook’s shoulder. “But he had the inspiration to send Elder Kimball, one of his most loyal supporters.”
More than a month later, Heber was the first to leap from the boat in Liverpool. When the group reached Preston, they witnessed the unfurling of a large election banner that read, “Truth Will Prevail.”
“It being so very seasonable and the sentiment being so appropriate to us in our situation, we were involuntarily led to exclaim, ‘Amen! So let it be,’” Kimball wrote.
One week after preaching in the Vauxhall Chapel, the missionaries baptized their first converts in the River Ribble, two of which were so eager they raced to the water’s edge. George D. Watt won and became the first of thousands to join the LDS Church in Great Britain.
Elder Cook is a direct descendant of Heber C. Kimball. As a young missionary in 1961, he stood on a bridge overlooking the River Ribble and contemplated what occurred there. Tender feelings accompanied the realization that those first missionaries had no funds, no mission home, no mission president or members to greet them upon arrival. All they had was an invitation to preach at the Vauxhall Chapel, Elder Cook said.
“The Lord blessed them and gave them special spiritual power,” Elder Cook said. “They had baptisms the next week.”
Significance and legacy
The 1837 mission to England had a ripple effect of positive consequences for the LDS Church, the three apostles pointed out.
First, it blessed the future leadership of the Church as Joseph Smith sent the majority of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles over to supervise the work. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the experience served to strengthen the apostles as a quorum, Elder Holland said.
“It was on their mission to England that the Quorum of the Twelve developed as a quorum,” Elder Holland said.
Elder Cook agreed.
“The spiritual power that emanated from that was absolutely essential at that juncture of the Church,” Elder Cook said. “Enormously significant.”
Opening the work in England introduced the concept of a global Church. Five years later, Orson Hyde traveled to Jerusalem. Within 15 years, missionaries were being called to places like India and Turkey, Elder Holland said.
“The degree of success in Great Britain was unanticipated, unimagined and unprecedented,” Elder Holland said.
The faithful British Saints proved to be another blessing. After interacting with new members departing for America, writer Charles Dickens wrote they were “the pick and flower of England.” Their means were meager but their faith was strong and they had much to offer, Elder Cook said.
“Those Saints were poor but functional. They brought great abilities and talents and accomplished things that perhaps the people already in America couldn’t have done without that influx of many kinds of talented people,” Elder Cook said.
One notable Latter-day Saint who was baptized and came to Utah was John Benbow. The farmer from Herefordshire was instrumental in introducing Wilford Woodruff to the United Brethren, a large congregation prepared to receive the gospel. Benbow also helped to finance the printing of the Book of Mormon in England and paid passage for many to immigrate to America.
“Even that early in their church lives, something in the gospel had quickened them. They looked better and acted better. Somebody as astute as Dickens could recognize that,” said Elder Holland, a descendant of the Benbow family, who has a painting of the Benbow farm hanging in his office. “The gospel had already touched their lives. They brought part of that heritage, part of that spiritual refinement with them and blessed the Church here.”
It’s significant to note that many Church members today can trace their roots back to those early converts in Europe and Scandinavia, Elder Cook said.
Elder Ballard expounded on this idea by recounting ancestral stories from his own family tree, specifically his Smith and Ballard branches, both of which trace back to England.
One of Elder Ballard’s most treasured missionary experiences in England occurred when he visited The Newbury Weekly News and photographed a newspaper associated with miraculous events at the Logan temple involving his family history and temple work.
“What does England mean to the Ballards? Everything. What does it mean to the Smiths? Everything. Because out of England came great power and great leadership,” Elder Ballard said. “The thing that is so marvelous about our story is that the story of those early days, those pioneers making their way out here to be protected and be able to live in peace, they raised up a posterity that go out and cover the world as full-time missionaries, ultimately to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, our missionaries have been sent. It all came from that tremendous harvest of those that came in from England and other parts of the world. It’s a marvelous story.”
The great harvest enjoyed by those early missionaries has slowed somewhat in today’s secular world where there are more distractions, less interest in religion and where fewer people feel accountable to God, the three apostles agreed.
“The biggest problem we have today is getting people to listen. They are too busy, running here and there. Distractions,” Elder Ballard said. “Lucifer is raging in the hearts of the children of men, he is doing everything he can to thwart the work. It’s apathy, indifference. It’s hard for the missionaries to find people that will listen. That’s what I think the major difference is.”
Even so, there are still “remarkable” people coming into the Church, Elder Holland said.
“We are still growing,” he said. “It isn’t as flashy, but it’s steady and strong. There will always be wonderful people in England who will recognize the truth.”
Elder Ballard, who now supervises the Church in Europe, remembered attending a stake presidents training meeting in England in the mid 1990s where more than 80 percent of those leaders had grown up in the faith.
“That’s a significant message. All those young people joined the Church when they were young and are now leading the Church,” Elder Ballard said. “The youth is where we need to teach the gospel.”