What was an assignment for President Gordon B. Hinckley to help commemorate the Church’s 150th aniversary in the British Isles ended up doubling as a sentimental journey for him. I had the privilege of tagging along with him and his wife, Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley.
Then the first counselor in the First Presidency, President Hinckley was one of 13 General Authorities who went to the British Isles July 24-26, 1987, in honor of the Church’s sesquicentennial there. While all of the Brethren attended some of the commemorative events together, they split up to preside or speak at various events held in England, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
President Hinckley’s assignments in England sent him to Preston and Birmingham. He was delighted particularly with his assignment to Preston, where he had served as a young missionary 54 years earlier.
A site he knew well was the River Ribble, where the first missionaries to England baptized the first converts on July 30, 1837. On his commemorative visit, President Hinckley dedicated a monument in nearby Avenham Park bearing a message telling of those baptisms and the beginnings of the Church in the area.
“My companion and I walked the streets of this city seeking those who would listen,” he recalled. “We came to this beautiful park and walked the banks of the River Ribble and thought of those who had preceded us — the first missionaries outside the American continent.”
While in Preston, President Hinckley visited several sites of personal interest. He again walked along a bank of the River Ribble, in the shade of a tree-canopied pathway.
He then had a few hours of free time. He took Sister Hinckley to some places that were meaningful to him. I went along for the ride as a reporter, photographer and, I hope, friend.
He asked the driver to take us to Preston’s Market Square, site of the first street sermon preached by missionaries after they arrived in Preston 150 years earlier, and where he and his companion preached the gospel in 1933.
We went to the house on Wilfred Street where in 1837, on the night before the first baptism in the British Isles, the missionaries — including Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde and Willard Richards — were troubled by “a legion of devils.”
A highlight of President Hinckley’s return to Preston was going to the house where he lived as a missionary. The driver of our car didn’t know where it was; President Hinckley gave directions. That house is now a well-known landmark among sites of interest to Latter-day Saints in the area.
When the car stopped at 15 Wadham Road, President Hinckley wanted to have his picture taken outside the house. As he and Sister Hinckley posed for me to shoot the photo, the resident of the house, Eleanor Porter, came outside. President Hinckley introduced himself and told her he had lived in the house as a missionary. He asked if he could go inside. She invited him and Sister Hinckley in, and then he asked permission to go upstairs to the bedroom he had occupied. Mrs. Porter graciously consented. President and Sister Hinckley spent 10 to 15 minutes in the room.
When they came out, President and Sister Hinckley posed for a photo with Mrs. Porter.
Then we got in the car. I was in the back seat with President and Sister Hinckley. As we started to drive off, he spoke with tears in his eyes and emotion in his voice. He said, “I had to go upstairs to that room. That is where I experienced a day of decision.”
He explained that he had become discouraged as a young missionary because he had arrived in Preston in poor health and no one seemed interested in hearing his message.
“I wrote a letter home to my father and told him I felt I was wasting my time and his money,” President Hinckley said. “My father wrote back a very short letter. It said, ‘Dear Gordon, I have your letter. I have only one suggestion: Forget yourself and go to work.’
“I went upstairs to that bedroom and got on my knees, and said to the Lord, ‘I will try to forget myself and go to work. I will try to lose my life in thy service, but I need help.’ That was my day of decision.”
President Hinckley said marvelous things had happened to him since then, having traveled throughout the world on the Lord’s errand.
“And,” he added, “it all started here in Preston.”