Drive along country roads of County Lancashire to the villages of Chatburn and Dunham. Stroll the streets of the city of Preston. Walk along the bank of the River Ribble.
Here, there – everywhere, it seems – you find Church history that pre-dates that of the pioneers settling the Salt Lake Valley. Some call this "the cradle of the Church in the British Isles." Others refer to it as "the history belt" that circles not only England and the rest of the British Isles but the worldwide Church itself. It was from here that the early Church derived much of the numerical strength that enabled it to, first, survive its founding years and, thereafter, flourish.And it is here that you will find the oldest continuous unit of the Church.
In 1837, just seven years after the Church was organized, the first Latter-day Saint missionaries came to the British Isles. "Despite some opposition, they found a welcome reception in preaching the gospel to the people of Lancashire," said David M.W. Pickup, a barrister who became enthralled with the history of the Church in the greater Preston area. From his extensive studies of local history has come a small book with big insight, "The Pick and Flower of England – The Illustrated Story of the Mormons in Victorian England."
He often takes advantage of being an "on-site historian." Though removed in time, he is "on site" in the sense that he frequently visits places where early missionaries preached and had extraordinary experiences. He and many other members here said they feel the lingering spirit of the early missionaries.
First counselor in the Preston England Stake presidency, Brother Pickup seems driven to share the history of Preston and its surrounding area. He often takes visitors on tours to what is referred to here casually, but with a touch of reverence, as "the Church history sites."
According to published histories, the original missonaries to the British Isles had Preston in mind as a destination upon arrival in England. In early June 1837 – a time of great hardship for the Church headquartered at Kirtland, Ohio – Joseph Smith told one of his most faithful stalwarts, Apostle Heber C. Kimball: "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.' "
Brother Pickup said that some would see it as folly that the Prophet would send Elder Kimball and another member of the Twelve, Orson Hyde, and five others to England: Joseph Fielding, a native of Bedforshire, England; Willard Richards; Issac Russell, a native of Cumberland; John Goodson, and John Snyder.
Elder Joseph Fielding's brother, James, was an Primitive Espicopalian who had a congregation in Preston. The missionaries decided they should go to Preston, then an industrial center with a population then of about 49,000. On the one hand, Preston was a growing city, with thriving mills; on the other, it was a burg of poverty and squalor. While families of many mill owners, other industrialists and businessmen lived in elegant houses many who labored for them existed in dire lodgings.
The day the missionaries arrived in Preston – June 20, 1837 – the townspeople were caught up in a general election campaign. An election banner provided both a theme and prophecy: "Truth Shall Prevail."
Brother Pickup explained that the motto had been used by the Hussites during the days of the Reformation. "It is curious that the banner of religious reformers at the beginnings of the Reformation should find its use again as the motto in what Latter-day Saints call the Restoration . . . a restoration facilitated in circumstances of religious freedom only made possible by and arising out of the Reformation."
The missionaries preached their first sermon in the British Isles on the steps of a monument, the Obelisk, in Preston's Market Place. (The monument was dismantled in 1853; it was restored to the Market Place in 1979. It was in this general vicinity that, as a young missionary, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley preached his first missionary sermon 65 years ago when he arrived as a missionary in England.)
On Sunday, July 30, 1837, nine people were baptized in the River Ribble. According to historical records, more than 8,000 people gathered to watch the baptisms. By the next week, 50 more had been baptized. On Aug. 6, 1837, a unit of the Church was organized at Preston, the first branch to be organized overseas from Church headquarters at Kirtland. By October, there were 160 members of the Church in Preston. Growth continued rapidly.
Four of the six original missionaries began preaching elsewhere while Elder Joseph Fielding and Elder Orson Hyde remained in Preston.
Elder Fielding, in a letter of September 1837, wrote to Willard Richards: "The Lord is at work here, and many are believing and I think will come into the Church. There are calls from almost every quarter to preach the gospel. The harvest is truly plentious and dead ripe, and much will go into the ground for want of reaping. . . . The field is great and thousands are perishing for lack of knowledge." (Quoted by David M.W. Pickup, The Pick and Flower of England, p. 55.)
Elders Kimball and Fielding preached also in the countryside surrounding Preston. Particularly at the villages of Downham and Chatburn they had tremendous success. Downham has been preserved, looking much as it did in the 1800s. There, standing by a stream, Brother Pickup, while taking visitors along winding roads alongside rolling pasturelands to the ancient villages, described the outpouring of love the people felt toward Elders Kimball and Fielding.
He read a passage from Elder Kimball: "I cannot refrain from relating an occurrence which took place while Brother Fielding and myself were passing through the village of Chatburn on our way to Downham. Having been observed approaching the village, the news ran from house to house, and immediately the noise of their looms was hushed, and the people flocked to their doors to welcome us and see us pass.
"More than forty young people of the place ran to meet us; some took hold of our mantles and then of each other's hands; several gazed upon the scene with delight, and poured their blessings upon our heads, and praised the God of heaven for sending us to unfold the principles of truth and the plan of salvation to them. The children continued with us to Downham, a mile distant. Such a scene and such gratitude, I never witnessed before."
A couple of years later, Elder Kimball revisited Downham and Chatburn. Brother Pickup said that when it came time for Elder Kimball to leave, men, women and children wept. Elder Kimball went to a stream three times to wash his face, and continued his journey sobbing as he was so greatly touched by the outpouring of love and the Spirit.
Upon his return to America, he described the experience to the Prophet Joseph, and asked why he had had that tremendous experience and why there had been that kind of success, even amid tremendous opposition. The Prophet said: "Heber, do you not understand it? That is the place where some of the old prophets traveled and dedicated that land and their blessing fell upon you."
The Church continued to flourish in and around the Preston area and in other places in the British Isles. Within nine months after the missionaries first arrived in 1837, more than 1,000 people had been baptized. Between 1837 and 1900, as many as 100,000 converts had emigrated from the British Isles to join the main body of the Church in America, lending strength of numbers and leadership. By 1870, about half of the population of Utah were emigrants from Britain.
British migrations to the United States left the Church in a weakened position in the British Isles.
President Hinckley, while in nearby Chorley for the dedication of the Preston England Temple, said that when he arrived here as a missionary in 1933 the Preston Branch was "a weak outpost" with about 10 members meeting in a rented room.
Through the years, Church membership has waxed and waned in the Preston area. Preston England Stake Pres. Joseph Leece Jr., said: "The Preston Stake used to be a net exporter of Church members and their leadership and talent abilities. Former members of the stake are found not only around the British Isles but around the world.
"Recently, however, things have changed. Preston was recently recognized as one of the best places in Britain for new businesses to succeed. Young people come to Preston for education and stay to work in the expanding business community. Now, with the Preston temple, there is even more reason for people not only to stay but to move to Preston.
"As a result, we are confidently looking forward to an exciting period of growth and stability in the Preston stake. Twenty-four percent of our membership are youth and we have a strong and vibrant youth program, all of which bodes well for the future when you contemplate what lies ahead for Preston stake leadership in this area."
John Robey was called as bishop of the Preston Ward on Jan. 4, 1998. He said that he often "feels the spirit of Heber C. Kimball" as he goes about his duties as bishop. "Even though he was here a long time ago, he is often mentioned and remembered," Bishop Robey said. "To follow in his footsteps is very awesome."
Bishop Robey came to Preston from Lincoln, to the east, in 1982 to go to the university. His wife, Becky grew up here. They said they will make extra efforts to teach their children of the Church history and its significance in Preston.
"The history that we have I think sometimes washes over us," Sister Robey said. "If you go into town, into the park, you can't help but see the river and you think about the first baptisms. You think about the special early times of the saints in Preston and our heritage."
Bishop Robey said, "As I go around Preston and do home teaching, I'm always keen to remember that had it not been for the great migration across to the States that probably the Church would have been the biggest church in Preston right now. There was a branch in Longton; it's a very small place, yet there was a branch there. From the center of Preston, it's about five miles. There was a branch in Penwortham, which is the other side of the river.
"The longest-running unit in the Church is Preston. I feel a responsibility to carry on the tradition, to keep it going. Yet, my goal is to break tradition. I want the Preston Ward to divide in two. We have about 600 members in Preston, but only 125-130 are active. That's frustrating. We want everyone to be active. We could have two wards or three wards."
Gertrude Coreless was mentioned by President Hinckley as being the only member of the Church alive who was living in Preston when he came here as a missionary in 1933. Sister Coreless, who maintains a traditionally neat and tidy home in Preston, moved abroad for 25 years, but is happy to be back in Preston. "Especially now that the temple has been dedicated," she said.
She attended the temple on Thursday, June 11, the first day it was open for temple work after its dedication June 7-10. "It was a wonderful, emotional experience," she said. She spoke of "family who are gone. I'm sure they're rejoicing on the other side. It was a choice feeling to enter the temple. I was so excited, looking forward to its dedication. I didn't think they would ever get it built."
Peter Trebilcock served as bishop of the Preston Ward from 1975-1988. "It's always fascinating to see the number of visitors that Preston Ward receives," he said. "People from all over the world come who have lived here, served missions here or have ancestors from the Preston area. We've had an increased number recently, especially at the time of the dedication of the Preston temple. We've entertained groups of people, such as descendants of the first nine apostles who had meetings in Preston. We had a tour group of Heber C. Kimball's descendants. Having tourists visit us is typical of living in this area.
"We share the historical significance of Preston on a worldwide basis. We have Church members visit Preston out of interest of attending the oldest continuous unit of the Church."