Sarah Jane Weaver: Why a chance meeting and a charge to ‘carry on’ mattered for missionaries from the England MTC

DOWNHAM, England — Stone homes, walls and bridges in Downham, Lancashire, England, remind modern visitors what this place may have looked like when Heber C. Kimball was called to lead the first group of missionaries to England in 1837.

In fact, from the pews of Downham Parish Church — set among the green rolling hills of an almost untouched English countryside — it is hard not to think of those early Latter-day Saint missionaries who baptized large numbers in this area.

I suspect that was at the forefront of the thoughts of President M. Russell Ballard, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Quentin L. Cook, all of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as they approached the historic parish church in Downham this week. On special assignment to address members and missionaries in England, they were visiting important Church history sites.

Each had served a full-time mission in the country — President Ballard arrived in 1948, followed by Elder Cook and Elder Holland, who would become missionary companions in 1962. All secured as full-time missionaries in the British Isles the spiritual foundation that would define their lives.

Returning to their ‘spiritual home,’ 3 senior Apostles reflect on lives ‘anchored in the British Isles’ as full-time missionaries

So it was a wonderful surprise to happen upon a group of Latter-day Saint missionaries gathered in the parish.

The missionaries — visiting historic sites one day before completing their training at the Church’s England Missionary Training Center in nearby Preston — were delighted, too.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Sister Laura Conte of Brescia, Italy. “It was really special.”

“It was incredible,” added Elder Luke Adamson of York, England.

“It was such a surprising, beautiful experience for the missionaries, and for us, to meet in that special chapel,” said MTC President Creg Ostler.

Elder Joshua Perkis of Huddersfield, England, was prepared to share the words of Elder Heber C. Kimball with his fellow missionaries when the venerable Church leaders walked in. Instead he let the Apostles take the lead. “They said what I was supposed to say,” he said, quickly adding, “They did it better than I could.”

The countryside in Downham, England on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Early church missionaries Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding taught and baptized many converts in the area.
The countryside in Downham, England on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Early church missionaries Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding taught and baptized many converts in the area. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The serendipitous moment was an unexpected treasure for both the missionaries and the leaders, who are companions in the work. They share — with one another and Heber C. Kimball — the Savior’s ancient charge to His Apostles of old: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:15–16).

In the process, they are changed and refined.

Walking the streets of Downham reveals houses that stood in the mid-1800s, “more or less the way things were when Heber C. walked these roads,” said Elder Holland. The joy of Downham, he added, is “it is a little snapshot in time.”

Elder Cook, the great-great-grandson of Heber C. Kimball, said because the area looks today much like it did then, it is easy for him to visualize Elder Kimball’s final moments in the village as he was finishing his mission and leaving town. “The children came out and sang to him, and they wept, and he was so touched that he had to go down to the river and bathe his eyes,” said Elder Cook. “Leaving this precious place was one of the most emotional experiences he ever had.”

I have no doubt that a group of MTC missionaries feels the same way about a chance meeting in a historic chapel in Downham.

Just as the streets and the stories connect the work today with the work in the earliest days of the Restoration, three Apostles connected their mission experiences with the next generation of missionaries.

President Ballard asked them to go forward with power and “carry on” the work.

“Elders and sisters, we are proud of you,” he said. “You have the truth. Your message is true. Joseph is the Prophet that was called of God to restore the fullness of the everlasting gospel. And you have it. And you have a Book of Mormon. And you have a message that every single person in this world should hear. … So be bold and be forthright and let the world know who you are and why you have come all this way.”