NOTTINGHAM, England — After a long, discouraging day as a young missionary in 1948, Elder M. Russell Ballard walked along the Trent River in Nottingham, England.
“I didn’t have a vision and I didn’t hear voices, I just knew that Heavenly Father and the Lord knew me and were smiling upon my efforts to try to build Their kingdom,” he said. “I had a spiritual, inner assurance … that what I was doing was important.”
That experience — that witness — has remained with the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for 73 years.
It is one of those things, he said, “that you never forget.”
President Ballard returned to Nottingham and the Trent River Thursday afternoon, Oct. 28 — recalling his service as Nottingham District president, of street meetings in the marketplace and the hecklers who interrupted them, and of his sure witness that the cause of Jesus Christ is true.
In the process of sharing the gospel message here in England his own testimony was solidified. “The more we were trying to give the gospel away by teaching it to others, the more our own testimonies grew,” he said.
Any missionary who has ever served in the British Isles has “a flood of memories and appreciation” for the opportunity, President Ballard said.
The opportunity for modern Apostles to address members and missionaries in the British Isles and visit significant Church history sites in England is “living history” — literally “history jumping right off the pages of the books,” said Peter Fagg, a historian and a British Latter-day Saint.
The lives of the three leaders and the witness they received as missionaries in the British Isles is interwoven with early missionary efforts in Great Britain and with their own ministries, he said.
This week, President Ballard, Elder Holland and Elder Cook stood on Preston Market Square — the birthplace of the Church here in England, where Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding first preached in 1837.
They walked the banks of the River Ribble — where for miles in either direction thousands of early Latter-day Saints entered the waters of baptism. It is also the place Elder Holland and Elder Cook first met as Latter-day Saint missionaries. (Elder Cook arrived in the mission in September and Elder Holland arrived in October 1960; they would serve together as companions during the summer of 1962.)
In Downham, England, they surveyed the village where early missionaries baptized many from the community — and where Elder Holland, as a General Authority Seventy living in the British Isles, went to ponder options for the location of the Preston England Temple.
And the three Apostles visited Nottingham Old Market Square, where President Ballard addressed the Midlands Debating Society as a young missionary, in the process learning how to receive and act on promptings from the Holy Ghost.
As the three retraced history, following in the literal footsteps of early Church leaders, one thing became clear, said Fagg. They each have played their own significant part in a “British re-emergence.”
Because nearly 52,000 Latter-day Saints left England to settle in the Western United States, few members stayed in the country in the early 20th century. Missionary efforts in the mid-1900s changed that.
For Fagg, it is profoundly personal.
Missionaries found and taught Fagg’s parents, Michael and Gwynth Fagg — who joined the Church in 1962; they have 109 descendants in the British Isles today. The Church now has 190,000 members, 45 stakes, five missions and two temples in the United Kingdom.
On the day early missionaries first preached the gospel in England, Joseph Smith received a revelation about missionary work. “I say unto all the Twelve … Go ye, and I will be with you … that they may receive my word” (Doctrine and Covenants 112:14, 19).
During a difficult time in Church history in 1837, Joseph Smith sent Apostles on missions to England; from 1840 to 1842 nine of the 12 were abroad. Amid bank failures, an international economic crisis and growing persecution of the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, the decision showed “remarkable courage and prophetic insight,” said Elder Holland. “He had every reason to keep his closest friends nearby him. And he did the unthinkable. He sent them all to England.”
This decision, reflective of Joseph’s leadership, is most significant and tender for Elder Holland.
“We survived as a people, in great measure, because of the influx of new members from Great Britain,” said Elder Holland.
And just as missions have always refined and strengthened missionaries, those early Church leaders changed in the process.
They did not have Joseph “right at their elbow,” and they had “to do things as a Twelve — making decisions to publish the Book of Mormon, to publish the hymnal, and where they would each go for their missions.
“They had to decide all of that here on their own,” he said. “And they began to be a Quorum of the Twelve.”
The Prophet Joseph’s courage and the thousands who came into the gospel as a result is woven into Elder Holland’s personal witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Standing at Benbow Pond, located just south of Castle Frome, England, Elder Holland spoke of his own ancestors — John and Jane Benbow and their adopted daughter Ellen — who entered the waters of baptism at the site.
Today Benbow Pond is dry, located in the heart of a working farm with sheep, cattle and chickens. It is “pretty much unchanged since 1840, when Wilford Woodruff came,” said Louise Manning, who lives on and owns the property.
The Lord had to direct early missionaries to the site, which is tucked away in England’s green rolling countryside. But their coming was important; all but one of the 600 members of the local United Brethren’s congregation in the area eventually joined the Church, said Elder Holland. “It’s a very significant hour in Church history.”
Elder Cook is a great-great-grandson of Heber C. Kimball.
On July 30, 1837, Elder Kimball performed the first baptisms just outside of Preston in the River Ribble.
First visiting the historic site as a young missionary in January 1961, Elder Cook stood on the banks of the river and received an overwhelming witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Like the experiences of President Ballard and Elder Holland, that special missionary moment has always stayed with him.
President Ballard summarized the feelings of all three leaders: “My testimony and reality that the Lord lives and this is His Church was cemented more firmly in my life as a missionary here than any other time up to that point. My mission was a very significant preparation in my life, for the other things the Lord has asked me to do.”