Towards a More Fully Representative History of the British Mormon Experience [1]

PART ONE: Truth Will Prevail

On 19th July 1837 Heber Chase Kimball and six other elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (commonly known as “Mormons”), disembarked at Liverpool. This was the first time Mormon missionaries had been sent anywhere outside of North America. They made their way to Preston a few days later and there saw a political banner proclaiming ‘Truth Will Prevail’, for they had arrived in the midst of a General Election campaign following the recent accession of the 18 year old Queen Victoria. This, they felt, was an excellent omen that their efforts in spreading the LDS gospel in that place would meet with success, and the political motto was duly adopted as their own.

Heber Chase Kimball, who led the first Mormon mission to Britain in 1837.

Heber Chase Kimball, who led the first Mormon mission to Britain in 1837.

So began an attempted Mormon Conquest of The British Isles, one which enjoyed notable success in many small pockets here and there over the next fifteen years. By 1851 there were approximately 32,000 Mormons in this land, which represented two-thirds of the global Mormon population at that time. However, the British LDS church was viewed not as an established outpost, but merely as a seed-bed, a resource for providing a steady supply of converts to populate and strengthen the American church, whose headquarters by 1847, (following the assassination of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet in 1844), had been relocated from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Salt Lake Valley in the Rocky Mountains. British Converts soon learnt that their new faith required them, as soon as they were able, to leave behind their native land and non-Mormon family members, and travel to that Land of Zion, where God was establishing a theocracy which would govern the Earth for a thousand years; they were taught that the time was near at hand when national governments would fail, anarchy would reign, and no safety would be found outside of Zion. The message Heber Kimball and his immediate successors delivered was that an angel had in their generation appeared to God’s chosen vessel, Joseph Smith, and the Lord’s people were being gathered one last time into Zion. Soon, with fiery judgments, would come the winding up of all other false systems. Salvation was to be had only in Mormonism. It was the sole means available to mankind which God now authorised. All other creeds were an abomination in his sight.

This sense of extreme urgency resonated with the unsettled times through which many of the British hearers of this message were living, for it was an age of upheaval, most noticeably in terms of population movement. The younger elements of the British rural labour force were steadily being enticed by higher wages to the new industrial centres which were located within larger towns and cities. Tens of thousands were annually relocating to urban areas, where, in addition to higher wages, they also encountered indifferent working conditions, cramped housing, poor sanitation, ill-health, and large fluctuating impersonal communities where crime proliferated, all far different from the small familiar rural hamlets and villages they had left behind. There had not been such wholesale social change for centuries, and for many it signalled that the old order, (England’s green and pleasant land), was being overtaken by the dark Satanic mills of a new uncaring age, and that the world was indeed stumbling towards its end. This belief was especially rife within non-conformist churches, and some, notably Primitive Methodism, were looking to re-establish the church organisation found in the New Testament. Mormonism gave spiritual voice to all these inner forebodings and aspirations, offering new hope, and a practical solution in the form of a Zionist escape route.

Modern LDS artistic representation of early missionaries among their British converts.

Modern LDS artistic representation of early missionaries among their British converts.

However, it is not enough to observe Mormonism’s spread in Britain simply in terms of a general top-down overview. In order to appreciate its true impact, the history of British Mormonism must be seen through the eyes of those who actually experienced at first hand this seemingly familiar, though in reality this wildly different, new gospel. A ‘history from below’ as lived by the rank and file participants, is undoubtedly the best way to appreciate the British Mormon experience.

The modern LDS church itself promotes quite a shallow, glossy view of those early times, and perhaps that is not entirely surprising, for it is charged with promoting what many now consider to be a questionable product to prospective tithe-paying devotees, at the same time as attempting to retain within its head-count a rapidly growing number of troubled and disaffected members. The 21st century LDS church is in many respects very unlike its 19th century fore-runner which speculatively sent missionaries to Britain in 1837, although in one important respect it is its equal: it still does not present a full account of itself. Today, however, the LDS church is sophisticated, wealthy, business-savvy, PR-conscious, and carefully selective in which face it presents to the general public. It needs to be because in this age of rapid information exchange, theoretically all have reasonable access to uncomfortable LDS historical information, (which it has always sought to hide from investigators and its rank and file members), and so if the mission of the church is to succeed, the value of objectivity must be downplayed, and emphasis constantly placed upon comforting faith-promoting narratives, even though those narratives are typically unsupported by hard evidence. The church these days therefore teaches a rather diluted and sanitized gospel, still often drawing, nevertheless, upon early pioneer stories of faith and courage in adversity, while ignoring the many untold stories of those whose lives were wrecked or impoverished through their contact with early Mormonism. This is done, of course, in order to project an illusion of continuity and institutional wellbeing.

Only one-quarter of all British converts in the 19th century, managed to fulfil the desired objective of emigrating to America. Of those, a good many did not manage to complete the onward journey to Salt Lake City, and of those who did, a significant proportion became disillusioned, but found themselves so financially and spiritually mired in a strange and intolerant society, that they could not easily escape. They discovered when it was already too late, that ‘Zion’ was not as had been advertised. When the modern LDS church speaks therefore about its wonderful pioneer heritage, it attempts to infer that its neatly packaged accounts smoothed out through repeated telling, are representative of the whole, when in fact they are representative of perhaps no more than 15%. As marketing is the main purpose of the exercise, the version of early Mormon history told by the church today cannot be other than distorted, if not actually by deliberate sanitization, then by the inadequate sample size upon which that history relies. It is not good enough to say that the other 85% do not matter because they lacked faith. We cannot dismiss them in that way and pretend the resulting account is correct simply because we want it to be. The 85% had stories to tell as well, and good reasons for not being among the 15%, and those stories and reasons are as valid and material as any other.

In order to address this significant imbalance therefore, and very much in the spirit of ‘Truth will Prevail’, some of the alternative experiences which have been recorded and researched will follow. These also are a large part of British Mormonism’s past, and deserve to be considered in any British Mormon history or pageant, alongside the 15% sample which the LDS church might choose to showcase.

Take for example the story of George Darling Watt, who was the first man to be baptised in England. The LDS church provides a very interesting account of how Watt won a foot race to the banks of the River Ribble in order to be accorded that unique privilege. The story is designed to convey the fervour of those early converts. However, the equally interesting fact that Watt was later authorised by Brigham Young to take as a plural wife Watt’s own younger half-sister, Jane Brown, (they shared a mother, Mary Ann Wood), and that they became parents of three children, is seldom if ever discussed, even though that also illustrates the degree of enthusiam with which some accepted the Mormon gospel.

George Darling Watt, the first man baptized in England.

George Darling Watt, the first man baptized in England.

One should ask perhaps, why would the LDS church today avoid sharing such an interesting piece of information with its members and the general public? Could it be that it is embarrassed? The early Mormon leaders certainly were not. In what Apostle Wilford Woodruff described at the time (1854) as “the greatest sermon that ever was delivered to the Latter Day Saints since they have been a people,” Brigham Young announced: “I believe in Sisters marrying brothers, and brothers having their sisters for Wives.”

Pedigree chart showing that George D. WATT and Jane BROWN shared the same mother

Pedigree chart showing that George D. WATT and Jane BROWN shared the same mother

Of course Brigham also taught the Latter-day Saints that the Sun is inhabited, that a man’s glory in the next world depends upon how many wives and children he has in this, that those who enter into mixed race marriages should suffer the penalty of death for breaking God’s law, and that Adam, the first human, is the God we must worship. He taught much which is no longer believed, and yet for over thirty years, (1844-1877), his utterances were God’s word to the Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young was God’s mouthpiece, and latter-day saints were expected to conform their lives accordingly. One wonders how many lived and died actually placing all their trust and belief in such teachings. It is rather a disturbing thought. And even today Brigham Young is revered by Latter-day Saints as having been a prophet, seer and revelator, but most current members have little if any idea of the strange worldview which was forced upon their predecessors.

~~~

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3 Responses to Towards a More Fully Representative History of the British Mormon Experience [1]

  1. Rico says:

    “The message Heber Kimball and his immediate successors delivered was that an angel had in their generation appeared to God’s chosen vessel, Joseph Smith, and the Lord’s people were being gathered one last time into Zion. Soon, with fiery judgments, would come the winding up of all other false systems. Salvation was to be had only in Mormonism. It was the sole means available to mankind which God now authorised. All other creeds were an abomination in his sight.”

    Until 1982, when I served a mission in Cebu, Philippines, the first discussion we always gave was the First Vision and Restoration of the church. THAT was the gospel, the good news of Mormonism. And then sometime then and 1983, our discussions got changed, the FV and R became third or later in sequence. The Plan of Salvation became first, and then after another revision, the Atonement became first.

    Today, it’s so Orwellian to be hearing old, old GAs like Monson, Oaks, or Packer claim the CENTRALITY of the Atonement/ Resurrection in the Mormon gospel. The reason we’re even talking about the Atonement is because people criticized us for being so Smith-centered rather than Christ-centered. But those changes have been memory-holed. If I never went on a mission in 1982-83, I wouldn’t really appreciate Orwell’s “1984”.

    • Susie says:

      I was baptised into the mormon church in 1962 and I certainly remember the lessons centering on Joseph Smith and his vision. I was also taught by the missionaries that the great reformers like Martin Luther (and other men like him) were evil designing men, trying to corrupt the word of God and they supposedly got that done which was was why (supposedly) Joseph Smith was needed.
      By the time I had sons who went on missions for the church (1990’s), the “tune” had changed and now the great reformers were “respected” for their efforts. What had NOT changed was the mormon reliance on a president/prophet of the church!! Allegiance to a man!! Throughout Biblical history, a prophet, a true prophet, is someone who stands outside the hierarchy to warn the hierarchy and others ……never does the prophet lead the church.
      How can any thinking person believe the mormon church??

  2. John Brockbank says:

    So, Susie, Moses was not a true prophet, or he never led the church? Or Adam, or Enoch, or … and don’t you realize that there can be more than one prophet on the earth at a time? And is there only one true lesson series for missionaries to ever use? And is it possible for us to be human?

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