In his dissertation, Mormon Meccas, Michael Madsen discusses the creation of “sacred space” by the institutional Church through its restoration of Mormon historical sites. He sees an increasingly top-down effort to anchor and root Mormonism to its history. Ambitious projects in and around Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo are taken to be evidence for this thesis.
Madsen and others have observed that Mormonism’s past is its theology. By nurturing the Saints’ historical memory and thus Mormonism’s theology and sense of identity, the Church historical sites create a sacred geography that can be shared by all members:
LDS Church leaders evidently feel that the Church needs more than just theology and history to maintain cohesion and unity, it needs a geography as well; sacred space that all Mormons–whether in Utah or Uganda–can feel a part of, thus rooting the religion in place. 
For Madsen the deliberate creation by the Church of Mormon Meccas has had one eye on the international Church, so that Saints in “Uganda” have inculcated within them a greater sense of where the Church came from, where they came from. The fact that such Saints will probably never visit Palmyra or Nauvoo is held as irrelevant; the creation of a sacred historical geography can be a symbol to be reverenced from afar, the Jerusalems of the diaspora Mormons.
Whilst I believe Madsen to have captured the meaning of the attempts by the Church to create sacred space through historical shrines in North America, its model of a top-down enterprise need not be taken as the only way Mormons can sacralize their history. Indeed, one important Mormon historical site–the Gadfield Elm chapel in England–is an interesting example of a local, bottom-up effort to create a Mormon Mecca.
The story of the ministry of Wilford Woodruff in the English Three Counties, the conversion of the United Brethren, and the role of the Gadfield Elm chapel is well known. Central to the story were the United Brethren, a group of former Primitive Methodists who had organized themselves into small congregations surrounding the Malvern Hills. They were led by Thomas Kington, who allowed Wilford Woodruff to share the Gospel with the United Brethren congregations. Brother Woodruff’s missionary success was spectacular, and much of it can be attributed to the readiness of this group of English believers to embrace the message shared with them by the American missionaries.
The United Brethren donated to Elder Woodruff “one chapel and forty-five houses, which were licensed according to law to preach in.” The chapel was at the site of Gadfield Elm in Worcestershire and at the time it was the only LDS-owned chapel anywhere in the world. It become a focal point for missionary work in the area, but was eventually sold to help pay for the local members to gather to Zion. This is usually held to be the end of the story. The chapel was sold, the Saints emigrated to America, and the tale continued in Zion. But it is the history of Gadfield Elm, not as the vehicle for conversion and emigration, but as a shrine for local Mormons that will be the subject of this post.
After the end of the apostolic missions and the mass-emigration of many Mormon converts, the chapel disappears from history, no longer relevant to the westward narrative of Zion. For as long as anyone in England can remember, the chapel had always been in a state of terrible disrepair, little more than a cattle shed.
Still, any Church historical tour intinerary included the ruins of the chapel; I remember visiting with my Valiant class, and then later as a Seminary student. There was always a sense of the sacredness of the site, and even as a young boy, a sense of connection with Mormon history that was otherwise steeped in strange names like Palmyra, Far West, Sharon. There was also a feeling of incredulity: we were always told that the Gadfield Elm chapel was the oldest LDS chapel in the world. Why then was it a pile of rubble? Why didn’t the Church restore it?
In 1987 the Church celebrated its British sesquicentennial and set aside some money for site preservation. Elder Neal A. Maxwell travelled to Gadfield Elm to talk to the owners about purchasing the chapel. The price set by the owners was too high, and so Benbow’s Pond (which had been used by Elder Woodruff for baptisms) was the only site purchased. A small plaque stands next to the pond, now not much more than a puddle.
The celebrations surrounding the Sesquicentennial, I believe, spurred British Mormons–many of whom were converts and not steeped in Wilford Woodruffian lore–to become more interested in their own history. A commemorative movie, A Story of Strength, was filmed in and around the local sites featuring local members.
Americans began to visit the sites in greater numbers, but still the Gadfield Elm chapel lay derelict. The program for the May 1987 Cheltenham Stake Conference suggested that, “Wilford Woodruff would rejoice especially to see our day and enjoy the worshipful comfort of our chapels.” Considering the state of Gadfield Elm, this statement was more than a little ironic.
In October 1994, the chapel came up for auction. The Church had no plans to bid, so Wayne Gardner, the local LDS bishop, feeling he “just had to do something,” organised a group of Saints in the hope of raising enough money to acquire the chapel. They raised about £7,000 ($12,000) which was enough to win the bid and pay for urgent repairs to the walls. Over the next six years, the newly-organised Gadfield Elm Trust raised a further £65,000 ($115,000) from members in the UK and the US, with a small donation from the Church.
All of the efforts to rehabilitate the Gadfield Elm chapel began from the bottom-up. A locally organised pageant (that most Mormon of events) was held in June 1995 to commemorate “the 155th anniversary of the first conference in the British Mission at the world’s first and oldest LDS chapel.” Local members in period costumes recreated the conference, with characters including Thomas Kington, Willard Richards, and Wilford Woodruff.
“First and oldest LDS chapel” is a theme that dominates Gadfield Elm’s narrative locally, a real source of pride. I have heard many local members express disbelief when American visitors display their ignorance of this fact; not knowing such a factoid of Mormon history is like not knowing in what year the Church was organised (in the eyes’ of many English Mormons).
With the restoration under way, and with pageants and tours raising awareness of the chapel, local members began to produce literature for the benefit of members and of tourists, much of it hurriedly printed on PCs. The Church also began to produce its own historical leaflets, entitled, “Exploring Your Heritage.” Even the non-Mormons were getting excited about local Mormon history. “Do you know where the oldest Mormon chapel in the world is?” asks a BBC website, before explaining the history of Woodruff, the Benbows, and Gadfield Elm.
On Sunday, 23 April 2000, the restored chapel was dedicated by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve whose great-great-grandparents, Ellen Benbow and William Carter, had themselves worshipped in the chapel. The event received some local press coverage. History came full circle on 26 May 2004 when the Gadfield Elm Trust handed back the chapel into the ownership of the Church, with a presentation to President Gordon B. Hinckley.
Today, the Gadfield Elm chapel serves as a memorial both to the faith of the United Brethren, and the pioneering efforts of early British Mormons to build the kingdom of God. For the English Saints, these places are as sacred to them as the Hill Cumorah or Temple Square. Mormons from across the UK and from America regularly visit the chapel (a perusal of the visitors’ book shows about an equal share between Utah and England). An English missionary couple now serve as hosts at the chapel (listen to them here), and the church has published some more polished literature about the area, and features the chapel in a prominent place on the Church’s UK website.
Thanks in large parts to the efforts of the Gadfield Elm Trust and others, British Mormonism is becoming increasingly aware of its own spiritual heritage. I have heard some local members express disappointment that the Church never invested much money in the upkeep of these sites until recently. The Gadfield Elm restoration was a private venture, and even though the Church has owned Benbow’s Pond since 1987, it is not much more than a strip of grass, a plaque, and a puddle.
A consequence of all of this, however, has been that British Saints have taken ownership of their own history, a vital step in the Church’s British maturation. And for the Church to fully come of age outside of the US, it must be able to develop a sense of local heritage. This is perhaps why the Church passed on the Gadfield Elm project (it was Elder Packer who suggested it be organised locally). In this way, Gadfield Elm is the opposite of Michael Madsen’s model: a Mormon Mecca has been created, not by the institution but by the people. But it is also a shrine that returns us to that very institution and its historical myths (there is no extended mention in the displays at the chapel, for example, of the Church in contemporary Britain nor really of 1840s Britain). Its narrative is of Zion-in-the-West, its heroes are American (Wilford Woodruff), or moved to America (William Carter), its symbols are American (the missionary couple dress in pioneer costume, children’s activities revolve around drawing buffaloes and handcarts, even sample recipes are for Cowboy Beans and Johnny Cake).
Madsen believes that in enshrining Mormon historical geography, the Church has the Latter-day Saint visitor not the Gentile in mind. As a focal point of Mormon commemoration, local Saints often arrive at Gadfield Elm dressed as pioneers ready to re-enact the great Trek. A non-Mormon visitor might conclude that Mormons were indeed American-minded, semi-Amish, a view probably not conducive to any kind of proselytizing success. I do not think this in the mind of most local Mormons, however. For them, Gadfield Elm ties their Mormon periphery to the myths at Mormonism’s center. As members of a small minority religion in the UK, one should not underestimate the power inherent in such an effort. Gadfield Elm is a British site second, a Mormon site first.
A fuller version of this post — also read at the Mormon History Association conference in Casper — was published by Mormon Historical Studies 7(1-2), 2006 — and can be downloaded here.
1. Michael Madsen, 2003, Mormon Meccas: The Spiritual Transformation of Mormon Historical Sites from Points of Interest to Sacred Space, Ph.D. Dissertation, Syracuse University, p.243.
2. Madsen, p.251.
3. See James B. Allen, Ronald K. Esplin, and David J. Whittaker, 1992, Men with a Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837-1841, pp.120ff. for more details.
4. Matthias F. Cowley, 1909, Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors, p. 119.
5. Wayne Gardner, Personal Communication
6. Program for Sunday 10 May 1987 in my possession. Cheltenham Stake Presidency: Warrick N. Kear, Z. John Smutek, John Carmichael.
8. Wayne Gardner, Personal Communication.
9. Wayne Gardner, Personal Communication.
10. Madsen, p.246.