A Mormon Mecca in England

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.[1] 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. [2]

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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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[7] raised a further £65,000 ($115,000) from members in the UK and the US, with a small donation from the Church.[8]

April_2006_pageantAll 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).[9] 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.[10] 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.

Comments

  1. Nice post.

    I find my own sense of religious identity is closely tied up in my memories of places like Temple Square, Nauvoo, and Adam-Ondi-Ahman (and the Far West temple site).

    Even Utah itself has always been akin to sacred ground for me.

    However, I confess that the Sacred Grove doesn’t hold the same influence with me. So I’m not sure that sacred geography works quite so well when you haven’t physically visited the site.

  2. We visited Gadfield Elm a few weeks ago. The missionaries weren’t there, so we had to use the Secret Mormon Code to get in the door.

    If the missionaries aren’t there, you punch in a code on a number/letterpad to unlock the door. The code is derived from a LDS questionnaire on the door.

    I thought it was so COOL! Finally my arcane Mormon knowledge literally unlocks the door where heathens cannot follow :)

    I’ve put up a slightly edited picture here

  3. I have a different perspective than many might, at least, anyway, those located out west. Well, I am, now, but I lived along the Hudson River in New York from when I was 5, until when I was 15, and we then moved to Utah, where my parents were from.

    We went to the Hill Cumorah Pageant every year; I guess my dad and older brothers helped set up for it. Every stake around had a part in helping, I suppose. I wasn’t aware of that aspect of things as a child.

    I just remember how fun it was to go camping there every year, and climb up that huge hill, and to SEE a place where I KNEW an angel had been! It was awesome to me.

    And oh, from childhood and on, growing stronger as I grew older, was the sense of peace and serenity I felt as we crossed the fields towards the Sacred Grove and meandered therein. I so loved this place!

    Then again, alot of this may have been because I went there every year; I know some of it was not, but I do feel a very personal connection with these places.

    Then, we moved out West. Boy, was that a HUGE culture shock, you’d think it was almost as different a culture and church could be, and still be the same church . . . anyway, I adored (and still do) going to Temple Square, and many other places. I have a different sense of connection with these places, although at the core of it IS a sameness of my testimony and knowledge of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, the Restoration, the Book of Mormon, and the President of the Church, our Prophet. There is the SAME Holy Spirit that has spoken to me on both sides of the Mississippi, and still speaks to me, although I have not, as yet, been inside a dedicated temple, as I have not been through the temple yet. Excepting baptisms for the dead a few times earlier in my life.

    I know I’m going on and on, here, but I feel a compelling of a kind and not OCD sort, to relate an experience I had with the Salt Lake Temple.

    I was in the middle of a year of Church History Institute classes (I was not enrolled in college, but I had decided that I needed some extra spiritual learning, and to challenge some of my fears about doing something like this.) During the mid-point of the year of Institute, I was troubled by some things, and knowing that others I knew and was related to, went to the temples closest them and pondered things within the Celestial Room; and also knowing that, though I could not do the same myself, the Saints of old would have and were VERY grateful just to SEE that marvelous edifice pointing heavenward, that they sacrificed much to build and journey to these structures; I knew that I could go and seek my own peace and answers and inspiration, just by driving to Temple Square, and sitting amongst the trees and architecture, and marvel at the Spirit of God that I felt so present from within the Temple, and that I KNEW was a Holy Place that I could gain peace and comfort from, just by drawing near. I felt this to be a dear thing to me, as I came to feel in my heart that there were so many in early Church History who would have given much to have such easy access to the beautiful environs, feelings, and presence of such a place.

    So I went; I sat upon a large, rectangular planter/gardening area’s edge, and thought about those things which were troubling me. Many issues of personal character and strength of resolve, my fears that my seeming inability to maintain resolve in ANY matter, including doing those things which the Lord would have me do, made me insufficient to His purposes for me, and for the test that is this life and existence on Earth.

    I sat there in turmoil, although feeling a measure of the peace and beauty that surrounded me; I cannot see being there and NOT feeling at least a measure of this, for my own part.

    As tears began to fall, and deeply sincere and questioning pangs of, “Lord, I see this beauty here . . . I feel it; is there nothing of worth in me? Is THIS all I am to ever be, that I just offer myself and this offering of myself and that which I can do, becomes the worst sort of offering one could give, as I fail to be sufficient to any good desire or purpose for which I would aspire to? How can I accept this ugliness that I feel is myself; this soulful depth of inadequacy and failure which feels so unending?

    I sat here in this place of calmness within the heart of a bustling city, these thoughts, fears, and deeply felt matters filling my heart. And then . . .

    I felt . . . Him. I was turning my gaze upwards, towards the spires of the beautiful Salt Lake Temple, and I cried in my soul, “Where, o Lord, can I turn for peace? Where can I find . . . ” And as my gaze reached the top of the temple, and I thought, “How beautiful is this temple of the Lord”, the Lord answered me, and spoke to ME . . . I heard His voice, and I knew from whence it came, and yet I glanced around, startled, because the voice was as real and as present as though He was right THERE. And He was. The voice spake to me from the top of the temple, and said, “There is beauty in you, too.”

    The depth and power of that STATEMENT . . . was the most powerfully beautiful spiritual experience I have EVER had. Well, there was my experience when I was 14 of praying for faith, but that’s like comparing apples and oranges, and I love both . . . . and HE SPOKE TO ME. And I HEARD Him.

    Forgive my biblical-sounding speech of spake, whence, etc. When caught up in remembered feelings and memories of this experience, it’s what fits the relation of it.

    I apologize for the length of my post. And for going off-topic, perhaps, although it does relate at least somewhat.

    I felt . . . a goodness of desire to express these things.

    Sara

  4. Oh, and, um, I’d REALLY like to go to England and visit all these places there! I kinda got swept up in feeling and forgot all about that side of the pond. Sorry Ronan! Hee.

  5. Ronan, this really is a great post. I’m still trying to figure out how to get to Casper, but I appreciate this peek especially in the instance that I don’t make it.

    The thing that I am drawn to is that Zion will never be made top-down. In the UK Saints’ bottom-up sacralization of Gadfield Elm they have, I believed, laid the foundation for a much greater realization.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonderful, Ronan! (Be sure to say hi to me at Casper in a few weeks.)

    Actually, Nauvoo started out in somewhat the same way. It wasn’t the Church as an organization doing it, but Dr. James Kimball, a descendant of Heber C., that started Nauvoo Restoration Inc.

    The Secret Mormon Code is wonderful, Ben!

    This is all so cool. I love touring Mormon Meccas, and maybe one day I’ll make it to this one.

  7. Mark IV says:

    Ronan, outstanding post.

  8. Travis says:

    This is a fantastic post, Ronan. My family joined the Church when I was a very young child and I am basically a first generation Mormon without any “pioneer blood” in me. But I feel a real affinity for early members of the Church. Somehow, I feel that they are my heritage. Doing things like pioneer treks or visiting these history sites (even if there are staffed by cheesy missionaries dressed in period-garb) really does help me feel connected to that heritage. I love it.

  9. Fascinating post, Ronan–both for consideration of sacred space and individual initiative. Am I right in assuming that all the missionaries there now are well versed in the history and share it with guests? My pet peeve about Church historical sites is the missionaries often do not know much about the history. They can’t answer the simplest questions and are there only to teach the gospel. I think people who visit the sites leave wishing they had learned more. In Nauvoo the contrast between the Community of Christ sites with professional historians and history students on board and our missionary testimony sites is striking. My favorite church tourist (as opposed to sacred space) moment occurred with Maxine Hanks. We were standing outside the Nauvoo Temple when 2 darling young sister missionaries approached to ask if we had any questions. We said no, but asked if they had any questions. In fact, they did. They confessed they knew almost nothing about the temple’s history and asked us to share with them if we did. We had a great discussion.

  10. Kevin’s comment got me thinking. I am trying to track down the people in the know, but if I remember it was anonymous: If I remember correctly, the Far West Temple site (one of my favorite History sites) was privately held by someone that didn’t particularly want to sell to the church. A local member purchased it on the sly and donated it to the church. The church hasn’t done to much too much with it, but it could be viewed as bottom up, but on the indavidual level.

  11. Woops, I have perpetuated a local moromon legend it seems. The truth: In 1909 Pres JFS had Samuel Bennion, President of the Central States Mission, buy 80 acres including the temple lot. They now own 593 acres.

  12. Ronan, great post I enjoyed reading it. Does the trust still exist? It would be great if it did and was still involved in purchasing church history sites in England.

  13. Ronan — this is a fascinating post! I had an interesting opportunity last year to watch a film that was produced in Ontario entitled Joseph Smith in Upper Canada. It was a project that was iniatiated by a group of members here. I find the idea of local Saints, interpreting and memorializing their own history to be an exciting prosepct.

    Wish I was going to be in Caspar!

  14. Don,
    The Trust was dissolved.

    Molly,
    The couple there don’t do much proselytizing b/c I’m not sure they get many non-Mormon visitors. Yes, they are well versed in the history. Ben Bloxham used to be the Trust’s historian and there is a lot of material lying around with which they have taught themselves Gadfield Elm 101. It’s good that they’re English too, IMO.

  15. Great post, Ronan. I need to do something about the local church sites in Oklahoma. Heh.

    I often feel disconnected at Church History sites. I think church history is fascinating and muddy and inspiring and wacky but when I go I’m met with people who experience the gospel and its history in an entirely different way than I do. Which may mean that they are far less cantankerous and cynical, but I am still put out. I wonder if that would be changed at sites that are overseen by local members rather than the larger church.

    It seems like good tour guides, while fond/protective of whatever they are touring, generously give out juicy gossip. But not on Mormon tours. I need to run into Molly and Maxine next time.

  16. Great post, Ronan. I’ll miss the MHA conference, so I appreciate you sharing your interesting insights here.

    I was interested in the following passage:

    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).

    To the extent that the shrine points to the institutional church and the building of the kingdom in the West, does it miss the opportunity to root contemporary British Mormonism in place, to serve as a center for the British church (whose members are not asked to gather to America but to stay and build up Zion in their own wards and stakes)?

  17. gilgamesh says:

    Ronan,

    It is a similar situation in California. The Ship Brooklyn society formed locally and created museum exhibits for local museaums detailing LDS connections to California history. Also the state park at Coloma (gold rush) has a Mormon Cabin which was recreated and funded by local saints to remember that two Mormons found the first gold in California. Both the Brooklyn Society and the Coloma crew are keeping the ties of the church with California history alive and creating sacred Mormon spaces in San Francisco and Sacramento.

  18. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford saw it all coming in 1854 in his ‘History of Illinois’ where he expressed his fearful prediction that:

    “Sharon, Palmyra, Manchester, Kirtland, Far West, Adamon Diahmon, Ramus, Nauvoo, and the Carthage jail, may become holy and venerable names, places of classic interest, in another age; like Jerusalem, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Calvary to the Christian, and Mecca and Medina to the Turk.”

    (Page 360)

    We welcome Gadfield Elm to the Governor’s venerable list.

  19. If I did something wrong, remove my long comment. I don’t want to have done something wrong or something.

  20. It was a good comment, Sarebear.

  21. Chad S. says:

    Thanks for the great post, Ronan. Enjoyed it.

  22. Wow, what a neat story. Thanks for the opportunity to hear about this, Ronan.

  23. Thanks Ronan. I try to rein in my fears but sometimes they get away from me. Thanks for helping me with them.

  24. Elisabeth says:

    Brilliant post, Ronan. Thanks so much for sharing your research with us. I learned a lot. I think these efforts prove that Mormons should expand their celebration of Mormon history from the singular focus on Utah pioneers to the include the experiences of the Saints in other countries. Until we do that, I don’t think we can reasonably claim that the LDS religion is an international religion.

  25. Randy Cox says:

    Very enjoyable post, Ronan. I’m sure it will be well received at the conference. See you in EQ.

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  1. [...] Ronan’s A Mormon Mecca in England at By Common Consent Justin’s Kanab’s All-Woman Town Council at Mormon Wasp Dave’s Faithful History at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry [...]

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