An English Mormon story

From my mum, Anthea.

My first encounter with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was when I was 16 and still living with my parents who were very active in the Church of England. I had already met my future husband, David, at that time. I cannot remember exactly how we met the two young American Mormon missionaries who visited our home in Worcester, but I do remember their names: Elder Ayres and Elder Palmer. I remember that Elder Palmer was good-looking and that appealed to a girl of 16.

I was surprised that my parents invited them into their best room to talk to us as we used to attend St. John’s church at the time and were very happy there.

One Sunday whilst we were at Evensong, the vicar pulled David and myself aside and told us to have nothing to do with “that Coca-Cola religion.” During the 1960s, the church was much maligned in England and considered a dangerous American sect with weird and controversial doctrines. I’m sure that the vicar had our best interests at heart and didn’t want us to be indoctrinated by some handsome American boys. Because of his advice we stopped seeing the missionaries.

There were no more thoughts about the Mormon church until 1965. I was married by then and had a baby daughter and was expecting our second. I well remember the day of our next encounter with the missionaries. David was at work, and it was a dull and depressing day. I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. There was a knock on the door and there stood Elder Karren from Canada and Elder Couch from Idaho. I invited them back and we started the discussions.

David and I were not easy to convert but we had good times and grew very close as they were about our age. We also had two sister missionaries who used to come and babysit for us along with the Elders. Of course, this would not be allowed today!

After several months we eventually got baptised. My first impression of the church was how friendly and welcoming everyone was and because we were young and poor with two little girls to support we were given lots of help with clothes and things.

In those days the Relief Society used to hold wonderful bazaars and I remember inviting my mother to one of them. She really enjoyed coming but was rather perplexed because all the ladies were dressed as “Pioneers.” As this was the age of the mini-skirt, it all looked rather strange. I think my mother thought I was a member of some strange sect like the Amish. The image of the church as an American church was very strong.

We often used to hear in the church about the pioneers and how they crossed the American continent. It bored me every time. It was all so foreign.

But something changed. I wrote this whilst sitting in the peace of the Gadfield Elm chapel in the beautiful countryside of Worcestershire. Inside the chapel — England’s first Mormon building, dating from the 1840s — there are numerous pictures of pioneers on the walls. These are not pictures of Americans, but of my fellow countrymen and women who left England and crossed the Plains. This has served as a reminder for me that the pioneer story is not as “foreign” as I first thought.

Since David and I were called as service missionaries at Gadfield Elm the significance of the pioneers has really moved me. Their bravery and the terrible hardships they endured are heart-breaking. We have American visitors who are amazed that their ancestors left this green and pleasant land for the cruelty of the desert. But the pioneers had faith. I would have hated it.

Serving at Gadfield Elm, I have come to know people like Robert Harris. Robert was born on December 26, 1807. He was a member of the United Brethren and was converted and baptised by Wilford Woodruff on March 15, 1840. He was a butcher and loved sport, especially prize fighting at village fairs. He married Hannah Eagles in 1835 and emigrated on The Echo in 1841. They had 15 children. He died in Kaysville, Utah in 1876 and Wilford Woodruff preached at his funeral. Whilst serving with the Mormon Battalion, Robert wrote the following to his pregnant wife:

“My dear, be sure to take your little cask to put your water in for if I should know that you will suffer as I did for water it will make my heart break…

“Now my Darling respecting your confinement; you try to furnish yourself with something necessary for your comfort against that time and get some good woman to take care of you and if you can’t get means to pay her let her have my gun or something else until we meet and then I will pay the demand.”

Without men and women like Robert and Hannah Harris, there would be no church today, men and women from a quiet corner of England dear to my heart.

My husband and I travel a lot and we often visit the local LDS wards in the places where we go. We had a wonderful welcome when at church on the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. It was just a small branch but the people were friendly and warm. Our daughter Jackie lives in Florida and every year when we visit we go to the Daytona Beach ward. We often visit the Milford Haven branch in West Wales. They meet in a cold, draughty, ugly hall but we are always greeted kindly. This is one of our favourite places to go to church because they finish at 12.30!

God intends the church to be universal. We always watch General Conference at home on the satellite and I say to David that perhaps one day we will have an African prophet, or maybe a Chinese prophet, or even a French prophet. This would be a wonderful thing because we don’t belong to an American church but to an international church of Christ. Jesus loves all people no matter whether they are rich or poor, no matter what colour or nationality. For my part, I am proud of our English heritage in the church and I hope people take the time to visit Gadfield Elm and learn about the English pioneers.

Comments

  1. I never really connected with the pioneer stories growing up because I didn’t have any deep roots in the church. My mother joined when I was less than 1 yr old. However, I can look to what they accomplished and marvel. I like to think that I could have followed the call to go West. Perhaps one day a call to gather will be heard in my lifetime. If so, I’ll have many examples of faith to borrow strength from, even if they weren’t in my family.

    I’ve attended church in several different countries and outside of the ability to sing, I’ve not found any differences and found people of strong faith everywhere. The gospel is one of the few thing that can pull disparate people together and make them equal.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Incredibly wonderful. Thanks for gracing us with this tribute and a taste of this legacy.

  3. This is wonderful and moving. Thank you so much. Last year I finished Recollections of Past Days: The Autobiography of Patience Loader Rozsa Archer. It really is shocking how much the English saints sacrificed to go to Utah.

  4. This post is an instant classic. Past, present and future of the church in one short article. Thank you, Anthea — and Ronan.

  5. I just read some of the journal of an English woman from Gadfield who left in 1841. The saddest part is her agony at saying goodbye to her mother, father, and siblings, knowing they would never see each other again. Her father even sent people to the boat to bring her home before it sailed. We romanticize these stories today but forget how wrenching they were. I’ve recently come to feel sorry for those who stayed behind and watched their sons and daughters disappear with some strange religionists to an alien world. It’s a great and terrible story, really, this Mormon emigration from Europe. Imagining the anguished British voices at Martin’s Cove is heartbreaking for me.

  6. But my mum is wrong on this one:

    or even a French prophet

    That’s when I leave the church.

  7. Norbert says:

    Fantastic — makes me miss our time in England, the heritage of the church in that country and the vibrancy of the more recent pioneers.

    And amen to the international church of Christ.

  8. Researcher says:

    Lovely post.

    When my husband and I traveled in England and Scotland a couple of years ago, we were impressed continually by being in that green and pleasant land. Among our ancestors, some of them would have been sad to leave, some happy, and most would have left with very mixed feelings. But I’m sure all of them shed at least one tear.

    When we rode the train from Scotland, where many people looked like my mother, to Yorkshire, my husband looked at the people and said, boy they look strange. He meant different from the Scots, but I looked at the Yorkshiremen, looked at my husband, looked at them again, and told him that with a change of clothing, no one would be able to tell the difference between him and one of them. (When I got home and looked it up, sure enough, that’s where many of his ancestors are from.)

    I found the following interesting:

    Now my Darling respecting your confinement; you try to furnish yourself with something necessary for your comfort against that time

    I assume Harris meant that she should try and acquire something sugary as is mentioned in A Midwife’s Tale as being customary for a woman after childbirth?

  9. What a wonderful post; thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  10. Mark IV says:

    Thank you for this post.

    We read about the thousands converted by Heber C. Kimball and Wilford Woodruff, and your thoughts here help me remember and appreciate the faith that sustained them as they left home. My own ancestors for whom I am named lived within twenty miles of Worcester, and the price they paid was heavy indeed.

    Also, I am reminded yet again of how many small connections keep us together. I’ve attended Sunday services in Daytona Beach, and one of the priests I taught went on to serve part of his mission on the Isle of Guernsey. And I know Ronan.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely, Anthea. Now we have a better sense for the tremendous stock Ronan comes from and why he turned out to be such a great bloke.

  12. Thanks for this.

  13. sister blah 2 says:

    Beautiful story!

    Thanks Ronan for #5. All the stories I grew up with are from the convert’s point of view–diary after diary of heartbreaking stories of being disowned and the like. But there is another side of the story, sincerely concerned parents and siblings who forever lost loved ones to a strange land and a strange sect.

  14. Hi Ronans Mum and Dad. I am a direct ggggrandchild of Robert Harris on my Mother’s side of the family. In fact like a lot of multiple generation members more then just one line comes directly from the United Bretheren. If my understanding of the data is correct a signifigant percentage of the saints that crossed the plains were in fact from Britain. I have heard some speculation of 30-40%. Maybe somebody else knows a more exact number or can further shed some light on the issue.

  15. Great.

  16. Mark B. says:

    Wonderful!

    Thanks so much for this piece, Anthea (and Ronan). My great-great grandfather and his family were baptized in October 1849 in Hertfordshire–they lived in the lovely little village of Redbourn. And they left all and ended up in the desets of Utah and Arizona.

    Your post reminds us of how much those people and all the other British saints gave up as they accepted the restored gospel. Thanks.

    Here’s hoping you’ll be at Gadfield Elm in summer 2009. If you’re there, we’ll see you then!

  17. My GG father and ggg grand parents on his wife’s side were converted with the United Brethren around Gadfield Elm. Two years ago we had the pleasure of being there and seeing there names in the register.

    So after looking at the lush verdance of the English countryside and comparing it to Utah, I felt a pang of sympathy for John Rowberry. However, I read his journal he made after going back to England on a mission. No regrets what so ever. Not a lick of home-sickness. He was so pleased to have left and trekked to Nauvoo and beyond.

    Thanks, England, for your great hearts willing to be converted for a better life and with hope for an eternal life.

  18. As an English Saint – thank you. When I teach or hear lessons about pioneers there are some who think it hasn’t a lot to do with us (non-Utah folks). I always make sure to remind them that many of them were our ancestry and our country folk.

    I’d also (see #14) would be interested to know what percentage of pioneers were of British stock.

    I’ve visited early chapels/tabernacles and Deseret village in Utah and often commented that the buildings’ architecture is very similar to the Methodist chapels I knew in my youth (alas fast disappearing now). No doubt the builders and architects of British stock made their influence felt!

  19. J Foote says:

    Ronan,

    Thanks for this post – it brought back some great memories. Worcester was my first area (back in July 2001), and your parents, along with the rest of the Worcester Ward, were very good to a nervous young missionary. It was a great place to be, and I have very fond memories.

    Jeremy

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