Bonfire Night on the Church Farm

I grew up in the golden age of British Mormonism. Young families with lots of kids enjoyed everything the church had to offer: three hours on a Sunday morning, back again in the evening for a “fireside” (a less formal meeting), Monday night with family doing Mormon-y things (scripture reading mingled with Scrabble), Friday night youth club, Saturday camps and other fun. Mormonism was our religious and social life. We were truly a “congregation of faithful men (and women, girls and boys)” to adapt Cranmer’s vision of the visible Church. Above all, church was fun. No event in the calendar better proved this than Bonfire Night at the church farm.

At the time, the Mormon church owned a farm in the Worcestershire countryside and the farmer and his family were part of our congregation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains a massive welfare system which provides for some of the needs of the Mormon poor. In America, the “bishop’s storehouse” is a mini-supermarket where the needy take a chit signed by their bishop and collect the food and other goods they need. I volunteered in one in Baltimore and it really is a wonder of good will and efficiency. The products offered are labelled “Deseret Industries” and represent the end of a supply chain which begins with church-owned farms, goes through church-owned canneries and finishes at the storehouse. Mormons are rightly proud of this operation.

It was probably never efficient to take this operation outside of the Mormon heartland, but the principle of self-sufficiency and hard work was impossible to resist and so the small church farm near Flyford Flavell and its herd of cows and collection of small crops flourished for while in the 1980s. Work parties to pull spuds made those English Mormons indistinguishable from their Idaho brethren, which was probably the intention. We were so proud of that farm. I remember using it among friends to show just how cool and down-to-earth Mormons were: we milk cows! There was something beautifully Galilean about it.

The highlight of the church calendar took place every year on the farm: Bonfire Night. Loosely celebrating the demise of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of the 5th of November, 1605, the bonfire on our farm was part of a national festival of fire and fireworks. Perhaps a hundred of us gathered to eat chili and baked potatoes in the barn before heading out to get warm around the fire and enjoy the fireworks that my father would gleefully ignite with nary a bother about health and safety (golden days indeed). The best thing was that the youth would go the farm the night before, sleep over and watch films (PG, of course), and then spend the next day preparing the bonfire. It was a huge pile of wood, all broken pallets and farm detritus. We would then play on the farm, drive the trucks, and tip cows. This combination of rural fun and a very English holiday made Mormon Bonfire Night at the Church Farm the very essence of British Mormonism.

The farm is long gone now. The church still owns a massive farm in East Anglia run by a business branch of the church with the rather unfortunate name of AgReserves that usefully collects around €15 million in EU farm subsidies, a effort our little farm could not out compete. Meanwhile, our Mormon ward is now half the size. A branch was hived off from the eastern boundaries and those young families with lots of children have grown up. Most of their kids have left the area, many have left the church, and those that have stayed now enjoy the church’s silent volte-face on contraception and have less children. The two farm families have moved away. All in all, Mormon demographics in the UK show a gradual decline: missionaries still baptise but the majority don’t stick; there are pockets of vitality, but wards like mine, once vibrant, struggle. They don’t struggle like a small parish church might, but then Mormon wards are the geographical size of small dioceses and so even modest numbers can be deceiving.

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Bonfire Night without the bonfire. Still good, tho’.

Still, absent the farm, the Mormon congregation in Worcester still marks Bonfire Night. It’s not like it once was but potluck chilis and fireworks in the church car park remain as much a hallmark of the congregation of the faithful as do Sunday sacraments or even the giant bonfires of yesteryear. Of such surely is the kingdom of heaven, a Mormon vision of heaven that is not all beautific visions of God but rather sociality with God and, one hopes, much food and merriment.

Comments

  1. “This combination of rural fun and a very English holiday made Mormon Bonfire Night at the Church Farm the very essence of British Mormonism.”

    So lovely.

    “The farm is long gone now although the church still owns a massive farm in East Anglia run by a business branch of the church with the rather unfortunate name of AgReserves that usefully collects around €15 million in EU farm subsidies. Meanwhile, our Mormon ward is now half the size. A branch was hived off from the eastern boundaries and those young families with lots of children have grown up. Most of their kids have left the area, many have left the church . . . . All in all, Mormon demographics in the UK show a gradual decline: missionaries still baptise but the majority don’t stick; there are pockets of vitality, but wards like mine, once vibrant, struggle. They don’t struggle like a small parish church might, but then Mormon wards are the size of small dioceses and so even modest numbers can be deceiving.”

    So sad.

    I do think we’ve lost a lot in eliminating activities committees and other “fun” things that can’t be spun as simultaneously “spiritual”. It’s made for a very anemic sense of community.

  2. Farm was by Pershore, John. It was an anchor for our vibrant ward, but was probably too small to be efficient. Tonight was still great, though.

  3. “till, absent the farm, the Mormon congregation in Worcester still marks Bonfire Night. It’s not like it once was but potluck chilis and fireworks in the church car park remain as much a hallmark of the congregation of the faithful as do Sunday sacraments or even the giant bonfires of yesteryear. Of such surely is the kingdom of heaven, a Mormon vision of heaven that is not all beautific vision but rather sociality and (one hopes) food and merriment.”

    I think I’ve got a bit of dust in my eyes…must be something in the air here.

  4. “I do think we’ve lost a lot in eliminating activities committees and other “fun” things that can’t be spun as simultaneously “spiritual”. It’s made for a very anemic sense of community.”

    Yes, and I think that time will prove that you can pass all the legislation you want with letters to be read in Sacrament meeting and dictum from regional leaders, but you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. For that reason, we have activities committees again in our corner of the church–they were absent for a year or two, and we missed them, so we started them up again. It may not work for sugar beet farms, but it certainly works for cake walks and campfires.

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    Some beautiful countryside there between the Severn and the Avon. Fond memories of my time there as well.

  6. Seeing your building in the picture brings back great memories even for me, though I didn’t grow up there I have been there a number of times on happy occasions.

  7. Built by the local members.

  8. Where is your “corner of the church,” Scott B.? After our last linger longer with no one in charge to even ask someone to give a prayer or decide whether we use paper plates or the china or wash dishes if we did use china, I decided we need an activity committee. I don’t have much authority, like none, in fact, but I am willing to lobby for a change if possible.

  9. Thanks for this reflection, Ronan. Like Scott, I’m especially moved by your evocation of the sociable heaven. I’m glad you got to have a taste of it, even amidst nostalgia for a golden age.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Growing up in a small branch (that gradually grew into a small ward) in northern Illinois, the Church was the center of our social lives. We were one big loving family. Branch/ward camp outs, dances (for everyone all together, not just the youth), staying up all night New Years Eve together playing games and having a breakfast in the morning, and on and on. It’s just not the same these days.

  11. Not having an activities committee didn’t work well in our ward either. The bishop called an “activities leader” and lots of helpers (the same thing as activities chair and committee but with a different name)

  12. Pangwitch says:

    even the most staunch believers admit that the LDS church is no longer fun, no longer creates the kind of community that many people envision mormon community being in their heads. What is to be done about this? There is no way to petition the leaders of the church who are making the changes that are stifling community. maybe organize a fast to make church fun again?

    Either way, it’s sad. The fun things I remember from growing up LDS wouldn’t available to my children (if i had them, there goes that contraception Volte Face again.. need to look that one up)

    Most of the things people cite as fun lds activities are now down in spite of church policy, or at the personal expense of some wealthy local leader.

  13. “Of such surely is the kingdom of heaven, a Mormon vision of heaven that is not all beautific vision but rather sociality and (one hopes) food and merriment.” Hear, hear.

  14. I should re-iterate the fact that our ward still tries very hard to “have fun.” We run activities every month (the RS activities co-ordinator has been made into the de facto ward co-ordinator and gets help from different auxiliaries in turn).

    My nostalgia is for the scale of yesteryear’s activities, something a smaller ward can no longer replicate. We are smaller for a number of reasons: the loss of the farm (in favour of the huge AgReserves effort), the creation of a branch out of part of the ward (probably a mistake), and the slow decline in active membership (a nationwide problem). One thing fewer people in my ward have an appetite for are stake functions: too far to travel. Time is something we have less of in our modern world it seems.

  15. Being so much further away from the church farm, we only got to visit once, on a coach trip. Actually, my best memories of ward activities growing up were the coach trips. An annual ward outing somewhere, and then the temple trips as well. Back then far fewer members had cars. There was a lot of camaraderie on a coach trip. But as time went by, and more and more had their own cars, there seemed to be less willingness to hire a coach to do anything.
    Bonfire night wasn’t a regular thing in my ward until a bit later when one of the members moved to a house in the countryside, and it was held there. But I do remember the annual roadshows held around the end of October. My current ward has a pretty good bonfire night and fireworks, held at the home of a local member (they have a large garden). But it is dependent on the goodwill of that member family.
    Are there fewer large families? I’m the eldest of 7, and whilst I only have 2 children myself, I have 25 nieces and nephews and counting. That number isn’t evenly distributed. I think the ward I grew up there were 3 large families. But I don’t think there were large families in every ward in the stake back then. In my ward at the moment there are none, but there have been in the recent past, but people move in and then move out. I know quite a few of my contemporaries, active church members, who are not my family members who also have large families. Of course this is anecdotal…
    I have mixed feelings on there being fewer activities. I get the feeling life is just so much more hectic for many now. I can’t begin to think how my parents fitted it all in.

  16. RJH, we had no church farm but what you describe is familiar to me, and is an incredibly important part of my faith. Really appreciated this.

  17. This makes me, only a member for 12 years, sentimental and slightly squishy for that kind of community I saw in the ward into which I was baptized, but I, too, can relate the ebbing of a sense of cohesive community, just in the short time I’ve been a member.

    Thanks for this lovely remembrance, RJH. My hopes align with yours.

  18. My current ward seems to have the exact opposite problem. We are now too large to have a ward dinner of any kind, the building simply won’t hold everyone sitting down together. Add service projects, moves, Make A Difference Day, YW Basketball, campouts, and everything else, and it would seem that our leaders live in mortal fear that some member, somewhere, might have some free time.

  19. Joshua G. H. Smith says:

    Great post. I remember as a young boy (I’m 36 now) going with my Dad to “work” the Church farm outside St. Louis. My Dad would work, while my younger brother and I would attempt as best we could to get into trouble. I remember those times very fondly, spending time in the late afternoons in the spring and summer with my Dad. In early 1990s the farm was sold.

    It’s fascinating to me to see the shift in the Church, I’m not sure really how I feel about it.

    We used to raise money for and even build our own buildings, now SLC takes care of it.
    We used to have farms to raise our own local food to disperse and can, now SLC has that.
    We used to actually have members work canneries locally, now SLC has that.
    We used to raise our own budget funds, now it’s centralized in SLC.
    We used to teach people how to cook, how to sew, etc, now we don’t.
    We used to have activities which were MORE important than sports, school performances, etc; now we have no activities committees so events are either forgone or taken on by those who already have more tasks than they can accomplish as a part of their Church callings/assignments.

    Some of these shifts are generational for sure. I don’t have the same skills in home repair that my grandfather did, my farming skills are far inferior to my grandparents as well no matter how many gardens I weed. Some of the shift has to do with more over-scheduling, which seems to even permeate the Church as earlier commenters have posited. Some of the shift surely is that we don’t necessarily handle the blessing of prosperity well.

    My generation has grown up largely in a Walmart/Costco economy, which I define as “If Walmart/Costco doesn’t have it, you don’t need it”. This has hampered our ability to DO, and has fostered our dependency on corporations, which is perhaps not as bad as being government-dependent in the eyes of some, but self-reliance starts with “self”.

    What intrigues me is that it seems on the surface that even the Church, who used to “give” opportunities for local members to do for themselves, has recognized that vertically and horizontally integrating is better for them at HQ (financially and perhaps politically) without looking at the unintended consequences borne by the rank and file in the Stake, Wards and Branches.

  20. “We used to raise money for and even build our own buildings, now SLC takes care of it.
    We used to have farms to raise our own local food to disperse and can, now SLC has that.
    We used to actually have members work canneries locally, now SLC has that.
    We used to raise our own budget funds, now it’s centralized in SLC.”

    Joshua, so much for the theory that so many co-religionists otherwise live by very stricly, that everything is much better executed at the most local level possible, right?

  21. Helena Jones says:

    This is a great post. I ran our ward bonfire party last night and we got about 80-90 people squashed into my Dads garden. I am also teaching Sunday school and it is the final Isaiah lesson here on strengthening the stakes of Zion and so I just kept on thinking about community and how important it is for us as a church community to join together. Your sentence about sociality with God is really important. To echo another point I wish we could bring back activities committees….

  22. Martin Holden says:

    We are lucky as our Bishop is a farmer so we have an annual bonfire and fireworks on his farm though he opens it up to his neighbours and friends so it is not so it is not so much a church activity as a community one. Being on an island stake activities are not relevant to us and we do have many regular and good ones of our own – Easter ward picnic and soccer at the arboretum, beach activity at some point in the summer, Bonfire night, New Years Eve at the Bishop’s, Family History event on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday are the main regular ones but the loss of an activities committee has hurt. I understand they may not be necessary in large wards but in smaller units with weak auxiliaries an activities leader is needed. More autonomy would be really helpful. We are also lucky in that we have a big youth group – about 8 YW and 12 YM – well that is huge for us.

  23. Is that Bernard Shaw in the photo? Still fruitlessly following Wolverhampton?

  24. Thomas Parkin says:

    I especially like the last sentence.