Gadfield Elm at 175 (+4)

This way to the

This way to the “world’s oldest” Mormon chapel

If by chapel you mean a religious meeting place designated as a “chapel,” then the Gadfield Elm chapel in Worcestershire, England, is the oldest Mormon chapel in the world. Built in 1836 by the United Brethren, the chapel became a Mormon centre in 1840 during Wilford Woodruff’s British mission. Local Mormons — whose restoration of the building and sacred myth-making centred thereon are interesting manifestations of Mormon localism — celebrated today the 175th anniversary of the 1840 conference that established the Mormon church in their area.

The centrepiece of the celebration was a dramatic retelling of the events of the Woodruff mission and its place in the pioneer story. Members acted from a script that was largely drawn from Woodruff’s journal. Actors included three generations of my family (Gadfield Elm and its history is basically my favourite thing in all of Mormonism after Low). Music was drawn from Faith, the musical.  When “Willard Richards” presented the business of the re-enacted conference, the audience offered a sustaining vote. When Woodruff converted a constable sent to arrest him, they cheered. Mary Pitt was healed.

Wilford Woodruff preaches at the 1840 Gadfield Elm conference

Wilford Woodruff preaches at the 1840 Gadfield Elm conference

Conference elders are sustained by the congregation

Conference elders are sustained by the congregation

wpid-img_20150613_155828.jpg

Mary Pitt is healed.

Mary Pitt, WW, William Benbow jr, William Benbow

Mary Pitt, WW, William Benbow jr, William Benbow

As well as the play, visitors enjoyed picnics, cricket, painting and other activities. This stuff really is Mormonism as a history-obsessed religion, with the trek to Zion its most powerful myth. I still hold to an earlier view:

As a focal point of Mormon commemoration, the local Saints who arrive at the Gadfield Elm chapel dressed as pioneers ready to reenact the great trek might lead a non-Mormon visitor to conclude that Mormons were indeed American-minded and semi-Amish—a view probably not conducive to any kind of proselytizing success. I do not think this is in the mind of most local Mormons, however. For them, Gadfield Elm ties their Mormon periphery to Mormonism’s historical center, “far away, in the West.” They get to stand where apostles stood and to feel especially connected to people and events that often seem foreign. As Mircea Eliade has explained, sacred space promotes the creation of a “centre” which “renders orientation possible.” As members of a small minority religion in the UK, one should not underestimate the feeling of orientation towards the American centre place that Gadfield Elm’s “peripheral centre” provides British Mormons.

These celebrations allow British Mormons to take part in the church’s grand historical narrative and co-opt some of it as their own. And they love it!

Kids' activities

Kids’ activities

Comments

  1. Ronan, this is wonderful. I’d love for you to show me round Gadfield Elm one day. As an aside, it was quite surreal seeing my old friend Reg Stobbs on BCC post.

  2. He’s our go-to artist.

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    Wonderful. I look forward to being able to visit that sacred ground again sometime in the future. A few moments of quiet, contemplative prayer alone in that chapel count for much in my life.

  4. Still regret speeding by on the M50, oblivious. Will join the Benbow Trail pilgrimage you are putting together, when ready.

  5. Have some thoughts on how the Japanese saints do this local center thing, too, next time we’re in the same pub.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I love your family’s long association with the chapel. Is there still a code to get in if no one is there based on things any Mormon would know?

  7. This is really great. So wonderful. So glad this happened and that you and your family were a central part of it.

  8. Jason K. says:

    So awesome, Ronan. The Benbow trail pilgrimage will be epic.

  9. We were there about 10 years ago, just after its restoration. We wandered through fields and over meadows to find it. It was worth it to see the names of my fore-bearers in the documents, knowing they were there. We wandered around the countryside considering.

    I thought how strange it must have been for these people to have left such a lush and civilized place to go to the frontier and rough ways. I, subsequently, read my G grandfather’s memoir, how happy he was to have left. Upon returning on a mission he found how oppressed his countrymen were. No, they were happy to go to Zion. He, at least, never looked back.

  10. Dale Gibson says:

    Visited in 2005. Glad it was preserved and restored.

  11. A.J. Rich says:

    Great experience. I am from Utah and my young family and I will be visiting Gadfield Elm Chapel sometime mid July. We are excited to see where this rich history took place in England!

  12. Is there any way to glance at the members who were in the original branch online?

  13. Miss the Mitchells there.

  14. So great to see! My family was converted as part of the original Wilfred Woodruff “pentecost” of converts. Today, I’m working on my own bit of dramatic theater! http://igg.me/at/AM-themovie

  15. We all have Simon Gibson to thank for his work in acquiring and restoring this fabulous historical
    place!