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.
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!