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The Church in the British Isles

As a young man, David O. McKay was a missionary in Scotland, his ancestral homeland. This picture, on the shores of Loch Lomond, was probably taken during his tour of the European missions in 1952, the year after he was sustained as President of the Church. Courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

by Bryan J. Grant

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to the British Isles when seven LDS missionaries landed at Liverpool, England, on July 19, 1837. The success of this first mission (more than 1,500 converts by April 1839) set the stage for the even more successful apostolic mission of 1839-1841, which saw nine of the eleven apostles (the twelfth place was vacant at the time) serving as missionaries in England under the direction of Brigham Young. The Church grew rapidly in Great Britain among the working classes of the Northwest, the Midlands, and, especially, Wales. Membership counts at the end of 1851 showed 33,000 members of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland and 12,000 in Utah. Although total membership in the British Isles declined after the mid-1850s due to emigration and attrition, substantial additions through baptisms continued through the 1860s. From 1870 to the mid-1950s, the Church did not experience sustained growth in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But the dedication of the London Temple (in Lingfield, Surrey) in September 1958 and the creation of the Manchester England Stake on March 27, 1970, initiated a second growth phase of membership; by 1990 the Church had more than 160,000 members in 9 missions, 40 stakes, and more than 330 wards and branches in the British Isles. The strength of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1990 is indicated by the number of stakes: thirty-two in England, five in Scotland, two in Wales, and one in Northern Ireland. Branches (congregations) in the Republic of Ireland, whose members are not as numerous as in other areas, are under the jurisdiction of mission districts rather than a stake.

When the missionaries first arrived in the British Isles, they went to Preston, England, where Joseph Fielding's brother, Rev. James Fielding, had invited him and his missionary companions to preach at his Vauxhall Chapel. James's enthusiasm waned when it became apparent that he risked losing his congregation, and he promptly closed the chapel to the missionaries. They then taught in private homes, and a week later baptized the first nine British converts in the river Ribble, at Preston. By Sunday, August 6, there were nearly fifty converts in Preston, and Elder Heber C. Kimball organized the Preston Branch. In two months, membership had reached 140, and the original branch was divided into five separate branches in October. Missionary work was extended to Bedford, and to Alston, near the Scottish border, where the missionaries had relatives. Elder Kimball preached in the villages of the Ribble Valley.

On Christmas Day of 1837, the members met for the first conference in Britain, and on Sunday, April 8, 1838, another conference held in the Cockpit, Preston, drew down the curtain on the first phase of Mormon missionary work in Britain. There were 1,500-2,000 British members of the Church, and the leadership was transferred to Joseph Fielding as elders Kimball and Orson Hyde set sail for America.

APOSTOLIC MISSION, 1838-1841. The second major LDS missionary thrust in the British Isles began on July 8, 1838, at Far West, Missouri, when the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation instructing the Twelve Apostles to prepare to serve a mission in Great Britain. Brigham Young and six other apostles left from New York for Britain between December 1839 and March 1840. Willard Richards, who had remained there after the 1837 mission, was ordained an apostle in Britain on April 14, 1840, by Brigham Young. The missionaries baptized thousands of converts (Wilford Woodruff personally baptized more than a thousand), organized branches and conferences, and directed the work of the Church, including printing scriptures and tracts, and began publishing the millennial star, the British Church periodical that would have a continuous run from 1840 through 1970. In 1841, shortly before he returned to America, Brigham Young arranged for richly bound copies of the Book of Mormon to be presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The volume presented to the queen was located in the Royal Library at Windsor in 1986.

The Britain of those days was ripe for a message of hope, and the preaching of a restored gospel of Jesus Christ was timely. By June 1842 there were 8,245 members of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Six years later there were 18,000, and by the end of 1851 England had 24,199 Latter-day Saints, Wales had 5,244, Scotland had 3,291, and Ireland had 160—a total of almost 33,000—and an additional 11,000 had already emigrated to America. In 1851 there were more members of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland than there were in Utah (12,000).

EMIGRATION. Emigration to the United States to help build the main body of the Church was the recommended pattern for the members during the first century of the Church in the British Isles. The perpetual emigrating fund was established in September 1849 to assist. Those who emigrated with the help of this revolving fund were to pay back the money as they could, so that others might be helped. The fund was formally discontinued in 1887, after thousands had benefited from it. Additional thousands were assisted by friends and relatives who had already emigrated. From 1847 to 1869, more than 32,000 British and Irish converts to the Church left their homelands for a new life in pioneer America. When the novelist Charles Dickens visited the Amazon before it set sail from London on June 4, 1863, to see what the Mormon emigrants were like, he noted: "I…had come aboard this Emigrant Ship to see what eight hundred Latter-day Saints were like…. Nobody is in an ill-temper, nobody is the worse for drink, nobody swears an oath or uses a coarse word, nobody appears depressed, nobody is weeping, and down upon the deck in every corner where it is possible to find a few square feet to kneel, crouch or lie in, people, in every suitable attitude for writing, are writing letters. Now, I have seen emigrants ships before this day in June. And these people are strikingly different from all other people in like circumstances whom I have ever seen, and I wonder aloud, "What would a stranger suppose these emigrants to be!'…I should have said they were in their degree, the pick and flower of England" (Dickens, pp. 223-25).

Dickens set down his impressions of Mormon emigrants in one of a series of essays that appeared at intervals between 1860 and 1869 in his weekly magazine, All the Year Round. He later published them in the chapter "Bound for the Great Salt Lake" in The Uncommercial Traveller. He concluded with:

I afterwards learned that a dispatch was sent home by the captain before he struck out into the wide Atlantic, highly extolling the behaviour of these emigrants, and the perfect order and propriety of all their social arrangements…. I went on board their ship to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; to my great astonishment they did not deserve it; and my predispositions and tendencies must not affect me as an honest witness. I went over the Amazon's side, feeling it impossible to deny that, so far, some remarkable influence had produced a remarkable result, which better known influences have often missed [Dickens, p. 232].

The 895 LDS emigrants under the direction of Elder William Bramall were well organized. The ship's captain explained:

The most of these came aboard yesterday evening. They came from various parts of England in small parties that had never seen one another before. Yet they had not been a couple of hours on board, when they established their own police, made their own regulations, and set their own watches at all the hatchways. Before nine o'clock, the ship was as orderly and quiet as a man-of-war [Dickens, p. 223].

THE CHURCH IN BRITAIN IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. The early years of the twentieth century were troubled times for the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Much of its strength had been drawn away through emigration; between 1870 and 1892 Church membership declined from 9,000 to barely 2,600. Then, against the backdrop of the polygamy issue, and fanned by newspaper exposés and by novels from writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Winifred Graham, an "anti-Mormon crusade" reached a peak in 1911. Persecution was rife, violence was threatened, and missionaries were occasionally tarred and feathered, as in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Nevertheless, the Church grew in this time of trials, more than doubling in membership between 1897 and 1910, and averaging more than 8,000 members in Great Britain from then until after the end of World War I. But with missionary work disrupted by two world wars, a modest decline kept membership at an average of about 6,000 through 1950.

In the mid-1950s, membership in the United Kingdom and Ireland stood at 9,000, when the second major phase of the growth and development of the Church in the British Isles began. Emphasis was given to "staying and building," and steps were taken to ensure that Church members in the United Kingdom did not need to emigrate to enjoy all the blessings of the Church membership.

President David O. McKay dedicated the London Temple, at Lingfield, Surrey, on September 7-9, 1958. The first European stake was created March 17, 1960, in Manchester, and others followed in rapid succession. Where only a handful of LDS chapels existed in Britain before 1960, with most congregations worshiping in rented rooms or halls, by 1970 more than 100 chapels had been completed, and this number rose to around 250 by the end of the 1980s. These manifestations of a permanent presence led to a dramatic reawakening in the British Isles, and an era of increased baptisms and Church growth.

The Public Communications Department was established in 1975 to disseminate information about the Church. The Church Educational System began its work with youth, and missionary and temple work increased. More genealogical records were obtained for microfilming, and a network of family history centers was inaugurated. The Church Welfare Services program, with its support to the needy based on the principle of work, commenced in 1980 with the purchase of a 305-acre farm at Kington, Worcestershire. In January 1985 the London Missionary Training Center, located near the temple, opened its doors.

THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY. Media attention peaked in 1987, when the Church celebrated its 150th anniversary in the British Isles. Broadcaster and writer Ian Bradley produced a thirty-minute BBC documentary on the Church that aired twice on radio in Britain, and also on the World Service.

At the anniversary dinner at the Savoy Hotel in London, on July 24, and in the presence of distinguished guests from both sides of the Atlantic, the British contribution to the colonizing of the American Far West was formally recognized in a videotaped message from U.S. President Ronald Reagan: "The Mormon contribution to American life is beyond measuring, and the contribution of the British Isles to the Mormon Church is also immense. They are the contributions of love and joy; of faith and family; of work and community. They are a dedication to the values that are at the heart of free nations—and good ones—and they are a faith in the promise of tomorrow."

THE CHURCH IN THE BRITISH ISLES IN 1990. Britain, like many other parts of Europe, has experienced a decline in religious observance since World War II. Many British churches now have congregations that are predominantly middle-aged to elderly, and largely female. Latter-day Saints in the United Kingdom and Ireland, in contrast, are experiencing the second flowering of the Church there. About 37 percent of British LDS baptisms came between 1837 and 1869, and nearly 50 percent have come since 1950. During the 1970s and 1980s, a new LDS congregation was established in the United Kingdom and Ireland almost every two weeks, and a new chapel was dedicated almost every month.

DEMOGRAPHICS. In demographic terms, the LDS Church in the British Isles at the end of 1989 had a young membership profile. While 43 percent of the British population that year were under thirty, the Church figure was 53 percent. Primary children (ages three to eleven) made up 20 percent of the British Latter-day Saints; 10 percent were teenagers (ages twelve to seventeen); and 25 percent were young adults (ages eighteen to thirty).

EDUCATION. The majority of LDS British youth attended state schools in 1989. Studies showed 13 percent of members of the Church had some form of higher education. Among recent converts this figure was 18 percent.

EMPLOYMENT. In 1989 unemployment was a major social problem in the British Isles, and the rate for LDS men was similar to the national figure of 13 percent. When they were employed, Church males generally showed a higher percentage in white-collar occupations compared with the figure for all British men; fewer LDS women were in the labor force than British women generally.

THE CHALLENGE OF LAY CLERGY. The recent increased growth of the Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland meant that the majority of local Church leaders in 1989 were still first-generation members. This created great need for effective leadership training of its lay clergy.

BRITISH CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CHURCH. British contributions to the Church have taken two main forms: providing a training ground for many early Church leaders, and helping to build and sustain the fledgling Church through the influx of British immigrants. Of the 1839 apostolic mission, in particular, it is important to note that that group of missionaries contained the next four Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. They received vital training and experience in the British Isles, and forged a strong unity within the Quorum of the Twelve that sustained the Church through the testing times that followed the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844. These men would lead and direct the Church into the twentieth century.

All of the men who have served as President of the Church, from Joseph Smith to Ezra Taft Benson, trace their ancestry back to the British Isles. The ancestors of President Benson, for example, came from Caversham, Oxfordshire. All of the Church Presidents except Joseph Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball labored as missionaries in Great Britain.

CHURCH LEADERS BORN IN BRITAIN. John Taylor, the third President of the Church, was born in Milnthorpe, Westmoreland, and joined the Church in Upper Canada. George Q. Cannon and Charles W. Penrose, both of whom became members of the Quorum of the Twelve and later counselors in the First Presidency, came from Liverpool and Camberwell, London, respectively. George Teasdale and James E. Talmage, also apostles, were from London and from Hungerford, Berkshire. John Rex Winder, from Biddenden, Kent, was a counselor in the First Presidency (1887-1910), and George Reynolds, from London, and B. H. Roberts, from Warrington, were presidents of the Seventy.

Other British General Authorities were John Longden, from Oldham, Lancashire, and John Wells, from Carolton, Nottinghamshire. In 1990, Nottingham-born Derek A. Cuthbert was serving in the First Quorum of the Seventy. Ruth May Fox, born in Westbury, Wiltshire, in 1853, was the general president of the Young Women from 1929-1937. May Anderson of Liverpool was editor of the Church's children's friend magazine from 1902 to 1940, first counselor in the General Presidency of the Primary from 1905 to 1925, and its President from 1925 to 1939. She was also the moving force behind the establishment of the Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City (see Hospitals). May Green Hinckley, of Brampton, Derbyshire, was General President of the Primary and editor of the Children's Friend from 1940 to 1943. The Church's Sunday School organization was founded in 1849 by Scotsman Richard Ballantyne.

Life was not all work. The Saints carried with them a love of music. As the first pioneer party crossed the plains, they did so to the strains of William Pitt's Brass Band, from the English Midlands. One of the best-remembered British converts is William Clayton, from Penwortham, Lancashire. He founded the branch of the Church in Manchester before emigrating, and went on to serve as a clerk to Joseph Smith. While crossing the plains, he kept a meticulous record, and wrote the rallying song, "Come, Come, Ye Saints," which is one of the best-known hymns of the Church.

THE MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR. The renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir owes its existence, in no small measure, to British emigrants. It is said that Brigham Young, hearing a group of Welsh converts singing four-part harmony in their native tongue, commented, "I don't understand the words, but you should become the nucleus of a great church choir." The first conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was John Parry, born in Newmarket, Flintshire, and its first organist was a sixteen-year-old native of Norwich, Joseph Daynes. Other early conductors also came from Britain, including George Careless, from London; Ebenezer Beesley, from Oxfordshire; and Evan Stephens, from Pencader, Carmarthenshire. In fact, seven of the first eight directors of the choir were born in the British Isles. The first Tabernacle pipe organ was designed by an Englishman, Joseph Ridges, who built it in Australia.

In June 1982 the British contribution to the choir—indeed, to the Church itself—was graphically demonstrated at the conclusion of a concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, when the presenter asked all members of the choir with British ancestry to stand. All but four of the 350-voice choir stood.

At a time when a number of the mainstream churches in the United Kingdom and Ireland are wrestling with some of the fundamental doctrines and practices of Christianity—the nature of resurrection, the virgin birth, ecumenism, and the ordination of women—the unchanging nature of LDS beliefs appeals to many who come into contact with the Church. Mormons seem to have found a way to hold on to the fundamentals of the faith, yet be receptive to the pressures of the present. In his cover story for the November 15, 1987, issue of the Sunday Times Magazine, journalist Keith Wheatley wrote: "The phenomenal growth of the Latter-day Saints in recent times shows that they have no need to dilute their doctrines…. They seem to be a church whose hour has come."


This building at 42 Islington Street, Liverpool, England (no longer standing), served from 1855 to 1904 as headquarters for the British and European Missions of the Church and as the office of the Millennial Star.

The home of John and Jane Benbow (1832-1840), near Castle Frome, Herefordshire, England (c. 1987). Before his conversion to the LDS Church, Benbow was a prominent member of the United Brethren. Wilford Woodruff preached here in March 1840, baptizing the first of approximately 600 converts from the United Brethren. John and Jane Benbow and Thomas Kington financed the first British edition of the Book of Mormon and LDS hymn book. Courtesy W. Dee Halverson.


Allen, James B., and Thomas G. Alexander, eds. Manchester Mormons. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1974.

Bloxham, Ben; James R. Moss; and Larry C. Porter, eds. Truth Will Prevail: The Rise of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Isles, 1837-1987. Solihull, U.K., 1987.

Cannon, Donald Q., and Larry C. Porter, eds. Mormonism in the British Isles 1837-1987. BYU Studies 27 (Winter and Spring 1987):3-131; 3-135 (two whole issues on the topic).

Cowley, Matthias F., ed. Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors, as Recorded in His Daily Journals. Salt Lake City, 1964.

Cuthbert, Derek A. The Second Century: Latter-day Saints in Great Britain, Vol. 1, 1937-1987. Salt Lake City, 1987.

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces, Etc. London, 1958.

Evans, Richard L. A Century of "Mormonism" in Great Britain. Salt Lake City, 1937.

Jensen, Richard L., and Malcolm R. Thorp, eds. Mormons in Early Victorian Britain. Salt Lake City, 1989.

Kimball, Stanley B. Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer. Urbana, Ill., 1986.

Taylor, P. A. M. Expectations Westward: The Mormons and the Emigration of Their British Converts in the Nineteenth Century. Edinburgh and London, 1965.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1, The Church in the British Isles

Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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