"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Mormon Church in Europe: 19th Century

by Douglas F. Tobler

The Protestant countries of Western Europe—Scandinavia, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands—played a major role in the growth and success of the Church from the beginnings in the 1830s until well into the twentieth century. Along with the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, continental Europe provided most of the early LDS converts until around 1960, when successes in Latin America and Asia began to overshadow it as a source of new converts. Without the waves of European converts, many of whom emigrated to fill up the pioneer settlements of the Great Basin Kingdom (see Colonization), the Church would, at best, have grown more slowly, been more insular and provincial.

The Swiss Temple in Zollikofen (near Bern, Switzerland, 1978) was dedicated in 1955 by President David O. McKay, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir participating. This temple, built of white reinforced concrete with gold spite, was the first outside the United States and Canada. Courtesy Floyd Holdman.

That success in Europe was, however, geographically uneven. Early converts came overwhelmingly from the countries of the Protestant Reformation. Attempts were made as early as the 1850s to gain converts in France, Italy, Ireland, and Austria-Hungary, but results were meager and missionaries became discouraged. Real success in these and other Catholic countries would have to wait for the more open societies and attitudes of the twentieth century. LDS missionaries also found virtually no access to the Orthodox populations of Eastern Europe, whether in Russia, Greece, or the Balkans, and there were only a very few conversions of European Jews.

LDS converts came from many different Protestant denominations and sects, but most of them were religious "seekers" of one kind or another, sometimes already united in congregations like Timothy Mets's "New Lighters" in Holland in the early 1860s. Most of the seekers had studied the Bible and were looking for a church with apostles, prophets, and the spiritual gifts they had read about in the New Testament. They also tended to be discouraged with traditional doctrines and the behavior of churches and pastors, and longed for the assurance of communion with the spirit of God in preparation for Christ's imminent return.

Most European converts came from the middle, lower middle, and especially the working classes. One study which surveyed LDS immigrants to the United States between 1840 and 1869 found that only 11 percent were middle class, mostly artisans; the rest came overwhelmingly from the working classes. Early attempts were made by missionaries to interest such dignitaries as the queens and kings of various countries, but these appeals fell on deaf ears and sometimes even led to the missionaries' banishment. Their preaching also had little resonance with the traditional nobility, the moneyed aristocracy, and an increasingly secular and powerful intelligentsia. Thus, cut off from "respectable" society, they went "to the poor like their Captain of old" (Hymns, 1985, No. 319), among whom they found believers. Only in the later twentieth century, as they had done in America, did European Latter-day Saints as a group begin to be part of the growing middle class as they received greater opportunities for higher education and financial success.

The new European Saints of the nineteenth century came from both rural and urban societies. Farmers, agricultural workers, and artisans joined with industrial workers and townspeople leaving the depressed countrysides and the slums of industrializing Europe for the kingdom of the Saints in what they and thousands of other emigrants believed was the Promised Land, the land of unlimited opportunity.

Some three years after the Church was established in Europe, it introduced the doctrine of the gathering, which encouraged the new members to gather to Zion. Before 1900 more than 91,600 heeded the call, and although after the turn of the century Church authorities began to discourage emigration, thousands more joined the ever-broadening stream of European immigrants to America. They scrimped and saved, sometimes for years—the average wait was ten years—to get the eighty to one hundred dollars needed to get from Liverpool to Salt Lake City. Saints from the Continent went to Liverpool, where, with British converts, they booked passage on large emigrant ships, such as the Amazon, Nevada, or Monarch of the Sea. They first landed in New Orleans for the trip upstream to Nauvoo, later they landed at New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, traveled by train to Omaha, and then journeyed by covered wagon or handcart the remaining 1,100 miles to Utah. For some the trip was better than tolerable; for many others, it was an ordeal endured only through faith and determination.

Seeing that most new converts were so poor that they could not emigrate without help, the Church, in 1849, set up the perpetual emigrating fund which allowed thousands of Saints to borrow the money to emigrate and then repay the fund after they were settled in the American West. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the journey was not so arduous because the railroad brought emigrants directly to Zion.

European LDS emigration peaked in the 1850s and 1860s, although a fairly constant stream, especially of Germans, continued after the turmoil of both world wars. They all became part of the "melting pot," with few Saints returning to their native lands.

The European members turned out to be exceptionally good pioneers. Most brought with them solid religious conviction and faith, an unusually strong work ethic, usable and practiced skills derived from the quality artisanship of Europe, and a desire to blend into their new society and surroundings. They also brought a deep respect for Church leaders as God's chosen servants, a willingness to settle where they were called, and a desire to help promote the missionary cause, especially in their native lands. They were persuasive recruiters of their fellow countrymen to the new LDS settlements. Many met incoming emigrant trains to take settlers to their new paradise.

Besides laborers and skilled craftsmen, there were also businessmen and entrepreneurs and teachers; there were women trained as midwives and a few as doctors. Europe also produced poets, journalists, artists, architects, photographers, musicians, and also dramatists. From their ranks arose a range of great leaders from General Authorities to missionaries—who usually labored in their homelands. Devout women and children who supported the Church, often at great sacrifice, carried out their own daily and Church duties. Most important, however, were the tens of thousands of less-known European Saints; Zion could not have done without them. Census figures give us some idea of their numbers. In 1880, out of a total Utah population of 143,863, almost 43,000, or 30 percent, were foreign-born. If children born in America to foreign-born members are included, the figure would exceed 60 percent.

Not all European converts to the Church immigrated to America, even in the peak years of the gathering. Some had families they could not and would not leave; others lacked faith and funds. Some drifted from the faith or could not find suitable marriage partners in it. Others succumbed to the extraordinary anti-Mormon pressures and persecutions that arose simultaneously almost everywhere with the arrival of the missionaries. Throughout Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Latter-day Saints, and especially missionaries, were at one time or another harassed, abused, vilified, stoned, jailed, and expelled; yet these same missionaries were simultaneously fed, clothed, housed, protected, and warned by generations of grateful and admiring members. In the nineteenth century, the Church was taken seriously, perhaps too seriously, by those in power. Many Europeans regarded the Church as a non-Christian American sect. Throughout Europe, where the marriage of church and state had been sanctified by tradition, political authority often took its cues on religious matters from a clergy made more vocal by declining influence.

Prominent Europeans visited Utah to get a firsthand view of this unusual and exotic LDS society. They admired the way the Saints had made the "desert…blossom as the rose" (Isa. 35:1), but found the people fanatical and their theology incomprehensible. Polygamy was considered especially uncivilized by Europeans, who viewed their own culture, especially near the end of the nineteenth century, as the apogee of civilization. For the European intelligentsia, the LDS Church was purely and distinctly an aberrational American phenomenon.

In spite of all this, the Church took hold in Europe, at least enough to strengthen the Church in America when strengthening was needed most, and also to lay a foundation for its own existence later on. Following their great successes in Great Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, the missionaries crossed the English Channel to work on the European mainland. The responses in Switzerland and Hamburg, Germany, were generally positive, with a foothold established in each of these areas. Less successful were the missions of Lorenzo Snow in Italy and John Taylor in France, but even in those nations a few converts were made, from whom significant LDS posterities have grown. There was a slow but steady growth of the Church in Switzerland and Germany, especially after German unification in 1870. A mission was established in the Netherlands in the 1860s, and over the years thousands became Latter-day Saints and immigrated to Zion.

Results were not so encouraging in the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire of more than fifty million that sprawled over most of the map of East Central Europe. In 1865 President Brigham Young sent one of the apostles, Orson Pratt, to open that empire to missionary work. Elder Pratt and his companion, William Riter, had little success, spending most of their time in jail. A later missionary, Thomas Biesinger, made scattered converts in Vienna and Prague; and a Hungarian convert, Misha Markow, traveled throughout most of the Balkan states and Russia, beginning in 1903, performing isolated baptisms and encountering ubiquitous opposition.

At the same time, attempts were made to breach the edges of the Islamic world in neighboring Turkey. A Swiss convert, Jacob Spori, established a mission there in 1884 with limited success (see Middle East, the Church in). After Spori baptized some Russians, Elder Francis M. Lyman, an apostle, and Joseph Cannon dedicated imperial Russia to preaching the gospel in 1903.


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Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Europe, The Church in

Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company