Few topics grab the attention of three LDS apostles like missionary work in England.
Elders M. Russell Ballard, Jeffrey R. Holland and Quentin L. Cook, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all served missions in the British Isles.
Consequently, the trio of church leaders delighted in recently discussing the legacy of the 180th anniversary of Heber C. Kimball leading the LDS Church’s first mission to Great Britain in July 1837. Not only was it the first mission outside of North America, but it also proved to be a great blessing to the LDS Church as a whole.
“You touch our hot button when you speak about our missions,” said Elder Holland, seated next to a smiling Elder Cook, his former mission companion, in his LDS Church Administration Building office.
“When you talk about England, you get my interest immediately,” said Elder Ballard in a separate interview. “I am hoping to go in August to attend the British Pageant.”
The three apostles spoke about the significance of the 1837 mission and its multigenerational impact on the church. The senior church leaders also candidly recalled missionary memories, some of which prompted happy moments of laughter, brotherly pats on the back and genuine smiles of satisfaction.
Canada to England
The LDS Church’s path to England actually began in Toronto, Canada, its first international mission. President Thomas S. Monson has at times reminded his British missionary brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve that the first international mission was actually to Toronto, Canada, where he later served as a mission president, both Elders Ballard and Holland said.
“In order to understand England, you have to understand Canada,” Elder Ballard said.
Having studied and written about this era of church history, the three apostles touched on a few highlights.
In 1836, Parley P. Pratt was asked to leave his debts and sick wife and journey to Toronto, where he ultimately baptized future church president John Taylor, Joseph Fielding and many stalwart converts, Elder Ballard explained.
One year later in the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith whispered to Heber C. Kimball that the Lord had called him to “Go to England … and open the door of salvation to that nation,” Elder Kimball recorded in his journal.
It was awkward timing as the church was facing persecution, economic problems and some apostasy. And like most missionaries today, Elder Kimball was intimidated by his assignment, Elder Holland said.
“O, Lord, I am a man of stammering tongue, and altogether unfit for such a work; how can I go to preach in that land, which is so famed throughout Christendom for learning, knowledge and piety; the nursery of religion; and to a people whose intelligence is proverbial,” Elder Kimball wrote. “The idea of such a mission was almost more than I could bear. … I was almost ready to sink under the burden which was placed upon me.”
Even so, the loyal Elder Kimball found the courage to face his fears, and good things happened.
A group consisting of Elders Kimball and Orson Hyde, along with Willard Richards, Joseph Fielding, John Goodson, Isaac Russell and John Snider, arrived in Liverpool on July 19. They proceeded to Preston, where Fielding introduced the missionaries to his brother, the Rev. James Fielding, who invited them to speak to his congregation in the Vauxhall Chapel.
It didn’t take long for the Rev. Fielding to see his mistake. He closed his chapel to the missionaries but it was too late. Within two weeks of their arrival, the missionaries baptized nine souls in the River Ribble. George D. Watt won a race to the river and became the first convert in England.
Opposition by the adversary was manifest in a frightening way the night before the first baptisms. Russell awoke Elders Kimball and Hyde to ask for a blessing to rebuke evil spirits that were tormenting him. In the process, Elder Kimball was knocked to the floor by an unseen force. When he recovered, a disturbing vision opened to the missionaries in which they saw legions of evil spirits that “came towards us like armies rushing to battle,” Elder Kimball recorded.
“They appeared to be men of full stature, possessing every form and feature of men in the flesh, who were angry and desperate; and I shall never forget the vindictive malignity depicted on their countenances as they looked me in the eye; and any attempt to paint the scene itself, or portray their malice and enmity would be vain,” he wrote. “I cannot even look back on the scene without feelings of horror; yet by it I learned the power of the adversary, his enmity against the servants of God and got some understanding of the invisible world.”
When telling Joseph Smith about the experience later, the Prophet said it gave him “great joy,” for he “knew that the work of God had taken root in that land,” Elder Kimball recorded.
Nine months later there were more than 1,500 Latter-day Saint converts in the British Isles. In the years that followed, thousands more joined the LDS faith and immigrated to America.
“The believing blood that came out of the British Isles was a very, very important part of the restoration,” Elder Ballard said.
“I think it’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of that first mission,” Elder Holland said. “I think you could say those British immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s … and later the Scandinavian Saints who joined them … probably saved the church numerically.”
Benefits and ancestral ties
Elders Ballard, Holland and Cook pointed out several ways the church benefitted from the 1837 mission.
In addition to the first mission, eight members of the Quorum of the Twelve returned for a second mission in 1840 under the direction of Brigham Young. This allowed the apostles to bond together as a true quorum and prepare for future challenges in leading the church after Joseph Smith was martyred, Elders Holland and Cook said.
The first mission outside North American introduced the idea of a worldwide church. In the years that followed, missionaries were called to locations around the globe, including India, Turkey and Elder Orson Hyde’s journey to Jerusalem, Elder Holland said.
“It immediately introduced the concept that this was going to be a global church. We weren’t going to remain just a handful of people scurrying around the Midwest somewhere,” Elder Holland said. “That breadth of vision was of great consequence.”
Another blessing was the British converts themselves, who not only came to America firm in faith, but also with skills that helped in building the Nauvoo Temple and accomplishing other feats, the apostles agreed.
Charles Dickens mingled with a group of British Saints as they were leaving the country and described them as “the pick and flower of England.”
“Even that early in their church life, something in the gospel had quickened them. They looked better and acted better. Somebody as astute as Dickens could recognize that,” Elder Holland said. “The gospel had already touched their lives. They brought part of that heritage, part of that spiritual refinement with them and blessed the church here.”
“The strength in individual families was a great reward,” Elder Cook said. “Those Saints were poor but functional. They brought great abilities and talents.”
The appreciation of what the early missionaries accomplished goes even deeper for the three apostles because of their family roots.
Elder Cook is a direct descendant of Heber C. Kimball.
Elder Holland is a descendant of the Benbow family, who assisted Wilford Woodruff in a great harvest of souls in Herefordshire, England. John Benbow helped finance the printing of the Book of Mormon in Great Britain and contributed greatly to the perpetual immigration fund. A painting of the Benbow farm, depicting a pond where many of his family members were baptized, hangs in his office.
Elder Ballard spoke of his grandfather, Henry Ballard, who joined the church in England and ended up serving as a bishop in Logan for 40 years.
“What does England mean to the Ballards? Everything. … Out of England came great power and great leadership,” Elder Ballard said. “Those pioneers … raised up a posterity that go out and cover the world as full-time missionaries. … It all came from that tremendous harvest of those that came in from England and other parts of the world. It’s a marvelous story.”
Elder Ballard arrived in England in 1948, a few years following World War II. On his very first night there, Elder Ballard went with his mission president, Selvoy J. Boyer, and other missionaries to Hyde Park to hold a meeting. President Boyer said there was time for two missionaries to speak. Upon hearing that, Elder Ballard sighed, thinking he was free, but he was one of the two chosen. When it was his turn he climbed on the stand and with more than 300 people looking on, his mission president grabbed his arm and said, “Elder Ballard, preach the gospel.”
“That was a whole new idea. I picked baptism and said everything I knew about baptism in a minute and a half. It was a disaster,” said Elder Ballard, who estimated he gave more than 740 street meetings in his mission. “But I learned a lot because I then promised the Lord that would never ever happen again. I would never fail him like I did that night in Hyde Park.”
Elder Ballard said he went on to preach in every market square and corner in the British Isles, including Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Eventually he served as president of the Nottingham District and as a counselor to two mission presidents. He was greatly influenced by President Boyer, who could look a missionary in the eye, thump his chest with a crooked finger injured in a farm accident and immediately know how he was doing. More than 65 years later, his missionaries, now all in their late 80s with wheelchairs, walkers and canes, still get together around general conference time to reminisce about their mission experiences and president, who died in 1985.
“It’s unbelievable. That’s the kind of legacy and impact he had. … Great man,” Elder Ballard said of President Boyer.
One of Elder Ballard's most treasured missionary experiences occurred in 1950 when he visited the Newbury Weekly News, a newspaper in England, to photograph a copy of a special edition associated with miraculous events at the Logan Temple in 1884 involving his family history and temple work.
A copy of the May 15, 1884, edition of the newspaper, which contained the names and dates of about 60 family names, somehow made the trip from England to Logan in three days. The newspaper was mysteriously delivered by strangers to Henry Ballard, Elder Ballard's great-grandfather, who then performed the ordinances for his deceased ancestors in the newly dedicated Logan Temple, Elder Ballard said.
More than 65 years later near the end of his mission, Elder Ballard confirmed the newspaper's authenticity.
"It's quite a story," said Elder Ballard, who also shared the experience last February at the RootsTech Leadership session. "I brought (the photos) home and showed everybody."
Only a few months into their missionary service, Elders Holland and Cook met while touring church history sites in 1961. There was instant rapport. Both came from homes with active mothers and less-active fathers. The two missionaries later served together in leadership positions and as companions.
Most of their missionary work was centered in the greater London area, where they came to know Exhibition Road, the Hyde Park Chapel and the London Temple. One memory that stands out for both men was when an ill President David O. McKay came to dedicate the Hyde Park Chapel. The whole mission prayed that he would be able to dedicate the chapel and those prayers were answered, said Elder Holland who remembers seeing President McKay, with his distinguished white wavy hair, emerge from a car on Exhibition Road and preside over a wonderful dedicatory service.
Elder Cook wasn’t stationed in London for that event but later saw the prophet when he visited his mother’s humble home in Wales on the same trip.
“He went into his mother’s tiny home, and when he came out he just cried and talked about his precious mother,” Elder Cook said. “I will never forget that.”
As companions, Elder Cook recognized in Elder Holland a “fabulous” talent for teaching the gospel. Elder Holland was equally impressed by Elder Cook’s work ethic and no-nonsense approach. He recalled how Elder Cook recognized something special in one new elder and instead of letting him eat and rest, he immediately took him out to work in the rain. Elder Cook’s example inspired Elder Holland, who called him “the best missionary of our generation.”
“Elder Cook was more firmly established in the gospel, had a vision and was a better missionary. I had no missionary tradition. … I didn’t know anything about what a mission was,” Elder Holland said. “If hadn’t been for the Quentin Cooks of the world (of whom there’s only one!), I don’t know that my mission would have been what it was. I had wonderful missionary companions, and I love them to this day.”
Elder Cook said the feeling was mutual. He described both of their missions as “seminal” experiences.
“There is something that happens with missionary companions, and most of the time it’s remarkable,” Elder Cook said. “I have loved and admired Elder Holland since those early days and sustain him. I am so grateful for the bond of love, appreciation and gratitude for all these many years that we have been dear friends.”
‘Path of duty’
When asked what could be learned from those 1837 missionaries that would help today’s missionaries share the gospel with more power, Elder Holland shared what Elder Heber C. Kimball wrote after expressing his extreme anxiety at being called to Great Britain. It’s a message the apostle hopes all newly called missionaries will take to heart.
“However, all these considerations did not deter me from the path of duty,” Elder Kimball wrote. “The moment I understood the will of my Heavenly Father, I felt a determination to go at all hazards, believing that He would support me by his almighty power, and endow me with every qualification that I needed; and although my family was dear to me, and I should have to leave them almost destitute, I felt that the cause of truth, the Gospel of Christ, outweighed every other consideration.”
That’s what you want every missionary to feel, Elder Holland said as he wiped away a tear.
“Yes we felt inadequate. We did and were,” Elder Holland said. “But if a missionary knows the gospel is true, then the call of duty transcends everything else. Family or fortune or school or whatever, we must put it all on hold for a time and go. I would love for every missionary in the church to remember that paragraph from Elder Kimball all of their life. It moved me 50 years ago and it moves me today.”