We docked at Liverpool yesterday morning, and met our English Latter-day Saint guide, Peter Fagg, on the docks. (He and his family run LDS bookstores situated by both the Preston and London Temples, and – I’ll say this upfront – he is a superb guide. Very personable and very knowledgeable.) Then we drove to Preston.
Preston is where the first Latter-day Saint missionaries to England began their work, coming from Liverpool. Led by Heber C. Kimball – Orson Hyde was also among them, as was Joseph Fielding – they came because Fielding’s brother James was a pastor in the town. The city’s symbol, then as now, is the Lamb of God, bearing a standard or a kind of flag, atop the initials “PP.” Those initials represent the Latin Principis Pacis, or “Prince of Peace.” And Preston itself means something like “Priest Town.”
It turned out to be a providential choice, partly because Preston is where the temperance movement began. The Word of Wisdom was preached first in Europe here, and it found a natural audience. Moreover, I would say, the conditions of industrializing England – acutely present in Preston, one of the cities noted by Karl Marx (and, according to Brother Fagg, the city where Marx predicted that the English Revolution would begin) – created a dislocated and dissatisfied population, ripe for the message of the Gospel.
We walked first to the Preston town square, and saw the “obelisk” near which Isaac Russell, Orson Hyde, Heber C. Kimball, and generations later, Gordon B. Hinckley preached. (Elder Hinckley’s first missionary assignment was to Preston, and it was from Preston that, suffering from homesickness and discouragement and severe persistent hay fever, he wrote to his father seeking to come home, convinced that he was wasting his father’s money. His father famously responded that he should forget about himself and get to work.) John Wesley had also preached from before the “obelisk,” a century or so before the Mormons arrived.
Brother Fagg once ran into President Hinckley on the square, and the President told him of being assigned to speak there as a newly arrived missionary. He hated public speaking, he said, and his knees were knocking together with terror. He probably didn’t foresee what he would become.
We walked next to the building, on St. Wilfred Street, where first Isaac Russell and then Heber Kimball and Orson Hyde and Willard Richards and others collectively experienced a ninety-minute assault by demonic spirits during the early morning of Sunday, 30 July 1837. Elder Russell asked Elder Kimball to give him a blessing. Elder Kimball later wrote that
“While thus engaged, I was struck with great force by some invisible power and fell senseless on the floor as if I had been shot, and the first thing that I recollected was, that I was supported by Brothers Hyde and Russell, who were beseeching the throne of grace in my behalf. They then laid me on the bed, but my agony was so great that I could not endure, and I was obliged to get out, and fell on my knees and began to pray. I then sat on the bed and could distinctly see the evil spirits, who foamed and gnashed their teeth upon us. We gazed upon them about an hour and a half, and I shall never forget the horror and malignity depicted on the countenances of these foul spirits, and any attempt to paint the scene which then presented itself, or portray the malice and enmity depicted in their countenances would be vain.”
He “got some understanding of the invisible world,” he said, and Joseph Fielding remarked that “If we never before knew that there were evil Spirits, we did now.”
They were worried that the encounter indicated their unworthiness. But Joseph Smith, hearing about it, rejoiced. “I then knew,” he remarked, “that the work of God had taken root in that land.” (I suppose that it can be compared to the satanic assault on Joseph himself, just prior to his First Vision.)
We then walked over to the gorgeous Avenham Park, alongside the River Ribble. There are several historical markers in the park, commemorating the efforts of the missionaries in Preston and the baptisms in the Ribble. Two men raced to be the first baptized; the winner of the race, George D. Watt, later went on to create the Journal of Discourses. Other notable baptisms included Miles Romney, an ancestor of the current Republican presidential candidate; Alexander Neibaur, a multilingual Jewish dentist who seems to have taught Joseph Smith both German and Hebrew and whose descendants include Hugh Nibley (when the eminent rabbinic scholar Jacob Neusner heard that Nibley was at least partially Jewish, he exclaimed “I knew that you were too intelligent to be a gentile!”); and William Clayton, who would later keep a marvelous journal, invent the odometer, and write the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”
We drove to the beautifully situated village of Ribchester, where, in answer to a prophetic dream, Heber C. Kimball returned to thwart the anti-Mormon efforts of the local Anglican vicar, and where the enthusiastic angler Wilford Woodruff was taught fly-fishing by a Brother Smithies.
We drove by Stoneyhurst College, a Jesuit school to which J. R. R. Tolkien sent his son Christopher. It was from the surroundings of Stoneyhurst that, Brother Fagg says, Tolkien got some of his ideas for The Hobbit. We also passed through a little village called “Great Mitton.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a photograph of the village sign, which caught me by surprise as our minibus passed. (George Mitton, who served faithfully and well for years as an associate editor of the FARMS Review or the Mormon Studies Review and who was summarily dismissed along with me a few weeks ago, merits a public thank you. I’m pleased that the English, at least, have seen fit to offer him one by naming a village after him.)
We drove through the village of Chatburn, and then walked through the village of Downham. Elder Kimball had remarkable missionary success in these two villages, and Downham remains a wonderfully picturesque example of pre-modern English life, essentially unchanged from the days of Heber C. Kimball. Above it looms Pendle Hill, where George Fox had a vision that helped to create the Society of Friends (the Quakers), and where, a century later, John Wesley came to pray. After Heber C. Kimball had also been there, Joseph Smith said that the area was holy, that ancient prophets and apostles had walked there.
It’s almost impossible not to think, in this case, of William Blake’s 1804 poem:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.
We left Downham and drove to the grounds of the Preston Temple, which is actually located in Chorley, southwards of the city. A marvelous building, situated with a stake center, the British Missionary Training Center, housing for temple missionaries and temple patrons, and a distribution and welcome center, set amidst immaculate and beautiful gardens.
Then back to Liverpool, where our boat was docked just a few blocks from Norfolk Street, where the George Cannon family lived. These docks are the area from which 80% of all British Mormon emigrants sailed.
Twelve hours out from Liverpool, England.