History of the Church Series
The first volume of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days has recently been published! Titled The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846, this volume features several stories that draw on research and articles published by BYU Studies. One such article is cited in chapter 36 of Saints, which tells the stories of missionaries and Church members in the British Mission in the 1840s. You can learn more about the British Mission and the challenges that early missionaries faced while serving in a country suffering from poverty and poor working conditions in "The Mission of the Twelve to England, 1840–41: Mormon Apostles and the Working Classes," by James B. Allen and Malcom R. Thorp. Below is an excerpt of the full article, which was published in issue 15:4. To read the full text of this article, click here.
What were the social and economic conditions observed by the American apostles in England? Who were the people they so readily attracted to Mormonism? And why did they have so much success among them?
The Quorum of the Twelve came into a country disturbed by economic difficulty. England was the "workshop of the world" but beginning in 1837 industry came almost to a standstill, and with high unemployment among the working classes in the manufacturing districts, destitution and starvation were not uncommon. The apostles were deeply stirred by the poverty they saw. George A. Smith observed in the Potteries: "So many of the poor are begging that it would astonish the Americans. England is in distress and I pray to the Lord for deliverance of the Saints from the coming ruin." That ruin never came, for the depression witnessed by the apostles was only a momentary phenomenon in a period that in the long run led to greater prosperity for the working class, but conditions were to get worse before they turned for the better. . .
The depression naturally hit hardest among the working classes of the urban communities, and it was from among these people that most Mormon converts came. There were also substantial numbers from rural communities but relatively few, like John Benbow, were wealthy property owners. On 10 September 1840, Wilford Woodruff wrote in his diary concerning Herefordshire: "I rejoice to find the work universally progressing with great rapidity upon every hand even some cases among the Nobility," but in this he was overly optimistic for there were few converts outside the working classes, and there is no evidence of any from the aristocracy.
Perhaps one reason for Mormonism's success among the common people was the identification with the working classes felt by the American apostles, who were also workers by profession. In a letter to America dated 5 September 1840, Brigham Young and Willard Richards demonstrated great empathy with the poor in their criticism of the factory owners and the system of government taxes. They were horrified at the number of beggars and reported that all the spare change they had was given to the destitute. The Twelve were intrigued by the factories, but they considered the industrial system to be exploitive. Following his tour through Copeland's pottery works, Wilford Woodruff reflected that the final step in the process of making fine china was the manufacturers' "aggrandizing themselves with the profits thereof." Joseph Fielding and Theodore Turley visited a factory, and Fielding recorded in his diary: "I was much affected to see the slavery that is there endured, the Dust, the bad Smell of oil, etc., the deafening Noise and the confinement." Brigham Young believed that "masters [i.e., factory owners] care little for their manufacturers, & have reduced the workers wage to almost the lowest extremity."