During a Sunday meeting on June 4, 1837, in the year-old Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith approached Heber C. Kimball, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Brother Heber,” Joseph spoke quietly into his ear, “the Spirit of the Lord has whispered to me: 'Let my servant, Heber, go to England and proclaim my Gospel, and open the door of salvation to that nation.'”
Elder Kimball was stunned. He had grown up the son of a Vermont blacksmith, learning that trade himself but ultimately becoming a potter. Obliged to drop out of his sporadic country schooling at the age of 14, he was painfully conscious of his lack of education and deeply intimidated at the thought of preaching to, as he viewed them, the much more cultured and sophisticated English.
And the assignment was stunning for another reason: Plagued by division, discouragement and apostasy, 1837 and 1838 have been called the toughest two years in Joseph Smith’s life. Yet, at this very time, Joseph sent one of his most unfailingly loyal associates in church leadership (and several others, including the apostle Orson Hyde) across the Atlantic.
So, too, with the second apostolic mission to England, which was likewise launched by revelation. On July 8, 1838, at Far West, Mo. (Kirtland having since been abandoned), Joseph Smith inquired, “Show us thy will, O Lord, concerning the Twelve,” and was told that the Twelve Apostles were to leave Far West on April 26, 1839, in order to serve a mission “over the great waters” (See Doctrine and Covenants 118).
But the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, too, would be wracked with apostasy in the meantime, including that of its president, Thomas Marsh, and grievously wounded by the death of Elder David Patten at the Battle of Crooked River. Thus, when they finally went to England despite enormous hardships, they labored under the direction of a new leader, Brigham Young. But he and they rose remarkably to the occasion, and those of the Twelve who served in England — not quite all answered the summons — never fell away. Instead, they achieved a new level of unity and loyalty that made the Quorum what it has been ever since.
Those first 19th century missions had an incalculable impact on the history of the church.
By the end of 1851, there were nearly 33,000 Latter-day Saints in the British Isles, an additional 11,000 having already emigrated to America. There were, in fact, more Mormons in the United Kingdom and Ireland than in Utah (12,000). Between 1860 and 1880, 22 percent of the total population of Utah was British-born. And they made their mark:
The first Mormon convert in the British Isles, George D. Watt, recorded most of the sermons in the “Journal of Discourses.” George Q. Cannon served as a counselor to four presidents of the church. B.H. Roberts and James Talmage became high-ranking church leaders and contributed massively to Mormon intellectual life. George Careless (a onetime director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), George Manwaring and William Clayton wrote still-beloved church hymns, as did Charles W. Penrose, who was ultimately called as a counselor in the First Presidency.
The prolific Welsh-born hymn-writer Evan Stephens led the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for 16 pivotal years of its history, which was appropriate because the choir’s historical roots are among 19th century Welsh immigrant converts to Utah.
George Teasdale served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and George Reynolds served in the Presidency of the Seventy, also playing a significant role in the legal history of the church along the way and compiling the first concordance to the Book of Mormon during his imprisonment for plural marriage. Miles Romney, one of Heber C. Kimball’s early converts near Preston, England, in 1837, built the St. George Temple, designed the St. George Tabernacle and contributed a notable posterity to the church.
And the female converts from England were every bit as impressive, among them such remarkably strong women as Mary Goble Pay, Bathsheba Smith and Mary Fielding Smith.
Joseph Smith’s dispatch of many of his strongest, closest and most loyal associates to a different continent during a time when he desperately needed their help at home was, as philosophers sometimes say, “counterintuitive.” To put it another way, it seemed an obviously bad management decision. But it may well have saved the church.
Certainly, it enriched Mormon life and culture. It was the daring act of an inspired Prophet.
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," blogs daily at Patheos, and speaks only for himself.