Mormonism and the Making of a British Zion

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Matthew L. Rasmussen
Mormon Studies
  • Salt Lake City, UT: 
    University of Utah Press
    , July
     2016.
     336 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781607814870.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his book, Mormonism and the Making of a British Zion, Matthew Lyman Rasmussen delivers a researched account of the growth, decline, and ultimate resilience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in the north west of England. Adapted from his doctoral dissertation from Lancaster University, Rasmussen documents the initial missionary efforts of the LDS Church in Lancashire and beyond, reasons for large scale conversion to the church, reasons for declining membership, and how congregations in north west England persisted, despite mass emigration to the United States, increased secularisation in Great Britain, and growing anti-Mormon sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Through clever usage of the poetry of William Blake’s Jerusalem, Rasmussen demonstrates how Britain was transformed from Babylon to Zion in the eyes of Mormons from the founding of the first LDS overseas mission in 1837, “Among these Dark Satanic Mills” (chapter 1), to the successful maintenance of a population of British Mormons into the 21st century, “In England’s Green and Pleasant Lands” (chapter 8). Indeed, as Rasmussen points out, the congregation in Preston, Lancashire is the “oldest continuously operating unit of the church worldwide” (192), having been founded in 1837, and Lancashire’s Ribble Valley is the only place outside of what is now the United States that Joseph Smith identified as holy ground (195).

Conversions and expansion were rapid in the early days of the LDS church in England, predominantly in north west rural areas, despite Liverpool being a focal point, as the port city was the usual gateway for Saints emigrating from England. Rasmussen illustrates how both Henry Stocks and Heber C. Kimball had great success in villages and small towns where they were able to proselytise to intimate groups; but had little success in urban areas lacking a strong sense of community spirit (chapter 3). Despite early successes, the church struggled to maintain membership in England due to great numbers of converts immigrating to America with help from the Perpetual Emigrating Fund in the 19th century (chapter 4). Missionaries in the 1880s felt inadequate when they found they were unable to replicate the numbers of converts achieved by the likes of Kimball and Orson Hyde just decades earlier (100).

Pushback from leaders of various Protestant churches, public speeches by outspoken apostates such as William Jarman, and an increasing awareness and revulsion of the Mormon practice of plural marriage lead to anti-Mormon sentiment—often resulting in violence—and decline in membership from both those who decided to leave the church and those who were excommunicated largely due to attitudes towards polygamy (chapter 5). However, a slowing of emigrating Mormons, increased missionary efforts, birth rates within the faith, and the establishment of permanent places of worship in the latter half of the 20th century, resulted in an English revival for the church (chapter 6). Indeed, the establishment of purpose-built places of worship in Britain resulted in a permeance that the religion had yet to find in the British Isles and put an end to the transience experienced by many early British Saints. The founding of temples in London and Preston—in the 1950s and 1990s respectively—solidified British Mormonism, and it continues to flourish today (chapter 7). 

The importance of the north west in the early days of the LDS Church in England has resulted in the area having a special spiritual significance for British Saints. As Rasmussen eloquently states, “the Ribble Valley is to the British church what the Hill Comorah is the American church – an interdispensational marker, and a specific place that binds Mormonism to the previous gospel epoch” (194). British Saints further found their own identity—separate from the American church—by embracing their unique history and resilience that lasted through two world wars, and with activities such as the 1933 competition for a British themed Mormon hymn (chapter 8).

Rasmussen displays a great deal of local knowledge throughout his book, demonstrating the depth of—and time spent on—his research in the geographic locations discussed in the text. He also acknowledges and identifies areas in need of further research. The accessibility of his writing makes the book an attractive read for those exploring local history in north west England, as well as those interested in Mormon studies from an academic or purely personal perspective. For a reader familiar with many of the locations discussed in the text, Rasmussen can bring these locations vividly to life; assisted by the maps and images included in the text and detailed use of primary source documentation and oral histories. Additionally, the author includes in the appendices an 1840 address by Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde’s tract “A Timely Warning to the People of England,” examples of dedicatory prayers given at various locations in England over a period of 150 years, and excerpts from oral histories collected in 1987 by the James Moyle Oral History Program. This text is a must read for anyone with an interest in the Mormon diaspora.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philippa Juliet Meek is a Doctoral Fellow at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology Joint PhD Program.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Lyman Rasmussen holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Utah and a PhD in history from Lancaster University in England and is a past recipient of the Mormon History Association’s best dissertation award. He lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his wife and four children.

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