This year marks the 180th anniversary of the oldest branch of the Mormon Church in the world being founded in Preston where the first converts were baptised in the Ribble.
In the summer of 1837 seven Mormon elders set sail from New Orleans – the first of what was to become a sea of missionaries of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
They arrived, near penniless, in Liverpool on July 20, just three days after the accession of Queen Victoria, and made their way to Preston.
The elders, Heber C Kimball, Jospeh Fielding, John Goodson, Isaac Russell, John Snyder, Orson Hyde and Willard Richards, had been invited to Preston by Fielding’s brother the Rev James Fielding, the minister of a small chapel in the town.
They reached Preston on election day and one of the first sights that greeted them was a party banner bearing the message, ‘Truth Will Prevail’ which they took as a good omen.
They found lodgings in Wilfred Street and the following day began their preaching at the Vauxhall Chapel where the Rev Fielding’s congregation used to meet. Their
fervour soon won the support of several members.
Such early success was not well received in every quarter. The Rev Fielding was far from pleased to see members of his flock switching allegiance to the strangers and, working himself into ‘a fine frenzy’, banned the seven elders from the chapel. They spent the next week holding house meetings, persuading people to accept baptism which they intended to perform in the Ribble.
News of the proposed baptisms soon spread and on the Sunday they were due to take part a crowd of between 7,000 and 9,000 gathered in what is now Avenham Park.
The enthusiasm of the converts for baptism was such that two of them raced to the place chosen for the ceremony, both intent on becoming the first Mormon baptised in Britain.
It was a great triumph for the seven elders but one which they were nearly denied, according to their accounts.
They relate how they spent the night prior to the baptisms in their lodgings in Wilfred Street wrestling with ‘evil spirits who foamed and gnashed their teeth at us. We saw devils coming in legions with their leaders who came within a few feet of us. They came towards us like armies rushing to battle.’
But their faith withstood the onslaught and the elders resolved to continue their mission with increased ardour. They continued to preach their message around the town holding open air meetings in the market square using the steps of the obelisk as a platform.
As more and more converts deserted the other sects in the town the elders found themselves facing increased hostility from the former ministers of their converts who tried to band them from preaching because they did not possess the necessary licence.
By the end of 1837, the elders were able to arrange the first general conference of their church in Britain.
Throughout the rest of the century thousands of these new converts were to leave Britain for the home of the faith in America.
By the 1900s, the flood of emigrants dried up and new converts tended to stay in their home towns.
In Preston they formed the nucleus of a continuous branch of the church which has survived and flourished up until the present day.
Preston’s standing within the Church of the Latter Day Saints was recognised in 1998 with the dedication of the largest temple in Europe on the outskirts of neighbouring Chorley.
The temple is 154ft tall and on top of the single spire is a golden statue of Moroni, a Book of Mormon Prophet.
The 69,400 sq ft building is clad in Sardinian Olympia White granite.