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The villages of Chatburn and Downham in Lancashire England hold a special place in the hearts of the British saints. It was in these two villages that Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding had some of their most touching missionary encounters which continue to inspire. Downham, in particular, continues to attract visitors with its stone homes, walls and bridges all looking pretty much as they did then.
This LDS story is often repeated, sometimes inaccurately represented (e.g. “the whole village was baptised” – not true), and rarely told with all the relevant witnesses – which is the motivation behind this article. I have arranged the story in a reader’s theatre format. Somehow the story lent itself to being read out loud. Everything you read below (except for narration) is quoted directly from those who were there.
NARR. George Fox (1624-1691) had been a wandering preacher for some years teaching that Christ could speak to people directly. He was often rejected, imprisoned and ridiculed. In 1652 he came to Lancashire.
FOX. “As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.”
NARR. This vision gave him extra impetus as he headed north to the Lake District where he more formally organised the Society of Friends or Quakers. This religious movement absorbed many societies of Seekers who felt the churches of the day had fallen away from the truth, and they were seeking the restoration of God’s spirit and power, but they were unsure how it would be returned. A number of early church converts, including Joseph Smith Senior, referred to themselves as Seekers – also looking for a simpler faith. Over the centuries such forerunners to the restoration helped prepare a country and a people to be receptive to the idea of a restored gospel. It seems quite fitting that he was inspired in the same area that was to feature so prominently in our story.
In 1837, the first seven missionaries to Britain arrived in Preston. After their initial success there the Elders separated to different fields of labour. Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding made their way through the towns and villages of the Ribble Valley and were later joined by Orson Hyde and Willard Richards.
KIMBALL. “I mentioned my intention of going to Downham and Chatburn and several brethren endeavored to dissuade me from going informing me there could be no prospect of success whatever as they had resisted all efforts for the last thirty years. I was informed they were wicked places. This did not discourage me. I told them it was my business not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
In Chatburn I was cordially received by the inhabitants who turned out in great numbers to hear me preach. They placed a barrel in the centre of a large barn for me to preach on. I preached to them the first principles of the gospel and a little on the subject of the resurrection.
When I concluded I felt someone pulling at my coat exclaiming ‘maister, maister. Please sir, will you baptise me? And me? And me? Exclaimed more than a dozen voices.
Accordingly I went down into the water and baptised twenty five. I was engaged with them until after midnight.
The next morning I returned to Downham and baptised between 25 and 30 in the course of the day. The next evening I returned to Chatburn. The congregation was so numerous that I had to preach in the open air, and stand on a stone wall, and afterwards baptised several. We were absent from Preston five days during which time Brother Fielding and I baptised and confirmed about 110 persons.
FIELDING “I have just returned this Day from Chatburn and other Places, where I have been laboring since I wrote last, and was joined by Elder Kimball a Week ago in Company with Elder Hyde. The Work is going remarkably well, especially since the Brethren went. About 100 have been baptized in that time. There is wonderful Work in Downham and Chatburn, two small villages. It appears as though the whole of the Inhabitants were turning to the Lord from 10 to 90 years old. It is truly affecting to see them. While I was praying one day previous to baptizing 17, the little Girls kneeled around me; some leaned against my back and some against my Arm. They were full of love for us and each other.”
KIMBALL “I cannot refrain from relating an occurrence which took place while brother Fielding and myself were passing through the village of Chatburn on our way to Downham.
Having been observed approaching the village news ran from house to house, and immediately the noise of their looms was hushed, and the people flocked to their doors to welcome us and see us pass.
More than forty young people of the place ran to meet us; some took hold of us and then of each other’s hands; several having hold of hands went before us singing the songs of Zion, while their parents gazed upon the scene with delight, and poured their blessings upon our head and praised God for sending us.
The children continued with us to Downham, a mile distant.
Such a scene and such gratitude I never witnessed before.
And this from those whose hearts were deemed too hard to be penetrated by the gospel.”
FIELDING “As soon as we were seen, the People came to meet us in the street and we could hardly get along for shaking hands. About 30, mostly Children, from 10 to 15 years of age, followed us on to the latter Place, joining hands across the street and singing, “I am like a Bright and Morning Star.” Some said, O I wish you would come and live with us always, and bring your wives and Children; let me carry your top coat; we should like to walk with you all Night; and as they returned, they went aside into the Field and held a Prayer meeting by themselves. Some of them said that if they could but touch us they seemed better.”
KIMBALL. “On the morning when I left Chatburn many were in tears thinking they should see my face no more. When I left them my feelings were such as I cannot describe.
As I walked down the street I was followed by numbers; the doors were crowded by the inmates of the houses to bid me farewell, who could only give vent to their grief in sobs and broken accents. While contemplating this scene I was constrained to take off my hat, for I felt as if hand place was holy ground. The spirit of the Lord rested down upon me and I was constrained to bless that whole region of country.”
FIELDING. “It was very affecting to witness our parting with them. The streets were almost lined with them weeping and looking after us. Brother K. left his Blessing on them and the whole place, walking with his hat off. They all followed us with their eyes as far as they could see us, many of those even that had not been baptized.”
KIMBALL. “We could hardly separate. My heart was like unto theirs and I thought my head was a fountain of tears, for I wept for several miles after I bid them adieu. I had to leave the road three times to go to streams of water to bathe my eyes.”
NARR. There must needs be an opposition in all things, and these villages were soon to get their fair share.
KIMBALL. “The next day we went to Downham and held a meeting that evening and many came to hear. The people were very attentive. When we had closed, a certain man wished to ask a few questions; he appeared much agitated: in fact we were reminded of the prediction in the Book of Mormon, that ‘men would anger and tremble because of the truth.”
FIELDING. “A Methodist Priest after the Meeting pretended to want information, but we soon found him a firm Opposer. Others were very insolent and abusive, but the Priest as usual was the head. A few Nights after, at another Place just by, this was repeated by another of the same Order and his Friends.”
NARR. In August both Joseph Fielding and Willard Richards reported some Downham Members causing problems. Joseph said,
FIELDING. “The Devil is striving hard against us on every hand. I have just received Word from Downham that the Officers refuse to act until they may see the Book of Doctrines, through hearing one Livesey, a Man from America, preach against the Book of Mormon.”
WILLARD RICHARDS. “The Priest and teacher refused to act if they could not have the book of Doctrine & Covenants and we demanded their licenses.”
NARR. Later visits indicated that there was little after effect from these challenges as Joseph “found the Church there full as well as I expected” and in August of 1839 he reported:
FIELDING. “There was a good feeling. The Saints were glad to see us. There had been some little unpleasantness, but it was all over; peace was restored.”
NARR. But ministers were still brewing and a stewing against them. Joseph was confronted at one of their Downham meetings by a number of Methodists. He said:
FIELDING. “I feel surprised at the Methodists; they seem to be completely blinded and hardened.”
NARR. But their missionary work continued nonetheless. A couple of days later “three were baptized” and the following day four more plus an ordination. The division between faithful saints and opposers was soon to make a dramatic turn for the worse. Joseph was saddened to observe:
FIELDING. “The Priests of different orders of this Part have succeeded in influencing the Minds of the People against the Truth. They have spared no Pains to oppose and hinder its Progress, particularly the Church of England, and the Methodists. I could not go along the Street, in Downham in particular, without being abused by their Tongues. The Saints in those Parts are doing pretty well, twice as well as I expected to find them.
“When we first went to Chatburn and Downham, and long after, we were treated with respect and Kindness, but now as if to prove the truth of what we have said since we came to this Land, that if they did reject the message they would lose the Measure of the Spirit which they had. We now cannot pass along the Street but we are assailed by old and young with, “We thought they had been dead before now,” – “Kidnappers, Kidnappers” — We knew the Children would not have thought of such Expressions, but had got them from their Parents. It is plain to see that the People are getting more wicked in those Parts, but there are many good and faithful Saints there, almost all poor.”
NARR. On a subsequent visit he noted that “They are humble and united since some of them went to America from this Place.” Obviously the impact of emigration was starting to cause stirrings against the church. When Heber returned to America (1838) he related his Chatburn and Downham Experience to the prophet Joseph Smith who told him,
SMITH. “Did you not understand it? That is a place where some of the old prophets travelled and dedicated that land, and their blessing fell upon you.”
NARR. Wilford Woodruff passed through here in 1845 and reported,
WOODRUFF. “I was much pleased with the meek and quiet spirit manifested amongst them. I walked through the village of Chatburn, of which Elder Kimball speaks in his journal, as walking through it with his head uncovered and blessing the place, while the children had hold of his garments as he passed along. I felt the spirit of God rest upon me while passing through the street where such scenes of interest had transpired with Elder Kimball and other servants of God.”
NARR. Years later (October 1853) Orson Hyde used this experience for his conference address to the saints.
HYDE. “What were our feelings? We felt that the ground upon which we stood was most sacred, and Brother Kimball took off his hat, and walked the streets, and blessed the country and the people, and let his peace come upon it. Why? Because the people were ready to receive the word of our testimony, and us for Christ’s sake.”
NARR. Twenty years after the event (1857) Heber was addressing the General Conference of the church and reminisced on the spiritual nature of this area:
KIMBALL. “I went through the streets of that town feeling as I never before felt in my life. My hair would rise on my head as I walked through the streets, and I did not then know what was the matter with me.” … “I felt as if my whole system was alive; I felt quickened by some unseen power.”