Following Wilford’s Way

by Janet Thomas

Assistant Managing Editor

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Prophets walked this land. Now these teens are tracing their footsteps.

Loading up the bus to take a group of Latter-day Saint youth on a tour of Church history sites seems like it could only happen in the United States. But on one bright Saturday in May, youth from the Cardiff Wales Stake, with lunches stuffed in their backpacks and plenty of enthusiasm for the outing, set off for a special activity to commemorate the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood and to uncover the roots of the gospel in the British Isles.

And the roots run deep, back 160 years, to the time when Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young walked along the roads in the villages that the bus was now driving through.

With many teenagers in one vehicle, the noise level in the bus is high as they cross the border from Wales into England. Everyone is talking and having a great time. The Welsh youth just love being together any chance they get. They love being around friends who believe the same way they do. Charlotte Forward, 15, of the Cwmbran Ward enjoys being with her friends Kathryn Elliott of the Blackwood Ward and Rachel Griffiths of the Newport-Gwent Ward. They really only get to see each other at stake activities, and spending all day together is a huge treat. Charlotte says, “Wales is a beautiful place to live. Everyone is so great to be with. We all get along in the stake. Everyone seems to be related in some way, especially our family. I’m something like the seventh generation in the Church. Some of my ancestors emigrated to Utah, but some stayed. Now there seem to be Forwards everywhere.”

The bus pulls into the village of Ledbury. It’s a fairly ordinary country town these days except for the charming old covered outdoor market on the main street. Andrew Dearden, the stake Young Men president, tells the youth that the first missionaries in this area were asked to preach in the market square. A few of the young men, who will be serving missions themselves in a few years, get out of the bus and walk under the old roof of the market. Would they have the nerve to stand in that spot and start talking about the gospel to the local townspeople? How would they react if the crowd did not want to listen?

Some of them are astounded that the missionaries 160 years ago had such success spreading the gospel. Clive Wilkinson, 18, is looking forward to his mission. But he is in awe to think that back then, hundreds of people in this area listened to the missionaries and believed. Some of those early converts heard Wilford Woodruff give a single sermon and asked to be baptized.

“It’s amazing that people would be converted listening to just one talk,” says Clive. “I’m a stake missionary, and when we go out with the missionaries now, it’s nothing like that. We’re lucky to get in the door. It’s amazing that the missionaries back then could come over here with this new religion which no one had heard about, and people would have so much faith to just believe them and be converted straightaway like that.”

The next two stops are very different from each other, but both are mentioned often in Church history. The first stop is for lunch at the Malvern Hills. This is the spot where Wilford Woodruff dedicated the area to the teaching of the gospel. After finishing off their sandwiches and crisps (potato chips), the group hikes up a trail, leaving the roads and houses behind, to the grassy slopes at the summit. From there they look one direction and can see Herefordshire spread out at their feet. Then they turn and can see into Wales toward their homes.

The second stop is even more significant. It’s the John Benbow farm. Although the farm itself is privately owned now, the small pond where hundreds of converts were baptized has been purchased and is maintained by the Church. The group relaxes on the freshly cut grass and tries to imagine the impressive scene when Wilford Woodruff was a missionary here.

In his journal, President Woodruff wrote that he felt guided by the Lord to this spot. He traveled many miles by coach, then walked many more miles. He met John Benbow, a wealthy farmer, who with his wife, Jane, belonged to a large group that had broken away from the traditional denominations of that time. Wilford Woodruff records, “He sent word through the neighborhood that an American missionary would preach at his house that evening. As the time drew nigh, many of the neighbors came in, and I preached my first gospel sermon in the house. I also preached at the same place on the following evening, and baptized six persons, including Mr. John Benbow, his wife, and four preachers of the United Brethren. …

“The parish church that stood in the neighborhood of Brother Benbow’s, presided over by the rector of the parish, was attended during the day by only fifteen persons, while I had a large congregation, estimated to number a thousand, attend my meetings through the day and evening” (Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff—His Life and Labors, 117–18).

And many of those thousand listeners were baptized, forming some of the earliest branches of the Church in England. John and Jane Benbow and Thomas Kington also financed the first British edition of the Book of Mormon and the printing of the LDS hymnbook.

During those few months in 1840, Wilford Woodruff preached to and baptized all the members of that breakaway group except for one man—about 600 people. And he baptized more than 1,200 of other denominations. Many of those baptized sold their land and possessions and left England to gather in Nauvoo, where they became the stalwarts of the Church. These same immigrants became pioneers when the Saints were driven out of Nauvoo and established a new community in Utah. Today their seed is literally scattered to the four corners of the earth, and their descendants continue doing the Lord’s work.

Although there wasn’t a lot to see except the pond at the Benbow farm, the youth were quiet. The peaceful spirit of the place seemed to penetrate every heart. “It felt really special,” said Suzy Taylor, Blackwood Ward, “to think those people had actually been here. It was nice to see where our leaders were talking about.”

The final stop was at the remains of the Gadfield Elm chapel. Just the rock walls stand. The roof is gone, and the nettles have grown up inside. But the chapel was the first building owned by the Church outside of the United States. It is easy to imagine what it must have been like 160 years ago, as people walked down the winding country road to the chapel. What is hard to imagine is the power and spirit that must have been there when Wilford Woodruff preached. In one evening, they learned the truth, and it changed the course of their lives.

The seeds that were planted then still bloom in the youth that come back to visit the places where such miracles took place. “It’s quite amazing, really,” said Joseph Parry of the Caerphilly Branch. “These places are around us. I’ve always thought of Church history as being in America. It was actually in Britain, too.”

Malvern Hills

The Malvern Hills are a high ridge of hills in southwestern England, grassy on top and offering a spectacular view of about 30 miles in all directions, including across the border into Wales. The highest spot is called the Herefordshire Beacon.

Wilford Woodruff wrote in March 1840 about climbing the Malvern Hills. “In my walk to Colwell on the 9th, I had a great survey of nature and of the power of the Creator; this was while standing upon the summit of Malvern Hill, elevated from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred feet above the level. The surrounding country was before my view, stretched out many miles. Worcester town lies in the north, clearly seen in the prospect, Gloucester on the south, with several large villages between, Ledbury and other villages on the west, and a fine, beautifully cultivated vale upon every hand. While upon this noted hill, beholding the grand and charming prospect before me, the thunder began to roll, and the lightning flashed in the vale below, on which the rain descended in torrents. The solemnity and grandeur of the scene was impressive as I stood upon the hill above the clouds, surveying the beautiful works of the Creator, and His majesty in the storm” (Cowley, 148–49).

It was on Beacon Hill that Elders Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Willard Richards prayerfully decided to authorize the printing of copies of the Book of Mormon and hymn books in Great Britain. These brethren did not have access to a temple, so they often retreated to the Malvern Hills to discuss with the Lord various weighty decisions. These hills, and particularly Beacon Hill, are sacred places.

Gadfield Elm Chapel

The Gadfield Elm chapel is the first Church-owned meetinghouse outside of the United States. It is the location of a conference held on June 14, 1840, at which Elder Willard Richards was chosen president. Donated by the United Brethren, who joined the Church en masse during the spring and summer of 1840, the chapel was used extensively until most of the newly baptized Saints emigrated to join the Saints in Nauvoo. Although it fell into disrepair, happily, it is currently being restored with a new roof.

Pond at John Benbow Farm

This small pool of water on the John Benbow farm was the scene of hundreds of baptisms in 1840. On March 5th, Wilford Woodruff baptized John and Jane Benbow and four other preachers from the local congregations of a group called the United Brethren. He spent most of the following day, as he wrote, “clearing out a pool of water and preparing it for baptizing, as I saw that many would receive that ordinance. I afterwards baptized six hundred persons in that pool of water” (Cowley, 117).

Photography by Janet Thomas

The high point of the journey (literally) was seeing where the land was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel.

Although the Gadfield Elm Chapel (above, center) fell into ruin after the Saints emigrated to Utah, the sturdy stone walls still stand as a monument to the faith of early Church members.

Youth in the Cardiff Wales Stake mark the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood by visiting sites where the gospel was taught in England and Wales in the 1840s.

The small pond on what was once John Benbow’s farm, where Wilford Woodruff preached and baptized, is still a place of peace and beauty today (above).

The group walked the same path to the Benbow pond that new converts walked more than 150 years ago.