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Photography by Scot Facer Proctor.
Some moments in the history of the restored Church are simply stunning, reminding us what we want to be and the power that God is eager to give us. One of these is Wilford Woodruff’s unforgettable mission to Great Britain which changed the entire history of the Church. I also find a deep lesson here for me and for each of us. I think of it particularly when I exhaust myself while running in place and settle for less than the Lord would offer.
In 1839, the Latter-day Saints were living in Far West, Missouri, when Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an extermination order, making it legal under any pretense to kill a Latter-day Saint. In three days, an armed mob, now backed by legal standing and fueled by hatred and false rumors, would fire hundreds of shots on mothers and children, husbands at their work, in Haun’s Mill, killing 19.
Soon a state militia of 2,000 would descend on Far West with these orders according to Lucy Mack Smith. “They gave the messengers to understand that they would soon commence on indiscriminate butchery of men, women, and children, that their orders were to convert Far West into a human slaughter pen and never quit it while there was a lisping babe or a decrepit old woman breathing within its bounds.” Wilford Woodruff said, “Many of the people of that state acted as though they thought it no more harm to shoot a Mormon than to shoot a mad dog.”
Their crops ruined while they starved, their lives threatened, their prophet in Liberty Jail, it is at this lowest, desperate point while the Saints are still trying to recover from this brutality, that a remarkable thing happens. Responding to the Lord’s direction, Joseph Smith sent the Quorum of the Twelve, including Wilford Woodruff, to Great Britain on a mission.
At this point, you want to say “What?” With the Latter-day Saints still homeless, huddled on the banks of the Mississippi River, Joseph, you send your strength away?
The Lord commanded, and Joseph responded—and so did the Quorum of the Twelve.
Wilford left, so sick with malaria, that he had to rest on a palette by the post office, before he could even take a step further. He said, “I do not believe that ever a company of men …attempted to perform a journey and mission of such extent and magnitude, under such unparalleled embarrassments and circumstances as did the quorum of the Twelve and others that started for England in 1839.”
When Wilford left, Parley Pratt gave him an empty purse, and Heber Kimball gave him a dollar to put into it. Then he rode away in a lurching wagon, still suffering with his chills and fever.
Wilford went right to the heart of industrial England, the Staffordshire potteries, where in their gray factories, the people sweated their lives away creating bone china. Despite opposition, he had reasonable success there and planned to stay.
Yet, on his thirty-third birthday, he said, “I….met with a large assembly of the Saints and strangers, and while singing the first hymn the spirit of the Lord rested upon me and the voice of God said to me, ‘This is the last meeting that you will hold with this people for many days.’ I was astonished at this, as I had many appointments out in that district…In the morning, I went in secret before the Lord, and asked Him what was His will concerning me. The answer I received was that I should go to the south for the Lord had a great work for me to perform there, as many souls were waiting for His word.”
What is interesting and indicative of how a faithful Saint lives, Wilford did not question the Lord saying, “I have appointments lined up here. I have a place to live. That’s a long journey. Haven’t I already been moved around enough?” No, once he hears the word of the Lord, he responds immediately.
It is also inspiring to note how clearly he heard the word of the Lord. He had made a habit of responding to his impressions instantly—not letting that be the beginning of a debate with the Lord. “Is going South really the right thing? Did I hear correctly? Can I do this next week or next month when the weather is better?” Because he was ever obedient, the Lord could trust him with impressions and revelation. It is as if the Lord asks, “Who shall I send?” and knows that Wilford will always respond. We cannot be potent in our receiving revelation, if we ignore what we have already been given or treat it casually. The Lord trusts us with more revelation, when we act on the revelation that he already has given us.
So Wilford acted in the way he always had. With swift and heartfelt obedience. If he is driven out of Missouri, he never wavers while he makes it out of the state at the risk of his life. If he is called on a mission while he is so sick he can’t walk out of town without collapsing, he goes anyway. So after he is told on Sunday, 1 March, that this will be the last time he meets with the people of Hanley, he acts immediately on Monday 2 March to seek further revelation, and is told to go south. Apparently he is not given more specifics than this, but he acts without hesitation, using that Monday to make his travel plans.
Elder Woodruff discussed his plans with his friends William and Ann Benbow, recent converts who lived in Hanley. William suggested that Elder Woodruff should visit his brother John in Herefordshire. William offered to pay his way and accompany him there.
He leaves on Tuesday, 3 March for a two-day journey that involved a 16-mile walk at the last. He arrives in the south, exhausted, on Wednesday night, 4 March.
This is breathtaking and swift obedience.
South for Wilford was the rolling, lush farmlands of Hereforeshire, where his companion, William Benbow, had a brother named John. John was a wealthy farmer and a member of the United Brethren, a group who had broken from the Wesleyan Methodists in an eager and prayerful search for light and truth. They had 600 members, including fifty preachers, who met in homes and one or two chapels scattered over twenty to thirty miles.
On Thursday morning, March 5, 1840, John Benbow sent word through the neighborhood that an American missionary would preach at his home that evening. The response of the people was immediate and heartfelt; they had been prepared from long years of praying to find the ancient gospel described in the scriptures.
Wilford’s journal captures the electricity in the air: “On Saturday the 7th, I spent the day in preparing a pool for baptizing, for I saw that there was much to be done. Sunday, the 8th, I preached at Bro. Benbow’s before a large congregation, and baptized seven, four were preachers. On the 9th, I preached at Stanley Hill and baptized seven, two were preachers. On the 10th, I preached again at Br. Benbow’s and baptized twelve, three were preachers.”
Word of Wilford’s astonishing work flew through the countryside and stirred the minister of Fromes Hill to action. He sent the constable out to arrest Wilford on the only count he could think of—preaching without a license—but according to Wilford, he “sent the wrong man.” As the constable politely waited for Wilford’s sermon to conclude, he was touched by the Spirit and requested Brother Woodruff to baptize him. Exasperated the preacher next sent two church clerks to discover what Wilford was teaching. Instead of making their report, they, too, were baptized.
“In fine,” said Wilford, “I never had seen such a work before, and the like had not been known in the last days. It was not the work of man but the work of God, the power of God was among the people, and his spirit was like a rushing mighty wind in our midst from time to time until multitudes were stirred up to inquire into these things. If anyone asks why these things are so, I answer because the Lord is about to make short work in England.”
The conversions were fast. In Ledbury, he preached at a Methodist Church and thirteen offered themselves for baptism after the first meeting. Though people responded quickly, they were not casual. Nearly all 600 of the United Brethren joined the Church because of Wilford’s obedience to the revelation he had heard to go south, and in a church that was still only a few thousand in 1840, that was a substantial percentage of the membership.
Not only that, but these new converts made significant contributions in every way. For instance, John and Ann Benhow would substantially finance the printing of the Book of Mormon in England, pay for at least forty of the United Brethren to make their journey to Zion, and later put up bail to help keep the Prophet Joseph out of jail.
Wilford blessed me, too. One of those new converts, Will Henshaw, would turn west and go on a mission to Wales, where he baptized my great grandmother, Margaret Davis Rees, the first woman baptized in Wales.
What if Wilford had been apathetic in his relationship to God? What if he had never learned how to receive revelation? What if he had been slow to obey? Everything would have been different in the history of the church’s growth and in the lives of thousands of people whose lives were transformed as downline of the converts there in Herefordshire.
So, I have found myself, lately asking a question about my life. It is this, “Do I want Hanley or the Benbow farm?” To me it means this. Hanley was a great place for Wilford to work. He could have continued doing many good things there. Appointments already filled his calendar. He hardly needed to seek revelation because his life was already bursting and busy with good things.
As it turned out though, the Lord had an even greater work for him to do and in seeking revelation with sincere intent and all his might, Wilford was able to become a powerful instrument in the Lord’s hand. The Lord would make much more of Wilford’s life than he could himself.
Hanley or the Benbow farm? I ask myself that often, because, frankly, it is just so much easier to stay in Hanley. It has become a symbol for me of gliding along through my life, satisfied with just being good enough, and giving a token effort to receive the Lord’s guidance, while the Benbow farm represents what Wilford did. Seek revelation with diligence, fasting and prayer so that I can receive the powerful instructions the Lord would give me and become a tool the Lord can use to bless others and to live with more light.
President Russell M. Nelson reminded us, “Does God really want to speak to you? Yes!”
Hanley or the Benbow farm? We really need these powerful instructions in every area of our lives. In my relationships, do I want to muddle through doing my best, or can I receive revelation about who needs my help or how to lift someone who seems resistant to my love?
Is the Lord willing to give me revelation on how to serve my spouse and family with more potency? Can revelation teach me how to use my gifts and fulfill my mission here on earth? Can revelation help me find the blocks which keep me from arising in the power a covenant child of God should have?
Could I be much more of myself, much more like Him, much more serviceable in His kingdom, if I sought revelation like Wilford did? Can I possibly fulfill the mission He sent me with on earth, if I stay in Hanley?
Ah, but Hanley has its allure. We are busy and too tired. Our lives are frantic and urgent. It takes such consistent labor and devotion to put the Lord first and truly seek revelation. Besides, we think, who am I to receive revelation? My life is small and I am nothing. I am not Wilford Woodruff.
Yet the Lord, has a Benbow farm for each of us—something that is our mission, our work, our choice today and He is eager to tell us. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell used to say, “God is giving away the spiritual secrets of the Universe. Are we listening?”
Do we have the divine determination to seek and to find? Do we have the faith to write it down and do it, once revelation has been received? Wilford’s own determination to go and do at all hazards has become a private quest for me. Day after day, Wilford responded as if there is fire in his bones—and there was. In fact, that description is his own. I want that fire, too, because as wonderful as Wilford’s work was in Hanley, the Lord wanted him at the Benbow Farm for an even greater work.