For the Global Journal, an initiative of The John A. Widtsoe Foundation
One of the missions of The John A. Widtsoe Foundation, and its Global Council, is to help Latter-day Saints all over the world to get to know one another, and understand the unique perspectives and challenges of members of our global Church.
This is the first of a series of several short insights into local Latter-day Saint experience from an interview with Global Council member James Holt, associate professor of religious education at the University of Chester in the United Kingdom. Professor Holt was a convert to The Church at age 15, and served a mission to Scotland at age 18. He has served as a Bishop on two separate occasions, and in a Stake Presidency, and currently sits on his Stake High Council. He and his wife Ruth have four children ranging in age from 15 to 24.
Widtsoe: What’s it like to be a Latter-day Saint in the UK?
JH: I was speaking to a friend a number of years ago, and she’s from Utah and she lived over here for a while. I visited her when I came across, and we were talking about raising children. And she articulated it best when she said, “Well, in some ways I prefer my children to grow up in the UK than in Utah, because”–and I don’t know much about Utah, so I’m using what she said as kind of the basis, “in Utah, Mormonism, the Gospel, is kind of a cultural expression.”
So she described that someone can go out drinking on a Friday night and still be at church on a Sunday. Whereas over here not going to church is not a problem. And if you don’t want to go, then you don’t go. It’s like being the Church of England over here- when I knocked on doors as a missionary, they’d say “no, no, no, I’m a member of the Church of Scotland.” But it was almost the default position. So it’s the cultural expression.
Over here- it’s different for me because I’m a convert–but my children have also had to make that decision. They’ve not been able just to be carried along on the crest of the wave, because they have been the only members of the church in their schools and in their friendship groups outside of church.
So having to make that decision earlier, I think, makes it more concrete. And also because of the service that we’re asked to give, there’s no “sitting back” in the gospel. I’m going to sound like Thomas S. Monson. I was called as a bishop at 25, I was in the Stake Presidency at 31, so there’s kind of no opportunity to say, “Well, no, you know what, I’m not going to do that, life is too busy.” It’s a conscious choice rather than being carried along on the crest of a wave. I think. So it’s an intentional discipleship every day.
If I left church, I’m not sure how many people would try to bring me back outside of a couple in the local community. And people outside of church wouldn’t really have an issue with leaving church. So it has to be my conscious choice. I’m reminded of a quote from Harold B. Lee, who said that a testimony isn’t something you have today and are going to have always: it’s fragile, something you have to recapture every day of your life. So it’s helped me establish that discipleship.
Now, hopefully that would be the case if I lived in a community of 100,000 members of the Church. But I do look at that and think, Okay, and then I look at my children and all four of them, and each of them is active at the moment (touch wood, I don’t know if that’s the phrase in the states, that’s what the superstition is anyway). One’s on the mission, one is temple-married, one is a returned missionary as well, and the other one is 15. But for each of them, we’ve had to make sure that our gospel living in the home is as consistent as it can be, because otherwise their heads will be turned. We’ve had to create a community, if you like, of people from a wider area for them to have that rooting in the gospel, and friends who have those similar standards.
Widtsoe: It sounds like you’ve worked really hard and been really intentional about creating a Latter-day Saint community. Tell me more about that community’s gospel culture. What’s a favorite hymn in your local congregation?
JH: Okay, again, that is difficult. I’m actually one of those people–I really cannot sing. I resonated with Elder Bednar over the weekend when he said “people will testify, I cannot sing.” I can sing one note and I can sing that one note consistently all the way through a hymn. And so it’s really difficult because music isn’t necessarily an integral part of my worship, but I do appreciate the words of songs.
So like any ward, you have the same 15-20 hymns you cycle through. So my favourite is probably “I Stand All Amazed,” just because it’s the hymn that places Christ at the centre of everything. I know lots of hymns do. But I also remember one of my youth leaders saying that on her gravestone she wanted, ”She stood all amazed.” Linking that with Elder McConkie’s final testimony, it just kind of helps me understand the Saviour a little bit more. That’s probably sung as a sacrament song once every two months, if not more frequently than that. So, that is a favourite hymn.
The other hymn isn’t in the hymnbook, and that’s “Jerusalem.” It’s often sung at conferences. Some of the hymn books I know at our Stake Center have Jerusalem stuck into the back because it’s a hymn that talks about both the Saviour and also England.
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”
It’s jingoistic, I guess it’s quite nationalistic; but, it’s just a lovely, lovely song that kind of fuses my pride in being British, but also with a focus on the gospel. I know, for example, that at the back of the hymn book we have “God Save the King,” or “God Save the Queen” as it is currently, and I’m not a huge fan of our national anthem. It’s not something that we tend to sing in church at all. “Jerusalem” is one of those that kind of captures the nationalist and also the gospel-centred things. So, those are probably the two hymns that I think resonate well with people in my local community, but especially me.
Widtsoe: “Jerusalem,” very cool! So, you don’t have much use for “The Star Spangled Banner”? [laughing]
We’ve never sung “The Star Spangled Banner,” shockingly enough. It’s there, it’s like, okay, that’s whatever. I would never sing my national anthem as a hymn in Church. Why on earth would you? It’s not praising God. I have no aversion to singing national anthems when it’s appropriate. But as part of a worship service, I don’t know how that draws me closer to the Saviour.
I mean, they’ve got “God Save the King” in the hymn book. I would be shocked if that’s ever sung in the U.S. But yeah, nationalism and national expression is perhaps understated over here rather than kind of the more expressive approach that I think Americans take. We don’t fly flags in our building. We don’t fly flags outside our buildings. Okay, the exception is the temple and the MTC, but for the most part, members of the church and British people tend to be understated in their jingoism to speak.
Widtsoe: Yes, we are also looking forward to the new hymnal that is being revised to meet the needs of a truly global Church! Maybe you can tell us about a recent local church activity. What do the Latter-day Saints in your area enjoy doing together?
JH: COVID has been problematic for activities, so I’ll be loose with my interpretation of recent. My wife [Ruth] is our Relief Society President, and last year during COVID she was approached by a sister in our ward who had taken advantage of a refuge for victims of domestic violence. Ruth made contact with this refuge and asked what our ward could do, and what they needed. So, for the year we were collecting and making different things like bags for children, bedding they would need upon arrival at the refuge. Because obviously, these women would leave their homes with their children, with essentially nothing. This wasn’t one activity; there were various activities interspersed. Working together to help people out for no reason other than they needed help, and there was no kind of expectation of a reciprocation or any benefit towards us was lovely, because it kind of expressed our discipleship.
And we’ve had quizzes, which I really enjoy. We also have swimming galas quite regularly over here. That’s one of the things we do.
Widtsoe: What do you do at a swimming gala?
JH: We hire the local swimming pool, and as a stake we have certain age groups and certain swimming strokes. And then, it’s an inter-ward competition that’s not as violent as football. (That’s English football, that is). It’s nice because there is a ward prize, so you’re there holding up banners saying “Go Hyde Ward” or whichever ward that you represent, and it also brings us together as a Stake. So you speak to people that you wouldn’t ordinarily speak to because you’re either swimming, or, like me, you sit on the side and shout encouragement. It’s a nice thing that brings people together.
One of the things that I sometimes find, is that because I’ve been in a leadership position most of my adult life, that defines a lot of our relationships. People speak to me as though I’m a Bishop, or people speak to me as if I’m a member of the Stake Presidency, whereas these types of activities break down those boundaries. So we can talk about football, we can talk about all kinds of things. Part of my discipleship is those relationships, and I think the more that we can do to foster those, the better. I think most of us could probably survive without activities, but they’re just nice at bringing people together. But yeah, swimming galas are the way to go, definitely.
Another thing that our local Stake does, is a Stake Faith in God group, because if we were to do a ward-level Faith in God group, there would be three, four youth at the very most. And so for my youngest daughter, who’s the only one of my children who’s been through Stake Faith in God, it helped her because she already had friends when she moved into youth and things. I think our leaders are particularly good at recognising that there are things that we need to do to bring people- even youth- together.
Widtsoe: This shows, again, how much effort and sacrifice you put into creating a Latter-day Saint community. Thanks so much for these lively descriptions of UK gospel culture.