The Convert Immigrants

Pioneer Story

Companion to controversy wherever it appeared in the early days, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nevertheless grew at a phenomenal rate. Hundreds of converts were baptized each month in 1850s England and Wales. But Brigham Young's Zion—and the new proselytes' surest refuge—was in America. As noted by Arthur King Peters in his Seven Trails West, "the Mormon Trail of those years stretched all the way from Liverpool to Salt Lake City, making it by far the longest of any trail west" ([1996], 137).

Worldwide Gathering to "Zion"

"And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy." (Doctrine and Covenants 45:71).

Inherent to the belief of early Latter-day Saints was the spirit of gathering. They sought to build a centralized "Zion" community with fellow Saints, safe from ridicule and strife.

As the Church spread through Europe, tens of thousands of new converts emigrated to America, leaving everything behind them for their faith and desire to be with fellow members. Of the 60,000 to 70,000 Saints who emigrated to the Salt Lake Valley in the late 1800s, more than 98 percent of the survivors were from Europe, and 75 percent were from Britain. The British converts began to emigrate with the arrival of Brigham Young to Britain in 1840. As American members faced persecution, new European members brought strength and refreshment. "They have so much of the spirit of gathering," Brigham said, "that they would go if they knew they would die as soon as they got there or if they knew that the mob would be upon them and drive them as soon as they got there" (quoted in Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses [1985], 94).

First Missionaries to Europe

In 1837, just seven years after the establishment of the Church, Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde went to England as missionaries. Elder Kimball felt inadequate with his assignment.

"O, Lord," he said, "I am a man of 'stammering tongue,' and altogether unfit for such a work. How can I go to preach in that land, which is so famed throughout Christendom for light, knowledge and piety . . . and to a people whose intelligence is proverbial?" (President Heber C. Kimball's Journal [1882], 10).

Pushing doubts aside, Elder Kimball trusted in God and left for his mission. When the boat approached Liverpool, Elder Kimball enthusiastically leapt ashore, becoming the first missionary in Europe. Nine people sought baptism after one week. About 1,500 were baptized during his missionary service. A result of his efforts, the Preston branch (congregation) was established in 1837. Today it still functions as the oldest continuous branch in the Church, predating the Salt Lake branch by 10 years.

Apostles Visit England

Just when Church President and Prophet Joseph Smith was facing great persecution, he sent those closest to him across the ocean to build the Church abroad. Beginning in 1839, members of the Quroum of the Twelve Apostles left to preach the gospel in England. They went without money or provisions, relying on God for their keep. According to Brigham Young's reports, from 1839 to 1841 they baptized between 7,000 and 8,000 people; printed 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon, 3,000 hymn books, and 2,500 volumes of the newspaper Millennial Star; and established a shipping agency for emigrant Saints. The Apostles helped 1,000 European converts emigrate to America during that time.

Emigration Organized

On 6 June 1840, the first official emigration company left on the ship Britannia. These 41 Preston Saints were led by John Moon and blessed by Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young before they left for New York. They arrived on 20 July. In all, Brigham Young organized 800 emigrants into seven companies for the journey overseas. For the next five years, New Orleans became the preferred destination for the emigrant companies, who would then take a steamboat up the Mississippi River to Nauvoo.

Funding for the Journey

To pay for the trip, many Saints worked several months or years prior to their trek or after arriving at their port of entry in America. Some immigrants paid passage for half or all of their way, while others relied heavily upon the Perpetual Emigration Fund provided by the Church for its members journeying west. The fund was replenished by repayment of loans or donations from members. In 1852, Church leaders opened the fund to the 30,000 Saints in Britain and other converts in Europe (prior to that year, the fund was mainly used by the pioneers' trek in America). European members used the fund with the promise to payback that loan through money or labor. Because of the high price of travel, it took several years for immigrants to pay their debt—many were unsuccessful.

Typical Day Onboard Ship

The historian Leonard Arrington wrote:

"The companies arose at an early hour, made their beds, cleaned their assigned portion of the ship, and threw the refuse overboard. At seven they assembled for prayer, after which breakfast was had. All were required to be in their berths ready for retirement at eight o'clock. Church services were held morning and evening of each day, weather permitting. Many of the companies had excellent choirs which sang for the services. During the time of passage, which occupied something like a month, concerts, dances, contests, and entertainments of various types were held. Schools were held almost daily for both adults and children. The classes were particularly popular with Scandinavians who learned English en route" (Great Basin Kingdom [1958], 103).

Other journals record that on sunny days women and children would busy themselves on deck. The children would play while the women would sew wagon covers and tents for the upcoming journey in America.

Charles Dickens Visits an Emigrant Ship

A visitor to the ship Amazon, leaving the London dock in 1863, was the novelist Charles Dickens. "I . . . had come aboard this emigrant ship to see what eight hundred Latter-day Saints were like," he wrote. "Indeed, I think it would be difficult to find eight hundred people together anywhere else, and find so much beauty and so much strength and capacity for work among them" (The Uncommercial Traveler[1863], 446).

Fully expecting to "bear testimony against" the Latter-day Saints, Dickens changed his opinion after observing the passengers: "To my great astonishment," he said, "they did not deserve it" (449).

In Dickens's book, The Uncommercial Traveler, he describes the scene he beheld with wonder:

"Nobody is in an ill temper, nobody is the worse for drink, nobody swears an oath or uses a coarse word, nobody appears depressed, nobody is weeping, and down upon the deck, in every corner where it is possible to find a few spare feet to kneel, crouch, or lie in, people in every unsuitable attitude for writing, are writing letters" (445).

Early Newspaper Reports

An article from a Philadelphia paper recorded in the Millennial Star describes the 536 Latter-day Saints aboard the ship Tuscarora.According to the article, two-thirds of the passengers would remain in the Pennsylvania until they earned enough money to complete the trek to Salt Lake.

"It is unfair to characterize these Mormons as unlettered, or charge them with embracing the creed for the mere sake of promised happiness in an ideal country. On the contrary, they seem fully to realize the hardships before them and to have their eyes open to the fact that they must earn their bread by patient toil, upon arriving in Utah" ("Another Herd of Mormons," 5 Sept. 1857, 572).

The Edinburgh Review of January 1862 recorded:

"The ordinary emigrant is exposed to all the chances and misadventures of a heterogeneous, childish, mannerless crowd during the voyage, and to the merciless cupidity of land-sharks the moment he has touched the opposite shore. But the Mormon ship is a Family under strong and accepted discipline, with every provision for comfort, decorum, and internal peace. On his arrival in the New World the wanderer is received into a confraternity which speeds him onwards with as little hardship and anxiety as the circumstances permit, and he is passed on from friend to friend, till he reaches the promised home" ("Burton's City of the Saints," 199).