Arrival of the Latter-Day Saints

editorial image

by Dr Jack Binns

In June 1962 the Scarborough Evening News and Daily Post reported that “a local religious group” had asked the town council property committee if it would be willing to sell “the first six sites from Stepney Road leading down Stepney Drive for the erection of a church”. In fact, this unnamed “religious group” was that of the Mormons or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Few Scarborough householders by 1962 were unaware of the Mormons, “those American religious men who knock on doors,” but most of them were probably unaware that a town group had been meeting in Roscoe Street for six years from 1949 to 1955 when they had moved to 5 Prospect Road. Now with more than 70 members in the branch they were about to build their own church on a new site.

The first broken ground on Stepney Drive was dug in January 1964 by members who included Mr Orval Lloyd, the building supervisor from Phoenix, Arizona. Ever since the Protestant Reformation Scarborians had been emigrants to North America taking with them their religious faith and practices; now there was a reverse movement across the Atlantic.

It took more than two and a half years and £75,000 to build and finish the Mormon church by October 1966. Most of the work and all of the money came from Scarborough’s own Mormons and young missionaries from the USA. On two levels, combining church with cultural hall divided by a moveable screen, the new building accommodated up to 600.

The hall could be used for concerts, dances and basket ball; there were rooms for a Sunday school; a bath for total immersion baptisms; a kitchen; and various side offices –- all centrally-heated and air-conditioned. Outside, a car park had room for 40 vehicles. Altogether the Scarborough Mormons now claimed a membership of 275, of whom 120 were said to be “active”.

Most of us think of Mormons as neatly-dressed, close-cropped, young American male twins who take it in turns to knock on our doors to “sell” their religion. We know only that they abstain from drinking alcohol, coffee and tea and smoking tobacco. Some of us regard them as unChristian heretics or religious cranks. As always, the truth is more complicated, intriguing and subtle than the received stereotype.

The narrative began in New England with Joseph Smith (1805-44) who, according to his own account, at the age of 22 began to have visits from an angel called Moroni, who took him to a secret store of golden plates inscribed with a strange text. Translated into the English of the King James Bible by the semi-literate Smith, these inscriptions became the Book of Mormon, Moroni’s father. Published in 1830, the Book of Mormon tells the story of how the original God’s people in the Americas were wiped out by the pagan native Indians in the fourth century AD. So Smith’s church of Latter-Day Saints was a restoration of the only authentic Christianity which had been lost for one and a half millennia.

After Joseph was murdered by a mob in 1844, leadership of the harassed community was taken by Brigham Young (1807-77). He led the faithful on a final migration westward to the deserts of Utah. Here, in isolation, the Mormons practised cooperative farming and, perhaps because of the scarcity of men and the plethora of females, polygamy. Brigham Young had 19 wives at his home in Salt Lake City. Not until 1890 did the mainstream church reject polygamy, but the custom survives illegally in secluded parts of Utah and Arizona. In 1896 Utah was admitted as a state of the Union.

During the 1960s, alarmed by feminism, the growing use of recreational drugs and increased rates of abortion and divorce, the Mormons became more traditionalist and conservative. However, in one respect, they made a major concession to modern liberalism: in 1978 they accepted the equality of blacks into what previously had been a white monopoly of priesthood elders.

Since the days of Brigham Young the church has become world-wide. Only 14 per cent of Mormons now live in Utah and over half of 15 million adherents are outside the USA in western Europe, South America and south Pacific islands.

Mormon belief in the posthumous baptism of ancestors explains why they have taken the trouble to collect and store a vast archive of genealogical information. For several years their Stepney Drive church has been a centre for local family historians.

The Mormons are family people. They believe strongly in fidelity within marriage and chastity outside it. They are strongly opposed to same-sex unions, abortions on demand and pornography. Families are expected to bond at least once a week around the home dinner table, at prayer and in scripture reading. Most Mormons refrain from Sunday work and attend their church as often as possible for worship, recreation and social care. Above all, Mormons look after their own kind, visiting the sick, baling out debtors, comforting the bereaved. Many of them hand over a tithe or tenth of their income to the church. The young male missionaries who come door to door serve abroad for two years at their own expense. For every 5,000 houses visited only one successful conversion is expected.

As in the case of other minority religious sects with their own code of strict moral behaviour and believing that they are the only true Christians, the Mormons have suffered nearly 200 years of persecution, denigration and misrepresentation. Some traditional Christians of many different denominations even deny their claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, despite their chosen name.