America’s Debt to Great Britain
(Ezra Taft Benson. London, July 26, 1987. British Saints Celebrate 150th Anniversary. Also in “This Nation Shall Endure, p. 5”)
“Freedom-loving men owe a debt of gratitude to Great Britain and those human instruments who provided that first flicker of ‘freedom’s holy light’ to future generations, and which made the restoration of the fullness of the gospel possible.”
In spite of the serious problems facing Great Britain, one cannot step upon that land and tread its walkways without a supreme consciousness of history. The British Isles are saturated with history. The Western world and free men everywhere owe to England a great debt of gratitude for a legacy handed down over the centuries.
Following the great apostasy from the principles and laws of Christ, the world became enslaved in a cloak of darkness. This long night of Christian apostasy placed an oppressive tyranny on the minds of men, which were shackled by chains of false priestly tradition. Before the gospel could shine forth its resplendent light, a flickering flame of religious and political freedom had to commence somewhere. Heaven determined that it begin in England.
The stage had been set premortally. The characters in the drama had been held in reserve to come at appropriate times and intervals to influence the course of events in history.
A great soul was sent to the earth at Wickliff, New Richmond, in Yorkshire, about 1324. His name—John Wycliffe. His voice in later years was raised against the abuses of the church of his day. He was subsequently excommunicated, the most serious offense being that he translated the Bible into the English language. He believed that “the scriptures are the property of the people, and one which no one should be allowed to wrest from them.” As a result of his courageous efforts, England for the first time in history was given a complete version of the scriptures in her native language, though published in manuscript form only. Our perspective shows us that the efforts of Wycliffe brought about the Great Reformation, and he was given the appropriate title “The Morning Star of the Reformation.”
A century later another figure was born in England—William Tyndale. Where Wycliffe’s Bible was only a translation of the Latin into English, Tyndale translated his version from the original Greek. The result was the first printed New Testament in English. Utilizing one of the greatest inventions of man, the printing press, the Tyndale New Testament was printed in Germany, smuggled into England, and made available to the English people. For this, Tyndale was strangled and his body burned at the stake. His last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” a prayer that was subsequently answered when King James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, gave to the world the authorized King James Version of the Bible—the version used to this day by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It was this flicker of freedom and the belief that each man had a right to the possession of God’s word that sponsored the Great Reformation in Europe. Speaking of this great movement, and the reformers themselves, President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “In preparation for [the restoration of the gospel] the Lord raised up noble men . . . whom we call reformers, and gave them power to break the shackles which bound the people and denied them the sacred right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. . . .
“In the days of greatest spiritual darkness, when evil raged, the Lord raised up honorable men, who rebelled against the tyranny of the [adversary] and his emissaries. . . .” (Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1954, 1:174-75. Italics in original.)
President Smith also wrote: “Praise be to the great souls who conducted the Protestant Revolution. They helped to make it possible for the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early part of the nineteenth century, preparatory to the second coming of the Son of God. For all the good they did we honor them, and they shall receive their reward which shall be great. They were not restorers, but were sent to prepare the way for one who was yet to come with a mission of restoration and everlasting power.” (Essentials in Church History, Deseret Book, 1950, p. 21.)
Religious freedom cannot prosper where political freedom does not exist. Again, history records that the spark which kindled the flame of political liberty among men commenced in Great Britain. Somewhat over a century before Wycliffe’s birth, an event took place in England that opened the door to a recognition of man’s rights by abridging the power of the king. Until then, human rights were looked upon as something a monarch might grant to his subjects. On the soil of Runnymede in the year 1215, the English monarch, King John, formally recognized in writing that he had encroached on man’s sacred rights, and thus one of history’s most influential documents was born, the Great Charter. Since that time this document, also known as the Magna Carta, has become a symbol of man’s freedom.
For man to exercise fully the agency God has granted to him, his God-given natural rights must be recognized and protected. It has only been recognized within the past four hundred years that these rights inherently belong to man. It was historical documents such as the English Petition of Rights and the English Bill of Rights that first recognized the “immemorial rights of Englishmen.” I believe these movements were inspired of the Lord. Later these God-given rights were to become guaranteed by New World documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights.
Speaking of the circumstances that brought about the principle of self-government, President Brigham Young said on one occasion: “The King of Great Britain . . . might . . . have been led to . . . aggressive acts, for aught we know, to bring to pass the purposes of God, in thus establishing a new government upon a principle of greater freedom, a basis of self-government allowing the free exercise of religious worship.” (Journal of Discourses 2:170.)
Once a man’s rights became guaranteed by the political institutions that would serve him, the time became propitious for the Prophet Joseph Smith to be sent on the world scene, and for the kingdom of God to be restored by direct divine intervention in the year 1830. A light had burst forth among men again, and it was the fullness of the gospel! (See D&C 45:28.)
Yes, freedom-loving men owe a debt of gratitude to Great Britain and those human instruments who provided that first flicker of “freedom’s holy light” to future generations, and which made the restoration of the fullness of the gospel possible.
The greatest legacy contributed by the British Isles to the kingdom of God is not appreciated or recognized outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This legacy is the number of valiant souls—veritable defenders of the faith—who came from the United Kingdom to strengthen the Church at a time of its greatest vulnerability. Until 1837, the Church was largely confined to the United States, principally in the states of Ohio and Missouri. Then a crisis came on the infant church. Many began to apostatize, including some of the leading figures. Speaking of this period, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote:
“At this time the spirit of speculation in lands and property of all kinds, which was so prevalent throughout the whole nation, was taking deep root in the Church. As the fruits of this spirit, evil surmisings, fault-finding, disunion, dissension, and apostasy followed in quick succession, and it seemed as though all the powers of earth and hell were combining their influence in an especial manner to overthrow the Church at once, and make a final end. . . .
“In this state of things, and but a few weeks before the Twelve were expecting to meet in full quorum, . . . God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church.” (History of the Church 2:487-89.)
That “something new” which would be “done for the salvation of His Church” was the bringing of the gospel to the British Isles. President Spencer W. Kimball’s grandfather, Heber C. Kimball, related the circumstances of this revelation in these words: “On Sunday, the 4th day of June, 1837, the Prophet Joseph came to me, while I was seated in front of the stand, above the sacrament table, on the Melchizedek side of the Temple, in Kirtland, and whispering to me, said, ‘Brother Heber, the Spirit of the Lord whispered to me: “Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my Gospel, and open the door of salvation to that nation.”‘” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, Stevens and Wallis, 1945, pp. 103-4.)
So in 1837, four servants of God were called to the British Isles: Elder Heber C. Kimball, Elder Orson Hyde, Elder Willard Richards, and a priest, Joseph Fielding. Others were to follow, including Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff. In 1841 Brigham Young wrote:
“We landed in the spring of 1840, as strangers in a strange land and penniless, but through the mercy of God we have gained many friends, established Churches in almost every noted town and city in the kingdom of Great Britain, baptized between seven and eight thousand, printed 5,000 Books of Mormon, 3,000 Hymn Books, 2,500 [copies] of the Millennial Star, and 50,000 tracts, and emigrated to Zion 1,000 souls, established a permanent shipping agency, which will be a great blessing to the Saints, and have left sown in the hearts of many thousands the seeds of eternal truth, which will bring forth fruit to the honor and glory of God, and yet we have lacked nothing to eat, drink, or wear: in all these things I acknowledge the hand of God.” (Millennial Star 26:7.)
One of the most memorable of these experiences, which illustrates how the Lord had prepared a people to receive His gospel, was recorded by Elder Woodruff. He had been directed by the Spirit to the John Benbow farm in Herefordshire, England, in early 1840. Here are his words:
“When I arose to speak at Brother Benbow’s house, a man entered the door and informed me that he was a constable, and had been sent by the rector of the parish with a warrant to arrest me. I asked him, ‘For what crime?’ He said, ‘For preaching to the people.’ I told him that I, as well as the rector, had a license for preaching the gospel to the people, and that if he would take a chair I would wait upon him after meeting. He took my chair and sat beside me. For an hour and a quarter I preached the first principles of the everlasting gospel. The power of God rested upon me, the spirit filled the house and the people were convinced. At the close of the meeting I opened the door for baptism, and seven offered themselves. Among the number were four preachers and the constable. The latter arose and said, ‘Mr. Woodruff, I would like to be baptized.’ I told him I would like to baptize him. . . .
“The first thirty days after my arrival in Herefordshire, I had baptized forty-five preachers and one hundred and sixty members of the United Brethren, who put into my hands one chapel and forty-five houses, which were licensed according to law to preach in. This opened a wide field of labor, and enabled me to bring into the Church, through the blessings of God, over eighteen hundred souls during eight months, including all of the six hundred United Brethren except one person.” (Matthias F. Cowley, Life of Wilford Woodruff, Deseret News, 1909, pp. 118-19.)
During this period between 1840 and 1846, it is estimated that over 3,300 Saints from Great Britain, at great personal sacrifice, immigrated to Nauvoo in an effort to give their all to the building of the kingdom of God. Among those early stalwart converts from England were such illustrious names as John Taylor, third president of the Church; George Q. Cannon, counselor in the First Presidency; John R. Winder, counselor in the First Presidency; and George Teasdale, apostle.
Since that time, it has been estimated by the Church Genealogical Society that eighty percent of the members of the Church today are descendants or converts from the British Isles. How the Lord has favored that land and that people by the number of the blood of Israel He has placed there!
My purpose in recounting some of this background is to recall the long historic struggle for the recognition of man’s God-given right to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience. God has guided significant events in times past to preserve those rights. He has raised up the individuals with the courage and intrepid will to do what needed to be done. All this was for the purpose of laying a foundation so that the gospel and His kingdom could be restored. Our mission today is to see that this gospel reaches every nation, every tongue, and every person. I repeat, this can be done effectively only when man’s basic freedoms are protected and preserved. The gospel can prosper only in an atmosphere of freedom.
Today, there is a great threat to freedom. The Church is prospering and growing, but all over the world the light of freedom is being diminished. A great struggle for the minds of men is now being waged. At issue is whether or not man’s basic inalienable rights of life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness shall be recognized. It is the same struggle over which the war in heaven was waged. In undiminished fury, and with an anxiety that his time is short—and it is—the great adversary to all men is attempting to destroy man’s freedom and to see him totally subjugated. There are evidences of this struggle all about us. A system of slavery, communism, has imprisoned the minds and bodies of over one billion of the earth’s inhabitants. Today, forty-five percent of the people of the world, in sixty-five nations, live under totalitarian dictatorships or forms of government that deny people most or all of their political and religious freedom. We further read and hear about international terrorism where nations are blackmailed and there is no regard for human life.
Even among free nations we see the encroachment of government upon the lives of the citizenry by excessive taxation and regulation, all done under the guise that the people would not willfully or charitably distribute their wealth, so the government must take it from them. We further observe promises by the state of security, whereby men are taken care of from the womb to the tomb rather than earning this security by the “sweat of their brow”; deception in high places, with the justification that “the end justifies the means”; atheism; agnosticism; immorality; and dishonesty. The attendant results of such sin and usurpation of power are a general distrust of government officials; an insatiable, covetous spirit for more and more material wants; personal debt to satisfy this craving; and the disintegration of the family unit.
In 1958 a beloved spiritual leader, and my inspired mission president in Great Britain, delivered an inspiring prayer at the dedication of the London Temple. I quote a short paragraph from that memorable prayer by President David O. McKay:
“Next to life we express gratitude for the gift of free agency. When thou didst create man, thou placed within him part of thine omnipotence and bade him choose for himself. Liberty and conscience thus became a sacred part of human nature. Freedom not only to think, but to speak and to act is a God-given privilege.” (Improvement Era, October 1958, pp. 718-19.)
This heritage of freedom is as precious as life itself. It is truly a God-given gift to us. With it, we are moral agents before God, “accountable for [our] own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” (D&C 101:78-79.)
With the evidence all about them that tyranny is on the increase and that man’s freedoms are ebbing, faithful members of the Church are asking, “What can be done? What can I do?” Of all people, members of the Church must not despair. As God has intervened in our past history, so He may in our present history. His purposes will not be thwarted. His kingdom will not be destroyed or left to another people, “but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” (Daniel 2:44.) We must remember what our beloved President Spencer W. Kimball has reminded the Church so often: “Nothing is impossible to the Lord!”
To come under the protective and preserving hand of God, it is vital that we keep before us the conditions for such protection. “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34.)
Nephi, who saw our day, pronounced this prophecy: “. . . I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small.
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.” (1 Nephi 14:12, 14. Italics added.)
And again, Nephi prophesied: “For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous. Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire.” (1 Nephi 22:16-17. Italics added.)
These are the promises of the Lord to all the faithful saints who keep the commandments of God. They need not fear. What can we do to keep the light of freedom alive? Keep the commandments of God. Walk circumspectly before Him. Pay our tithes and fast offerings. Attend our temples. Stay morally clean. Participate in local elections, for the Lord has said, “Honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold.” (D&C 98:10.) Be honest in all our dealings. Faithfully hold our family home evenings. Pray—pray to the God of heaven that He will intervene to preserve our precious freedoms, that His gospel may go to every nation and people. Yes, in the words of the Lord Himself: “Stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come. . . .” (D&C 87:8.) Those “holy places” are our temples, stakes, wards, and homes.
At the time that the gospel was first taken to Great Britain in this dispensation, the elders were directed by the Spirit to go to Preston. A general election was in process. As the elders went into Preston, they were greeted with a spectacle of band and music playing, thousands of men, women, and children parading the streets, and flags flying in every direction. At the moment the coach in which the elders were riding had reached its destination, one of the flags unfurled nearly over their heads. On the flag in large gilt letters was this motto: “Truth will prevail.” The elders took this as an appropriate omen, and cried aloud, “Amen! Thanks be to God, truth will prevail!” I witness to you that certainty: truth will prevail!
God lives. He presides over the destiny of nations and His church. He is close to this church and its prophet. Of this I bear witness.
I love the British Isles and the British people. It was on that soil that I served my first mission. Since then I have had a great love for the people of the British Isles. When the first apostles set foot on that land, they were privileged to see Queen Victoria, who passed by them in royal procession. As she did so, she made a low bow to the brethren. They returned the royal salute, and Heber C. Kimball pronounced this blessing: “God bless you.” As one of God’s servants today, I say, God bless the people of the British Isles. God bless and preserve their families in righteousness. God bless their land and their leaders.