I have always been amazed at how I became a Mormon.
I was a long haired, guitar playing seventeen year old, living in the 1960s with no thought about religion at all. I was between jobs for two weeks and was out doing some errand. I came home only for my mother to say that we were to have some visitors who would like to speak to me about religion. Not to her, just to me and my sister. What made my mother do that? What made her invite them back when they called on her door?
Well, two missionaries came, my sister did not listen to them, but I did. These and other missionaries taught and challenged me and after five months I was baptised. I have often asked myself, what led those missionaries to my street, my home at that precise moment. Was it by chance? Many experiences have taught me there are unseen powers at work in our lives, all the time. Let me tell you how I started searching my family and something about some of my ancestors.
Because I had a branch president who loved family history, when I was just 18 he taught me how to search out my family and submit their names for temple work.
Now I only ever knew one living grandparent, my mother’s mother. On my father’s side my grand parents were a mystery, especially my father’s mother. I was born and lived in a town in the south of England; my dad’s mum was born and grew up in a town called Burnley in Lancashire, which is in the north. It was after I had begun to do the Temple work for my Burnley ancestors when I received the call for my first mission back in 1971. Strangely I was sent to the north of England and the first area I was sent to was in the Burnley District. While there, on my ‘p’ days, I would some times go to the Burnley library to find more names of my Burnley ancestors. I began to wonder if my serving my mission near Burnley was at all by chance.
Now how I was supported financially on my mission is interesting. I had been working as an aprrentice at E. K. Cole in Southend. They decided to close down and merge with M.E.L. in Crawley. We were offered new jobs in Crawley or a pay out. I took the money and put it towards serving a mission. But that covered only about one fifth of the costs for a two year period away from home. I therefore, at the start of my mission, was sponsored by an unknown donor in the U.S.A. Each week I received a Cheque from someone with the surname Harper. One day when knocking on doors in Rawtenstall, the first town I was sent to, a lady began talking about a young man who years ago had joined the Mormons and who emigrated to the U.S. He prospered and in later life turned his attention and his wealth towards the town of his birth. He assisted in aquiring the land to build the chapel on and became well known amongst the members of the fledgling branch. But, not long before my mission, he passed away. His family name was Harper.
I was being supported on my mission by the widow of a man who was born in the first town I laboured in. I asked my mission president if there had been a request made from the Harper family. He told me that prior to my arriving on my mission the town had been closed to missionaries. We had been sent to re-open the town to the restored gospel. There had been no communication, at least not from this world, as to where I was to be sent. Years later I attended an anniversary celebration of the Rawtenstall ward and asked about this brother Harper wondering if this whole thing was a distorted memory. The members there confirmed the story of Brother Harper.
17 years after my mission, now married and with six children we found living in the south of England rather expensive. I was teaching in London, my pay was poor and we had to make a change. After prayer and discussing it with our children we decided to move north where houses and the cost of living was cheaper. But just where in the north we would live we did not know. With our children in our car we went exploring. We went up the east side of England into Yorkshire but felt nowhere was right. Then eventually we crossed the Pennine hills into Lancashire, a very wet part of England. As we drove down into a town on a wet rainy day, Eileen, like Brigham Young, said ‘this is the place!’ It was that same town I was first sent to on my mission, just a few miles from Burnley.
Another story from those early days of my mission must also be told. Of course it was just another one of those coincidences....
One morning I was out tracting with a zone leader instead of my usual companion. He had that week received a letter from home giving him information about his ancestors who came from a place called Haslingden in Lancashire. That day, we were knocking on doors down the main street in Haslingden and came to this old church. We walked in through the gates, he took out the letter he had received and read it. Then we looked down at where we were standing. It is not unusual in England for gravestones to be laid flat around the church. We read the gravestone on which we were standing and on it were the names in his letter. It was a family grave and on it were other names of his family which he was able to send to his family back home. We were together as companions just that once. I had decided where to tract that morning, or so I thought.
So, who was influencing me where to go tracting that one morning when I was with a different companion?
(The following is an excerpt from my biography, 'Rebels Lane' )
'Some chapters back I wrote about experiences I had on my mission that convinced me there were those who had passed on who from the other side were at work guiding our thoughts and footsteps. These convictions were reaffirmed when I became involved in the lives of previous inhabitants of this backwater town in Essex (Maldon). We got to know a young single woman of the ward named Sharon Everett. She told us that back in Victorian times there was a large, thriving branch of the church here in Maldon. She showed us an article in one of the church magazines about one William Wood who was a young man who joined the church in Maldon and tried to join the saints in Utah by joining the British Navy. Unfortunately the ship he joined went to the East China Seas instead of West to the New World. However, after circumnavigating the globe he eventually found his way to where he had set out for. This story and Sharon’s information sparked an interest in me so I wrote off to church HQ and they sent me copies of the old branch records. Upon studying them there were certain names that stood out amongst the rest, in particular the family name of Stratford.
I was sitting at home one evening, pondering on these people and the name Stratford, wondering what became of them once they left Maldon back in the 1860s. I decided to phone Church HQ in Salt Lake. To this day I do not know how I got the right phone number, there was no internet then, but in a matter of minutes I was dialing the number of Dale and Edna Straford of Ogden, Utah. This woman answered, I introduced my self and a new friendship began. Her name was Edna, the wife of Dale, great, grandson of George Stratford, ex president of the Maldon branch in the 1850s. She was excited to learn of my interest and said she would send me a copy of the missionary journal of Edwin, son of George. She also informed us that they were coming to England that summer on an historical tour. It was 1987 which was the sesquicentennial anniversary of the church in England. Dale Stratford was a state senator in Utah, so we invited him and Edna to our celebrations to meet the mayor of Maldon, Roy Pipe and his wife. The event was held in a hall in the centre of Maldon, we put up displays telling the history of the church in England and in particular in the Maldon area, we enacted scenes from the past and our Irish folk band, CorUnum played. Dale presented the mayor with appropriate gifts and so relations were established. Sadly, Dale suffered heart problems and died, but Edna we have kept in contact with and met up with since. After the celebrations I continued working on the history of the old Maldon branch and eventually publish a short book called A Quest for Zion. In particular it told the story of Charles Penrose who was sent to Maldon on his first mission and the success that followed. It was a story that I felt those who went before wanted to be discovered and written.'