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Sarah Wheatcroft: Service for the Dead

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 19, 2009

The  page in the record of burials in the churchyard of St. Thomas’s church in [New] Brampton, Derbyshire, England is unremarkable: There, on the third line, is recorded the burial of Sarah Wheatcroft, of Walton, Derbyshire, on 10 March 1850, age 20 years. Frederick Arnold, the curate, read the service in place of John Berridge Jebb, the second vicar of the then 18-year-old church (the “incumbent” mentioned in quotations below), but that was nothing unusual – the curate conducted many more burials than his superior.[1] Nothing about this ordinary record hints at the controversy over Sarah’s burial nor the role it played in cementing the religious freedoms of Mormons in this corner of old England.

Sarah was born on 10 February 1830 at Brampton, daughter of James and Ann Wheatcroft, and christened six weeks later (19 March) at the church in nearby Chesterfield, Derbyshire – a new stone church with Gothic windows and a massive square tower, to be known as St. Thomas’s church, was under construction at Brampton but wouldn’t be completed for another two years. The Brampton/Walton/Chesterfield neighborhood was visited early by LDS missionaries, and a small but permanent branch was established there. [2]  

1841 was an eventful year for the Wheatcroft family. Ann was baptized as a Latter-day Saint on 4 January 1841. A census enumerator captured a last glimpse of the family together that spring in an entry showing James Wheatcroft, manual laborer, living with Ann and their children James (age 20), Ann (15), and Sarah (10). James died later that summer of 1841. [3]

The Chesterfield branch membership record lists Ann Wheatcroft as the first baptism of 1841. [4]  The Sarah Wheatcroft shown here, however, is not “our” Sarah; how that Sarah, born in 1809, might be connected to our family is not yet known. “Our” Sarah was baptized on 7 January 1845, meaning that she had been a member just over five years  when she died in the first week of March 1850.

A delegation of Latter-day Saints called at St. Thomas’s church to make arrangements for Sarah’s burial on Sunday, March 10th. A day or two later, the Rev. Jebb himself – described by his daughter-in-law as “a person decidedly above average in ability who held strong and settled opinions on life, religion, and other leading questions” [5] – called on Ann Wheatcroft and told her – in his strong and settled way – that inasmuch as Sarah had been baptized as a Latter-day Saint, he would not allow her to be buried in his churchyard. However, he said, if Ann would “get her buried elsewhere,” Jebb would pay the burial fees himself. Ann protested. St. Thomas’s was nearest and most convenient for the bereaved mother, and by law, her friends insisted, the vicar must allow the burial. They argued back and forth, and finally Jebb left, declaring that he would write to his Bishop at Lichfield, Staffordshire for support in refusing burial.

Word spread, and soon the district was buzzing with speculation over who would win this showdown, the minister, with his strong and settled opinions, or the equally determined Mormons, with the law of the land on their side.

On Sunday, 10 March, the Saints of Brampton held their usual services, followed by an afternoon funeral service for Sarah Wheatcroft. A little before 6:00 that evening, they left their meeting rooms on Factory Street, and the modest funeral procession, with branch members singing a hymn, headed on foot toward St. Thomas’s church and its burying ground. “A considerable number of persons,” according to the Derbyshire Courier, “hundreds” by Mormon estimate, [6] either watched the procession pass or followed it to the churchyard.

They found the gate locked, but had “scarcely halted when the incumbent appeared in his canonicals, and taking off his hat, proceeded to read the following protest”:

In the name of God, I, John Berridge Jebb, incumbent of the district of St. Thomas’s, Brampton, do hereby solemnly protest against the use of the burial service of the Church of England in this case; and I do declare that it is only because I am compelled by the law of the land that I allow a member of the community of Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, to be interred according to the rites of the church in the churchyard of St. Thomas’s, Brampton; and I further declare that I cannot knowingly officiate in any future interment of the same kind without doing violence to my conscience.

Jebb told the crowd that if any wished to hear the full grounds for his objections, he would address them immediately in the nearby schoolroom. Donning his hat, Jebb strode off in the direction of the schoolhouse.

“The behaviour of the Mormons during the reading of the protest and at the service was decorous and proper,” noted the gentile journalist. The curate, Mr. Arnold, stepped forward and read the rite of the Church of England over the grave of Sarah Wheatcroft, Latter-day Saint. The Mormons had not asked for that rite, but neither did they prevent it, although, acknowledged the newspaper, “ it appears from the subsequent representations of one of their body, that they do not desire the service of the church at the burial of their dead; but only the privilege of burying in the churchyard.”

The Courier’s reporter may have learned this information from a local elder. That “representation” was certainly more restrained than the editorial comment appended by Orson Pratt to the report printed in the Millennial Star:

We will take this opportunity to inform the Rev. Mr. Jebb and his compeers, that the Latter-day Saints do not feel themselves under the least obligation to them for repeating the “service for the dead” over the body of a Latter-day Saint; nor do we feel to object to its being done; for we are well assured, that it will neither benefit nor injure the deceased. All we ask, is the privilege of burying our dead in places where the bodies are the least likely to be disturbed. It is truly a choice between two evils; for the ground that is professedly consecrated as a resting place for the dead is not, at all times, exempt from the rude grasp of the most disgusting avarice.

And thus was a young Latter-day Saint woman laid to rest on the grounds of St. Thomas’s church, Brampton. Neither the local newspaper nor the Millennial Star bothered to name her or her grieving mother.

Keepa remembers them both:

They are Sarah Wheatcroft (1830-1850), and her mother Ann (—) Wheatcroft (1803-____).

Thanks to David M. Morris of the European Mormon Studies Association (EMSA) for his geographical clarifications and especially for furnishing images of the census, membership record, and record of death of James Wheatcroft, and excerpts from Alfred Cordon’s diary. Thanks also to John McKinney, whose gift of the 1850 Millennial Star is where I found the Mormon side of the story.

[1] Church of England. Bishop’s Transcripts for St. Thomas’s Church (Brampton, Derbyshire), 1832-1878. FHL 497,389.

The initials are not “J.B.” but “J.G.” I have no explanation for the discrepancy. Although this image is of the bishop’s transcript rather than the original parish record, the transcript was made almost contemporaneously to the event, and the incumbent’s name certainly should have been familiar to the copyist. Joshua Jebb, a civil servant and J.B.’s oldest brother from whom J.B. had purchased the right of incumbency, had no middle initial; John Gladwyn Jebb, J.B.’s son, was only 8 years old; neither seems likely to have been mistaken for the clergyman.

As incumbent, Jebb received £150 annually from pew rents and Ecclesiastical Commission fees, with an additional sum of approximately £10 annually in fees for christenings, marriages, and burials. Like the Wheatcrofts, he lived in the Walton district along the Matlock road between Brampton and Chesterfield, but in very different circumstances: Jebb owned Walton Lodge, “a handsome stone mansion, in an extensive and well-wooded park,” while Ann Wheatcroft was described as “a poor widow” in 1850. White’s 1857 Directory of Derbyshire, 718; John Thomas Hardy to Orson Pratt, Millennial Star, 30 April 1850, 141-142.

[2]  May Green Hinckley, general president of the Primary in the early 1940s and stepmother to Gordon B. Hinckley, would be born in Brampton in 1881, the third Latter-day Saint generation of her family in that branch. The two converts listed in the Chesterfield Branch membership record immediately below Ann Wheatcroft’s name – Charles and Mary Marsden — became the grandparents, 40 years later, of May Green Hinckley. Alfred Cordon, the leading missionary in this area at the time, recorded in his diary for Thursday, 24 November 1841, “I waited for Elder Vernon untill ten 0 Clock,  that we might be company for each other to Chesterfeild,  We left Leek at eleven 0 Clock,  went through Worster,  Rowsly and Walton, arrived at Chesterfeild at Ten we were much fatigued we called at Deacon Marsden,  his wife was verry ill she rejoiced to see us,   and imediately her pains left her and she was made whole. “

[3] Great Britain. Census Office. Census returns of England and Wales, 1841.  James Wheatcroft and family are enumerated at Walton Mill, Walton Township, Derbyshire, England. (The family of Charles and Mary Marsden is enumerated two doors away.)

[4] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Chesterfield Branch (Derbyshire). Record of Members, 1841-1850. FHL 86991, item 22.

[5] Bertha Helen McDougall Jebb, A Strange Career: Life and Adventures of John Gladwyn Jebb (London; Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1894). J.G. Jebb’s adventures included foreign military service, global wanderings as an explorer and outdoorsman, and death in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. [Late add; This claim, for which I have two sources, needs verification: I just noticed that its title page indicates that the 1894 book was written "by his widow."]

[6] “A Mormon Funeral,” Liverpool Mercury, 12 April 1850, reprinting an article from the Derbyshire Courier; Hardy to Pratt.



17 Comments »

  1. How fascinating. The Mormon attitude concerning the Anglican “service for the dead” is reassuring when considered with the argument surrounding proxy baptisms for the dead.

    “nor do we feel to object to its being done; for we are well assured, that it will neither benefit nor injure the deceased.”

    Nice to know we have been consistent in this regard (at least in this case).

    Oh, and that J. G. Jebb died in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Fascinating!

    Comment by Bruce Crow — October 18, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  2. Ardis, this is simply fantastic.

    Comment by Tracy M — October 19, 2009 @ 8:29 am

  3. An interesting story. Thanks. It’s intriguing to see where the tensions arise when private convictions bump up against legal/administrative considerations. Part of me admires Reverend Jebb’s tenacity in insisting upon the undefiled administration of his church’s rites.

    However, to the extent it appears that Rev. Jebb was also motivated by some personal bias against the Mormon people, my admiration is much lessened, of course. This is supported by his willingness to personally pay Ann to bury Sarah elsewhere. And I have a hard time thinking that standing outside the funeral services and making a public pronouncement to the Mormon grievers was the best way for Rev. Jebb to lodge a professional/ecclesiastical complaint.
    Dis. Taste. Ful.

    Rest in peace, Sarah Wheatcroft.

    Comment by Hunter — October 19, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  4. P.S. Here is a current Google Maps satellite image of what I believe is the church and churchyard in question (here).

    Comment by Hunter — October 19, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  5. Thanks, Bruce. The comparison to baptism for the dead occurred to me, too — would be nice if people who think it is of no value would also recogize that neither did it cause harm.

    Tracy, thanks for commenting here as well as on Facebook. All those wonderful comments on FB, and I don’t get to preserve them here! :(

    Nice nuances, Hunter. There does seem to have been a discrepancy between what the Mormons asked for and what the minister thought they wanted, and, yeah, what the minister thought was being demanded would be offensive to anybody’s feelings under those circumstances. I’m glad you noted that, especially when it’s the offenses committed by a pompous clergyman that are most obvious to us. And great link to Google Maps — thanks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 19, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  6. Bravo! Great post! What lovely detective work!

    Since I am a descendant of May Green Hinckley’s brother Henry (May is mentioned in footnote 2), I looked into the family history to refresh my memory.

    Henry and May’s mother, Lucy Marsden Green, was born to Charles and Mary Marsden in 1846. At that point, Charles and Mary had already been members of the church for five or six years.

    Lucy Marsden married William Green in 1862. He was not a member of the church, and he never joined the church. Lucy and all of her children migrated to Utah, leaving William in Brampton, where he died in 1902. (One child died in 1878 and was buried in St. Thomas Churchyard almost thirty years after Sarah Wheatcroft.)

    Here in one family we can see the deep religious divide found in Brampton at the time. On the one hand, the Marsdens were faithful members of the church, and on the other hand, Henry and May’s other grandparents, Mathew and Elizabeth Green, were not only staunch Church of England people, they were also quite antagonistic toward the Mormon church.

    Thanks for this very interesting insight into the lives of these people, Ardis, since I knew very little about the Marsden family. It’s great to find some of these connections.

    Comment by Researcher — October 19, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  7. One other thought. I’m guessing about what Pratt meant when he described the churchyard as being a place where Sarah was “the least likely to be disturbed.”

    “the ground that is professedly consecrated as a resting place for the dead is not, at all times, exempt from the rude grasp of the most disgusting avarice”

    So was Orson Pratt referring to grave robbing? I guess he had to bring it up, since it was a real concern at the time. But it almost sounds like he is taunting the incumbent by implying he wasn’t really doing a good job of protecting the graves.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — October 19, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  8. I think — just guessing — that he didn’t mean either grave robbing or poor oversight by the incumbent, but only that a formal burial ground like the churchyard at St. Thomas was as safe a place as could be found where a grave would be undisturbed until the resurrection day — if Sarah had been buried outside the churchyard (could people conduct private burials in home gardens in Britain, the way they could in much of the U.S. at this time?) without the reverence accorded to a churchyard, the grave stood a good chance of eventually being disturbed by construction or farming or anything else.

    The slam about avarice, I think, is about the custom of having to pay the minister for conducting the funeral.

    But I’m only guessing because that seems the simplest explanation.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 19, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  9. It’s interesting that the law required that burial be permitted in the churchyard, despite her having converted to another faith.

    I wonder if it’s because that was the only public burial ground in the parish, or because she was christened in the Church of England and therefore entitled to burial despite her later departure from that faith?

    But, we’ll leave that puzzle to the legal historians. Meanwhile, this is great stuff, Ardis!

    (And, in my humble opinion, so is the the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. The final lines, probably familiar to me from burial scenes in old western movies, seem a fitting way to end a service:

    FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to receive unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our mortal body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 19, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  10. A tour guide in Edinburgh introduced me to Messrs Burke and Hare, infamous “resurrectionists” of of that city in the early 19th century, and the laws that led them into their line of business. Until the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only bodies available for dissection in the United Kingdom were those of people condemned to death and dissection in the criminal courts. Since medical training required more bodies than the courts were providing, grave robbing became a lucrative business. Burke and Hare apparently decided to move from grave robbing to murder, so they could get fresher bodies to their purchasers, having cut out the middlemen (the undertaker, clergyman and gravedigger).

    After the 1832 act, the grave-robbing business in the U.K. went into terminal decline–in fact, the business went belly-up, six feet under. Which supports Ardis’s “guess” about Elder Pratt’s comment.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 19, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  11. Thanks, Mark — I love those lines from the Book of Common Prayer, too. Whatever an elder might have said over Sarah’s grave would probably have carried the same substance, but could hardly have been any more beautiful than those words.

    As for the resurrection trade, I am continually amazed by the twisty paths of our conversations and the arcane knowledge displayed by various commenters. That was fun!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 19, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  12. Does that mean I can write off the costs of the trip to the UK as a business expense? Even if it was fun?

    Comment by Mark B. — October 19, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  13. Sure, Mark, why not? I’ll run it past the IRS man who doesn’t think my laptop is a necessary business expense.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 19, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  14. Thanks for this, Ardis.

    And it IS interesting to see what your smart, history-minded commenters (unlike me, who just has to be content to sit back and gawk at the smartness) bring to the table, too.

    Comment by m&m — October 19, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

  15. Some of them do astonish me, m&m. But you know, with a post like this where you can guess I’ve become emotionally attached to a long-ago brother or sister, comments that simply join in the recognition of these people as fellow Saints can be the best of all.

    (I confess to getting just as teary-eyed, just as glad to find the people I write about here as I do when I can add someone to my own family tree. I need to know that readers share that feeling.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 19, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  16. Well, then, Ardis, thank you for helping us connect with these dear saints, for telling their stories and helping us learn more about pieces of Mormon history that we would be otherwise (very, very) unlikely to find.

    And I have to admit that I’m rooting for you to find out more about the other Sarah. ;)

    Comment by m&m — October 19, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  17. What an interesting story.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 22, 2009 @ 6:06 am

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