This is the paper I gave at the Mormon History Association this past weekend. I wish I could record it rather than posting the bare script — I get a kick out of teasing laughs from the audience by the style of delivery. What can I say? I’m a ham.
“A Disturbance at the Mormonite Chapel”: 19th Century British Hooliganism and the Latter-day Saints
It will be news to exactly none of you that 19th century Mormon missionaries were not welcomed by many of the communities they entered. That dislike often varied according to the community: Nowhere else in the world were elders whipped and shot as they occasionally were in the United States. In the German states, elders were frequently banished, sometimes being imprisoned briefly before banishment. In the Scandinavian countries, elders were also banished, but my unverified impression is that those banishments were linked to imprisonment more frequently than in Germany.
In Great Britain elders were sometimes pelted by eggs and mud; halls rented as Mormon meeting places sometimes had their windows broken. But Great Britain’s special claim to missionary harassment took the form of hooliganism. Sure, rowdies in America did often throw stones at buildings where elders were preaching, and even shot through the walls on occasion – but the English raised hooliganism to a fine art, unrivaled elsewhere.
The earliest hint I have found of this behavior – although there is no reason to believe it was the first such event – appears in a Preston newspaper in 1844: “George Pilkington was charged with creating a disturbance in the Temperance Hall, on Sunday last, during an address delivered by a Mormonite preacher.”
By 1850, such reports are common. An account from Lincolnshire describes the typical pattern of these disruptions:
A serious disturbance took place on Sunday afternoon last, at the Mormon chapel, … It appears that at the close of one of the services, a short time ago, one of the elders offered to answer any questions which might be put to him. This [offer] was accepted, and the elder was interrogated in such a manner that he became completely dumbfound[ed].
The detail lacking here, which appear in reports of other disruptions, is that questions were not asked in an orderly fashion, but with many people shouting out at once, and not waiting for any response before they shouted out again, and usually books or stones or other litter was thrown at the elder until he and any members present had to leave without closing the meeting with prayer.)
To prevent the repetition of an occurrence [at the next meeting], it was determined to exclude any persons except those who were introduced by one of the saints. Notwithstanding this announcement, many persons presented themselves, on Sunday last, for admittance … [T]he privilege being refused by one … placed outside the door, he was assailed by the mob, and ultimately compelled to retire within. An attack was then made upon the Mormon [hall] … Ultimately the police were sent for, but, notwithstanding [police] interference, a number of unbelievers gained admission to the temple. Several questions were then put to an elder …
The reporter makes it sound so dignified, but the “putting” of those questions was loud and riotous. The account then focuses on the behavior of the ringleader:
Not in the least daunted, the questioner manfully kept his ground, and the Mormons … raised a cry of “turn him out!” This was easier said than done; part sided with the Mormons, and part against them, and a general fight ensued, bonnets were broken, coats torn, and hats smashed.
(Sounds like President Monson may have written this!)
The mob outside, hearing the row within, made a rush, and another section gained admittance. The questioner got his coat slit up the back by a Mormon, who, in return, was rather roughly handled. The police, after a time, again restored quiet. On leaving the town in the evening, the Mormons were attacked, and pelted with stones and mud.
The name of the ringleader is not given in the newspaper, but remember his tactics, and his willingness to brawl both with the Saints and the police, and see if you don’t share my suspicions as to his identity from what you will hear in a few minutes.
And so it goes throughout this period. At Hammersmith, near London, three young men,
who were not members of the congregation, entered [a Mormon service] and commenced creating some disturbance. They made some remarks contrary to the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, and [the preacher] asked them to be peaceable if they wished to remain, and told them that the place was licensed for religious meetings … [The loudest of the three] then said that he was a liar, and that a license was only granted to persons who preached the Gospel, and… they preached the doctrines of the devil. [The men] continued to disturb the meeting, and the [Mormon elder] was compelled to call in the assistance of a constable to remove them.
You will note that in these examples, the police were called, the police came, and the police removed intruders. There may have been an exception somewhere, but in every case of which I am aware, from the 1850s on into the first decades of the 20th century, the British police always responded when called, they frequently stationed men at Mormon chapels before they were called when trouble was anticipated, and they always did their best to restore order and to protect the Saints and their property. I have to suppose that individual policemen felt more or less the same as their fellow countrymen about Mormonism, but they do not appear to have let their personal feelings interfere with their professional duties.
Sometimes, as in the last example, the existence of a “license” was mentioned at the hearings of men arrested for disturbing the Mormon peace. This refers to a law from the era of George III: Protestant Dissenters could register their places of worship with a bishop of the English church, and in exchange for following certain regulations, such as keeping their doors unlocked to the public, they enjoyed certain protections, such as freedom from disruption of their worship services. The English bishops conducted no investigation into the doctrines or practices of these Protestant Dissenters, merely issuing a certificate stating that a room had been registered according to the law. These certificates were commonly called licenses, leading to the misunderstanding of the general public as to their scope. In the Hammersmith case just mentioned, for example, the defendant apparently believed the license regulated the kind of doctrine protected under the law, and he did not believe that Mormonism was covered by the law.
Many Mormon branches registered their meeting rooms under the Protestant Dissenter law, and it was that registration which authorized them to summon the police when their meetings were disturbed. Men who were arrested were sometimes fined by the police court, and occasionally by the Sessions Court, a higher court that might be roughly equivalent to the District Court in the American system. Other than the occasional brief note that a defendant was fined the costs of court, none of these prosecutions appears to have had any effect on damping further disruptions, nor received any real attention in broader English society.
Until, that is, 1854.
On a Sunday evening in August 1854, a reporter for one of the London papers happened to be strolling through a square when he came upon “a man mounted upon a table haranguing passers-by. The orator had a very large mouth,” he wrote, “a Scotch accent, and a jocular stare. … I cannot say that [his attire] was very shabby, but it was clear that [he was ignorant] of the art of mending rags. … Nor was I quite certain that [he was] in the habit of visiting baths, wash-houses, or barbers’ shops. … [He informed] the gaping crowd that he had a special mission from heaven to expose the horrid errors of the followers of Mormon the Prophet and Joseph Smith the disciple … I could not help remarking that he was one of the cleverest mob orators I had ever heard … but, at the same time, it was clear he did not understand his call from heaven to mean that he should learn to speak the English language with propriety or put aside rude and coarse manners. On the contrary, he made it his boast that he could not utter words grammatically, and did not understand polish; and altogether he certainly had made up his mind to live and die in perfect ignorance of the arts of a gentleman. But the art which he had managed to greatest perfection was that of plunging his assembly into roars of laughter.”
The orator was Andrew Balfour Hepburn, age 39, a Scotsman, son of a soldier. Most of what is known about his background comes from his own account, not from unflattering stories by irritated British Mormons. He tells us that as a child he “positively refused to go to school,” and that after he had been apprenticed to a weaver, he was so unruly that his master “took [him] before the justices no less than four different tines, for disobedience.” Failing to receive the services he had contracted for, the weaver discharged Hepburn before his time. The young man then found employment as a farm laborer, but he rebelled against the farmer who “called me up at five o’clock in the morning.” For this unconscionable action of the farmer, and, “not exactly liking this out-door labour which I considered rather menial,” Hepburn left the farmer. He worked from time to time as a weaver, and as an informant for the Glasgow police department.”
In 1844 Hepburn was baptized as a Latter-day Saint. “I honestly confess this was done with a good conscience.” According to his account, however, he was ill-prepared to be a Mormon – “Up to eight days after my baptism, I had never heard of such a being as Joseph Smith, or of the Book of Mormon; and remained in utter ignorance of these things” until a family member told him. When he confronted the missionaries, he said, the elders flatly denied that there was any such person as Joseph Smith or any such book as the Book of Mormon. Determined to learn the truth, Hepburn records hiding in closets and listening around corners to Mormon missionaries who conveniently recited incriminating facts. He tested the elders’ powers of discernment by pretending to be possessed by a devil, which they attempted to cast out. And at least as early as 1845, he began “lecturing,” as he called performances like the one the newspaper reporter witnessed in 1854. His autobiography lists 38 cities where he “exposed” Mormonism before he reached London in about February 1853. For the next seventeen months, he claims, he conducted twice-weekly “lectures.” And, as it turns out, the Latter-day Saint congregation meeting at No. 41 Globe road, Stepney (in the Bethnal Green district of East London) would soon receive his special attention.
That branch met in a hall rented by one of the local members, Elder James Harrison. Elder Harrison was an engraver by trade, and at the time of our story was 37 years old, a member of the Church for three years. Despite his relative youth in the Church, he was a dependable man who conducted services in the absence of missionaries. As lessee of the meeting hall, he was responsible for paying the rent of two guineas per quarter; he was also responsible for any damages caused to the building or its furnishings.
Serving as London Conference president (roughly equivalent to a stake president) was James Marsden. At age 27 you might think he was rather young to hold such a responsible position – but he had long experience in the Church by this time. Born in Derbyshire in 1827, he had joined the Church at age 14, and by age 19 he was leading the branch in Liverpool. He was appointed president of the Edinburgh Conference in 1850. Now, in the summer of 1854, he was offering administrative and pastoral care to between 3,000 and 4,000 members of the Church in the London area.
Andrew Hepburn and James Marsden had encountered each other at least twice before. Once Hepburn had entered an LDS meeting in Poplar, another East London branch, where Elder Marsden presided. Rising to his feet during the course of the sermon, Hepburn demanded that Marsden cease speaking; Marsden called on others in the congregation to put Hepburn out of the building. Things had gotten uglier during a meeting at Barking, in Essex: Hepburn had been among a noisy crowd outside the hall, attempting to intimidate the Saints and shouting so that speakers could not be heard inside. Hepburn, at one point thinking he saw Marsden standing at the window, punched his fist through the glass. The police were called and Hepburn arrested. Released on bail pending his hearing, Hepburn forfeited bail, but was later captured by the police and fined for his assault on Elder Marsden.
And now, in August 1854, Hepburn turned his attention to the Stepney branch.
Hepburn, together with a mob of 60 to 80 shouting followers, filled the street in front of the meeting hall on the evening of Friday, August 18. Many of them, including Hepburn, managed to squeeze into the room where Marsden was speaking. Marsden quoted a passage from the Doctrine and Covenants, and instantly Hepburn was on his feet, interrupting Marsden and demanding to know where the passage was located. He shouted his demand repeatedly, preventing Marsden from continuing. Because Marsden was familiar with Hepburn’s tactics, he requested that a deacon in the branch call a policeman from the station just around the corner. The policeman came immediately and, “after a considerable resistance” on the part of Hepburn, the constable succeeded in removing Hepburn from the room. This was the signal for Hepburn’s rabble, who had been shouting their support for Hepburn, to escalate their disturbance. Among other damages, they threw bricks through the skylight, and broke the bell. One of them took the speaker’s stand. In short, the meeting was so badly disrupted that there was no point in continuing. As the Saints and their visitors made their way through the noisy crowd outside, Hepburn shouted his intention to be present at the next Friday’s service. Harrison, the branch president, notified the police of the threat, and the officers promised to be on the alert. (It cannot be stressed enough, I think, that the English police system always attempted to keep the peace, and to protect missionaries and local Saints.)
The following Friday night, Hepburn returned to the hall on Globe Road with a mob of boys and men and repeated his performance. It took three policemen to subdue them. Hepburn was arrested and taken before the police court. The police magistrate listened patiently to accounts of the evening, but refused to allow Hepburn to defend himself with a lecture on Mormonism; “the court was not a chapel,” he said. The magistrate asked whether the room was licensed under the law; James Harrison stated that it was. Hepburn was allowed bail, and a hearing was set for the next Sessions Court, three weeks later.
Attorneys represented both Hepburn and Marsden at that hearing. Again Hepburn’s defense was based on an exposure of Mormon doctrine which, his solicitors claimed, was never intended to be protected under the law. Again the court refused to hear it. A representative of the Bishop of London was called to testify as to the authenticity of the certificate registering the room as a place of worship under the Protestant Dissenters law. When asked, the clerk admitted that certificates were not contingent on any investigation into religious doctrine, but was granted whenever sought. With no real defense, Hepburn was convicted of riot and assault and sentenced to three months in jail.
The riot, the trial, and the jail sentence were not so extraordinary that I would have expected much public notice to have been taken. Similar events had happened many times, and in only one other case have I found much newspaper commentary. But the trial of Andrew Hepburn was followed by a tsunami of press coverage. I have found coverage so far in 41 newspapers in Great Britain, much of it multi-column editorials. Coverage started with the Times of London on the day after Hepburn’s conviction, with a hand-wringing editorial opining that of course the English were a tolerant people, and of course the Mormons should be tolerated. But that did not mean they were eligible for the protections of the Protestant Dissenters law. “Tolerate, but do not protect,” was its conclusion.
Other newspapers responded. “Religious freedom is a civil right,” the Manchester Times retorted, “… and what the Times means, if it means anything, is that this civil right should be denied to the Mormons.” Another London editor said:
We know how our liberty-loving friends on the other side of the Atlantic would have treated the question. They would have pulled down the meeting-house, shot the preacher, and … maltreated … the worshippers … Here, however, we think it better to let folly run its course.
Some editors examined the tenets of Mormonism – or a caricature of them, anyway – in deciding whether the protective law was intended, or not intended, to protect such beliefs. In many cases, we could substitute the word “Christian” for the word “Protestant” and be unable to decide whether a statement had been published in 1854 or was part of a 21st century debate. The Times of London aside, the overwhelming position of the British press was that they deplored the presence of Mormonism in Britain, but the Mormons had followed the law; the great pride of England was its commitment to fair play; therefore, the Mormons were entitled to protection in their worship.
After the fuss died down, after Hepburn’s term was served, and after the press turned to other topics, life went on in the Stepney branch much as it had before. In 1854 James Marsden was released from his eleven years of missionary and leadership service, with the expectation that he would emigrate to Zion. He did not go, probably in part because his wife refused to emigrate. He was called again to lead the Liverpool Conference in 1855. Late in 1856 Brigham Young notified Orson Pratt, as mission president in Liverpool, that “Bro Marsden’s labors are not needed in Europe, let him … come immediately to Zion, or be cut off from the Church.”
When the Mormon emigration season opened in March 1857, Apostle E.T. Benson wrote to Brigham Young:
By your request we released … Mr James Marsden from his labours [in February] giving him instructions to prepare to go home. … [W]hen the day came for [the Mormon emigrant ship] to sail he … sent us a letter telling us he had declined emigrating … – And for this … we excommunicated him from the church this day.
Despite his promising early service to Mormonism, Marsden died outside the Church.
Andrew Hepburn continued to agitate after his release from prison. He was arrested again in 1855, and in 1857, and in 1858, and in 1859, and perhaps on other occasions, for disturbing Mormon meetings. Press reports of his arrests and trials show that he had not modified his tactics. Only one thing seems to have changed: He boasted of his prison term as proof of the great effect he was having in society. He died in London, in July 1884.
The tide of anti-Mormon activity in England rose and fell according to the success or decline of Mormon activity there. After a relatively peaceful end-of-the-19th-century, anti-Mormon agitation rose again dramatically in about 1910. In 1913, when apostle Rudger Clawson led the European Mission in the Liverpool office, he wrote of his efforts to secure a lot on which to build a Latter-day Saint chapel in Nuneaton. Along with the lot’s location in what he called “a respectable neighborhood,” the next greatest attraction was that it was “within a stone’s throw of the Police Station.” While hooliganism was inevitable, Clawson also knew he could count on the British police to offer what protection they could.
* This was written to be heard, not read. That is why so many of the quotations are filled with ellipses: I cut complex phrasing, and simplified vocabulary so that listeners could easily understand the story. The meaning of sentences has not been changed, I promise.
* Friends gave much appreciated help: Alison chased down the genealogical facts concerning Andrew Hepburn, correcting what other historians have published and discovering facts that didn’t make it into this paper. Also, Amy Tanner Thiriot’s specialized knowledge spared me the embarrassment of mixing together two British Saints, both named James Marsden. Anne (U.K.) gave me some advice on use of the word “hooliganism.”
* There is a lot more to be said about the newspaper debate reported in this paper, issues that are more important than what I included. With only 20 minutes to read, there was only time to give a broad outline of the story and a brief nod to its importance in securing civil rights for Mormons.