A Crisis at Sea

by James Perry, PhD

A screwship steamer, c. 1852
A screwship steamer, c. 1852

“the Spirit is with us on the island, manifesting itself in tongues, prophesying’s, healings, visions, and revelations; but not only are the gifts enjoyed here, but the graces also for I can say with truth, I never was in a Branch where there were more love and union, and brotherly kindness.”

Elder J. F. Bell, Malta, March 1853

In May 1852, Thomas Obray loaded a large and heavy box of his tools onboard a screw steamship docked in Liverpool as he prepared to journey to the Mediterranean island of Malta. After paying his six pounds passage for a steerage ticket he stowed his possessions, which also included a large amount of literature for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated by the Liverpool office and the Saints across Kent

Liverpool Docks in the mid-nineteenth century
Liverpool Docks in the mid-nineteenth century

The young unmarried Welshman was responding to a call from Apostle Lorenzo Snow to travel to Malta to begin service as a missionary.[1] Thomas had been baptised on 25 July 1844 at the age of 23 and was an earnest believer of the restored gospel. For the last eight years he had worked tirelessly in Kent where he had organised five branches and baptised hundreds of people. To pay for his expenses Thomas worked as a shipwright and in his spare time preached the gospel in various branches around Kent as the Conference President.[2] His new assignment to Malta was an important one and it was his first call as a full-time missionary.

In 1852 Malta was comprised of three islands and a diverse population of 124,000.[3] Since 1800 the islands had been controlled by the British Empire and it was predominantly a Catholic territory. Malta was an important area to share the gospel as it was a hub of maritime activity across the Mediterranean and people from many nations could be found there. The British Army also had a strong military presence here. The gospel could be preached to many people and who knows how it could spread across Europe, Africa, and beyond. 

Thomas Obray
Thomas Obray

The “British Queen” was a steamship that used coal to power a furnace that then propelled the ship. The ship also had sails that were used. The voyage was a standard return trip from Liverpool to Constantinople. Nothing out of the ordinary was expected. The cargo was primarily cotton and other trading items.

When the “British Queen” set off on 6 May it headed south through the Irish Sea. Two days later the ship hit rough weather when nearing Milford Haven in Wales. During the storm, a fire broke out on the ship among the cotton goods. The crew quickly set to work to try and put the fire out. Thousands of pounds worth of goods was being destroyed but if it was not put out quickly, they would be at the bottom of the sea.

The crew turned the ship around and headed for Holyhead on the coast of Anglesey.[4] Thomas rushed to check on his possessions, he moved his tools and the chest of missionary literature to a safe area of the ship. He breathed a sigh of relief that they were safe and immediately headed to the top deck.

Smoke wrapped its way around the ship and made several of the crew too ill to function. Thomas volunteered as a cook to prepare food for the crew and passengers who were working to extinguish the fire. When he was not working as a cook he was on the top deck pumping water from the ocean to put out the flames below. After some time, the crew discovered a hole in the ship’s bottom. If they did not get to a port soon there would be nothing to help them.

The ship eventually made it to Holyhead as a result of the crew and passengers working tirelessly. Upon making it to the harbour some of the cargo was removed and the ship was scuttled in some shallows to extinguish the fire that they had been unable to stop.[5] Thomas proved his worth during the crisis at sea and gained “the friendship of all the crew and passengers aboard the vessel.”[6]

The ship was soon repaired and the journey was once again attempted. This time the journey was successful and without issue. Thomas arrived in Malta and was greeted by Jabez Woodard, a fellow missionary labouring in Malta. A month after his arrival in Malta , on 28 June 1852, Thomas and Jabez organised a branch in Valletta; the first branch on Malta with a membership of 26 people.[7]

Missionary work in Malta was hard going. Elder Lorenzo Snow had arrived there in 1851 and begun the work only to have negative and hostile newspaper articles cause some difficulties for the missionaries and increase the opposition they faced. “Still they serve us some good purpose by awakening curiosity and sending us many visitors,” wrote Elder Snow.[8]

Valletta, c.1870s
Valletta, c.1870s

Now it was Thomas’s opportunity to experience the hardship. “It is beyond my power to make known the difficulties attending this Mission,” wrote Thomas to President Franklin D. Richards, “I have not only to encounter with Catholic, [sic] but with Protestant, [sic] who are circulating lies as fast as a horse can run, in order to stop the work of God on this island; but, God be praised!”[9] But Thomas was positive about the future: “I feel the Lord is going to do a good work here.”[10]

Soon after his arrival Thomas and the early members began to see success. A number of British soldiers and their wives were baptised and they would be influential in the spreading of the gospel during the Crimean War that was to break out just a year later. The valuable literature that was saved from the fire ravaged “British Queen” was distributed across the island and copies of the Book of Mormon were requested. Many soldiers read and consumed this literature and some of them were baptised and ultimately served as missionaries themselves. As time would demonstrate, Thomas’ efforts to preserve the church literature during the crisis at sea onboard the “British Queen” would have an eternal impact.

[1] ‘Organizations and Appointments’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 13, No. 21 (1851), p. 333.

[2] 'England and Wales Census, 1851,' database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSQ7-N7W5-B?cc=2563939&wc=QZ4P-BYT%3A1588914109 : 27 July 2017), 101796537 > image 142 of 770; from '1851 England, Scotland and Wales census,' database and images, findmypast (http://www.findmypast.com : n.d.); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey.

[3] Lorenzo Snow, ‘The Gospel in Malta’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 14, No. 9 (1852), p. 141.

[4] Morning Chronicle, ‘Shipping Intelligence’, 13 May 1852.

[5] Reynold’s Newspaper, ‘Steamer on Fire’, 16 May 1852.

[6] Malta Mission manuscript history and historical reports, 1852-1855, p. 1, LR 5203 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[7] The Salt Lake Herald, ‘Malta’, 27 July 1880.

[8] Lorenzo Snow, ‘The Malta Mission’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 13, No. 15 (1851), p. 236.

[9] Thomas Obray, ‘The Mission in Malta’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 14, No. 30 (1852), p. 236.

[10] Thomas Obray, ‘The Mission in Malta’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 14, No. 30 (1852), p. 236.