F. William Oates – Valiant Church Leader during the twentieth century

by Kenneth Jørgensen

F. William Oates
Frederick William Oates

Frederick William Oates (known as Fred or Billy) was a valiant and very well-known Church leader in North East England during the twentieth century and the first Stake President of Sunderland Stake.

He was baptised on 11 May 1918 in Sunderland.  

In 1923 he became very good friends with Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who was serving his mission in Sunderland.  When he was sixteen Elder Benson took the branch’s Aaronic Priesthood holders to a city park, where “… he had us sit in a ring. Then he sat in the middle, and he talked to us about the Word of Wisdom. … He said, ‘Now, brethren, I want to tell you a little poem, and I want you to remember it' – and I've always remembered it – 'Tobacco is a weed.  The devil sowed the seed.  It scents your pockets, burns your clothes, and makes a chimney of your nose!’”

“President Benson was a great favourite with us all,” Fred concluded, “and even the adult ones in the ward [sic, branch] loved him.  I remember some of the older people, and my dad and mother, saying, `You know that young man is going to be a member of the Council of Twelve. He just had something that made you realize he was going to be important to the Church.’”

In the 1930s Fred served as Branch President and also as a local missionary.

Home Missionary Conference on the weekend of 12th April 1942
Home Missionary Conference on the weekend of 12th April 1942

In 1935 the following was written in the Millennial Star by Elder E Jay Milne:

“On the Sunderland branch stage tableau scenes depicting 'The Restoration of the Gospel' unfold themselves in splendour.  For nearly two hours the audience sits enthralled as they view the pageant.  In the midst of the drama the lean, angular frame of the actor-author and director moves with rapid precision.  His histrionic movements are those of a master.  The scene changes.

Out on the athletic field, the same agile man rushes to make a tackle.  He is wearing a checkered [sic] blue and gold jersey bearing in script 'Latter-day Saints.'  He is a member of Sunderland MIA football club — the first of its kind in the Mission.  Although outclassed, the team battles gamely on and wins the plaudits of the crowd for its fine display of sportsmanship.

Again, the scene alters.  In the classroom, this same man is explaining the working parts of a woodworking machine, and on the blackboard behind him are diagrams for intricate pieces of furniture.  The students listen with interest, for the instructor knows his subject well and knows how to present it attractively.

This versatile man who still enjoys the bloom of youth is Brother Frederick William Oates of Sunderland, Newcastle district president.  Brother Oates has been blessed with an abundance of talent of a high order.  Whether it be shown through mental creativeness or physical activity it is present and has frequently found expression in the various Church auxiliaries.

Fortunate indeed is the individual who possesses this ability, but more fortunate is he who has the wisdom to put his ability to the highest cause that man can serve — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This President Oates has faithfully done and the signal honour of being chosen to preside over Newcastle district has come as a result of his untiring effort to develop the gifts within him.  He is a believer in the axiom: 'If you have talents, industry will improve them.'  Never before have people been so responsive to new ideas as are the people of the world today.  And never before has there been such a need for men with ideas as there is at the present time.  The honours of civilized societies have always gone to men whose ingenious natures and versatile abilities could lead to better and happier ways of satisfying human wants.

He recalls the bitter persecution he and his family endured for the Gospel's sake when he was a youth.  Sometimes meetings were held up as missiles flew through the church windows.  He recalls how elders in Sunderland were beaten and jeered and told to leave town in those pre-war days.  But the persecution, instead of intimidating the Oates family, made them more determined to battle in order that right should prevail.  Since the day Brother Oates was baptized and confirmed (May 11, 1918) into the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he has steadily progressed.

A faithful, conscientious worker, he has grown with the years and in the power of the Priesthood.  He derived a positive satisfaction in rendering service in whatever position he might be called to labour and had the honour of being ordained an elder by Apostle John A. Widtsoe, October 28, 1928.  In all his advancements to positions of leadership and responsibility, Brother Oates has enjoyed the loyal help of his wife, Sarah Ellen Williamson Oates, to whom he was married April 7, 1928.  She has stood side by side with him in all that he has undertaken to do.  Sister Oates has also been active in auxiliary organizations.  At present she is district Bee-Hive supervisor. They have been blessed with two children, Frederick William Jr., five, and Hazel Dawn, seven.

Instructor in woodworking and other forms of manual training in a government-managed instruction training school in Sunderland is the vocation of Brother Oates.  The story of how he obtained this position from a field of 200 applicants is a remarkable tale of deep faith and the Lord's answer to fervent prayer.  An honest tithe-payer and a strict observer of the Word of Wisdom, his actions demonstrate his beliefs.  An eloquent speaker, too, he impresses all with his sincerity and seriousness.  As he voices his testimony one cannot help but feel that there is a man whose philosophy is the same as Paul: 'For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.”

Tunstall Road, Sunderland in 1958. Left to right Elder Bowler, Kerr and Pres Oates
Tunstall Road, Sunderland in 1958. Left to right Elder Bowler, Kerr and Pres Oates

Fred worked as physical activities master for the Sunderland Education Authority.  He owned and operated W H Forster Ltd (a printing company) until he retired in 1982.  He was a veteran of World War II, serving as 1st Lieutenant Training Officer, 13th Batt. DLI.

The Sunderland Stake was organized on 17th March 1963 by Mark E Peterson.  Frederick William Oates became the first President of the new Stake with J Laurie and K Taylor as councillors, and Norman Griffiths as clerk.

Throughout his life, he enjoyed writing and producing plays.  He was a kind and gentle man and a source of strength to the Latter-day Saints both in America and England.  He was blessed to be able to negotiate for the many Church sites throughout the northeast of England.  He served the Lord with love and enduring faith until he passed away on 8 September 1995.

Pres Oates on the left outside his printers with some of the missionaries taken around 1958
Pres Oates on the left outside his printers with some of the missionaries taken around 1958