Benjamin Rhodes Birchall was born in Oldham in 1868. His father was a coal miner, his mother a charwoman. As a boy he sold newspapers; later he worked in a factory. These were humble beginnings. But he evidently had wider ambitions and devoted his spare time to study. By the age of 15, he was a Methodist preacher and by age 18 a college-educated Methodist Minister. Some four years later, having heard of the restored gospel from a distant relative, he travelled to Utah to preach in the mining districts and convert the settlers to Methodism
An article about him in the Millennial Star of October 10 1935 tells that,
At one time the jovial Lancashire preacher met Apostle Amasa M. Lyman. “You’ll make a good Latter-day Saint yet,” Apostle Lyman smiled. “It will be a mighty cold day when I join the Mormon church,” was the reply.
This turned out to be prophetic, as in January 1893 Benjamin Birchall was baptised in Salt Creek, Nephi, Utah. They had to break the ice with an axe to perform the baptism.
Some months before this he had met and married Elizabeth Ann Brierly who was also from Oldham, and she too was baptised, three months after her husband. In 1895 they returned to Britain where they had both been called to serve as missionaries. He appears in this photograph of the Manchester mission on the front row, far right.
At the end of their missionary service, he and Elizabeth chose not to return to Utah, but remained in Britain. They can be seen in the 1901 census living in 13 Retiro Street, Oldham with their 6-year old son Benjamin. In 1911 they’re living in Whalley Road, Accrington with Benjamin and 5-year old daughter Ena. Both census records show Benjamin as an Insurance Superintendent. And indeed in 1914 the insurance business took him to Dublin for work, but there he also became branch president. This was a rather unique branch as it was largely made of up of three German families who had emigrated to Dublin around the turn of the century to engage in the trade of pork butchers.
This photograph shows the Dublin branch Sunday School in 1917, with Benjamin and Elizabeth Birchall and their daughter Ena in the group – Benjamin in the centre, back row, Elizabeth on the far right of the second row. Almost all of the other individuals in the photograph belong to one of the three original German families.
In 1917 Benjamin Birchall was called to be president of the Irish District. Sadly that was also the year that their son Benjamin was killed in France while serving with the Royal Field Artillery. They had also apparently lost another child in infancy. Benjamin and Elizabeth remained in Dublin until shortly before the Second World War. By this time they had both reached the age of seventy, and he had retained his leadership position in the church through the whole of that time – twenty years of service as a District President alone, with Elizabeth serving beside him and in branch callings. Meanwhile he had prospered in the insurance business and held several important positions there. The 1939 Register sees Richard and Elizabeth back in Lancashire, this time in Blackpool. Benjamin died in 1941 and was buried in Oldham.
In many ways their lives were ordinary and went unremarked. But like many members of the Church they quietly ‘went about doing good’ and serving wherever they lived. The Millennial Star reported that President Birchall regularly travelled 20,000 miles a year visiting members of the Church while serving as District President. And he told the Star his key to happiness and success:
Be ye steadfast, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Every faithful member of the Church has his feet on rock. Give your life toil, and let your prayers ever be,
Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on.
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
As the Star noted: President Birchall’s life is a testimony of perseverance, struggle, love and, above all, of the practicality of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ
This article is part of the https://uk.churchofjesuschrist.org/church-history section.