The Lancaster Mission Hall and the Disturbances of 1911-1912

by James Perry

The Lancaster Mission Hall

In the heart of the city of Lancaster is a rather unassuming building that stretches over five floors. The building, situated near to the Judges Lodgings, Castle, and Priory, sits in the historic castle quarter. Sitting near the top of a hill, the building has been used for multiple purposes over the years, including residential accommodation, offices and workshops for Gillows furniture company, and for a number of years in the twentieth century, a Latter-day Saint Mission Hall.

Although a congregation had been formed in 1840, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had begun to emerge in Lancaster in earnest during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, where it experienced significant growth. By 1908, the congregation had grown exponentially and was struggling to find suitable accommodation. In October of that year, the commodious Victoria Hall began to be used, it was considered to be the finest hall in Lancaster

On 13 November 1908, Winnifred Simmonds and her mother, Edith, were baptised by Kenneth Woolley, a full-time missionary from Utah, in the nearby Lancaster Public Baths. The mother and daughter lived at 85 Church Street which was a large property. Missionaries lodged with the Simmonds and then in early 1910, the congregation moved into the property and started holding worship and social meetings there.

Following the encouragement of a local Anglican curate, a mob attacked the Latter-day Saint Mission House on 26 April 1911. For some time prior to the riot, Reverend Frederick G. Llewellin, of St. Thomas’s Church wrote articles in the Lancaster Guardian that were negative about the church. At the same time, Llewellin published a number of antagonistic tracts with titles such as ‘The rise of the Joe Smith 'religion'’, and ‘Is Mormonism a fraud?’ The tracts came at a time when other antagonistic attitudes and media were being circulated.

The Lancaster Mission Hall

Richard W. Young, then President of the Liverpool Conference, along with other members and missionaries had to repel the mob trying to break into the building. A glass pane in the vestibule was broken but there was otherwise no damage. Reverend Llewellin stated that he was determined to rid Lancaster of the ‘Mormons’, whom he utterly despised. Elder Young declared he would debate with honest seekers of truth, but not with blasphemers and hooligans.[1] The police eventually assisted with restoring the peace, however, it was clear that the animosity was far from over. Immediately after the incident, an individual in the community wrote a letter to the members and missionaries:

I have read with shame and sorrow the report in today's Daily Dispatch of the disturbance made at your meeting-house last evening, and though I am not known to you and have no connection whatever with any denomination, I feel I must express my deep regret that any so-called religious people in this town should act as these men have done.

You have every bit as much right to spread your faith and make converts to it as any other body has, and the persecution your people are now having to endure in this country shows me that the name 'Christian England' is a misnomer (in some quarters).

All these loud-shouting people who are raging against 'Mormonism ' to-day are near relatives of the Jews who crucified Jesus of Nazareth, and if He were here to-day He would not spare them any more than He spared the Pharisees of old. They know not what charity means, and they have none of the spirit of the carpenter's Son.[2]

However, other incidents were to follow. The showing of the ‘Victim of the Mormons’  in early 1912, a film critical of the faith, resulted in another mob attack on the congregation. During worship services on the morning of Sunday 21 January, local men attempted to break through the doors to get at those inside the building.[3] Three members had to bravely face the crowd and they eventually got them to disperse.

The outrage caused by religious leaders and various forms of media made life difficult for Latter-day Saints across the country and the Lancaster riots of 1911 and 1912 are all but forgotten by members and the community as a whole. This Mission Hall was pivotal for the Latter-day Saint community until the branch was disorganised during the First World War. It was within these walls that socials were held, lessons taught, talks were given, testimonies borne, and it was a sacred space where individuals gained and strengthened testimonies.

If you ever visit Lancaster head to the old Mission Hall and picture the mobs assembling and trying to force their way into the building past the brave members and missionaries. We can always be grateful for the valiant efforts of previous Latter-day Saints who persevered through such violent opposition.

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[1] Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (27 April 1911), ‘Mormons at Bay: Curate Leads Attack at Lancaster’, p. 10.

[2] Millennial Star, Vol. 73, No. 21 (25 May 1911), pp. 326-327.

[3] Diary of Newton Jackson, 21 January 1912, L. Tom Perry Special Collection, Brigham Young University.