The Patriarchal Mission of James H Wallis

by Dr James Perry

The year 1931 was an important one for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Isles. On 2nd June 1931, James and Elizabeth Wallis arrived in the British Mission to strengthen the Church and fulfil a unique mission.  For decades, the Saints in the British Isles had been without access to a patriarch.  Now, having been ordained a Patriarch after the previous General Conference in April, James had returned to the British Isles to pronounce patriarchal blessings on the British members, on what was now his fifth mission for the church.

James and Elizabeth were British converts. He had been baptised on 20th May 1877 in Chester, Cheshire, and she on 15th May 1876 in London. They had first met when working in the British Mission Headquarters in Liverpool. It was here that James learned the trade of printing and had the opportunity to meet and work alongside apostles and other senior Church leaders.

Soon, James was ordained a Teacher, Priest, and then Elder in the Liverpool Branch.  In 1879, the first international Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association was established in Liverpool, and James was called to be its President.  He would later serve as a Branch President in various congregations and as a full-time missionary in Manchester, England.

Elizabeth and James Wallis
Elizabeth and James Wallis

After his release in 1881, the couple swiftly emigrated to Utah.  Two months later, on 9th June 1881, they were married in the Endowment House, as the Salt Lake Temple had not yet been completed.  Now, after raising a family, the couple were back on their native land.  Their fiftieth wedding anniversary was celebrated a week after their arrival in the mission, right where their love had begun in Liverpool.[1]  On the voyage over, they were accompanied by John and Leah Widstoe.  John was an Apostle and was about to commence a term of service as the European Mission President.

The call to James to become a Patriarch had come at the close of the Annual General Conference.[2]  On the afternoon of 6th April 1931, President Heber J Grant had requested James to visit the First Presidency office, where he was called to serve a mission in the British Isles with his wife and be ordained a Patriarch to bless the Saints there.[3]  During their time in England, Elizabeth was to serve on the Relief Society Board of the European Mission, along with Leah Widstoe and others.[4]

In addition to his responsibilities as a travelling Patriarch, James also served as the Publicity Director in the European Mission, and as the Associate Editor of the Millennial Star.[5] His background in publishing and printing ideally suited him for trying to remove some of the misconceptions and prejudice that existed in the British press against the Latter-day Saints.

Based in London, the couple resided in various apartments, including 2 Doughty Street, the same street in which Charles Dickens had lived and worked.  It was here that they could be found when not travelling, which was rare. “It was more expensive than we anticipated, but we will have to make up for it on the eating end”, he noted.  During their two-year mission, the Wallis’ attended more than 70 district conferences and travelled thousands of miles visiting branches and other events. It was during their mission that London became a preferred location for mission headquarters, after eighty years of being located in Liverpool. “You see”, James said to a reporter, “we bring from Utah over 2,000 young missionaries to England every year.  These serve abroad for two years.  We find it will be cheaper and more convenient in every way to ship them to London.”[6]  In many ways, James was one of the key pioneers of Public Affairs in the British Isles during the twentieth-century, largely on account of his experience in publishing in Utah and his British connections.

5 Gordon Square Dedication
5 Gordon Square Dedication James Wallis front centre right

The Wallis’ were kept busy. The autumn and winter district conferences of 1931 had proven to be remarkably busy.  Of the first few months of their mission James wrote the following:

“The interest in Patriarchal blessings at the conferences was unbounded.  This is shown in the large number who applied for them.  There were a great many who could not be accommodated, due to insufficient time and for physical reasons.  As it was, nearly six hundred blessings were given, and it will be another month or six weeks before all blessings will have been transcribed from the shorthand notes and copied in original form and mailed out to those, to whom they were given.  Much patience has had to be exercised in this respect, which is deeply appreciated by the Patriarch.”[7]

In many cases, there wasn’t enough time in a conference weekend for all the patriarchal blessings to be given.  Separate arrangements often had to be made to accommodate those who couldn’t be seen.[8]

48 Doughty Street
48 Doughty Street (London home of Charles Dickens), London, Sketch, an almost identical frontage as 2 Doughty Street

The ability to receive a patriarchal blessing was a profound opportunity for the British Saints to strengthen their testimonies and better understand what it was the Lord would have them do.  At a London district conference in 1932, Samuel Bantock, a seventy-three-year old member, was filled with excitement.  With tears in his eyes and a glowing face, he rushed up to President John Widstoe and whispered:

“The Patriarch told me that my life's offering was acceptable to the Lord.  Think of it.  The Lord is pleased with my humble efforts!  I would rather know that than to possess all the riches or honour of earth.”[10]

With hands clasped together, the two men stood facing each other with tears in their eyes.  Samuel had truly learned how to measure the values of life.  Recalling the event, President Widstoe stated, “How many of the hundreds who in this land have received their patriarchal blessings during the last six months, place the true value upon them, as did this veteran soldier in the army of the Lord?”

The patriarchal blessing was of profound value and importance to Samuel and he was filled with gratitude that he had the opportunity to receive it.  He was one of the almost 1,400 members who received patriarchal blessings during the Wallis’ two-year mission.  However, the work grew heavy and in March 1933, John B. Stagg, a Lincolnshire-born missionary, was assigned to be the patriarch’s Recording Secretary.[11]  This extra support enabled the Wallis’ to continue their monumental assignment.

Elder John Beaver Stagg
Elder John Beaver Stagg

Across the country, the Wallis’ strengthened the Saints’ faith.  At one conference their talks were described as keeping “the audience spellbound with their convincing and forceful testimonies of the divinity of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[12]  Regularly they would share their early Church experiences and the testimonies they had gained.[13]  The Wallis’ would serve in whatever way they could.  On one occasion, James was asked to conduct funeral services for a sister in the North London Branch, which he did, offering consoling remarks to those gathered.[14]

n his responsibilities as chair of the Publicity Committee, James was tireless in confronting errors and falsehoods, often by directly speaking to editors.[15]  Of one occasion James related the stubbornness of some of the agitators and his desires for them to be honest in their publications:

“We made a personal visit to this editor, and spent considerable time in an effort to clear away the prejudice he had toward our people; and to show him the untruthfulness of the statements made in his article, we took with us unimpeachable evidence for this purpose. He emphatically told us there was nothing we could do or say or adduce that would change his attitude; that his mind was made up and that he was against our religion on general principles. He defended what he insisted was his right to attack us in any way he wanted to, in order to protect his patrons and friends.”[16]

While it proved difficult to win over some of the editors and media outlets, it did not take much to win over the Saints.  Small acts of service went a long way.  During a conference in Manchester, James travelled to Leigh to visit Sister Rachel Bentham Jones who had been bedridden for twenty-seven years.  He gave her a blessing and then returned to the meeting.[17]

When it came to their nearing departure, the Saints were terribly sad as they loved the Wallis’ and all they had done while in the British Isles.  Farewell parties were held, but the Lord had another work for this blessed couple to perform.[18]  Shortly after their return to the United States of America, the Wallis’ were once again called on a mission, this time to Canada, their sixth mission for the Church.[19]   As in Britain, James was to travel the Canada mission delivering patriarchal blessings.  In a letter to the British Saints the Wallis’ remarked:

“We feel that we never can render service commensurate with the blessings which the Gospel has brought us, and the testimony we have been given of its divinity.  We feel we have indeed been honoured of the Lord in being called to labour in His vineyard.”[20]

A few years later, on 22nd August 1940, James passed away in the Church Office Building, Salt Lake City, Utah.  His passing was observed with much sadness by the British Mission on account of his great services in the gospel.[21]  The 1931 mission of James and Elizabeth stands out as a key moment in the lives of many British Saints in the early twentieth century.

[1] William D. Callister, ‘How the Gospel Moulded a Life’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 93, No. 32 (1931), pp. 497-503.

[2]Washington County News, 30 April 1931, ‘Bishop Wallis of Vernal Called to British Mission.’

[3] James H. Wallis, ‘A Great Man Called’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 94, No. 2 (1932), p. 18.

[4]Leah D. Widstoe, ‘Greetings’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 95, No. 10 (1933), pp. 170-173.

[5] ‘Changes in the European Mission Office’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 93, No. 44 (1931), p. 697.

[6]Belfast Telegraph, 10 November 1932, ‘Mormons’ Headquarters’.

[7] James H. Wallis, ‘Good Results of the District Conferences’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 94, No. 3 (1932), pp. 41-42.

[8] W. Cleon Skousen, ‘Sheffield District Conference’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 93, No. 42 (1931), pp. 670-671.

[9]'The Foundling Hospital and Doughty Estates', in Survey of London: Volume 24, the Parish of St Pancras Part 4: King's Cross Neighbourhood, ed. Walter H Godfrey and W McB. Marcham (London, 1952), pp. 25-55. British History Online [accessed 4 February 2020].

[10] John A. Widstoe, ‘Acceptable to the Lord’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 94, No. 10 (1932), pp. 152-153.

[11]‘Appointments’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 95, No. 11 (1933), p. 191.

[12] Clarence R. Ellsworth, ‘Hull District Conference’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 93, No. 45 (1931), pp. 719-720.

[13] Eliot D. Ward, ‘Birmingham District Conference’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 95, No. 19 (1933), pp. 333-334.

[14] ‘Deaths’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 94, No. 17 (1932), p. 272.

[15] James H. Wallis, ‘Twentieth Century Intolerance’,The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 94, No. 50 (1932), 808-809.

[16] James H. Wallis, ‘Twentieth Century Intolerance’,The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 94, No. 50 (1932), 808-809.

[17]Elbert G. Adamson, ‘Manchester District Conference’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 93, No. 48 (1931), p. 783.

[18]Eugene A. Hooper, ‘Farewell Social’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 95, No. 25 (1933), pp. 430-431.

[19] ‘Elder James H. Wallis Receives New Mission Call’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 96, No. 25 (1934), pp. 396-297.

[20] James H. Wallis and Elizabeth T. Wallis, ‘To The Saints in Great Britain’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 96, No. 25 (1934), p. 397.

[21] ‘James H. Wallis Passes On’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 102, No. 40 (1940), p. 692.