‘We Will Kill You Tonight’ - Opposition in Sunderland

by Dr. James Perry

Sunderland Branch Chapel Photo courtesy of Sheila Hughes

Outside the new Sunderland branch chapel, menacing posters and placards greeted members and missionaries.[1]   The previous year the Sunderland branch had been evicted from their meeting house as the owners resented the damage caused by enemies of the Church.  The Saints had been fortunate to purchase their own chapel, but large groups of men and women regularly gathered to target those entering and leaving it.  Since April 1912, the rising storm of aggression facing the Church in Great Britain had focused on the town.

Negative films made about the Church and its members became popular and contributed to people becoming angry with the missionaries.  Thousands in Sunderland watched the film Victim of the Mormons, during December 1911.[2]  In the following weeks and months, people began gathering outside the branch’s chapel and missionary lodgings, trying to cause trouble.  Violent people in the mob tried to cause damage.  On one occasion, some forced their way into the chapel and smashed the interior, threw objects at the missionaries and destroyed hymn books and other items.[3]  Meetings critical of the Church were being held every night; the situation was becoming dire.

Sunderland Branch Chapel Entrance Photo courtesy of Sheila Hughes
Sunderland Branch Chapel Entrance

Elder J Eugene Lichfield had arrived in Britain in 1910 and spent most of his mission in the Sunderland area, including serving as president of the Branch, as well as the Conference.  He was worried about the situation; he felt abandoned by those who should be protecting the Saints.  Wrote Eugene, “I do not know what the result will be of this agitation, if the police fail to render us assistance.”[4]

Violent opposition continued into the summer.  Eventually, and occasionally, as services started or as the missionaries left the chapel, police constables would be on hand to protect them from the rowdy crowd.  After one meeting, when the chapel was surrounded by police constables, volleys of stones and clumps of soil were launched at the elders as they left, hitting and causing them injury.[5]

Elder Lichfield reported to his Mission President, “There is not much improvement in the situation – in fact, so far as rioting is concerned, it seems to be getting worse.”[6]  The violence became so serious that for several months no missionary work could be done at all and Church meetings were occasionally cancelled.[7]

One day, Eugene received a note: ”[8] 

“Mr Lichfield you are a good man, but we will kill you tonight.'

That evening, a mob arrived at his home looking for him.  Eugene held his hat outside the front door and someone in the mob opened fire, putting a hole through his hat. The mob quickly fled thinking they had actually shot someone.  The hat was ruined, but he was safe.[9]

Hearing of the difficulties that the missionaries were experiencing, Rudger Clawson, an Apostle and President of the European Mission, decided to visit the missionaries and Latter-day Saints in Sunderland.  Eugene smiled when he saw his mission president at the door of his lodgings.  “I am here to pay you a visit and to go with you to Church upon the morrow”, President Clawson said.

The elders were grateful and delighted.  Help had finally come.  But President Clawson was sad, the windows to the missionaries’ lodgings were smashed and the building was in a bad condition; they had clearly suffered at the hand of the mob.  He had a sleepless night thinking about his missionaries’ situation.[10]

The next day, Sunday June 9, 1912, as the missionaries prepared to leave for their meeting, Eugene turned to his Mission President.[11]

“Have you anything of value about your person?”

“Yes, a watch.”

“You had better leave it.”

After taking off all his valuables, Elder Clawson turned to his young but inquisitive elder.

“What does it all mean?”

“In all probability we will be mobbed before returning to the lodge.”

With high spirits, the small group of missionaries made their way to the chapel and sat on the stand.[12]  President Clawson felt a cold penetrating draft across his neck.[13]   He looked around; smashed windows allowed a breeze to pass through into the hall.[14]  Time went by and, thankfully, the meeting passed without incident, but that evening they were to meet again for sacrament.  Would they be so fortunate?[15]

Sunderland Branch Members

Before the meeting, the missionaries called for the police again to aid them in keeping out troublemakers.  A police constable arrived to stand at the door and help them, but would it be enough?  The missionaries elbowed their way through the crowd to get into the chapel and the evening service concluded without disruption, but Elder Clawson sensed they were not into the clear yet.[16]  Although the sacrament meeting had passed peacefully, a distant thunder could be heard as thousands of people milled around outside, waiting for the missionaries to leave.[17]

Preaching to a small audience and with his coat kept on, President Clawson concluded his remarks with an appeal, “All we ask of the people of Sunderland is fair play.”[18]  After the closing hymn and prayer, the congregation exited the building undisturbed, but the mob remained, waiting for the elders.  As they prepared to leave, President Clawson turned to his missionaries, “Brethren, it’s now our turn to go out and face that angry mob of people. There is no other exit but the front door, and they are waiting for us.”

An elder responded, “President, would you mind changing hats with me?”  President Clawson knew exactly what the young missionary was trying to do; he wanted to protect his Mission President who with his top hat would be a target of the mob.   “No, thank you, let every man wear his own hat.  I’ll wear mine.”[19]  And with that the missionaries opened the door and faced the mob.

The missionaries were relieved.  Police constables were once again gathered outside the door in a circle, but they had to act fast.  The missionaries ran into the middle of the circle to avoid being hustled or hurt by the mob.  The constables then walked them back to their lodgings where it started raining sending the crowd scattering; they were finally safe.[20]

Sunderland Branch Chapel Inside Photo courtesy of Sheila Hughes
Inside Sunderland Branch Chapel

In the following weeks and months, trouble continued but agitators began to be caught and punished.[21]  The court cases resulted in fines for some of those involved and put off others from getting involved.[22]  Although the missionaries were still unwelcomed and feared by many in the town, the violence eventually stopped.[23]

After months of persecution, the Saints could stand tall.  The Mission Presidency and First Presidency of the church had given funds to the congregation because of the severe persecution.[24]  The members and missionaries had also developed a stronger testimony of the gospel because of the trials.

Back in Liverpool and knowing that the missionaries and members were safe once again, President Clawson could happily report back to the First Presidency: [25]

“The chapel windows at Sunderland are no longer smashed in, the meetings are being conducted in peace, without interruption, and the missionaries walk the streets unmolested. Someday curious people may be prompted to say, “Were the ‘Mormons’ at one time persecuted in Sunderland, and, if so, why was it?”

President Clawson reporting back to the First Presidency
Sunderland Chapel Photo courtesy of Kenneth Jørgensen
Sunderland Chapel 2019

[1] Shields Daily News, June 3, 1912 ‘Sunderland Mormons’.

[2] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 26 December 1911, 'Avenue Theatre'.

[3] See Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, April 16, 1912, ‘Windows Smashed–Attack on Sunderland Mormon Church’.

[4] Rudger Clawson, ‘The Spirit of Mob Rule Still Active’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 74, No. 23 (1912), pp. 364-365.

[5] Letter from Eugene Lichfield to Rudger Clawson, May 6, 1912, as quoted in Rudger Clawson, ‘The Anti-“Mormon” Agitation at Sunderland’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 74, No. 20 (1912), p. 314.

[6] The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 42, No. 20 (1912), p. 314.

[7] Sunderland Branch, General Minutes, June, July, August, LR 8818 11, Church History Library, p. 107, and Sunderland Branch Relief Society, Minutes and records, June 5, 1911 – June 12, 1911, LR 8818 14, Church History Library, p. 122.

[8] Joseph Eugene Lichfield personal history, available at: https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/memories/KWCX-SKC, [date accessed: 24 January 2020].

[9] Ibid

[10] Rudger Clawson, Memoirs, p. 413, MS 24682, CHL.

[11] H. I., ‘Mob Rule Checked in Sunderland’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 74, No. 25 (1912), pp. 392-394.

[12] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 413. (lines 2-3)

[13] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 414. (lines 3-7)

[14] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 414. (lines 3-7)

[15] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 414. (lines 14-18)

[16] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 414. (lines 23-27)

[17] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, June 10, 1912, ‘The Sunderland Mormons – President’s Address’.

[18] Ibid

[19] Clawson, Memoirs, pp. 414-415.

[20] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 415.

[21] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, June 13, 1912, ‘Mormon Plaints’.

[22] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, June 4, 1912, ‘Chief Constable’s Actions’.

[23] Clawson, Memoirs, p. 460. (lines 1-3)

[24] Rudger Clawson, ‘The Dedication of the Sunderland Chapel’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 75, No. 4 (1913), pp. 56-57.

[25] Rudger Clawson, ‘The Collapse of the Agitation at Sunderland’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 74, No. 34 (1912), pp. 536-538.