William Howells

by Ronald D. Dennis

William Howells, a Baptist, took great interest in the raging controversy surrounding the Latter-day Saints in the Merthyr Tydfil area in the early 1840s. Characterizing himself as “too bashful” to approach any of the Mormons directly for information, he later wrote: “But a poor widow found means to get a tract, which she gave me; which, like the little captive maid of Israel, in the house of Naaman the leper, convinced me of the poverty of my religion. The pamphlet was the catalyst which prompted him to seek out its author, Dan Jones, and request baptism.

Because his journals largely have not survived and much of what he wrote is in Welsh, the short life of William Howells is not widely known; nevertheless, it is one that deserves greater attention and one that furnishes us with insightful information concerning the taking of the gospel into France.

First Journey to France (Le Havre)

Prior to his conversion, Howells had served for the Baptists as a missionary in Brittany. Within six months following his conversion, Howells was asked to prepare to serve again in France, this time as a ‘Mormon’ missionary. The necessary preparations must have posed considerable difficulty, for it was nearly a year before he crossed the Channel.

Bidding farewell to his wife Martha and their three children was a most difficult task for William. His journal entry for 2 July 1849 reads:

Oh, how hard to part with a beloved wife and little children, and leave them in the midst of persecuting enemies—leave them in the midst of the plague that is reigning with deadly arrows next door on the right and left, etc... But God commands me to go!

The “plague” was cholera, and Howell’s fears were well founded. In Aberdare alone in the space of one month there were nearly one hundred deaths. The disease struck fast and was highly contagious. Within a matter of days its victims were either improved or dead. Little wonder, then, that William was reluctant to leave his wife and children, not knowing whether he would see them alive again.

Had anyone checked Howells’s baggage when he landed at Le Havre, they would have found it filled with pamphlets in both English and French. Among them was a flier printed on both sides, entitled “L’Evangile” (“The Gospel”). It contained a series of scriptures in support of the first principles, the necessity for proper authority, the angel bringing the everlasting gospel prophesied of in Revelation and the spiritual gifts mentioned in Mark 16. Nowhere in the flier is “Mormonism” mentioned; however, the full name of the Church, “L’Eglise de Jesus Christ, aux Saints des Derniers Jours,” is given once. Then an appeal is made to the reader to search the scriptures carefully to determine whether their church has the proper characteristics, and then to come and embrace the true gospel. William distributed these fliers for free. Since he was laboring in a port city and had little knowledge of French, he adopted the custom of visiting the American ships in port. His visits in the city were to English families.

His journal entry for 28 July 1849 is indicative of how the work was progressing:

Rather idle in the morning, so low spirited. Had a long conversation again with a fine young Dutchman, whom I hoped to baptize. He refused to obey... Distributed about fifty tracts in Rue de Paris. They are desirous of having tracts, but will not give a sou for a dozen.

But 30 July was a much more successful day. Howells performed his first baptism in France - for Augustus Saint d’Anna, thirty years old, single, and a foreigner by birth. Two days later Howells’s spirits got another lift. Monsieur Piclard, a French Protestant minister, questioned Howells through an interpreter for eleven hours and was apparently very happy with the responses he was receiving, for he bought a copy of all the tracts Howells had. Howells later referred to Piclard as the person “who first believed the gospel in France.” Belief was never translated into action as far as the records show, but certain members of Piclard’s congregation in Le Havre did join ranks with the Mormons.

Just under four weeks from the time he had first begun his labors at Le Havre, Howells left for Wales to visit his family.

Second Journey to France (St. Malo)

Before the end of August (1849), Howells departed once again to continue his mission in France, this time accompanied by a junior companion, his nine-year-old daughter, Ann. Thinking perhaps that she would be able to learn the French language more readily than he and also hoping that she might soften some hearts because of her age, William had Ann by his side for the next three months.

They stopped first in the Channel Islands, visiting William C. Dunbar, who was there serving a mission. Memories of Howells’s days as a Baptist missionary came to him during his brief stay at Jersey: “Thursday afternoon I preached to a group of Jerseyites in English. It was very strange to me, for two years ago I preached for the Baptist Church here.”

Father and daughter then left Jersey for St. Malo, three hours distant, where they visited some English families. On the Sunday after their arrival, they attended services at an Episcopalian chapel. Follow-up visits to the clergymen and flocks triggered insulting abuse and accusations of blasphemy. One man who was particularly upset was an American, Mr. Huddlestone, who vowed that he would ‘break every bone in Howells’ body’ if he dared to open a place for preaching. Howells was then negotiating for the rental of Ebenezer Chapel in St. Servan, and the first meeting of the Mormons in France was held there less than one month later on 23 September 1849. Huddlestone, evidently, was not in attendance.

Many years later Ann recalled some of their experiences in St. Malo and St. Servan, a short distance away. She said that many times while distributing tracts they were driven away with threats and she had to run as fast as she could to escape trouble. Their first night at St. Servan, mob violence forced them to flee and hide in a grove of trees.

Howells reported that his landlady and all in the house except the servant joined together in calling him a “false prophet.” But the intrepid father-and-daughter team continued their distribution of French and English tracts in spite of opposition.

They did succeed in making a few friends, who informed them that their enemies were going to arrange for the mayor to prosecute Howells for distributing tracts in St. Servan. Howells went to the English Consul for advice, and the advice was to refrain from distributing tracts, even though it was not illegal. Howells seized the opportunity and preached the gospel to the Consul, “but he actually refused to be baptized for the remission of his sins.”

Attendance at the first meeting at Ebenezer chapel on 23 September was slight in the morning, but more came for the 6pm service, and Howells was elated. Attendance was no doubt affected by such things as one brewery master who threatened his workers with immediate dismissal should they venture forth to the Mormon meeting.

Several who went to the meetings were touched by the spirit of conversion. The first to request baptism was Mademoiselle Ann Browse, “a Lady of Fortune and great learning, …with great influence with all the great folks of the place.” The Sunday of Ann’s baptism was very cold, and because of a lingering illness she had had for years, her friends warned her that baptism would cost her her life. Undaunted, she went down into the water of a bay near St. Malo. Howells was ecstatic at the result:

The disease that had preyed upon her constitution for years, and baffled the power of the physician, was completely eradicated. The pallid cheek from that moment showed the healthy bloom of youth, so much so that all congratulated her, and the report circulated that a ducking in the sea on such a cold morning was a sure cure.

After two months in St. Servan, Howells reported that the persecution was not diminishing. Rather, because of the opening of a place for preaching and the baptism of a Brother William Peddle, the opposition increased. So Howells ordained Brother Peddle to the priesthood, presented him with a number of French tracts, and went away to Dinan, about twenty miles distant.

During the month Howells spent with his daughter in Dinan, apparently no one chose to join the Church, according to his lengthy letter which was printed in the Millennial Star. So after one month by himself in Le Havre and three months with his daughter in St. Servan, St. Malo, and Dinan, Howells summed up his efforts: “I have not as yet reaped a rich harvest, but the few that have entered the kingdom by being ‘born of water and of the Spirt’ [sic] have received glorious testimonies of the power of the truth.”

William Howells again returned to Wales to visit his family in November 1849 and found that all was well with Martha and the other children.

Third Journey to France (Boulogne-sur-mer)

In February 1850 William Howells again returned to France. This time he went to Boulogne-sur-mer. He took lodging with a Wesleyan family by the name of Gregory. For some reason he did not inform them concerning his religious persuasion or his purpose for being in France. Some days after his arrival, however, Mr. Gregory asked some questions about religion and determined that his lodger was a Mormon missionary. Mrs. Gregory revealed that she had a sister and brother-in-law who had gone to Great Salt Lake City. The Gregorys had received letters from their Mormon relatives persuading them to accept baptism; however, there is no indication that they ever did.

Just five days after Howells landed at Boulogne, the Wesleyan churches were called together to hear a sermon concerning the “false prophet” who had just come into their midst, and the scurrilous pamphlets he was distributing throughout the town. Howells was there in attendance and called the sermon “one of the most clever and cunning” he had ever heard. Upon returning to his lodgings, a group of individuals awaited him, among them “one of the leading gentlemen of the place, a perfect enemy of Mormonism.” And although the spirit of this powerful individual influenced Howells, he judged himself to come out victorious on every topic during three evenings of debate. Having kept with the first principles, he believed that all present had been able to see how easily he had confused his adversary. Howells continued his proselyting activities and soon had copies of “The Kingdom of God” in the hands of fifty families in Boulogne.

On 28 February 1850 a Boulogne newspaper, the Interpreter, reported Howells’ efforts and predicted his chances for the future:

It seems we have been lately favoured with the visit of a Mormon prophet here, who has taken up his abode in Grande rue. We fear that the poor fellow’s chance of success is very faint indeed, as, although he has been now resident nearly a fortnight, during the course of which he has had several controversies (in all of which he has been worsted;) he has not yet succeeded in making a single convert.

Naturally, Howells did not see it that way and reported to Orson Pratt in Britain that “Mormon doctrines cannot be worsted” and that there were already families in Boulogne who had believed the gospel.

About this time Howells received the welcome news that other missionaries had been called to France, including John Taylor, and were then on their way from Utah to officially open up the proselyting effort among the French. Howells secured a room in Capicure, in the lower town, for Sunday services. Some of the English residents warned the owners of the rented room that various curses would follow should they continue to cooperate with the Mormon missionary and that the family would surely be struck blind. Their response to the ominous warning was to accept payment from Howells for five more weeks of use.

In attendance at the first service held in Boulogne was George Viett, a teacher of languages. Before the month was out Viett, his wife, and son received baptism. He then proceeded to translate the first principles into German. Mrs. Viett was baptised in a river two miles from home. She had to walk the distance afterwards in wet clothes in cold weather, yet she testified the next day that she had never felt as healthy and happy as she did then. And by April 1850 Howells was able to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the organization of the Church with a branch organized at Boulogne.

Howells was also cheered with letters from Sister Browse in St. Malo, Brother Peddle in St. Servan, and Mr. Piclard in Le Havre. Sister Browse announced that one gentleman by the name of Mr. de Pau, was now ready to accept baptism. Brother Peddle informed Howells that some of their chief enemies in St. Servan were now willing to give nearly everything they had to be baptized into the Church. Mr. Piclard stated that he still believed in Mormonism, although he had not yet requested baptism.

Fourth and Final Journey to France

William Howells returned to Wales to make preparations to return with John Taylor and his party. After a general conference in Merthyr Tydfil in June, he and John Taylor travelled to London to meet with Curtis Bolton and John Pack prior to crossing the Channel. Howells was thrilled to serve as escort to this little group and filled with awe to spend time in the presence of an Apostle.

The procedures used by John Taylor to get established in France varied somewhat from those which Howells had used. It was an advantage to come from America, and Elder Taylor brought official letters and papers from the governor of Deseret. When these were presented to the mayor of Boulogne, permission to preach in the city was “granted nobly with the greatest amiability.” A Monsieur Tatar gave permission to preach in his Sale de Concerts in Rue Montseigny. Monsieur Pater, editor of the Interpreter, gave the group a favorable reception as well as permission to write about Mormonism in his paper. The earlier taunting which had appeared in this same paper concerning Howells’ supposed lack of success apparently did not now constitute an obstacle to the editor’s cooperation.

One week following the missionaries’ arrival in Boulogne they all gathered at the seashore where a prayer was offered by Elder Taylor. Present were Elders Taylor, Bolton, and Pack from America; William Howells from Wales; and Elders Piercy and Stayner from England. Elder Taylor prayed for “wisdom to lay before this people the principles of eternal truth,” and further to “. . . help us to fulfill the callings that devolve upon us, in a manner that shall bring glory to thy name, do honor to ourselves, and lead many to a knowledge of the truth; that thousands in this land may rejoice in the fulness of the blessings of the Gospel of peace.”

Thirteen years previously the gospel had been introduced to England and shortly after that to Wales. Converts came in large numbers in both places. There was no reason to believe that France’s outcome would be any different. But a century would pass before the number of French converts would reach into the thousands. There were no legal obstructions; the missionaries were experienced and had known great success elsewhere; and the French were no more apathetic than the English. Why, then, had Howells’s success been so small?

Certainly the lack of effective communication constituted a major barrier. Bolton had been to France years before as a student, but he was far from fluent in French. William Howells’ knowledge of French was severely limited. Furthermore, the only thing in print for Frenchmen to read about the restored gospel was still the two-page flier. John Taylor noted:

Brother Howell… is a faithful good man, and has laboured with indefatigable zeal, yet, from want of books, and being but imperfectly acquainted with the language, he has, like ourselves, had many difficulties to contend with.

Another factor was the stifling effect of Catholicism. Protestant sects existed in France but had experienced only a modicum of success. In America and Britain converts came from Protestantism and were consequently accustomed to change. French Catholics were less inclined to accept radical change in their lives.

William Howells stayed with Elder Taylor and the others for about two more months. He went with them to Paris and continued to proselyte. Then on 25 September 1850 he was released from his mission to return to Wales and prepare to journey to Zion.

Just a few weeks later William and Martha Howells, with their three children, were on their way to Liverpool. They enjoyed what William described as a pleasant voyage, and once in Council Bluffs, he set up a store. Martha gave birth to a son in June 1851, and plans were being made for the trek across the plains the following year. A few short months later, however, William was stricken with sickness. He was not able to throw off the illness, and he died 21 November 1851, just thirty-five years of age.

In the four years between conversion and death, Howells brought in nearly two hundred other converts, opened up the missionary effort in France, and saw miracles performed. What more he might have achieved had he lived another two or three decades one can only imagine. One would suppose that the name of William Howells would have become well known to members of the Church if an early death had not claimed him first.

Adapted (with permission) from the chapter with the above title in the book: Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth Century Mormons. Editors Donald Q. Cannon & David J. Whittaker. [Out of print] BYU Religious Studies Center, 1985.