Without purse or scrip: Orson F. Whitney’s experiences in Essex

by Jill Morgan

Orson F Whitney was born in Salt Lake City in 1855, a third-generation Latter-day Saint.  He later becomes an Apostle, but from 1881 to 1883 served a mission in the British Isles.  He and his companion Joseph A West left London on April 20th, 1883 to preach in Essex, and decided to travel, as the apostles of old, ‘without purse or scrip,’ relying on the Lord to supply their daily needs.  In a letter to the Millennial Star he recounted their experiences.  

They started out from Bow station without a penny but in style, intending to complete the first twelve miles to Epping in the “fine horse and trap” of a non-member friend.  However, when they stopped on the way, at Leytonstone, for dinner with members William E Larkin and his wife, Elder Whitney recounts:

“… we had no sooner got seated at the table than a telegram came for sister Larkin from her sister in London, stating that she was in trouble and asking her to come to her at once.  Sister L, supposing something dreadful had happened, was filled with apprehension and entreated us to return with her to the city.  To this urgent appeal we could of course only respond in the affirmative, though it ‘did us out’ of our ride to Epping.  On arriving at the lady’s residence, we found that the trouble referred to was not so serious as we had been led to suppose, but we had no reason to complain, for we left the house richer by half a crown than we had entered it.”

Orson F. Whitney
Orson F. Whitney

They returned with the Larkins, who were kind enough to not only accommodate them for the night – as it was too late to reach Epping – but also sent them on their way with a “few more shillings added to our scanty store”.

The next morning, they walked to Woodford and took the train for Chipping Ongar, having decided against Epping.

“On the outskirts of the village we retired to a secret place behind a hedge in a field, and having asked the Lord to guide and direct us in all that we were about to do, arose feeling refreshed, and entering the village sought earnestly for a hall in which to hold meetings on the following day.“

They found the village to be …

“… Literally priest ridden, the jealousy existing between the various Christian sects quite sufficient to deprive us of the opportunities we desired, no matter what our religion might be.  However, the Lord threw in our way a gentleman by the name of Sargent, a Scripture Reader, who kindly invited us to his home, where we had tea and spent the afternoon in religious conversation.  We informed him that we were ministers of the Gospel from America, travelling like the apostles of old without purse and scrip, preaching wherever opportunity was offered, stopping wherever night or necessity overtook us, and like our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ were without a place to lay our heads.  His interest and sympathy were at once enlisted, and the family having gathered round, we improved the opportunity of laying before them the principles of the Gospel.

“While so engaged Brother West, who with myself had taken a severe cold some time previous, became quite ill, insomuch that at his request I administered to him the healing ordinance, which had immediate effect.  During this to them strange proceeding, the family had gone down reverently upon their knees, and their reverence was only equalled by their wonder when they perceived that the power of God had accompanied the administration and operated so suddenly in the restoration of the one afflicted.  But the suspicion of the head of the family concerning our identity was now fully aroused.  Mr Sargent asked the question ‘Do you not belong to the Latter days?’  ‘We belong to the Latter days,’ was our reply.  This evidently nonplussed him, but we felt justified, inasmuch as he did not see fit to add the word ‘Saints’ to his pointed interrogation.  We however, before leaving, testified to the restoration of the gospel, the necessity of prophets and apostles, the existence in the Church of gifts, signs and graces, and leaving our blessing with them for the kindness so far experienced at their hands, went forth in search of a place to pass the night.

“After seven unsuccessful applications at the doors of as many inns and private houses, we walked out about a mile from the village, and found suitable accommodation at a quiet out of the way and withal neat little tavern called the Stags Head, where we paid but a shilling for a bed fully as good as any for which we would have been charged half a crown if we had remained in the village.

“The next day being the Sabbath we decided to fast and unless the Spirit directed otherwise to proceed to Dunmow.  But while walking through Ongar, we happened to meet an old gentleman by the name of Storkey, on his way to church, and having exchanged a few words with him were invited to share his pew at the Congregational chapel, a courtesy which we took as an omen of the Spirit to remain another day in the village.  That this decision was wisely ordered was soon evident, for we had no sooner taken our seats inside the chapel than down came the hail and rain in torrents.  After it was all over, we accompanied Mr Storkey home, and passed the afternoon at his house, preaching ‘Mormonism’ with all our might, mind and strength.  He coincided with all we said, though his eyes twinkled with astonishment when we told him we were ‘Mormon’ Elders, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.  But while he paid us the compliment of saying that if all ‘Mormons’ were like us they were not such a bad people after all, he did not evince much desire to further investigate our doctrines.  We parted from him with mutual expressions of good will and went to attend meeting at the lecture hall of a Mr Gibson, the leader of the sect called Scripture Readers with which Mr Sargent our acquaintance of the day preceding was connected.”

Mr Sargent was not pleased to see the Elders again, “Although he did his best to keep his temper, he could scarcely conceal his anger and chagrin at having treated us so kindly the day before.”  He had discovered the true identity of the Elders and could not countenance the practice of polygamy.

“Returning to our tavern we called for a bowl of bread and milk which we ate with a relish which long fasting can alone impart.”

On day four, the Elders headed for Chelmsford – “to which point the Spirit seemed to impel us” – even though they had been told that no halls would be available for preaching.  However, before leaving,

“… we called on Mr Gibson and gave him a chance to refuse us the use of his lecture hall, a chance which he took advantage of with remarkable alacrity.  And when we would have engaged him in further conversation, politely excused himself in true ministerial style, by pleading a train to catch, and only ten minutes to reach the station.”

As they walked, the Elders stopped to talk and bear testimony to those they passed on the road and to labourers in the fields, with mixed responses.  It was a “cold, windy, cheerless and disagreeable” day, so they were pleased to arrive at the Red Cow, a temperance inn on the outskirts of town.  They asked the landlord if he knew of any halls to rent for preaching.

“At first, he was very much interested, asked us a number of questions regarding our faith, and seemed quite favourably impressed by what we told him.  He even led us upstairs into a little hall used by a debating society, and assured us we could have it very cheap, and he would see that our board and lodging should be furnished us on the most reasonable terms.  But the more we told him of the Book of Mormon and its translator Joseph Smith the more his ardour cooled, till finally on our asking if we could positively have the hall, he said he would have to see a lady who lived next door, who was one of the hall committee of which he was only acting as agent.  This he did, but the lady refused to permit us to use it.  And so, bearing her a solemn testimony we departed.

“Nothing daunted nor discouraged, though very tired and way-worn, we set out on the almost forlorn hope of finding another hall.  Much to our surprise and delight we procured a large one in the very centre of the town at the extremely moderate charge of eight shillings, and within three hours from the time of our arrival we had, besides finding the hall, hired the town crier to go through the streets announcing that two ‘Mormon’ Elders would preach there that night, ordered and were distributing through the principal thoroughfares between three and four hundred handbills to the same effect, and were wondering where in the world the money was going to come from with which to liquidate the debt we were so recklessly incurring.

“It might be interesting to know that we had at that time the princely sum of eightpence in our pockets.  Finding it necessary to do something towards meeting our liabilities, we sought out a pawnbroker and raised fifteen shillings on a $25 watch of Brother West’s, and therewith triumphantly discharged every debt as fast as it made its appearance.

“That night we held forth to a moderate sized but very respectful audience, who on leaving expressed themselves pleased with what they had heard, indicating their appreciation by leaving in the plate at the door the sum of five shillings and ninepence, which considering all things, was quite as much if not more than we could have expected.”

The following day Elders Whitney and West make for Braintree.  They had asked the mission home in London to send them names and addresses of local members and were looking forward to meeting with them.  Unfortunately, arriving “weary and footsore from our tramp, chilled through with the cold wind which had been blowing in our faces all day with not enough money in our pockets to pay for a nights lodging”they found nothing waiting for them at the post office, “but while sorely disappointed we were not by any means discouraged, and believing that the Lord would still provide, we resolved to do our best towards securing a public hall for preaching purposes.'

There was only one hall, and the letting agent was conveniently out each time they called, so they spent their last shilling on a telegram to London, asking again for the names and addresses of members.  While waiting for a reply they walked around the streets, trying to keep warm, dining on a “cheap loaf of bread”, and risking being arrested as vagrants.  As the evening advanced,

“… we resolved to return to the village, boldly enter and engage a room at the best tavern in town, and trust in Providence to lengthen out the ‘tuppence’ which was left us, sufficiently to cover whatever expense might accrue.  We had by this time given up all hope of an answer to our telegram, but as we were passing the office something whispered to go in once more and ask if it had arrived.  Imagine our delight when we found that it had, and although we were compelled to walk two miles further to the village of Rayne, where dwells a family of Saints by the name of Dover, it was with lighter hearts that we immediately set out and in due time met with a warm welcome and were kindly and comfortably cared for overnight.”

The following day they bumped into two other missionaries, Elders Gibbons and Fowler, who had been looking for them – and trying unsuccessfully to hire the same hall.  Elder Whitney reports,

“We are all but laid up with sore throats and severe colds.  The weather has been very cold and inclement from the day we started.  We are at present beneath the hospitable roof of Brother and Sister Bradford, where we have held two good meetings, the first one well attended by strangers, and are about to set out for Chelmsford to fulfil an engagement there this evening.  Brother Gibbons, Fowler and Bench have done all they could to assist us and are out even now hunting for halls and other opportunities in the adjacent towns and villages.  At Dunmow we learn that a hall is obtainable for money, but at Hertford, Bishop’s Stortford, Halstead and Witham the brethren have made application without success.  We are in excellent spirits at present and feel like pressing onward, and ‘never say fail.’”

Thus, ends his report of a week travelling without purse or scrip through the towns and villages of Essex, saying,

“I may as well be frank with you; we have found it next to impossible to travel without purse and scrip.  The Lord will not let us, for no sooner do we succeed in getting rid of our last sixpence, and begin to flatter ourselves that the time has at length arrived to exercise faith, than some one is sure to come along and replenish our purse, and administer to us all that we stand in need of.