When the saints go marching in: How a tiny town in Lancashire saved Mormonism from extinction

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America could soon have its first Mormon president – but how many of Mitt Romney’s followers know that his religion was saved by a small market town in Lancashire?Rob Hastings heads there to investigate.

Leo Tolstoy is said to have called Mormonism "the American religion", and it is hard to dispute his description while reading the dramatic history and esoteric doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). It is founded on such beliefs that Jesus Christ visited North America after his crucifixion, that the Garden of Eden was in the land now known as Missouri and that the American constitution is a divine document. And Mitt Romney, the man who some time ago inherited the title of most famous Mormon in the world from Donny Osmond, will draw even more attention to his faith as he campaigns to oust Barack Obama from the American presidency in November's elections.

Romney is a former Mormon bishop, but perhaps not even he knows that "the American religion" owes its existence in no small part to a market town in Lancashire. Chorley is home to the largest Mormon temple this side of the Atlantic – an otherworldly monument of angular white granite, whose spire soars above the surrounding trees and which only approved Church members can enter. Opened in 1998, the building honours the Preston congregation – the oldest Mormon parish still worshipping – and the local area's abiding role in the Church. Without northern England, the Saints, as they call themselves, might never have become the force they are: 14.5 million members spread across 176 countries, with a business and property empire estimated to be worth $40bn, according to Reuters.

"Of course, we recognise right now there's intense public interest in Mormons," says Elder Clifford Herbertson, a senior Church figure and a former bishop here in the UK, where Mormonism claims to be one of the fastest-growing faiths. "And we'll do all we can to help people get a deeper feel about the Church. It's refreshing to have the opportunity to show we're a global faith and that we've been in Britain for 175 years."

In 1830, Joseph Smith, a farmhand from New York State, published the Book of Mormon as a supplement to the Bible, claiming it was a translation of ancient golden plates documenting the lost history of two tribes from the Holy Lands who travelled to the Americas. Smith said these were revealed to him after a visitation from an angel named Moroni, who instructed him to set up Mormonism as a reformed branch of Christianity.

His first missionaries to Britain arrived in the Liverpool docks seven years later and spread out across Lancashire from there. Within 13 years the church had more members in England than in the US: 30,747 to 26,911, according to its records. With the religion facing persecution and an uncertain future in its homeland, British converts were encouraged to emigrate and secure the original community – and they did so in their droves.

It's partly for this reason that Richard and Kathleen Walker were ecstatic when told of their latest "calling": to relocate from Utah to Chorley and run the town's Missionary Training Centre inside the temple's 15-acre estate. "We almost danced up and down," says the 75-year-old Richard, sitting in the couple's apartment, surrounded by depictions of Christ shipped over from Utah. "Both of our great-great-grandparents are k from Britain, so we've come back to the home of our ancestors; it's a thrill." And make no mistake, the Walkers are a big deal in the global community. Richard and his 73-year-old wife used to run the imperious Salt Lake Temple, the largest and most holy in the faith.

Sister Walker's father, the late Gordon B Hinckley, was the church's worldwide leader until 2008 – a position that, Mormons believe, renders the incumbent a living prophet, able to receive revelations direct from God.

Nine hundred missionaries operate full-time in the UK, among 56,000 worldwide. British recruits such as Edward Webb and Clifford Francis (see above) are joined by Utah immigrants such as Jasmine Hull (see page 21) and others from as far afield as China. And young men and women travel to Chorley to study for three intense weeks on how to "invite" people to their faith. "We teach them what the saviour taught: the power of love, how to serve people, how to love people, how to truly be a servant of Jesus Christ," says President Walker. "The first week they're here, we take them to Manchester, let them loose and tell them to go out and talk to people." Has anyone ever secured a conversion on their first outing? "Absolutely," he exclaims. "We never have a week when it doesn't happen."

Cherilee Olmstead's faith is testament to their influence. Raised without religion, she was introduced to Mormonism at 17 by her boyfriend, who recommended she speak to the missionaries. "I tried to catch them out every way I could," says the 26-year-old Englishwoman. "I bombarded them with questions and their answers just made sense. After six months of looking into it, I was baptised." Olmstead says it was the all-encompassing Mormon philosophy of living a family-minded, pure life – no alcohol, no caffeine, modest dress – that won her over. "It's a big commitment," she says – and not just because members donate 10 per cent of their income to the Church by tithe. "The LDS Church is a different lifestyle; it's not just for an hour on Sundays, you live this life 24/7 and you don't pick and choose which principles you like the sound of. It's so wacky to a lot of people.

"We treat our bodies like sacred temples, so we don't wear miniskirts or short tops and have our boobs hanging out. I had a very colourful teenage life, but I stopped swearing, drinking, partying – and that was hard for my family, because they felt I was changing." Eventually they came to respect her wishes, says Olmstead, and she has since followed the early English converts by emigrating to Utah.

She recently had her first child with her husband Randy; she will not, however, be one among several wives of her husband: contrary to a perennial misunderstanding, mainstream Mormons disavowed polygamy more than a century ago (though some separate fundamentalist groups in America still continue the tradition unsanctioned).

Polygamy was introduced to the faithful in 1852 as a revelation from God to Smith's successor prophet, Brigham Young, but Elder Herbertson argues this was intended solely as a challenge of faith. It was ended, the Church says, because God determined it had served its purpose – even if critics argue that Mormon authorities revoked the doctrine to improve the Church's reputation, socially and politically.

"I often think, as a man, would I want more than one wife?" says Herbertson. "Absolutely not. How would my wife react? I can't imagine the pressure that must put on a relationship." But, he adds: "If God had not said, 'Stop this practice now, you've proven yourself, there's no more need to do this,' then polygamy would still be practised today."

Yet, while plural marriage officially rests in the past, that past still causes problems for a few British Mormons. Mormon historians have publicly, though perhaps quietly, accepted that the Church's founder Smith probably had 29 wives. But Steve Bloor, a 48-year-old podiatrist from Cornwall who was raised a Mormon and served as a bishop for nearly seven years, says the Church's culture encouraged him never to examine the matter for himself. His disillusionment came after his brother persuaded him to read into the Church's past. And it was his realisation of the nature of Smith's polygamy that led him to resign from the priesthood and effectively give up the religion within the space of a month shortly before Christmas 2010. "The first thing I read was that Joseph Smith had 33 or more wives, 11 of whom were already married to other men. I was shocked," he says.

Accusations of racism have also dogged the history of Mormonism. In the belief that black people were the cursed descendants of Cain, the Church barred black people from becoming priests until 1978. Indeed, Bloor thinks his former religion made him racist. "I believed blacks were cursed by God," he says. "But we were taught that in 1978 God changed his mind about blacks, and then all of a sudden they were allowed into the priesthood." Though Bloor alleges it was due to "political and financial reasons", the Church teaches that the ban was removed by revelation after it sought divine guidance, and resulted in a day of great rejoicing.

Alex Boyé is remarkably relaxed about the Church's racial record. The 41-year-old musician was born in London and converted at 16 under the influence of his manager while working at McDonald's. He has since moved to Utah to sing in the famed Tabernacle Choir, becoming one of the Church's most famous black personalities. Boyé argues that any racism within the Church merely reflected common social attitudes in America prior to the civil-rights movement. "I don't know of any church on this Earth that hasn't had a race issue in its past," he says. "Mormonism is a relatively new faith and most of the guys who came into the Church at the start were Baptists and Presbyterians who brought that tradition of racial inequality with them. We put an apology for everything that's happened in our scriptures for Mormons to read every day. Can you name any other church that has done anything like that? We all make mistakes, and that's what I love about the faith: it helps us be better people."

Perhaps the most pressing issue for the Church these days regards its prohibitive attitudes towards homosexuality. (One recent survey of young gay Mormons in Utah found that 74 per cent had contemplated suicide, and that 24 per cent had attempted it.) Jenn Ashworth, a novelist who was brought up in the Church by her mother in Preston, grew increasingly dismayed at Mormonism's conservative social attitudes and left the Church at 18. "I became more and more uncomfortable with what the Church was teaching about gay people – that it's wrong, that you're not born gay. They call it 'same-sex attraction' and for them it's something you struggle with."

The issue was also the final straw for Bloor. "The way Mormonism treats its gay sons and daughters is in the dark ages," he says, though he adds: "I visited Utah last year and I think the church is progressing a lot in that area." Ashworth agrees, but says the pace has been too slow: "I think the Church is moving on it slightly, but when I was young it was disgusting."

All religions have internal differences in interpretation of doctrine and history. Rightly or wrongly, Mormonism's relatively recent inception perhaps means it faces more criticism than most. But for true believers – who, on the whole, accept that their religion is outside the mainstream – that criticism remains irrelevant to the intensely personal sense of faith that Mormonism appears to foster in its congregants. "It does sound bizarre," admits Olmstead of some Mormon articles of faith. "But you have to know in yourself that Joseph Smith's story happened. Because when you pray, and when you get that feeling inside you – whether it's a burden that's lifted, a quiet confirmation, a lightbulb moment, whatever – it doesn't matter how bizarre it sounds, you just know it's true."

The bishop: Elder Clifford Herbertson

Herbertson, 48, grew up in a Mormon family in East Kilbride. He questioned the religion when his elder brother died in a road accident at 18, but affirmed his faith and became a bishop at 25

"I was fortunate at school: I was pretty good at sports, I'm not a small guy, and I'm quite quick-witted, so there weren't many people who were going to beat me up. But I was teased, people calling me names. Kids will pick on something and being Mormon was what made me 'different'.

"As I got older, especially in the business world, I got much more respect because of my religion than you'd ever imagine. I'm sure people have said things about me behind my back, but one of the reasons I was successful was that I could always be trusted because of those Christian values.

"Many of our converts come from mainstream Christian churches, and in some respects we're seen as a threat. But I wish the church could grow dramatically because I know the peace and comfort it blesses people's lives with."

The British missionaries: Elder Clifford Francis and Elder Edward Webb

Francis, 20, from Manningtree in Essex, is serving as a missionary in Chorley

"My family joined when I was about seven, but between 14 and 18 I didn't go to Church. Then I was invited to a summer camp and on the last night I decided to pray – and I got overwhelming answers from God that changed my life. I went from getting U grades at school to A grades. Some friends thought I'd gone crazy, but I made a lot of friends in the Church as well."

Webb, 20, was brought up a Mormon in Bristol and stacked shelves in Sainsbury's for a year to save up for his mission

"A lot of people are surprised by 20-year-old men walking around with side-partings and sharing the word about God; they don't expect it – even more so when I tell them I'm British. But if you're representing a company, you have to look presentable, and as missionaries we present ourselves as clean and representatives of Christ."

The Missionary Training Centre leaders: President Richard Walker and his wife, Sister Kathleen Walker

Richard Walker came from Utah to run the Missionary Training Centre in Chorley 18 months ago

"The missionaries here are pure, clean, worthy, loving young people. We love them dearly. We believe that every one of us are spirit children of our heavenly father, that He created the world for the purpose of giving us a place where we can receive a physical body and learn how to walk in His paths. We believe that a person can become a god – but we will never be equal with God."

Kathleen Walker's father was a missionary in Britain from 1933 to 1934. He became the president of the Church when he was 84, serving until his death in 2008

"[My father] used to stand at the pulpit, and I could almost see when that spirit kicked in and he began to speak with power. That is a form of revelation; there is no question in my mind the prophet is inspired. But we all have a sense of that in life, when we get thoughts we need to respond to: that is a spirit whispering to us."

The American missionary: Sister Jasmine Hull

Hull, 22, came to Chorley from Hyde Park, a city in Utah, to work as a missionary. Her younger brother is also currently serving as a missionary in Bolivia

"I was nervous to leave home because it had been a safety net. But there are people here in the UK who I feel I was supposed to meet in my life, and who God wanted me to be friends with; I'd never have met them if I had stayed in America. I really feel as though I'm supposed to be here.

"At the beginning of my mission, I'd meet people who were struggling and my heart would just break because I would realise how Jesus Christ could heal them, how he could help them, and because of that I was able to learn more about my religion.

"To be here and see how Jesus Christ can change someone from the lowest of the low and help them to overcome those hard times, I think it really has strengthened my own personal faith."

The ex-Mormon: Jenn Ashworth

Ashworth, 29, has written a novel about a Mormon family in Chorley, based on her experiences of the Church, which she left at 18. 'The Friday Gospels' is due to be published next January

"When you are 12 or so you can go to the temple to do baptisms for the dead – you're baptised, fully under the water, and say a dead person's name. It's supposed to be the pinnacle of our year, but it was scary, odd. I just felt puzzled, like there was some flaw in me.

"When I went to university I just thought, 'This is rubbish,' so I kicked it all out and lived my life. But I felt a great sense of loss. It was it was my heritage. I missed the music and the community.

"I'm a cultural Mormon, now. I don't believe the doctrine and I think there's quite a lot about the Church that has to be challenged, but there are some challenging it from within, which is fantastic.

"I don't think Joseph Smith was a prophet; I think he was a very charismatic person who created something that got out of hand."

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