Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner retraces the history of a trouble-hit church
A WEARSIDE church with a troubled and often violent history is still keeping the faith after 170 years. The Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, perhaps better known as The Mormons, will celebrate the anniversary with a heritage presentation this Saturday.
“There have been riots, mob attacks, anti-Mormon processions and incidents of arson over the years, but we are still here – and still thriving,” said member Sheila Hughes.
“I love this way of life. The church is like a big family, providing principles and standards for members to be good people – now and for the future. I feel safe here.”
The roots of the Latter-day Saints can be traced to New York in 1830 and, by the end of the decade, missionaries were making their way across Europe to spread the word.
William Kent became the first Wearside convert – after falling into conversation with a church elder while viewing a display of stuffed birds in the local market place.
The 42-year-old butcher was baptised in the River Wear at Hylton Ferry Landing on August 13, 1843, and helped to build up the church before emigrating to America.
“That was the start of the church in Sunderland,” said Sheila, who has compiled a detailed history. “Another local man, William Knox, was also baptised that day.”
The congregation worshipped in hired rooms for decades – including Park Hall, the Lyceum, Athenaeum and Phoenix Masonic Lodge – slowly building up followers.
But, although membership topped 100 within a few years, numbers often fluctuated – as individuals and families emigrated to the Mormon settlement at Salt Lake City.
“The movement between Sunderland and America was at the root of the persecution, as there were rumours of local girls being sent to Utah to be married off,” said Sheila.
“The persecution started when the chapel was based at Park Hall, on Toward Road, but got worse when members bought up an old school in Tunstall Road in around 1912.
“Stories were told that there was a tunnel running under the chapel to Salt Lake City and girls were going missing. Completely untrue, of course, but the rumours spread.”
The growing unrest led to an anti-Mormon meeting at the Victoria Hall in May 1912 – attended by the Mayor – which saw the teachings of the church widely condemned.
Unrest soon turned to violence, with services threatened by mobs of thousands and witch-hunts launched against members who had the misfortune to be found outside alone.
At a second meeting at the Victoria Hall a month later, this time without the Mayor, an Anti-Mormon Campaign was launched – resulting in riots involving thousands.
And, on June 23, 1912, an anti-Mormon procession gathered in Tunstall Road, headed by a brass band and a banner stating: “Mormons must leave Sunderland.” As the Elders left the church, there was “a rush for them” – according to news reports – but police officers stepped in to surround them, before safely escorting them home.
Concerns continued to mount over the next year, with the church repeatedly targeted by vandals. Then, in February 1913, one of the riots resulted in tragic consequences.
As protesters attacked the church yet again, so Elder RH Hendricks ran through the mob to the building – fearing for the safety of Relief Society members trapped inside.
But, as he tried to hold the church door closed with his shoulder, rioters violently forced their way in – crushing Elder Hendricks behind the door.
“After suffering a haemorrhage, Elder Hendricks died on February 24, 1913, although the death certificate states cause of death was continued fever,” said Sheila.
“All this only served to make the Saints stronger and more determined in their work.”
The outbreak of the First World War finally saw the unrest quieten, although issues with vandalism and service disruptions were reported sporadically until the 1920s.
The past 70 years, however, have seen the church – which houses a valuable genealogical research unit – become an accepted feature in the city’s religious life.
“Membership continued growing and, by the 1960s, our chapel in Tunstall Road just wasn’t big enough,” said Sheila. “So we bought land at Queen Alexandra Road.
“Missionaries came for all around the world to build us a new church, and our own members volunteered to help as well – especially those with specialist trades.
“According to reports in the Echo the church cost £125,000, but I’m sure it would have cost much more if we hadn’t built it ourselves. It was a real community effort.”
The new church, which stands next to the Rosedene pub, took four years to complete. Members moved from Tunstall Road in 1965 and the chapel was dedicated in 1967.
Today, the church attracts a regular congregation of over 110 – with members often helping out in community projects for the elderly, homeless and local schoolchildren. Sheila’s daughter-in-law Helen Hughes, who is originally from Sheffield, said: “We are encouraged to spend time with our families, helping to bring us closer together.
“People sometimes struggle to find their place in the world today, but we have already found that sense of place. The whole church is a family.”
l The church will hold a celebration from 6pm on Saturday to mark its 170th anniversary. The event will include a photographic display, readings from old journals and a history presentation – as well as a chance for the more adventurous to dress up in old-fashioned clothes. All ages welcome.
Journal recorded troubled times for worshippers
THE persecution suffered by the church was documented by member Frederick William Oates – who was just a young boy at the time.
“Sunderland was one of the real hot-beds of anti-Mormon activity for many, many years. The persecution was very bitter,” he recalled in a journal.
“I can remember coming out of the chapel with my father and just seeing what looked to me at that time as hoards of people. They were throwing flour bags and grass sods.
“Then they would follow the Saints to their homes, break into their houses and look under the beds and in the wardrobes – and see if they had any missionaries there.
“They would do all they could to disturb the meetings. They would fire air gun pellets through the windows and they would sometimes break them.
“One night the mob broke in, and there was a man with a dagger. He raised it to stab a missionary in the back. One of the sisters knew the man and shrieked out his name.
“He still brought the knife down, but he turned and it went straight through the seat of a chair. You can imagine what would have happened to the missionary.
“But then things started to settle down. We had some good times and all worked together to build the church up in Sunderland.”
Suffering for their faith
•Elder Frederick Mitchell reported on a baptism that just wasn’t to be at Sunderland in November 1899.
“After baptising Joseph Matthews and son, Elder Briggs led the wife into the water but, after making three unsuccessful attempts, by reason of singular circumstances of them being submerged by the waves – each time more violent than before – until at last they were handled so roughly, rolled and tumbled over and over on the rocks, they all concluded the Lord was displeased and therefore made no further attempts. So the wife stands today unbaptised.”
•William Waslin France suffered for his faith when first baptised in the North Sea in 1910. Indeed, so angry was his father at his choice of church that he threw him out of the family home – although he allowed his daughter-in-law and grandchild to stay. William slept rough in the fields around Ashbrooke until he found a home for his wife and child. Six months later, Mrs France was baptised into the church too.
The Mormons in Wearside
1843: Sunderland branch organised on August 13 at Hylton Ferry Landing.
1844: John Steabler and his wife Mary baptised in the sea at Hendon Bay.
1849: The church had 89 members, but William Knox emigrated to Salt Lake City.
1852: John and Mary Steabler emigrated with their family to the US.
1858: Phoenix Lodge, in Queen Street, used as a meeting place for members.
1892: The Albert Rooms, in Coronation Street, was used for meetings.
1912: Thousands attended an anti-Mormon procession in Sunderland on June 23.
1913: Anti-Mormon riots recorded outside the church – one elder died.
1913: A former school in Tunstall Road purchased. Dedicated for worship in 1914.
1931: President FW Oates formed the Sunderland mission’s first football team.
1940: Sunderland started a unique budget system – eventually adopted nation-wide.
1961: The first sod of the new £125,000 chapel in Queen Alexandra Road cut.
1965: Members moved from Tunstall Road to Queen Alexandra Road.
1978: A £100,000 modernisation scheme was completed after months of hard work.
1997: Reunion held – 88-year-old missionary Rulon Scoville travelled from the US.
2000: Church members met at Portland School while the chapel was revamped.
2001: Sunderland Ward Chapel dedicated by Elder John Maxwell.
2013: Sunderland Stake – a local administrative unit – celebrated its 50th anniversary.
l The Family History Centre run by the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Queen Alexandra Road offers free access to thousands of census records and family tree details. Contact 528 5787 for opening times.