The history of the world records no event comparable, in its promotion of human industry, with that of the Great Exhibition.”1 So claimed Henry Cole, the English civil servant who bore much of the responsibility for organizing the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” to give it its full title, in London in 1851. Cole’s claim should not be dismissed as mere hyperbole, for the Great Exhibition was on a scale hitherto unknown, and social historians invariably point to the exhibition as the preeminent symbol of Britain’s economic dominance during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. The Great Exhibition attracted over six million visitors in five months and featured over one hundred thousand exhibits from all over the world. The exhibition was housed in an impressive glass structure dubbed the “Crystal Palace,”2 erected in Hyde Park (fig. 1). Designer Joseph Paxton created prefabricated iron sections that allowed the building to be assembled easily and cheaply. The Palace measured 1,848 feet long by 408 feet wide, giving an area under glass approaching a million square feet. The transepts were tall enough to encase some of Hyde Park’s mature elm trees. Calling it the Great Exhibition was by no means a hollow conceit.
The exhibition’s principle patron and driving force was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Albert divided the exhibits into four categories: raw materials, machinery, manufactured goods, and fine art. The object was to demonstrate to the world the scientific and technological wonders of the industrial age. Moreover, it was to emphasize the preeminence of Great Britain as a leader of the new age. More than 50 percent of exhibits were British, with the rest of the world sharing the remaining space.
Initially, the British press was negative and unsupportive of Prince Albert’s plans, and there was much public carping, not to say derision, in the two years leading up to the opening of the exhibition. Even as the Crystal Palace was being erected in Hyde Park, doubts about the wisdom of the venture were expressed not only in satirical publications such as Punch, but also in the Times and by members of Parliament on the floor of the House of Commons.3 But Albert plowed on energetically, and by the time the exhibition closed there was little but fulsome praise and celebration to be heard. The Edinburgh Review claimed the event “seize[d] the living scroll of human progress, inscribed with every successive conquest of man’s intellect.”4 The Times declared the exhibition “was a sight, the like of which had never happened before, and which, in the nature of things, can never be repeated.”5
In the midst of this phenomenal endeavor, missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were laboring. The missionaries of 1851 were alive to the possibilities raised by thousands and thousands of enquiring visitors from all parts of Britain and many other nations descending upon their area. They saw three different opportunities in Exhibition London: Firstly, to share their message of a religious restoration in an attempt to gain more converts; secondly, to strengthen members of the Church in London by having special conferences with apostolic speakers; and thirdly, to improve their education and simply have some fun. The Great Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria on May 1, 1851, and Apostle Erastus Snow and missionary Eli B. Kelsey went to pains to secure themselves a good vantage point from which they could view the royal procession.6
For the Church, the Great Exhibition in London was the first exposure to such an event. Later events of even greater size and length proved to be of import to Church missionary development. For example, the Chicago World’s Fair (or World’s Columbian Exhibition) of 1893 drew the nascent Tabernacle Choir out of Salt Lake City along the railroad to Chicago, where the choir took second place in a singing competition. It was the first time the choir travelled out of the state of Utah. The First Presidency travelled with them, and Second Counselor Joseph F. Smith said of the trip, “Many a one has had his eyes opened, somewhat, on Utah and the Mormon question. I consider it has done more good than five thousand sermons would have done in an ordinary or even extraordinary way.”7 Seventy years later, the Church invested significant resources in occupying a pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964. This effort included the production of the seminal missionary film entitled Man’s Search for Happiness. This film and other exhibits in the Mormon Pavilion prompted President David O. McKay to call the pavilion “one of the most unique and effective missionary efforts in [the Church’s] history.”8
The 1851 Exhibition: No Place for Religion
Before examining the Latter-day Saint missionaries’ activities in London in 1851, let us consider the role of religion in the exhibition generally. Although Prince Albert inserted the quotation “The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is”9 at the head of the exhibition catalogue, and choirs from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and Windsor sang sacred songs and the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed during the opening ceremony, religion was given a very low, almost grudging presence inside the Crystal Palace. One contemporary guide attempted to marry the industrial revolution and British piety by declaring, “With steam and the Bible the English traverse the globe,”10 but the truth was that there was nothing more than lip service given to religion. While Victorian Britain was overtly Christian, the Christian message was not considered fitting for the exhibition. Albert and the other leading organizers saw the event as a celebration of science, industry, and the wit of man. Disgruntled church leaders looked upon the Crystal Palace as a worldly temple in which man would worship his own ingenuity.11
Churches and religious societies lobbied to have the exhibit closed on Sundays, and there was a considerable debate before it was decided in their favor. The British and Foreign Bible Society requested space to exhibit the Holy Bible in 130 languages but was initially met with a blank refusal. It took three months of petitioning before Prince Albert relented and provided a small area in “a back room in a by passage.”12 The Religious Tract Society also managed to gain a small presence in the exhibition to display “several books and tracts specially designed to improve and commemorate the Great Exhibition translated in French, German and Italian.”13 That the religious community felt like dogs fighting for exhibition scraps is illustrated by a letter from the church wardens of All Saints Knightsbridge to the commissioners dated July 11, 1851, soliciting the complete receipts of one day’s admission in aid of church funds.14
Prince Albert was not so much afraid of Christianity per se but of sectarianism. Much of the material published by religious societies at the time of the exhibition contained warnings against Popery and Catholicism.15 One subtext of the exhibition was to demonstrate peace and cooperation on an international scale, and overt sectarianism and bigotry, not to mention sheer religious crankiness, were to be avoided.
All religious groups from the Church of England down realized that given no platform inside the exhibition, they would have to find ways to influence people outside it. For example, Bishop Blomfield, the Anglican Primate of London, appointed a committee to consider ways to proselyte visitors. Tracts were distributed, and the Church of England book of common prayer was made available in French and German translations. Some ministers made their own private arrangements to accommodate and instruct visiting worshippers. The Reverend G. Drew arranged a special course of six evening sermons to be delivered by well-known clerics, including the popular author of social commentary Reverend Charles Kingsley.
The LDS Church in London in 1851
Like their fellow ministers of other denominations, the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found it necessary to work outside of the exhibition proper. Given the difficulties the British and Foreign Bible Society had in displaying copies of the Holy Bible, the likelihood of the Latter-day Saint elders having a pitch to show the Book of Mormon was zero. No letters requesting a presence in the Crystal Palace were sent by Church leaders to the exhibition commissioners.16
By 1851 the Church was well established in London with a membership of about three thousand. Just ten years after the first missionaries arrived in the capital city of the British Empire, London was, by the close of 1850, the strongest area of the Church in the British Isles.17 As the opening of the Great Exhibition drew closer, the Church in London, under the leadership of Elder Eli B. Kelsey, was progressing well. In the first five months of 1851, eight new branches were created and 714 converts were baptized.18
The growth of the Church in London had been slower than in other parts of the British Isles. Two days after seeing the first London convert baptized in 1840, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal, “London is the hardest place I ever visited for establishing the gospel.”19 However, the elders of 1840 persevered. Scholars report that “despite the comparatively meager harvest in London, Heber C. Kimball refused to be discouraged. He wrote to his wife that the ice was broken and that the Church finally was getting such a hold that ‘the Devle cannot Root it out.’”20 “Considering the time and effort that went into opening that city, coupled with its symbolic importance as the capital of the empire, the London effort [of 1840] was undoubtedly the greatest disappointment of the mission.”21 From the comparative frustration of 1840, the Church in London had by 1851 reached a size and maturity sufficient to convince Mission President Franklin D. Richards and Elder Kelsey that visitors to London would be impressed. Certainly, the general excitement of 1851 London society at large was reflected in the small Latter-day Saint community. They were on the crest of a wave and determined to enjoy the celebrations and make the most of their opportunities.
In Eli B. Kelsey the Church had an experienced missionary leader presiding over the London Conference. He had previously served as president of the Warwickshire and Glasgow Conferences before arriving in London in January 1851. Kelsey was convinced of the importance of the printed word in proclaiming the restored gospel, and he quickly moved to improve production of books and tracts in London. In February he set up a bookstore in the shop owned by Brother William Cook in Jewin Street, in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The shop was situated on a corner, offering two large windows ideal for display. Paternoster Row and its publishing houses were only a short walk away. Kelsey wrote to President Richards and requested a renewed supply of pamphlets and books. On April 10 he reported that twenty thousand tracts were already in circulation in the city.22
Both President Richards and Elder Kelsey realized the unique opportunity presented by the Great Exhibition, and it is probable that President Richards assigned Kelsey to the London Conference with the exhibition in mind. Four months before the exhibition opened, the Millennial Star declared, “What an opportunity to present heavens best gift—the REVELATIONS OF GOD’S WILL—to the notice of men of many nations: a worthy item indeed to be obtained at the World’s Fair. The Book of Mormon may there be had in English, French, and Danish.” The people came to London to see the products of the new industrial age and the wonder that was the Crystal Palace, but Franklin D. Richards hoped that some would “discover at the ‘Exhibition’ the spiritual architecture of Christ’s Church again on earth, as the most fascinating specimen of Heavenly Science, and thus be led to glorify God, and rejoice for ever that they came up to the ‘World’s Fair in 1851.’”23
Missionaries and Members Gather for the Exhibition
Missionary work to those who had not heard of the truths of the Restoration was obviously a motivator for the LDS elders in the late spring and summer of 1851, but of equal significance was the opportunity to build and develop the members. The Great Exhibition provided an ideal opportunity for Latter-day Saints in Britain to gather together in London where they could not only examine the exhibits but also participate in inspirational meetings. For many ordinary people the burgeoning railway network that had grown in the 1840s made travel possible from all corners of the country for the first time. Elder Richards reminded members to secure accommodations early, as London would be inundated with visitors and lodgings would be difficult to find. Most English Saints were working class, but the exhibition commissioners reduced admission to a shilling to enable poor people to attend, and even miserly Victorian employers gave their workers a day off to visit Hyde Park. Elder Kelsey, meanwhile, was inviting missionary elders from all over Europe to London, and he published in the Millennial Star eight addresses in the city where branches of the Church could be found.24
To the missionaries laboring in all parts of Britain and in continental Europe who had suffered hardship, disappointment, and downright persecution, the summer festivities in London came as a welcome distraction. Newly baptized local converts were given an ideal opportunity to mix with more experienced leaders and learn gospel truths from the four Apostles who gathered in London. The senior Apostle was Elder John Taylor, who interrupted his work in France to visit London. He was joined by Lorenzo Snow, who had been supervising the translation of the Book of Mormon into Italian.25 Apostles Erastus Snow and Franklin D. Richards were already in London. Several missionaries from across Europe came, including T. B. H. Stenhouse, who took a sojourn from his work in Switzerland and travelled across France to London.
Erastus Snow recorded in his journal his feelings: “It being the time of the great industrial exhibition or World’s fair at the ‘Crystal Palace’ and London full of strangers from all nations, it was particularly an interesting time which we failed not to improve upon both to our own advantage and to imparting the councils of eternal life to others. I remained visiting the exhibition and other interesting objects and attending meetings in different parts of the city until the 11th.”26 President Richards recorded in his journal two exhibition visits. On May 28, he wrote, “I accompanied Br. And Sis. Collinson, Br. L Snow, E. B. Kelsey, A. M. Harmon, John Lyon, J. D. Ross, &c. to the Crystal Palace entrance 1/- [one shilling] or 24 cents each. Today 37,186 shilling visitors attended beside those who had season tickets which is it supposed numbered a total of 40,000. Cannot here describe the scene.”27 On June 4, he stated simply, “Attended the Exhibition at Crystal Palace.”28
It appears that much of the Apostles’ time was taken up in meetings with members of the Church. Certainly there was no shortage of meetings. The London Conference convened from Saturday, May 31, until Wednesday, June 4. There were general sessions and a priesthood session, and during the afternoon and evening of Monday, June 2, a “Grand Festival” social event was held in the Freemasons Hall, Great Queen Street. In attendance were four Apostles, twenty-six presidents of other British conferences, missionaries who had travelled from Europe, and many local Saints: “Thousands of saints and strangers assembled in the various halls, were fed bountifully with the bread of life by the servants of God.”29
It is difficult to ascertain how many Saints were among the six million exhibition visitors, or indeed, how many souls were added to their number during the exhibition, but the leaders had difficulty hiring venues large enough to hold meetings. Elder Kelsey tried to secure Exeter Hall, a venue steeped in the history of British missionary societies, for the June 1 meeting. “Truly we are becoming a great people,” enthused Kelsey in the pages of the Millennial Star, “when the metropolis of the world can only furnish one hall that is sufficiently capacious to accommodate [us].” But Exeter Hall had been fully booked by other churches, and the Saints had to hold their conference in the City of London Literary and Scientific Institution on Aldersgate Street.30
The baptismal statistics for 1851 do not show any marked increase in growth that could be attributed to the Great Exhibition. However, there is one piece of evidence to suggest at best some growth and at the very least the sanguine outlook of Church leaders: the creation of the Brompton Branch on May 29. The Brompton Branch was right in the middle of the exhibition territory and was convenient for visitors to get to. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived creation, and it survived only a little longer than the closing of the exhibition in October 1851.
In many ways, the Great Exhibition represented the zenith of a golden age in British history. This might also be said for the London Conference, which at the end of 1851 contained the largest number of members in its history.31 However, before the end of 1851, the conference boundaries were altered and divided to accommodate newly created conferences in Essex, Reading, Kent, and Land’s End.32 The division, coupled with loss of membership due to emigration, ensured that the London Conference never again captured the size and spirit generated by the excitement of 1851.
The Great Exhibition also provided the missionaries with an opportunity to improve their education. Church leaders had always taught the importance of not only theology but science and the arts as well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been an institution that has set its face against progress, and in the minds of the Apostles and other elders in Victorian London there would have been a natural curiosity and fascination with the content of the Great Exhibition. While other churches warned against the exhibition,33 such a view would not be found in Latter-day Saint theology. The Latter-day Saint view would be more closely aligned with that expressed in another contemporary pamphlet, whose author, the Reverend P. Macfarlane, declared, “There is no antipathy between religion and ingenious machinery or beautiful sculpture.”34 It would not be stretching the imagination to contemplate John Taylor and Franklin D. Richards examining steam engines, mechanical threshing equipment, and Naysmith’s steam hammer, which was powerful enough to exert thousands of pounds of pressure and sensitive enough to crack an egg. The first apostolic missionaries in 1840, including Brigham Young himself, included sightseeing and appreciation for their environs as a part of their schedule.
Lessons from the Great Exhibition
The leaders and members of the Church in Victorian London were certainly in step with the spirit generated by the preparations for the Great Exhibition. They showed vision and endeavor in trying to make 1851 a watershed in the history of the Church in the British Isles. A cursory examination of the evidence suggests they failed: They had a jolly time absorbing the festival atmosphere, but it appears that little of real substance was achieved. However, it was in the festival atmosphere that Franklin D. Richards published the original English edition of the Pearl of Great Price in Liverpool in 1851, a milestone of some importance in Church history.
So far as the Exhibition was concerned, observations were made, lessons learned, and reports given. Kelsey wrote to President Brigham Young, informing him about the London Conference meetings.35 Brigham was quite happy with the report because four months later Brigham responded, “I have read the account of your celebration; that must have been a great day for the Saints in London and will, I doubt not, have a good effect.”36 The weighing of experience and considering the records of forebears is a distinguishing feature of the modus operendi of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the experiences in London in 1851 provided a start to the Church’s interaction with huge public exhibitions. Since the President of the Church took an interest in the unfolding events in London, it is a reasonable assumption that later Church leaders mulled over the experience of 1851. The decision to send the Tabernacle Choir to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair probably relied on the earlier London experience.
Subsequent events in the Hyde Park area of London would have brought broad smiles to the faces of Eli B. Kelsey and Franklin D. Richards, and serve as a reminder of the tenacity and staying power of the Latter-day Saint cause.
The commissioners of the Great Exhibition—who planned and executed the whole extravaganza with not so much as a penny of taxpayer money—made a profit of £186,000. After the Crystal Palace was taken down section by section, moved to the south of the River Thames, and re-erected on Sydenham Hill,37 the commissioners set about investing their handsome profit. Prince Albert managed to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, to find some public funds to match the Commissioner’s profits. For £324,000 they purchased an 87-acre estate between Cromwell Road and Kensington Road in South Kensington. On this land they planned an impressive array of museums and galleries, a vast concert hall, and a university college. The Royal Albert Hall (fig. 2) was opened in 1870; the Natural History Museum situated on the Cromwell Road opened in 1881. Between the two a wide road was built and named, appropriately, Exhibition Road. On one side of Exhibition Road the Victoria and Albert Museum was built and opened in 1910, and on the other side, the Imperial College of Science and Technology opened its doors in 1907.38 In later years, the Science Museum and the Geology Museum were built on Exhibition Road.
Of great consequence to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on a site directly opposite the Science Museum and right next to the Victoria and Albert Museum, within the boundary of the parcel of land purchased by the Great Exhibition Commissioners, the Hyde Park meetinghouse (fig. 3) was erected and dedicated in 1961.39 This building stands, not in the least incongruously, amid some renowned and impressive public architecture. The building is a source of pride and a place of worship to thousands of local members and visitors from all corners of the globe. It has served as a ward and stake meetinghouse, a mission headquarters, an Institute of Religion venue, and a Family History Center that has, over the years, blessed thousands of souls. Prophets and Apostles from the time of David O. McKay to the present day have taught, trained, and testified on the ground trodden by their dedicated spiritual forebears of 1851.
On May 28, 1978, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presided over a meeting held in the Royal Albert Hall to, in his words, “conduct major surgery”40 to the Church in London by reorganizing the six stakes that were either a part of London or whose borders touched outer London boroughs. The Albert Hall was packed to the rafters with Latter-day Saints in a mood of reverent rejoicing and anticipation. A choir of Church members sang wonderfully in that great hall that has so often reverberated to the strains of professional choirs and orchestras. It was a landmark occasion for London Saints to emerge from the shadows of obscurity and fill one of the great and famous venues, a building built from the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851. That meeting, and the building of the Hyde Park chapel, can be seen as part of a fulfilment of the hopes, vision, and hard work of Eli B. Kelsey and his associates in 1851.
Latter-day Saints believe in the permanency of their work and view spiritual continuity as an expected feature of their experience. It is not uncommon for one generation to sow the seeds and succeeding generations to reap the harvest. So it was regarding the missionary work of 1851 in London.