Carol Wilkinson and Cynthia Doxey Green, The Field is White: Harvest in Three Counties of England (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017).
As a child, we had a record that narrated the story of Wilford Woodruff as a missionary at Benbow farm. (Vinyl played on our old blue Fischer Price record player. I only remember Woodruff and the headless horseman though I’m sure there were more options). The dramatic narration detailed a miraculous mass conversion of a whole sect by LDS apostle Woodruff in 1840 England. Though fascinating that any American child might know of a pond on an obscure farm in the middle of the English countryside, the fame of Benbow Farm is well known among many Mormons. Lds.org lists scores of articles and talks focused on the same narrative. There Wilford Woodruff baptized a whole congregation of United Brethren—six hundred strong. The story has been retold and retold; Woodruff is legendary. As the story goes the United Brethren were just waiting for the Mormon missionaries to show up. John Benbow said they were “searching for light and truth, but had gone as far as they could, and were continually calling upon the Lord to open the way before them and send them light and knowledge that they might know the true way to be saved.” Woodruff brought them the “light and truth” for which they searched and they converted in droves in Benbow’s pond.
The Field is White began with a request from local stake leadership in Gloucester, England. Modern British Latter-day Saints wanted to better understand their history, particularly if the legendary claims were more substantive than mere hyperbole. Then BYU’s Church History Department chair Paul Peterson, Wilkinson, and Green embarked on the project. The three worked on it until Peterson’s death in 2007. The two continued the project which was finally published earlier this year. Several of the chapters are an amalgamation of prior articles published in other books from the Religious Studies Center reworked. Though there have been a significant number of books and articles on British Mormons in the 19th century, not all are of equal value. Much of the work published in the area is repetitive using similar sources—the initial chapters of this book follow that same standard with Heber C. Kimball and Wilford Woodruff’s journals as the central sources. Both Truth Will Prevail (1987) and Men with a Mission (1992) included about ten pages focused on this area; this local history offers further detail and corroboration to the well-known narrative as well as beginning the work of expansion. However, there is little analysis.
The Field is White is beautifully designed. Most authors would love to be able to include the dozens of full-color glossy photographs (an average of nearly every other page). The book is generally narrative driven and descriptive with significant attention paid to document Woodruff’s claims to the number of converts in the three counties area—Herfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire—and what happened to those converts. The authors begin to expand the narrative beyond Woodruff as super-missionary and it does not end as the American apostles return to their native land. The narrative continues on to the twentieth-century purchase and restoration of the Gadfield Elm Chapel—gifted from the United Brethren congregation in 1840 to become the first LDS Chapel. The authors synthetically integrate prior work done on the area and add a significant amount of demographic work to corroborate claims made by Woodruff.
The majority of primary source material used here comes from the collections of the LDS Church History Library. The authors use their sources to verify and simultaneously temper some of the more hyperbolic claims. Though the authors traveled to Britain as evidenced by the numerous contemporary photographs, few sources are local. With scant official baptismal or attendance records, the authors relied on Woodruff’s conference reports which corroborated the essentials of Woodruff’s other claims, however, Woodruff remains the central source. The most significant work here is in the laborious demographic work to identify converts by name, then to trace their church participation, and build a better understanding of those who chose Mormonism through their own writings. The authors went as far as mapping out the homes of a number of 1840s LDS converts in the area including contemporary (though undated) photos of the homes.
There are several interesting tidbits that warrant analysis, yet the reader is left wanting more. The United Brethren’s preaching schedule is a major source for information regarding the sect and the authors are able to identify 40 of the 50 preachers on the list as Mormon converts. The authors claim that the male preachers easily transitioned into opportunities to preach within the LDS structure. Yet, there were 12 female preachers within the United Brethren. The authors write, “Although these women were not ordained to priesthood duties when they were baptized, they probably continued to teach their neighbors and friends about their newfound faith.” (60) Rather than assumptions, greater contextual work here might yield much. Many Methodist sects drew a distinction between preaching (expounding or explaining scripture) and exhorting (sharing personal affirmations of faith). While women could be called to exhort, preaching or expounding scripture was usually the scope of male ministers. Here the United Brethren, despite their exclusive name, included women in the work of preaching as did some other primitive Methodist groups. While Mormon women were not officially called as missionaries until the late 19th century, preaching was not equal to a formal missionary call. Three months after the organization of the Church of Christ in 1830, Emma Smith was given a revelatory command to “expound scriptures, and to exhort the church.” The charge was not just for Emma, but it was “unto all.” (July 1830, Doctrine and Covenants 25:7, 16) Mormon revelation had already authorized these 12 female preachers to continue their work. Did they? Is there evidence that they were excluded? How might their presence expand our understanding of early Mormon female participation prior to the organization of the Relief Society?
The Field is White does much to document Wilford Woodruff’s legendary claims from the summer of 1840. It begins to shift and expand the narrative to the individuals that converted and continues that local history to the present. It will be of interest to those for whom this history is personally significant, yet there remains more good work to be done.