Tolkien, Mormonism, and Pendle Hill

By July 3, 2018

During the first LDS mission to England, Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding ventured up the Ribble Valley (I post links to the Google maps since they are too grainy when I copy them; minimize the search bar to see the whole area) after their tremendous success in Preston (Pendle Hill is the green blob north of Manchester with the word “Nelson” on it). Their success continued especially at Chatburn (at the top of the first map) where townsfolk requested that Kimball preach to them and where Kimball ended up baptizing twenty-five people the night of his first visit.[1] Kimball later said, “My hair would rise on my head as I walked through the streets, and I did not know then what was the matter with me. I pulled off my hat, and felt that I wanted to pull off my shoes, and I did not know what to think of it.” When Kimball told Joseph Smith of this experience, Smith replied, “Did you not understand it? That is a place where some of the old Prophets traveled and dedicated that land, and their blessing rested upon you.”[2]

Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England

Looming above Chatburn is Pendle Hill, which does have a very interesting religious history. In 1652, George Fox felt impressed to climb Pendle Hill: “There atop the hill,” said Fox, “I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.”[3] Quakers mark that event as the beginning of the movement.

On the other side of the hill is the Pendle Forest (not really a forest; that meant a traditional hunting ground where in the Middle Ages people weren’t supposed to live) the events that led to England’s most famous witch trial occurred. Witches are a major part of the tourist industry of the region. The region was also the most Catholic area in England after the Reformation. That plus the abundance of Methodist churches in the area makes the Pendle Hill region sort of the overflowing microcosm of all the factors that led to early Mormon conversion according to my research. [4]

In a nutshell, I argue that whereas medieval Catholicism was full of belief in miracles and the Reformation argued for the cessation of miracles, people in the North and West of England resisted cessation and were eager to embrace religions with miraculous claims. Of the locals, Joseph Fielding reported, “Some of them said that if they could but touch us they seem better. They evidently believe that there is Virtue in Brother Kimball’s Cloake.” [5]

Stonyhurst College

For our 20th anniversary, my wife was good enough to come look around the area with me and in planning the trip I noticed the “Hobbit Hill” tag in the lower left hand corner (a local campsite). Looking that up, I discovered that on the slope across the Ribble Valley from Pendle Hill sits Stonyhurst College that used to be St. Mary’s where Tolkien’s son trained to be a priest during World War II. The fact that Tolkien visited his son often while he wrote the Lord of the Rings, and the fact a Shire Lane sits at the bottom of the hill has lead the local tourist industry to argue for the region’s influence on Tolkien’s masterpiece.

Shire Lane in Hurst Green

Locals even created a brochure for a “Tolkien Trail” arguing for more connections:

“J. R. R. Tolkien was renowned for his love of nature and wooded landscapes and the countryside around Stonyhurst is richly beautiful. A number of names which occur in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are similar to those found locally, including Shire Lane (in Hurst Green) and the River Shirebourn (similar to the name of the family which built Stonyhurst). The ferry at Hacking Hall (still working when J. R. R. Tolkien was here) may have provided the inspiration for the Buckleberry Ferry in the book, and the view from Tom Bombadill’s home many have been based on that from New Lodge.”

To clarify, the Shireburns were an important gentry family in the region, and the Shire had a River Shirebourn. Some go so far as to claim Pendle Hill as the Hobbit’s Lonely Mountain, but Tolkien’s son wasn’t in the area until after Tolkien wrote the Hobbit.

No doubt many of these claims stretch the evidence, but a little town between Stonyhurst and Pendle Hill caught my attention: Barrow. We drove through it (very small) but if Tolkien fans recall, Frodo and company enter the Barrow Downs not long after leaving the Shire. The Barrow Downs were the burial mounds of the ancient kings of the lost kingdom of Arnor: the northern kingdom of Gondor that had been destroyed by the Witch King of Angmar. The Rangers led by Aragorn were the last remnants of the people still working against Sauron but without a kingdom.

And that got me thinking: Tolkien was an English Catholic with a fascination with early medieval England. St. Mary’s (Stonyhurst) could be seen as a bastion not only against the Reformation but also against the Fascism of the day (his son had been studying in Rome, but transferred to Stonyhurst when things got bad with Mussolini).

The ruins of Whalley Abbey

Just as the Borrow Downs were the ruins of a lost kingdom, just south of Barrow, UK, is Whalley which contains the ruins of a very large abbey. When Henry VIII began seizing the monasteries in 1537, it spawned the Pilgrimage of Grace, England’s largest popular revolt. 60,000 men marched out to tell Henry to stop including the abbot and several monks from Whalley. Henry promised to consider their demands, and then rounded up and executed the ringleaders after they dispersed, including the monks from Whalley.

So would that make Henry sort of like the Witch King who destroyed Arnor? And would the local Catholics be something like the Rangers? St. Mary’s (Stonyhusrt) is a Jesuit school and the Jesuits resisted the English Reformation most stridently and many were executed during Elizabeth’s reign.

Just to push the theme a little further, the Witch King and the nine riders generally were leaders of Men that had been seduced by Sauron. Luther was from the same country that waged the two world wars that played a huge role in shaping the Lord of the Rings.

While claiming The Lord of the Rings to be an allegory for the Reformation is no doubt pushing things way too far, a love of medieval England and concerns about modernity were explicit in Tolkien’s writings. So it seems likely that Tolkien’s Catholic view of English history would certainly influence The Lord of the Rings.

Stonyhurst as a peaceful traditional bastion (the Shire) sitting near the remnants of a lost kingdom (medieval Catholicism represented by the ruin of the Whalley Abbey) in the middle of a war with a country that (Catholics might feel) led to the demise of that ancient kingdom, does seem to fit.

I argue that Mormonism drew on these elements for their great success in this part of Lancashire and one way or another, Tolkein may have felt the same enchanted energy in the region that Heber C. Kimball felt a century before.

[1] Allen, Esplin, and Whittaker, Men with a Mission, 50; Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Heber C. Kimball: An Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Giving an Account of His Mission to Great Britain, and the Commencement of the Work of the Lord in that Land, ed. R. B. Thompson (Nauvoo, Ill.: Robinson and Smith, 1840), 34.

[2] Journal of Discourses, 5:22.

[3] George Fox, The Journal of George Fox. 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould,1831), 1:140.

[4] See “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,” Church History 79, no. 1 (2008): 73-104 and “‘Congenial to Nearly Every Shade of Radicalism’: The Delaware Valley and the Success of Early Mormonism,” Religion and American Culture, 17, no. 1 (2007): 129-64. For more on Pendle Hill, see “The Fulness of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism,” (PhD. Diss. University of California Santa Barbara, 2014), 65-92.

[5] Quoted in Allen, Esplin, and Whittaker, Men with a Mission, 51.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is awesome, Steve!

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 3, 2018 @ 8:00 am

  2. Thanks, Edje. I had a blast.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 3, 2018 @ 8:28 am

  3. Great fun, Steve.

    Comment by wvs — July 3, 2018 @ 8:53 am

  4. Thanks, wvs.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 3, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

  5. Thanks. This is great.

    Tolkien abhorred “allegory” in its forms, as he indicated in the Preface to the Second Edition of LR. He preferred to let the readers infer what they would rather than him intentionally manipulate them. Tolkien knew where to draw the line. Having said that, the OP is quite useful in establishing influences and/or inspirations.

    Comment by Terry H — July 13, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

  6. Good point about that introduction, and I’ll agree that LOTR isn’t a straightforward allegory. But in that same introduction, Tolkien admits that WWI naturally had a huge impact on him (he says something like, “By 19 all my friends were dead”) suggesting that major events in one’s life will have some influence on what you write about. So I see Tolkien’s Catholic view of English history having some influence on the LOTR also.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 14, 2018 @ 9:02 am


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