“Pa bryd y cawn fyned i Seion” – the forgotten history of Welsh Mormonism

It’s a fairly remarkable fact that the place outside these islands with the largest percentage population of Welsh descent isn’t Scranton (from the Western Mail), Gaiman (From the Argentina Independent), or the Welsh Tract of Pennsylvania (from Wiki).

The winner is Malad City in Idaho. The link is to this year’s Malad Valley Welsh Festival. Here’s Malad City’s Wiki with an explanation:

Malad began largely as a Welsh Mormon settlement whose settlers brought their Welsh traditions with them. In addition to the Mormon majority, some of the leading families in the community belonged to either the Presbyterian Church or the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. These two denominations each built a place of worship in the town. Some of the minutes from early town meetings were taken down in both English and Welsh. The city is very proud of its Welsh heritage. Malad lays claim to having more people of Welsh descent per capita than anywhere outside of Wales Malad celebrated its Welsh heritage by holding an annual “eisteddfod”, patterned after the music and poetry contests held in Wales for over 900 years. The eisteddfod was an all-day event with people coming from all over southeastern Idaho. The event featured music, songs and storytelling of Wales. The custom continued until 1916 and the outbreak of World War I. With the goal of renewing the old eisteddfod tradition in Malad, in 2004, the annual Malad Valley Welsh Festival was established.

I got a little interested in these Welsh Mormons – the history is pretty remarkable. Here’s a site maintained by the Brigham Young University – Welsh Mormon History. From the intro:

The Church had great missionary success in Wales during the 1840’s and 1850’s, and many thousands of Welsh converts immigrated to America, heading West with Brigham Young as a part of the great Mormon Migration, which began in 1847. Today it is estimated that approximately twenty percent of the population of Utah is of Welsh descent.
As the message of the restoration spread throughout Wales, many Saints eagerly asked, “Pa bryd y cawn fyned i Seion?”, which means “When may we go to Zion?” The new converts sought to follow the counsel of their leaders to leave “Babylon” (Wales) and go to “Zion” (Utah)

Meet Captain Dan Jones (again from Wiki), who heard Joseph Smith’s last prophecy:

In June 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were arrested and imprisoned in Carthage Jail. With Willard Richards and John Taylor, Jones was chosen to accompany the Smiths to jail to offer support and protection. The night before Joseph and Hyrum were killed, Joseph Smith asked Jones if he was afraid to die. Jones replied, “Has that time come, think you? Engaged in such a cause, I do not think that death would have many terrors.” Smith replied with what many have identified as his “last prophecy”: “You will yet see Wales and fulfill the mission appointed you before you die.”
The following morning, June 27, 1844, Smith asked Jones to deliver a letter on his behalf to Orville H. Browning in Quincy, Illinois, requesting that Browning act as the Smiths’ lawyer in their upcoming trial. As Jones departed the jail on horseback, bullets were fired at him, but none struck him. In his haste and panic, Jones took the wrong road to Quincy and became lost. It was later learned that an anti-Mormon mob had been waiting to intercept him on the correct road to Quincy. When Jones finally reached Quincy later in the afternoon, he learned that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been killed by a mob at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Jones returned to Wales and:

In 1846, Jones began to publish a Welsh language periodical for the church entitled Prophwyd y Jubili—Prophet of the Jubilee. It was the first Mormon periodical to be published in a language other than English.[4] In 1847, Jones published the most famous of his many Welsh language pamphlets and tracts, Hanes Saint y Dyddiau Diweddaf (History of the Latter-day Saints)

And of course there’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (from online Utah):

Singing was a part of the first general conference of the church in the Salt Lake Valley on 22 August 1847, less than one month after the arrival of the pioneer company. The quality of such singing was significantly enhanced by the arrival of a group of 85 Welsh converts in 1849. Brigham Young invited their leader, John Parry, to organize a choir for the next general conference, and this choir formed the nucleus around which the church’s choral tradition grew.

Here, again from BYU, is the story of the translation of  Llyfr  Mormon (The Book of Mormon) in 1852.
The Baptists were not pleased!!

Samuel Evans, editor of Seren Gomer (Star of Gomer), a Baptist periodical for which Davis (the translator-Dewi) worked before becoming a Latter-day Saint, said that it was a “pity such valuable labor in producing so perfect a translation had been bestowed upon so worthless a work as the Book of Mormon.”

To square the circle Donny Osmond’s Mam was a Malad City girl – Here’s Donny in Cardiff singing  Myfanwy.
And of course Ann Romney (not of the pioneering tradition) makes a mean Welsh Cake……


Welsh Nationalist. Rugby Fan. Know a bit about History and Railways…

  • Interesting and revelatory article. I am reminded that ‘Heaven’ is called ‘Beulah land’ in the Mormon Bible. There are several villages in Wales with this name so I wonder which one is being referred to – on the way to Builth Wells (near Capel Zoar y Mynydd where many Welsh religious dissidents migrated from)?

  • Dewi

    There are many villages in Wales where the village name is that of the local nonconformist chapel, which in turn was named after a biblical placename reference.
    Bethania, Bethel, Bethesda, Bethlehem, Beulah, Golan, Hermon, Horeb,Libanus, Nasareth, Nebo, Peniel, Pisgah, Salem.
    Beulah was referred to in the Bible by Isiah as a name for the land of Israel (it means “married” in Hebrew) – so I imagine the Book of Mormon reference is Biblical rather than to Wales.

  • Dewi
  • There’s even more of this than meets the eye …

    I first hit on aspects of this story from staying Dickens. In June 1860 Dickens observed an emigrant ship at Stepney, with 800 Mormons on board, principally from the South of England … And from Wales. [see The Uncommercial Traveller, Chap. XXII]

    That led to Sir Richard Burton (the explorer Burton!), and his The City of the Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (published 1862, still in print, and available on-line, through openlibrary.org/books/OL6615285M/The_City_of_the_saints):

    Many of these English emigrants have passed over the plains without knowing that they are in the United States, and look upon Mr. Brigham Young much as Roman Catholics of the last generation regarded the Pope. The Welsh, Danes, and Swedes have been seen on the transit to throw away their blankets and warm clothing, from a conviction that a gay summer reigns throughout the year in Zion.

    As a result I came across a couple of 1940s/50s academic articles in The American Historical Review by a Mormon historian, M. Hamlin Cannon, on English Mormons who migrated to America As far as I can see, these are available on-line only by subscription.

    There’s also William Alexander Linn’s earlier The Story of the Mormons, From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901, which is accessible through Project Gutenberg.

    All these sources show how Dewi has hit on a curious detail of history.

    The Mormons went missionary in 1835, and had a team in England by the following year. By 1840 they had a press and periodical (the Millennial Star) based in Liverpool. It’s worth noting how the missionary effort succeeded, and why.

    Start with the numbers:

    The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints in the nineteenth century drew most of its converts not from its native America but from Europe. Between 1840 and 1887 it brought 85,220 European converts to the Mormon settlements in the West. According to Katharine Coman, this represented “the most successful example of regulated immigration in United States history. About half the European Mormon emigrants (43,356) were from the British Isles. [Hamlin Cannon, 1952]

    Mark that “regulated”. The Mormons would charter ships, collect and escort their emigrants to the port of departure, and accompany them all the way. Obviously persons with their own resources (which would probably also imply a trade) were preferred; but passage money was advanced to others (which implies a tie of obligation).

    The targets of the Mormon missionaries were credulous and vulnerable:

    England provided an especially promising field for Mormon missionary work. The great manufacturing towns contained hundreds of people, densely ignorant, superstitious, and so poor that the ownership of a piece of land in their own country was practically beyond the limit of their ambition. These people were naturally susceptible to the Mormon teachings, easily imposed upon by stories of alleged miracles, and ready to migrate to any part of the earth where a building lot or a farm was promised them. [Linn, Bk VI, Chap. III].

    Those “alleged miracles” deserve a passing mention:

    Miracles exerted a most potent influence among the people in England with whom the early missionaries labored, and the Millennial Star contains a long list of reported successes in this line. There are accounts of very clumsy tricks that were attempted to carry out the deception. Thus, at Newport, Wales, three Mormon elders announced that they would raise a dead man to life. The “corpse” was laid out and surrounded by weeping friends, and the elders were about to begin their incantations, when a doubting Thomas in the audience attacked the “corpse” with a whip, and soon had him fleeing for dear life. [Linn, ibid.]

  • D’oh! I think something went adrift with the close-blockquotes there. Apologies.

  • Dewi

    Fixed your blockquotes – thanks for that as always Malcolm – i must admit to a real knowledge gap on this bit of history…the scale of emigration from Wales was remarkable – and also the nature: conversion, emigration and language change all in the one package.

  • Thanks for clearing up my mess, Dewi @ 4:18 pm. I always appreciate your efforts; and this thread is a good ‘un.

    I’ve had a quick rustle, and can’t add much to your excellent piece. The first Mormon missionary in Wales was James Burnham, who arrived in October 1840. He mustered a small congregation at Overton, in Flintshire. As you point out, it was Captain Dan Jones who hit the jackpot, mainly I gather in Merthyr (there’s a plaque from “the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers” on one of the meeting-houses). The first batch of 249 Welsh emigrants, escorted by Jones, left Liverpool on the Buena Vista on 25 or 26 Feb 1849.

    From The Cambrian, 16 Feb 1849:

    Amongst the group were many substantial farmers from the neighbourhoods of Brechfa and Llanybydder, Carmarthenshire; and although they were well to do, they disposed of their possessions, to get to California, their New Jerusalem as they deem it, where their fanaticism teaches them to believe they will escape from the general destruction and conflagration that is shortly to envelop this earth.