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A Writer On Writing: Faith Lost And Found - 4

Ronnie Bray tells how he became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One Sunday evening in August, while travelling between Spiritualist Churches in Ramsden Street and Market Place, I noticed a crowd around the cross-less market cross in Huddersfield. I heard American accents from the speaker, and my interest in things American surfaced rapidly.

Crossing the road to listen, I accepted some religious tracts from a smiling six foot two missionary, and welcomed an invitation to attend their service the following Sunday. I do not recall reading the tract, or thinking about the contact during the week, but on the appointed Sunday I found myself in front of the dark door of 9 Rosemary Lane.

This lane had once been longer. Before the Castlegate slum clearance, the lane had run down to the canal wharf at Turnbridge. The widening of Bradford Road and the destruction of the slums had curtailed the lane. Few would know that the bottom bit of Kirgate was Rosemary Lane and its last remaining end was number 9. The building was demolished some years ago when Johnny’s Night Club in the Beast Market was altered.

When I started attending the Mormon Church, a blacksmith who ran an old-fashioned forge, carrying out general smithy work occupied the ground floor. He was a nice man, who was rather deaf. The benefit of this to us was that he could not hear us on our weekday activities. When he closed own, a victim of progress, the premises were cleared out and taken over by a cars sales company. These people complained that our dancing, we loved to dance, made bits of plaster fall onto their cars.

We tried to dance lightly, but it was mildly disconcerting that our enthusiasm for life and religion had become a source of criticism. We had to remember who we were, because the days of Mormons being recognised as a hated minority, whilst easing, had not yet passed, and even now, there are mischief-makers who like to cause discomfort. However, they had only gone into low gear for season. Today there is as much venom as ever directed against the Church by other Christians. The criticisms of the used-car salesmen were easier to understand and easier to bear.

The meeting place was one large room that followed the curve of Rosemary Lane immediately below Kirkgate. It had been divided into a large room and two smaller rooms, the smallest of which was accessed through the other small room and held a sink with a cold water tap and a gas outlet to which was connected on old-fashioned round gas ring by a length of rubber gas pipe. This place served as the sacrament preparation room, a storage room for the massive sea-going trunks of the American missionaries and, occasionally, as an unsatisfactory kitchen.

The floor was rough floor boarding, whose surface was scuffed with too much foot traffic and too little care. The partition was 2” x “2 framing with hardboard forming the dividing wall. One of the first things to be done was redecoration. I went along to assist, and receive my instruction in the history and doctrines of Mormonism whilst painting walls with Elder Darren Dean Lee, a missionary from San Diego.

The significant people in the Huddersfield Branch at this time were Kathleen Crowther, Ruth Brook, Dorothy Reeder, & Gladys Garside. The missionaries who served in our little branch in the early years were, in addition to Elder Lee, Ralph Howard MacFarland, from Wyoming (a champion hog caller), Robert William Smith, from Salt Lake City (who died some time after his return home in a farming accident), Theron Lorenzo Swainston, Earl Stanley Jones, the District President, Merril Tingey Phelps, from Green River, Wyoming, Grant Grow Pitcher, a Canadian, and James Leroy Kimball, from Salt Lake City.

We were blessed by the quality of these young men who seemed so mature to my young eyes. Small wonder that we thought them perfect, because, in many ways they were. They gave their time and themselves unselfishly to establish what would eventually develop into one of the strongest units in the Church.

During services, we sat on an assortment of dining chairs. A table served as a pulpit, and a small hall table with bowed legs served as our sacrament table. Some years later, I had that table in my home in Church Street, Longwood. Music squeaked out of an American Harmonium, played somewhat inexpertly by Kath Crowther. The sole means of heating the room was an antique gas heater that was always inadequate.

Notwithstanding the poverty of the place, we fed on its rich spirit and often stayed behind on even the coldest evenings to sing around the harmonium. Singing was a rich source of inspiration: we felt the words, exulted in praise of God who had done such wonders in our time, spoke of the miracles he had wrought in our lives, and loved each other to death. ”Surely there could not be a happier people upon the face of this land.”

I was impressed to discover that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no trained or salaried clergy; each person had some level of responsibility in the Church. In this way, each person developed, discovering talents that lurked, unsuspected and embryonic, under the surface.

At sixteen, I was called to teach a Primary Class under the watchful eye of Kath Crowther. Kath always seemed to be the embodiment of teaching. She studied hard and read widely to gain knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No question seemed too hard for her to answer. However, the most impressive thing about her was her cheerfulness.

Her husband, Frank, was not a member of the Church and sometimes would complain about the time she spent in service to the Church. Although her heart must often have been heavy at this cross-polarisation, she always appeared cheerful and helpful. I can not ever recall her being preoccupied with her own problems to any extent that interfered with her selfless service to others. She was the age of a big sister to me, but often fulfilled the function of a mother.

Although many Huddersfield Saints have given sterling service to the Church, none has made a greater contribution to it than Kath Crowther. She was the good spirit, the guiding angel, the exemplar and creative urge behind the inception of the branch, its establishment and, later, during times of falling numbers, its continuance.

If on occasions she looks at the mighty Church and the three congregations in Huddersfield; if she counts the many members who have gone out from Huddersfield to spread the message of the Gospel as emissaries of the Lord on full-time missions, including her son, Brian, and two of his children; if she remembers the brethren who have gone from Huddersfield to fulfil callings in the higher echelons of the Church and its councils, and feels some pride for her part in the drama, she will feel less than she is entitled to feel and still not reach the awful state of sinful pride which is the downfall of less controlled and insightful persons.

The size of the congregation meant that the opportunity to preach a sermon came around often, as did praying on behalf of the congregation. The kindness and forbearance of the Saints at the timid efforts of the unaccomplished and unskilled allowed them to grow in confidence and ability. No harsh criticism hurt the feelings of those that mumbled and stammered through their sermons, afraid to be heard. The climate of love and encouragement made that upper room a piece of heaven on earth. If men and women would treat each other as we did then, there would be peace on earth. When I am asked what I miss most from the old days that is what I tell them.

As a young and growing boy, I would describe myself as having a feeling towards religion, rather than as being religious. It is always difficult to try to recapture the feelings one had at an age when one’s powers of expression were limited. The quandary is something as I imagine Ezekiel’s to have been when he saw visions of things outside his direct experience.

I recall the vivid pull of things religious: perhaps it was the fascination of the possibility of knowing the unknowable, or somehow sensing the imperceptible. The impulse towards the things of God, without any apparent requirement to observe any ritual demands. This is the kind of religious observance practised so widely today, a true minimal theological and ritualistic religion. Of course, it signals the demise of any religion worth its while, when it is reduced to the level of singing on the occasion of a good impulse, without satisfying the more profound inner demands for spiritual knowledge and the pull of faith.

Sadly, the world has become minimalist in so many of its expressions and endeavours. It is the logical conclusion of modernism, after the burdens of discovery and achievement have been laid aside as too onerous, or unnecessary. The royal road has become a reality in much modern Christianity.


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