Mission to Europe


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Gordon B. Hinckley

Unless it was raining torrents, two missionaries each from the European and British Mission offices caught the bus from Oxford Street to Hyde Park, where they held a street meeting alongside other preachers and the vendors who had gathered there.

After singing and offering prayer, they preached to the unruly crowd from their portable podiums. Occasionally the men and women in attendance were sincerely interested in religion, but more often the street meetings drew an experienced lot of hecklers who relished any opportunity to try to distract and humiliate the young missionaries. It was sport for them, an opportunity for fun. And as long as they didn't physically touch the speakers--which was cause for arrest--they could do anything they wished.

Gordon came to particularly enjoy the most experienced hecklers, who held a cane by the end and waved it as close to a missionary's nose as possible without actually touching his face. At the same time they taunted the Americans with shouts of "Aye, lad. Get out of here. Go home, Yank."

Elder Hinckley was intrigued with one heckler who always seemed to know when they were there. He enjoyed sparring with the detractor and his cohorts. Many Sunday afternoons the missionaries repeated the experience at Regents Park. The exercise probably did more for the missionaries than for the masses, for if a missionary was timid, as Elder Hinckley was at the outset, he got over his fear quickly. Street meetings taught the elders to speak with confidence amid confusion and to maintain presence even before a hostile audience.

Elder Wendell J. Ashton, who was transferred to the British Mission office in the spring of 1935 to serve as associate editor of the Millennial Star and as Gordon's companion, said: "We didn't baptize many people in London in those days, but Elder Hinckley was a knockout in those street meetings on Hyde Park corner. We learned to speak quickly on our feet, and Elder Hinckley was the best of the bunch. He gained tremendous firsthand experience defending the Church and speaking up courageously for its truths."

One morning during their study session, President Merrill showed Elder Hinckley several London newspapers containing reviews on a newly published book claiming to be a history of the Mormons. The book, however, was less than flattering. "Elder Hinckley," President Merrill instructed, "I want you to go down to the publisher and protest the publication of this book." Gordon's immediate reaction was one of fear: "Why are you sending me? I am just a boy, and you're a distinguished man. Why don't you go yourself?" He kept his thoughts to himself, however, and agreed to go.

Although his exterior appeared calm, Gordon's stomach churned. The assignment was more than a little frightening. But he went to his room and knelt in prayer, wondering if this was how Moses felt when the Lord told him to go and see Pharaoh. Believing the Lord would help him, he caught the underground to Fleet Street and the offices of Skeffington and Son, Ltd., of England, publisher of the offending book.

With the boldness of a young missionary, Gordon presented his card to the receptionist and asked to see Mr. Skeffington. She disappeared into an inner office, then returned to tell him that the publisher was too busy to give him an audience. Elder Hinckley announced that he was there representing the Mormon church, that he had come five thousand miles, and that he would be happy to wait.

During the next hour the receptionist darted back and forth to Mr. Skeffington's office. Finally she indicated that Gordon could have a few minutes with the publisher. At that, Elder Hinckley walked into a large office and introduced himself to the man, who was puffing on a long cigar. With a look of disdain that clearly communicated, "You're bothering me," Mr. Skeffington asked what he could do for the young American. Gordon produced the book reviews that had run in the newspapers and began to talk.

At first the publisher was defensive, but as Elder Hinckley reasoned with him and explained the problems with the book just published, Mr. Skeffington suddenly softened. "I am sure that a high-principled man such as yourself would not wish to do injury to a people who have already suffered so much for their religion," Elder Hinckley concluded.

At that, the publisher made a remarkable concession and agreed to recall the books from the bookstores and add to each copy a disclaimer stating that the text should not be construed as a history of the Mormon people, who had a respected and courageous history, but should be regarded as fiction without any basis in fact. Elder Hinckley realized that this was an extraordinary decision for a businessman who had much to lose and nothing to gain financially for his effort.

Mr. Skeffington was true to his word. He recalled the books, and when they were returned to bookstore shelves the promised disclaimer had been added. From that time forward until he passed away, the publisher stayed in touch with Gordon by sending him an annual Christmas card. "It was a tremendous lesson to me," Elder Hinckley later said. "I came to know that if we put our faith in the Lord and go forward in trust, he will open the way. We need have no fear about defending that in which we believe. I've never forgotten it. That experience left a mark upon my life."

Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley