A History of the Mormons in Sunderland, From Violent Opposition to Consolidation

If you frequent Queen Alexandra Road or the Rosedene Pub, then you have probably noticed the “Mormon church”, which sits behind it. Large and impressive in scale with a spire, it is difficult to miss and brings a pleasant atmosphere to the surrounding neighbourhood. The structure was built in by the hands of its own members, having moved away from a facility on Tunstall Road.

Mormonism, or officially called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” is a denomination of Christianity that has often attracted controversy and opposition from the religious mainstream, particularly due to the challenge it poses to the conventional scriptural canon with its own text “The Book of Mormon” amongst other things, its claim to possess modern day Prophets and to be the restored church on the Earth, as well as historical issues such as Polygamy. Their missionaries, going two by two, are also easily spotted.

Over a century ago, when the western world was much more religious, the LDS church often faced violent opposition and persecution to its activities. This persecution led its members to migrate overseas to Utah, where it consolidated itself in the isolation of the American west, a trend which continued until the 1950s. This migration, however, also provoked opposition, as opponents to the church circulated rumours that the church sought to abduct women to Utah in order to practice Polygamy.

As a result, it would be in the 1910s that a significant anti-Mormon campaign emerged in the town of Sunderland, which was at the time a working class port town where migration was a significant theme of life. Opposition to the church soared in 1911 when a famous Danish anti-Mormon film, known as “Victim of the Mormons” become popular. With the LDS church having built a chapel on Tunstall Road (which still stands today), rumours began to circulate that the Mormons had built a secret tunnel underneath it to Salt Lake City which was used to kidnap local women.

This local hysteria led to mobs attacking the church almost every single day and disrupting meetings. An elder who experienced it, known as Elder J Eugene Lichfield, detailed his account. As the church website quotes: “Eventually, and occasionally, as services started or as the missionaries left the chapel, police constables would be on hand to protect them from the rowdy crowd.  After one meeting, when the chapel was surrounded by police constables, volleys of stones and clumps of soil were launched at the elders as they left, hitting and causing them injury”. Threatening letters were also sent to missionaries.

The local council were not sympathetic, and even supported anti-Mormon sentiment. A meeting was held at Victoria Hall on Toward Road in May and attended by the Mayor of Sunderland himself, Mr Edward Hazard Brown. A motion was passed in the meeting “That Sunderland should prohibit its (Mormonism’s) pernicious influences in this district”.

While many people were prosecuted for violence against the Mormons, the campaign of harassment against the church continued for several years, before ultimately coming to an end in 1914 as the events of World War I ultimately changed the world and diverted everyone’s attention. In 1967, the LDS church moved from the old Tunstall Road Chapel to Queen Alexandra Road in Ashbrooke, with members having built it themselves.

As the environment calmed down, a thriving LDS community grew up in the city which at its height consisted of a several hundred people. One such builder was known as Trevor C. Kennington, who went on to become a Patriarch of the regional community. Marrying and settling in Sunderland, he passed away in December 2014.

The Sunderland church remains the centre of a stake (a regional grouping of churches), which also has “wards” in Newcastle, Gateshead, South Shields, Stanley, Ashington and Alnwick. Long gone from the days of persecution, its members live in relative harmony with the community and seek to do good. This includes “Helping Hands” volunteering which pick up litter, hosting their chapel for charitable causes such as blood donations, and donating food and supplies for the needy.