by Rick Willoughby
My story, to be told correctly, needs some family background. My father was born in Independence, Missouri, and was baptized a member of the church at eight years old but was not active as an adult. My father joined the USAF and was stationed at Burtonwood, England during the Korea War. My mother was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, and had three sons by my father before they were divorced. At age four I was raised in England with my mother and new stepfather. I knew nothing about my LDS heritage as I grew up and never came into contact with any members of the church.
My mother was Catholic and my stepfather never mentioned religion but was a hard worker and was a good influence. If I asked him to do something that he thought I could do for myself he would say, “Use your own initiative.” We never went to church as a family but when I was very young I recall my mother telling me that there was “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost”. She said I can pray to God the Father and ask for what I needed. I could understand asking for what I wanted, a young child knows how to do that. She then said that you have to have faith. I didn’t understand that, what’s faith? Fast forward to age twelve and I am having a difficult time at school such that I felt I could not talk to anybody. I lay quietly in bed, tears in my eyes, no-one to turn to. I remembered my mother’s words from years ago and so I prayed as best I could to “God the Father”. In my mind’s eye I pictured Him as a grandfather, a real person. I started the prayer something like this: “God, I don’t know if you exist but please help me…”. I don’t think that was very good faith but I did have my prayer answered.
I was attending a Catholic school at the time though I wasn’t a member of any church. When I was taught about the Trinity I had difficulty with the concept, it did not seem to align with my experience of praying to Father.
Macclesfield Chapel undergoing renovation in 1984
At age twenty I wanted to meet my father as I had not seen him since I was four. I didn’t know where in America he was living. I was visiting my hometown of Macclesfield, where I noticed a church with a strange name—“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It wasn’t an English church that I knew of, so I thought perhaps it was American. I went in and talked to a woman who was cleaning the floor. I told her I was looking for my American father and she took my name and address and told me that someone would contact me. Soon after, I received a letter from the Bishop of the Macclesfield Ward telling me that perhaps I should write to the Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City. My mother remembered that my grandmother lived in Utah and that she went by the name of Martha Harrison, after her second husband. I wrote the letter, mentioning my father’s mother’s name.My grandmother was active LDS, my grandfather RLDS. Grandmother worked for the church at Zion’s Printing in Independence, Missouri. When Zion’s moved to Utah in 1946, she came with her work. When my letter reached the office girl at the Genealogical Society, the girl knew my grandmother and called her. My grandmother wrote to me saying that my father was in England on a 14 week TDY with the Air Force. Richard Sr. wrote to me, and I immediately traveled south to meet him, unannounced. He had married twice more and his third wife, my stepmother, greeted me at the door. I talked with my father and he explained how he had kept out of my “new” family so as to not disrupt it but now things were different. We saw each other a lot until he returned to the United States.
Newcastle-under-Lyme Stake Center where I was baptized
I corresponded with my father and my grandmother. After some months, I asked my grandmother about the church I went into in Macclesfield. She responded by mailing to me two pamphlets: “Which Church is Right?” by Mark E. Peterson and “Joseph Smith’s Testimony”. I did not attend any church but thought there was something to the Bible or else why do so many people have an interest in it? However, I did remember in my childhood when all was despair I had prayed to God the Father and my prayers were answered. I also owned a Bible I had purchased and read portions of it. I especially liked the book of Proverbs and enjoyed many of the wise sayings. I was curious about the Ten Commandments and found them in Exodus and read them several times.These two pamphlets were my first exposure to the Church. I was not interested in them but I felt obligated to at least glance through the pages because my grandmother had taken the time to send them to me. While lying in bed in January 1974, I read through them very quickly to fulfill my obligation. I put them down and decided to sleep. However, I could not sleep and picked up “Which Church is Right?” and read it cover to cover. I also read “Joseph Smith’s Testimony” in its entirety.
“Which Church Is Right?“ quoted Bible verses and was methodical and logical in its presentation. It was the first time that I’d thought of a church that way, though I didn’t have any real feeling about it. The prophet’s testimony was different. A paragraph that stood out was:
It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself. (Joseph Smith—History 23)
I thought it strange too, and identified with Joseph.
During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty-three—having been forbidden to join any of the religious sects of the day, and being of very tender years, and persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly, and if they supposed me to be deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to have reclaimed me—I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament. (Joseph Smith—History 28)
I was impressed that Joseph would admit to “foolish errors”. To me, someone telling a lie would not say this so openly.
I now know that being impressed by these two paragraphs was the Spirit acting upon me. After over thirty years the deep convincing that I felt is still with me.
Elder Vance Burton (left) and Elder David R. Wilson (right) at my baptism
I wrote to the Bishop of the Macclesfield Ward and asked him about the Church and that I wanted to know more. He replied to my letter, inviting me to travel to Macclesfield and meet with the missionaries. I did so, and recall one memory from our first meeting. I was being taught the first discussion and my mind wandered. When I was a child my mother used to say in a kindly way that “I was off wool gathering” when I didn’t pay attention. The missionaries asked me a question about what was being taught and from then on I was attentive. After the first discussion the missionaries told me that there were missionaries in Crewe and that I would be taught by them.I was shown the Book of Mormon and started to read it, finished the rest of the discussions, was introduced to the Crewe Branch, and was baptized by Reginald Marshall Amos, a member of the Crewe Branch, at Newcastle-under-Lyme February 1974 a few days before age twenty-two. I didn’t finish reading the Book of Mormon before baptism. I didn’t need to. A witness of the truth of the prophet’s story meant that all else flowed easily. The Prophet saw Jesus Christ and the Father, therefore there is a God (Heavenly Father) and the Son. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon; therefore it is the word of God. Joseph organized a church; therefore it is the church I should be a member of.
Soon after baptism I fell ill and could not attend and then fell into inactivity. I was sickly for two years, being unemployed the whole time. I prayed that God would help me and if He did I would have the strength to return to Church. I received the help and I honored my commitment. To this day, even when I am in the midst of the most difficult struggles I attend my meetings so that I will never again fall away from being with the saints.
Crewe Chapel under construction in 1984
When I returned to church I now had to be taught about and learn the gospel. I had to be taught the doctrines that are the foundation on which to build faith and understanding. I had decided to align with truth. Truth wasn’t coming to make itself fit and conform to my view of the universe. I had to move to truth and change me. It is not an easy process and that process continues today.Some things were easy though. The admonition to store food and water I agreed readily with. I thought it just common sense to have some reserves, especially as a youth sometimes money was tight and I felt the insecurity of my family living from paycheck to paycheck. Having someone in authority too was just plain common sense. Though I wouldn’t always obey priesthood authority, I would still acknowledge it. I would shape up eventually, usually “using my own initiative”.
When I was seventeen I had seen the suffering in Biafra on the news and felt that I wanted to do something to help. I didn’t know what to do. I recall resolving that some day I would do something. When I returned to church the realization came upon me that there was something I could do that was beyond anything that I had ever hoped I could do. I could be part of building a kingdom—the Kingdom. I set to work with all the zealousness of a convert—at times over zealous—in my pursuit of making the world a better place. A better place built upon the correct principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Prophet today. A better place because of mothers that teach that there is a Father that answers prayers, even though in my case I only had a particle of faith. A better place because a grandmother knew when and what to send to a grandson she had yet to meet.
No-one need ever be alone, that is my faith.
Book of Mormon