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Theodore Turley: A Biography
Richard E. Turley, Jr.

[This is another in a continuing series of newsletter articles that together will make up the first rough draft of a biography of Theodore Turley. The draft will undergo considerable revision before being published in book form. I invite all family members to read it critically, make suggestions, and offer additional information for possible inclusion. Feel free to e-mail me.]

1 Early Life in England

Theodore Turley was born on April 10, 1801,1 in the great English industrial city of Birmingham, which lies at the center of the country. For hundreds of years a relatively insignificant market town, Birmingham began growing rapidly in the late seventeenth century, eventually becoming one of the largest and most important cities in the world. Historians have attributed Birmingham’s rapid expansion to the abolition of the feudal system and the rise of industrialism. But the traditions of the people of the city explained the city’s growth in terms of religion.

During the early reign of Charles II in England, a predominantly Anglican Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity in an attempt to snuff out burgeoning opposition to the Anglican faith. The act required, among other things, that all clergy sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England and use the Book of Common Prayer. The subsequent enforcement of this 1662 act drove numerous clergymen from their parishes.

Three years later, Parliament passed the Clarendon or Oxford Act, also dubbed the Five Mile Act. This act denied the ousted clergymen the right to come within five miles of their former preaching places. According to Birmingham tradition, many of the banished ministers sought refuge in Birmingham and were followed by their former congregations, giving rise to the sudden growth that characterized Birmingham from that point onward.

The people of Birmingham developed a reputation for being independent thinkers, and their strong will sometimes manifest itself in rioting or other forms of public disturbance. The greatest such incident began on Thursday, July 14, 1791. For three days the alcohol-inflamed mob raged, looting, setting fires, and inciting panic. It took an army to quell the riot and an act of Parliament to requite the loss. The Priestly Riot of July 1791 would go down as the worst in the history of Birmingham—a city with “an unenviable reputation for rioting and disturbance.”2

In 1793, the same year Parliament voted to reimburse the riot victims, William Turley and Elizabeth Yates were married in the lower part of the city. The ceremony took place in the 550-year-old St. Martin’s Church, Birmingham’s revered religious monument. Over the next twenty-six years, the couple was blessed with nine children, all of whom were properly christened in accordance with custom. But only one of the nine was christened in St. Martin’s Church. He was the couple’s fourth child and first son. On May 29, 1801, eight years after their marriage, William and Elizabeth returned to St. Martin’s Church to observe their son’s christening. They gave him the name Theodore, meaning divine gift.

Whether William and Elizabeth Yates understood the religious significance of the name they gave their son is unknown. About the time of his birth, however, the couple experienced a spiritual awakening. In 1840 when he returned to Birmingham as a missionary, Theodore wrote to his friend and missionary companion, Wilford Woodruff, who reported Theodore’s whereabouts to another of their companions, Willard Richards. “I received a letter from Elder Turley on Thursday,” Elder Woodruff wrote on February 8. “He was in Birmingham preaching to his relatives in the family circle, but was soon expecting to preach in public; he had hard work to preach to his parents, who had been professors of Godliness forty years, and had great confidence in their ministers.”3

On May 28, 1804, Theodore’s first brother was christened at St. Philip’s and named after their father, William. The following year on June 7, William and Elizabeth’s fourth girl and sixth child, Ann, was christened in the same location, as was the seventh child, John, on February 14, 1809. Theodore’s last brother, Frederick, arrived November 2, 1812, but was not christened until the following June 11, again at St. Philip’s. An even larger interval occurred between the birth of Theodore’s youngest sibling, Charlotte, born September 24, 1818, but not taken to St. Philip’s for christening until July 14, 1819. Altogether, then, Theodore had three older sisters, two younger ones, and three younger brothers.

But they never lived together under the same roof. In rapid succession, though in reverse order of their ages, Theodore’s three older sisters married over a seven-month period in 1817 and 1818. Early in the same period, Theodore’s brother William died. Years before these events, however, Theodore left home to begin an apprenticeship, which would provide him a skill in working metal that he would use to support himself throughout much of the rest of his life.

The man to whom Theodore’s parents chose to apprentice him was James Parkes, a master stamper and piercer, whose shop was located on St. Mary’s Row in Birmingham.4 A grandson of Theodore who saw a copy of Theodore’s indenture nearly a century after its execution described its terms as follows: “[H]is Indenture [was] made out and sworn to by his father William Turley when he was fourteen, in 1814, to serve his master . . . for seven yrs. to learn his trade. The first five yrs. for bed and board, the last two yrs. if he wished to move elsewhere, he was to receive the munificent sum of five shillings (a dollar and twenty cents) a week for board and lodging.”5 Theodore got along well enough with his master that he apparently did not hesitate to visit him in February 1840 while serving as a missionary in Birmingham.6

If he followed his father William’s example, Theodore learned to work hard but remain cheerful. Seeing his father for the first time after a nearly fifteen-year separation, Theodore wrote in his 1840 journal that his father was “much worne out with hard work [and] ben[t] Down to the Earth” but “Still allways a Smile on his countanance.”7

Though learning to work hard was undoubtedly part of his tutorship under Parkes, Theodore’s memories of youth would include moments of recreation. On his return to the Birmingham region in 1840, he scouted for a place to baptize his missionary converts and found himself reminiscing on his childhood. “This morning whent to look a place for to Baptize,” he recorded. “Traviled all round Hebston pool round the old walk I used to go when a boy. Reminds me of my former Days.”8

Besides work and play, Theodore also devoted time in his youth to religion. In 1818 while still apprenticed to Parkes, Theodore began serving as a lay Methodist minister, a role in which he would continue for the next nearly two decades.9 Among his Methodist associates in Birmingham was a preacher named Lilley, whom he would visit in 1840 and find “to be very Darke as to the Things of God.”10 Though Theodore would eventually abandon Methodism, for a time it attracted his attention, as it did the attention of another young man, Joseph Smith, who was growing to manhood across the Atlantic from Theodore and whose religious experiences would later alter the course of Theodore’s life.11

In the meantime, however, Theodore preached Methodism as he worked to complete his term of indenture with Parkes. By the time he fulfilled his indentureship in 1821, he had the skill to support himself and a family, and on November 26 of that year, he married Frances Amelia Kimberley, a woman ten months his senior, in Harborne, Staffordshire. Although Frances was twenty-one, Theodore was only twenty years old at the time of the marriage and thus required his parents’ consent. The bishop’s transcripts of Harborne explain that the marriage occurred “by banns with consent of parents.”12 “By banns” meant that the marriage was announced in advance.

One hundred and thirty years after the marriage, a grandson of the couple would relate a family tradition about Frances, her suitors, and how she settled on Theodore as a husband. Wanting to marry a brave man, Frances reportedly hid in a tree and fired a gun repeatedly to test the mettle of a suitor on guard duty. He failed the test. Sometime thereafter, she lined up her suitors behind a curtain and had them extend their hands. Theodore’s hands, hardened by years of working metal, showed the most character and won Frances’s heart.13

On September 4, 1822—nine months and eight days after the marriage—Frances gave birth to the couple’s first child, whom they named Theodore after his father. On November 26, they took him to St. Philip’s to be christened. On New Year’s Day in 1824, the couple had their second child, a girl, whom they named Frances Amelia after her mother.14 With what little we know of the elder Theodore’s and Frances’s existence at this time, it would seem life was going well for them.

The year 1825, however, brought financial disaster that caused them to leave their native England, which Theodore would see only once more in his lifetime, and which Frances would never see again. The disaster grew out of a business partnership Theodore entered.15 According to family tradition, the partnership obtained a contract to make dies, and when the work was finished, Theodore’s partner absconded with the payment for the work, leaving Theodore to pay the bills. Unable to do so, he had to choose between debtor’s prison and emigration.16 He and Frances chose the latter course, and with their two namesake children crossed the Atlantic and settled in Canada, where they would begin their life anew.

[Next issue: “The Pre-Conversion Canadian Years, 1825-1837”]

Draft of 8 December 1994
© 1994 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the 1995 Issue #1 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. Although virtually all sources agree that Theodore was born on April 10, the year of his birth has been given as both 1800 and 1801. Although full discussion of the data on Theodore’s birth is outside the scope of this article, but the evidence weighs in favor of 1801. In giving dates of birth and christening in this article, I have relied on several sources, primarily the careful research by Olive K. Turley, whose notes are now in my possession.
  2. B. Clarke, The British Gazetteer, Political, Commercial, Ecclesiastical, and Historical . . . . (London: H. G. Collins, Paternoster Row, 1852), s.v. “Birmingham.”
  3. Woodruff to Richards, Feb. 8, 1840, as quoted in Richard Eyring Turley, Jr., “Theodore Turley: Mission Journal, 1839-1840” (Honor’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1982), 38 n. 6.
  4. Theodore Turley Mission Journal, Feb. 7, 1840, Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Pigot and Co.’s Commercial Directory of Birmingham (London: J. Pigot & Co., 1829), 64. Consistent with scholarly practice, I have retained the original spelling in all quotations from original sources in this article.
  5. Joseph S. Turley to all the descendants of Theodore Turley, Aug. 4, 1971, in Theodore Turley Family Newsletter (Oct. 1971): 4. Joseph saw the indenture in 1911 at the home of Theodore’s daughter Sarah Elisabeth Franklin in Colton, California. In 1971, he wrote that “the indenture . . . should be in the possession of the Button family who live in Riverside. They are a descendent of Francis, the only one of his 11 children by the Clift Sisters that lived to 1850. She married a man by the name of McIntosh, and lived most of her life in the Mojave Desert and S.B. Co. and whom I met at Aunt Sara’s in Colton in 1911.” Joseph S. Turley to all the descendants of Theodore Turley, Aug. 4, 1971, continued in Theodore Turley Family Newsletter (Jan. 1972): 4.
  6. Theodore Turley Mission Journal, Feb. 7, 1840.
  7. Ibid., Jan. 30, 1840.
  8. Ibid., June 23, 1840.
  9. Theodore Turley, Autobiography (ca. 1840), MS 13176, fd. 1, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
  10. Theodore Turley Mission Journal, Feb. 4, 1840.
  11. On Joseph Smith’s relationship to Methodism, see “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:8-9, 21, in The Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1986), 48, 50.
  12. Olive Turley to Richard E. Turley, Jr., May 1, 1978.
  13. Theodore Turley Family Newsletter, no. 6 (May 18, 1960), 4, reprinting Ella Mae Turley, Theodore Turley: Biography & Autobiography, citing Ernest Turley, interview with Hortense M. and Helen Fuller, Mesa, Ariz., Aug. 1, 1951.
  14. Some records suggest that daughter Frances Amelia was born on January 1, 1825, instead of 1824.
  15. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2d ed., 7 vols., ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948-53), 4:127-28.
  16. Theodore Turley Family Newsletter, no. 6 (May 18, 1960), 4, reprinting Ella Mae Turley, Theodore Turley: Biography & Autobiography, citing Ernest Turley, interview with Hortense M. and Helen Fuller, Mesa, Ariz., Aug. 1, 1951. The family tradition includes some apparent embellishments, such as the suggestion that the dies were for making English coin. Francis Leeson, an English researcher who did much work for the earlier Theodore Turley Family Organization, commented, “Coin-making is the monopoly of the Crown in this country, and has been for centuries centralised at the Royal Mint, London, so the story sounds rather apocryphal!” Francis Leeson to Olive K. Turley, Aug. 19, 1967, enclosed in Olive K. Turley to Richard E. Turley, Jr., June 19, 1984.