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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.]

23 Imprisoned

On 27 February 1840, Theodore rejoined Wilford Woodruff in the Staffordshire Potteries, hoping to find a riper field for preaching the gospel than Birmingham had been. Three days later on 1 March, Elder Woodruff left the care of the Staffordshire church in Theodore’s hands and traveled eighty miles south to a region where Mormonism had not yet been preached, but where he would have legendary success, baptizing hundreds. On 16 March, John Taylor, who was then in Liverpool, wrote, “The latest account from Elder Turley, he was well, preaching and baptizing in the Potteries.”1

The very day that Taylor wrote his report of Theodore’s well-being from Liverpool, Theodore was arrested and locked in the Staffordshire prison. Before the missionaries had left for England in 1839, they had attended meetings in which Church president and prophet Joseph Smith gave counsel to prepare them for what lay ahead. On 7 July 1839, Wilford Woodruff recorded that “Joseph addressed us in few words & says remember brethren that if you are imprisiond Brother Joseph has been imprisiond before you, if you are placed whare you can ownly see your Brethren through the grates of a window while in Irons because of the gospel of Jesus Christ remember Brother Joseph has been in like circumstances also.”2 For several weeks beginning on 16 March 1840, Theodore would experience firsthand what Joseph meant and must have thought many times of the prophet’s ominous words as he reviewed possible ways of being released from his awful situation.

One of Theodore’s grandsons later related that Theodore had left England in 1825 because of debt. He said Theodore and a partner had obtained a contract to make dies, and when the work was finished, Theodore’s partner absconded with their payment for the work, leaving Theodore with the bills to pay. Given a choice between going to debtor’s prison and emigrating, Theodore chose to leave the country, eventually going to Canada.3

After Theodore’s arrival in England in January, he had spent a short time in Preston with the other missionaries before they left for their assigned areas to preach. Fellow missionary Joseph Fielding had asked him before they parted whether there would be any trouble in Theodore’s going back to the Birmingham area. Since Fielding was also from England, he knew that problems with debt were “often the case with those who Left this Land to go to America.” Fielding later wrote that Theodore “did not seem to apprehend any Danger.”

When Theodore was put in prison, however, Fielding got word about his predicament from William Clayton, who in turn got a letter from the Potteries about it. Writing of Theodore’s imprisonment, Fielding further explained, “It seems that when he left England to go to America, he had had some temporal difficulties, and since he has been preaching in his old Neighborhood, a Man who is an Enimy & claims to be Creditor (Bro T says unjustly) has sued him, sent the Sheriff & had him [taken] off to Jail.”4

Wilford Woodruff heard about Theodore’s imprisonment from Alfred Cordon and wrote: “Elder Cordon informed me that Elder Theodore Turley was taken with a warrant and cast into jail by the instrumentality of John Jones (an apostate), on account of a certain debt which was contracted 15 years ago before he left England and which he supposed to have been settled. This is the work of the devil to put him in prison to stop his preaching, but God will yet turn this work for good and if it is stopped in one place it will burst out in another place. May God open the prison door and soon let Elder Turley free.”5

Years later, another of Theodore’s missionary companions, George A. Smith, gave a similar account with slightly different details. He wrote of Theodore: “He had been preaching in Birmingham, his native town, having been from England 17 years. Previous to his leaving he had been a prominent member of the Methodist Church, and his former Christian brethren were bitter against him because he proclaimed against their corruptions and warned them to repent. He was arrested on the affidavit of a Methodist church member, who swore that Mr. Turley was indebted to him before he went to America, and was thrust into the debtor’s ward of Stafford jail, without benefit of clergy. The law at that time was, that unless a man could obtain a recommendation from the parish minister, he must live without eating, or find himself in food. Elder Turley having no money fasted about four days, when some sisters in the Potteries learning of his condition came to Stafford on foot, a distance of 14 miles, and brought him some money. There was also an old gentleman who walked with a staff from Hanley to the jail, and took him food several times.”6

Joseph Fielding’s contemporaneous account confirms George A. Smith’s recollection about Theodore’s being without food. He wrote that according to the letter William Clayton had received from the Potteries, Theodore was in prison without “Money[,] Bed, or food, but as the Church there had supplyed him. This is truly a hard case.”7

Theodore’s case was indeed a troublesome one, not only because of his difficult physical circumstances but also because of the embarrassment he felt for himself, his fellow missionaries, and the members of the Church in the area. Yet he could take consolation in the fact that not only Joseph Smith but also the Lord Jesus Christ himself had been made a prisoner for the gospel’s sake. “The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught,” the Lord had told Joseph.8 “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.”9 In the end, all would work out for good, but in the meantime, Theodore had great trials to bear.

[Next issue: “Keen Reflections from Jail”]

© 2004 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the February 2004 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. “History of the British Mission,” 11, 16 March, 29 April 1840, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; Wilford Woodruff Journal, 27 February 1840.
  2. Woodruff Journal, 7 July 1839; Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 8.
  3. See chapter “EARLY LIFE IN ENGLAND” in volume 1 of this newsletter.
  4. Joseph Fielding, Journal, as quoted in Richard E. Turley, Jr., ed., “Theodore Turley: Mission Journal, 1839-1840” (Honor’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1982), 39.
  5. “History of the British Mission,” 23 March 1840.
  6. “My Journal,” Instructor (July 1947): 323, Information supplied by Elders Woodruff and Smith appears to have been the basis for the official entry in the documentary History of the Church about Theodore’s imprisonment. See History of the Church 4:127-28.
  7. Joseph Fielding, Journal.
  8. Doctrine and Covenants 3:1.
  9. Doctrine and Covenants 90:24.