Canada played an important role in the early history of the Church. The first Latter-day Saint missionaries to serve outside the United States came to the Kingston area in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1832. In the ensuing two decades, many more missionaries came to eastern Canada, and an estimated 2,500 Canadians joined the Church. Among the missionaries who laboured in Canada between 1832 and 1850 were the first four presidents of the Church.
The Prophet Joseph Smith, accompanied by Sidney Rigdon and Freeman Nickerson, visited Mount Pleasant, near Brantford, Ontario, in October 1833. As he traveled to Mount Pleasant, Joseph recorded having “peculiar feelings” about Canada and her people.
During the next ten days, he and Sidney Rigdon preached in numerous localities in the area and baptized 14 people before they returned to Kirtland. Among his converts were members of the Nickerson family and Lydia G. Bailey, who later married Newell Knight. Their son Jesse Knight and grandson Raymond founded Raymond, Alberta, in 1901.
In June 1837, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon travelled to the Toronto area to visit the several branches of the Church resulting from the recent remarkable missionary labours of Parley P. Pratt and others. His visit had a great impact on the Canadian Saints. One Church member, Isabella Hales Horne, recalling the first time she met the Prophet Joseph, wrote, “When I first shook hands with [Joseph Smith] I was thrilled through and through and I knew that he was a Prophet of God, and that testimony has never left me.”
Brigham Young made his first missionary journey to Canada in early 1832, before he had even been baptized. He had read the Book of Mormon and gained a testimony of the restored gospel, so he set off to share the message with his brother, Joseph, who was a Methodist minister preaching in the Kingston area in Upper Canada. Brigham’s short Canadian mission was successful. He converted his brother, who returned to New York with him. Brigham, Joseph, and other members of the Young family were baptized in April 1832.
In January 1833, Brigham Young returned to Canada, this time as an ordained missionary. His crossing to Canada took exceptional courage. He wrote that he and his brother Joseph crossed from Gravelly Point, New York, to Kingston on the ice, which had just frozen over the previous night. The ice was so thin that it bent as they walked, and icy water came halfway up their shoes. During the six-mile crossing, Brigham and Joseph had to separate from one another because the ice could not support their combined weight. Brigham Young was a successful missionary, baptizing 45 people in the area north and west of Kingston before returning to New York a month later, again crossing on the ice.
One of Brigham’s converts was Artemus Millet, an experienced stonemason and builder, who later played an important role in the construction of the Kirtland Temple. Brigham returned to the Kingston area in April 1833 to continue his missionary work. When he departed from Canada in July 1833, he brought with him the first group of Canadian converts to gather with the Saints in Kirtland.
The next time Brigham Young visited Canada, he was one of the Twelve Apostles. He and five other Apostles held a conference at Loughborough, north of Kingston, in June 1835. Later, after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844, Brigham Young led the Saints to Utah and became the second President of the Church.
John Taylor emigrated from England to Toronto, Upper Canada, in 1832. A Methodist, he had become dissatisfied with the doctrines of his religion and began meeting with other like-minded persons to study the Bible to determine the characteristics of New Testament Christianity.
When Parley P. Pratt addressed his group in 1836, preaching of a church with apostles and prophets and a restoration of priesthood authority, John Taylor recognized that this might be the true religion he had been seeking. After three weeks of intensive study, he and his wife Leonora were baptized in May 1836.
John Taylor soon became an active local missionary and an important Church leader, appointed to preside over the several branches in the Toronto area. After leaving Canada for Missouri in 1838, he was ordained an Apostle. He served as a powerful missionary in England, was editor of the Times and Seasons, and was with Joseph and Hyrum Smith in the Carthage jail in 1844 when they were martyred.
After the death of Brigham Young in 1877, John Taylor became the third President of the Church. In 1886, he advised Charles Ora Card not to go to Mexico for refuge, but to settle in Canada, which resulted in the Mormon settlements in southern Alberta.
Wilford Woodruff visited Canada twice. In 1837, he journeyed from the United States to attend a major conference of the Church in Portland, northeast of Kingston, travelling by boat along the Rideau Canal from Kingston to Portland. More than three hundred people assembled at the conference, coming from several branches in eastern Ontario. While there, Wilford Woodruff preached at the conference, visited Church members, and had miraculous experiences healing the sick.
In 1849, as an Apostle and president of the Eastern States Mission, he travelled to Beaubears Island, near Miramichi, New Brunswick, where he visited the Joseph Russell family and other Church members in that area, preaching on at least three occasions. Later, he and Joseph Russell journeyed to Prince Edward Island, where they visited the Church members there.
Many years later, after the death of John Taylor in 1887, Wilford Woodruff became the fourth President of the Church.
In addition to the first four Church presidents who personally preached and ministered to the Saints in Canada during the 1830s and 1840s, other Presidents of the Church were direct descendants of early Canadian Latter-day Saint converts.
Joseph F. Smith, the sixth Church President, was the son of Toronto convert Mary Fielding; and his son, Joseph Fielding Smith, became the tenth President of the Church.
Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, who first heard the gospel in 1836 in Leeds County, Upper Canada, when he was a child, left Canada with family members in 1838 to join the main body of the Saints. His grandson, Gordon B. Hinckley, became the fifteenth President of the Church.
Harold Bingham Lee, the eleventh Church President, was the great-grandson of Augustus Lucius Bingham, who lived in Leeds County, Upper Canada, from about 1829 to 1838, during the period when LDS missionaries were having great success there. By 1842, the Bingham family were members of the Church and living in Nauvoo.
Throughout the history of the Church, important Church leaders have had a major impact on the development of the Church in Canada, while Canadian converts and their descendants have greatly influenced the history of the whole Church.