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Ravell Call, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson acknowledges conferencegoers following the Saturday morning session of the LDS Church's 188th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

LONDON — The fussiest of historians would find it difficult to overstate the importance to Mormon history of England, the first stop this week on President Russell M. Nelson's inaugural international trip as the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By 1850, more than 34,000 Mormons lived in England. That was nearly three times the number in the United States — 12,000. President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, once called the faith's meteoric growth in the United Kingdom "one of the most powerful gifts that ever blessed this church."

History collides with modernity over the next two weeks as President Nelson kicks off his eight-country ministry in London on Thursday, then travels on to Jerusalem, and later, the LDS church's modern LDS growth center — Africa.

Today, the United Kingdom is home to more than 185,000 Mormons in 333 congregations. It remains a strength, a place where some senior church leaders spent formative years as missionaries and others have spoken in parliamentary group sessions in recent years.

"There are actually dozens of congregations in England that have been in operation since the 1840s and 1850s," said Matt Martinich, who studies LDS Church growth. "In the mid-19th century, it was a very productive field for the church."

Meanwhile, Africa now has more than half a million church members.

"Africa is where the church is growing the fastest, by far," Martinich said.

President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, depart Tuesday for London with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland. They will speak to church members on Thursday. The meeting will be broadcast to church meetinghouses in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The next day, the group will travel to Jerusalem, followed by Nairobi, Kenya; Harare, Zimbabwe; Bengaluru, India; Bangkok, Thailand; Hong Kong; and Honolulu, Hawaii. They will meet with members, missionaries and others in all these areas.

His announcement of seven new temples during the closing minutes of the faith's international general conference on April 1 placed renewed focus on temples as one noteworthy part of his ministry tour.

The church has 159 temples in operation worldwide, with operating temples in or near three of the trip's stops — London, Hong Kong and Honolulu. Temples previously had been announced in another three cities on the tour — Nairobi, Harare and Bangkok.

And among the seven new temples announced April 1 is one planned for another city he will visit — Bengaluru, India.

"We want to bring temples closer to the expanding membership of the Church," he said. "My dear brothers and sisters, construction of these temples may not change your life, but your time in the temple surely will."

He has emphasized temple worship repeatedly in recent years and in talks since he became the church's 17th president in January.

The new temple announced in India is a major landmark. India has 17 percent of the world's population and is expected to surpass China in size soon.

"Before President Nelson's announcement, 48.5 percent of the world's population lived in a country where there was a temple, where one was under construction or where one had been announced," Martinich said.

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"After the announcement, 67.8 percent of the world's population lives in a country where there is a temple, one under construction or one announced."

Correction: A caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Chelmsford 2nd Ward is located in Sussex, England. Chelmsford is, in fact, located in Essex, England. Also, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that there is an LDS temple in Honolulu, Hawaii. The temple is instead located in Laie, Hawaii.