James G Willie served a mission in England, he was released in 1856. Like many missionaries returning home, he was asked to assist the converts who were emigrating from Europe so they could gather to Zion. His first assignment came from his mission president, Franklin D. Richards, who appointed him to preside over the 764 Saints who were sailing to America on the Thornton. By the time the shop departed from Liverpool on May 4, 1856, James Willie had been away from his wife and three young children for nearly four years.
The company journal reported “light baffling air”or “baffling winds” three times during the second week on the ocean. These shifting winds, together with some headwinds, slowed the ship’s progress so much that drinking water had to be rationed. Robert Kirkwood described how James led the Saints in uniting their faith to seek divine help in this predicament: “A meeting was held on deck at which President Willie announced that we had made but little progress the past week. Although sailing pretty well, it had all been zig-zag owing to the winds. It was proposed that we hold a fast day on Tuesday…that we may pray to the Lord for more favorable winds.”
After a six-week voyage, the Thornton arrived in New York City on June14, 1856. Most of the Saints aboard the Thornton became members of the Willie handcart company.