50th Mormon History Association Conference Focuses on Early Administration and Missionary Work

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 16 July 2015

Photo shows Salt Lake City in the early days of its settlement when, from 1849 to 1857, the First Presidency issued a general epistle to the Church every six months.  Photo courtesy Church History Library.

Article Highlights

  • Fourteen general epistles of the First Presidency were issued and were written by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and Jedediah M. Grant.
  • Church newspapers and the Deseret News, established in 1850, informed members weekly of Church announcements.
  • The pioneers managed to settle the valley while also being dedicated missionaries.

“The Church that started with six members in 1830 ballooned to over 271,000 by the beginning of the 20th century, largely as a result of aggressive missionary work.” —Reid L. Neilson, assistant Church historian and recorder and managing director of the Church History Department


Administering the Church and sending the gospel message worldwide in the early years following the Mormon pioneer settlement of the Salt Lake Valley were the focus of speakers in a June 5 session of the 50th annual conference of the Mormon History Association.

General epistles to the Church

Nathan N. Waite, associate editorial manager for the Joseph Smith Papers project in the Church History Department, spoke on the 14 general epistles of the First Presidency, issued from Salt Lake City between April 1849 and December 1856. Usually issued every six months, and written by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and Jedediah M. Grant, the epistles “are an essential source for understanding not only the Mormons’ first years in the Great Salt Lake Valley but—both by what they say and what they omit—the evolving concerns of Church leaders in these emergent years,” Brother Waite said.

Why were the epistles discontinued after 1856? “Part of the reason seems to be that the initial wave of migrants was subsiding,” he said. “Though the gathering was far from over, the First Presidency was turning its attention from calling scattered Israel from the nations to governing a desert territory with dozens of settlements spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles.”

Also, the epistles became somewhat redundant, as Church newspapers “and the Deseret News, established in 1850, meant that Church leaders could communicate with the faithful on a weekly or biweekly basis rather than waiting for a six-month anniversary to inform or instruct the Saints in writing,” he explained. Moreover, it may be that other priorities—famine, the handcart crisis, the Utah War, and Mountain Meadows Massacre—took precedent, he said. “Little wonder a newsletter fell by the wayside.”

Initially, the audience for the epistles was “the Saints scattered abroad throughout the earth,” Brother Waite said. “Readers are informed of the healthy climate and abundant potential of the Wasatch oasis. They are exhorted to righteous living and warned against getting too comfortable in Babylon. They are urged again and again to hurry to Zion.”

Content changes as the years went by, however, with attention given to specific items: herding laws, teaching the Deseret Alphabet to teachers and students, and relations with Indians. Seemingly commonplace topics, such as the weather and the need for immigrants to bring nails, occupy space in the later epistles.

Absent is any discussion of plural marriage or deprivation and hardship, he noted.

“The importance of the First Presidency’s general epistles is hard to overstate,” Brother Waite summarized. “More than anything, the sense of purpose and unflagging belief that they were doing God’s will shines through. … In April 1853, when the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple was begun, the epistles informed readers ‘with peculiar emotions of gratitude’ that ‘the Chief Corner Stones of the House of the Lord are laid in the tops of the mountains, according to the predictions of ancient prophets.’ Zion may have fled to the wilderness, but she was now rising in her beauty at the tops (or at least the foot) of the everlasting hills.”

Proclaiming the gospel

Reid L. Neilson, assistant Church historian and recorder and managing director of the Church History Department, discussed “how the poor and isolated Utah pioneers proclaimed the gospel globally during the antebellum [pre–Civil War] era.” He took as an outline a quote from B. H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church.

The author expressed awe that the pioneers were willing and able to settle the Salt Lake Valley and Intermountain West while at the same time fulfilling the divine mandate “to preach the gospel of the kingdom to every nation.”

“The Mormons, despite their poverty, persecution, and eventual displacement to North America’s Great Basin region, helped shoulder the ever-present burden of fulfilling the biblical great commission,” he said. But he asserted, “Without question, the Latter-day Saints’ poverty and Utah pioneer economy impacted their ability to field a missionary labor force, especially when compared to their Protestant counterparts.”

In contrast to many Protestants, most committed Latter-day Saint men did not traditionally view evangelism as optional, he said.

“General Authorities began calling missionaries from the pulpit during the Church’s semiannual general conferences held in April and October in Salt Lake City. Mormon men were often surprised to hear their names called, but the vast majority responded willingly.”

Though single women were not officially called as full-time missionaries until 1898, Mormon women financially and emotionally supported their husbands called on long-term missions, he noted.

“In addition to their shortage of human resources, there is no question that the Mormons’ lack of monetary resources hampered their ability to operate a global missionary program similar to the scope and scale of that of their Protestant contemporaries,” he said.

“The Mormon elders financed most of their 19th-century missions by relying on the New Testament model of traveling without ‘purse or scrip,’ meaning evangelizing without cash or personal property. They relied totally on those they met on a daily basis in their missionary fields.”

During much of the 19th century, the Church leaders did not provide training to the thousands of missionaries assigned around the world, he said. “Instead, they expected the elders to learn how to be missionaries as they proselytized. … Some men prepared informally for their callings by studying the scriptures, practicing preaching, and even learning the basics of their foreign language as they sailed across the ocean to their missions.”

Finally, Elder Roberts noted that the missionary effort was influenced by the geographic isolation of the Church members’ locale, Brother Neilson said. “Brigham Young believed that the remote Salt Lake Valley was ‘a good place to make Saints.’ But it was not an easy place from which to launch a communication, transportation, and missionary network during the pioneer period.”

Brother Neilson concluded, “Clearly, the Latter-day Saints have developed a unique method of evangelism, which historically grew out of a Protestant North American and Western European historical context. The Mormons’ Anglo-centric missionary approach enabled them to enjoy grand success in the United States and Canada as well as in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and parts of continental Europe. Their mode of evangelism and theological claims to be the heirs of primitive Christianity fired the imagination of prospective converts already saturated in biblical culture. The Church that started with six members in 1830 ballooned to over 271,000 by the beginning of the 20th century, largely as a result of aggressive missionary work.”