The stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are reservoirs of great strength to the Church. And in 1970 there were forty-one new stakes organized—a record for any one year. The previous high was twenty-nine new stakes in 1960. As of July 1, 1971, there are 549 stakes in the Church.
These ecclesiastical units bear the word stake in most parts of the Church where they are organized, but in Brazil the Portuguese word is estaca. The same word, estaca, is at home in Spanish, with the other stakes in Latin America. In German the word is pfahl, and the Dutch say ring. To the Tongans the word is siteiki, and the Samoans have a similar word, siteki. In Japanese it is pronounced “stake-bu.”
But whatever the word, and whether the stake is situated in Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Australia, Asia, or the islands of the sea, to the resident members theirs is “the best stake in the Church.”
The worth of souls is great, and each of the Father’s children is important to the Church, but where there can be a stake, it represents maturity in the development of Church organization and program. In contrast to a mission district, which generally must receive strength and leadership from the Church, the stake is able to give strength and stability to the Church, just as stakes give support to a tent.
The scriptures have identified “stakes” as sources of strength. The prophet Isaiah, seeing the latter-day glory of Zion, wrote figuratively about her preparation for rejoicing: “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.” (Isa. 54:2. Italics added.)
In this dispensation of the fulness of times, the Lord spoke of establishing a stake at Kirtland and said: “For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged; her stakes must be strengthened. …” (D&C 82:14. Italics added. See also D&C 133:9.)
In these stakes the Saints are to “stand in holy places” (D&C 101:22), and thus their light or example will be “a standard for the nations”; furthermore, the gathering of the righteous is to be “for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth” (D&C 115:5–6).
The organization of the first stake in this dispensation dates from the calling of the high council in Kirtland on February 17, 1834.
At the April 1844 general conference, just before the Prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, he announced: “I have received instructions from the Lord that from henceforth wherever the Elders of Israel shall build up churches and branches unto the Lord throughout the States, there shall be a stake of Zion. In the great cities, as Boston, New York, &c., there shall be stakes.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Deseret Book Co., 1938], p. 353.) This prophecy was fulfilled with the organization of the New York Stake in 1934 and the Boston Stake in 1962.
All eleven stakes organized in Joseph Smith’s lifetime were discontinued as the Saints journeyed west.
The Salt Lake Stake, created in 1847, is now the oldest stake functioning. Weber and Utah stakes (1851) come next. (There is still a Weber Stake in the Ogden area, but it is a new organization, not dating back to pioneer times.) In general, the early Utah stakes were given the same boundaries as the counties. But in time Tooele Stake had members residing in Idaho, and Cache Stake had members in southern Alberta, Canada.
The stakes organized during the last half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century reflected the concentration of Church membership in the intermountain area, a Mormon corridor extending from southern Alberta to the Church colonies in northern Mexico. Following World War I, Church members began moving into other areas in increasing numbers. This was reflected in the creation of three stakes in California during the 1920s. During the ’30s stakes were organized in such other key centers as New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
A new era of international stakes was inaugurated in 1958 with the formation of the Auckland Stake, soon after the dedication of the New Zealand Temple. Elder Delbert L. Stapley of the Council of the Twelve recalls: “I remember the words of President McKay, as the New Zealand [Auckland] Stake was planned, that transportation has brought the far places of the world close to us. Added to that are the improved communications that permit us almost instantaneously to talk to the Saints in the far areas of the earth. The Church is being taken closer to the people because now all the helps of the auxiliary organizations and the visits of the General Authorities will be at their disposal, and in turn this will bring the Saints of these faraway lands closer to the Church. Truly it is a great blessing to the people to have a stake with all the blessings that are associated with stake organizations.” (Improvement Era, June 1960, p. 420.)
One of the remarkable things about the Auckland Stake in its infancy was that often the various reports would arrive from Auckland at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City before the same reports from stakes in Salt Lake City.
Within three years of the Auckland Stake organization, other stakes were created in Mexico City, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Holland. In 1966 the first stake was formed in South America (Sao Paulo), and in 1970 the continents of Asia (Tokyo) and Africa (Transvaal) received their first stakes.
Stakes are organized only on the inspiration given to the General Authorities of the Church. President Harold B. Lee has explained some of the prerequisites to be met before a stake can be organized: “If you are now operating one mission so that it now has a full organization … with the distance problem pretty well solved, you have proved that communication now is possible, your membership is sufficient and you have the trained leadership, then we are prepared to talk to you about a stake.” (Church News, August 26, 1961, p. 8.)
The frequency of new stake organizations reflects the quickening pace of Church growth. In contrast to the usual pattern, the rate of growth has actually increased as the Church has become larger.
The stakes organized during 1970 reflect the international character of the Church, with stakes being organized in Japan, Tonga, Samoa, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, South Africa, and Canada. In dividing the history of the Church into two periods of seventy years each, the number of stakes organized during the first seventy years of the Church (1830–1900) is almost equal (43) to the number created during the single year 1970 (41). This 4 43/41 ratio does not take into account the stakes that were organized, flourished for a season, but were discontinued before 1900.
The accompanying chart gives this remarkable growth.
Dr. Cowan, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, has written widely for Church publications and for BYU. Although blind, he has filled both stake and full-time missions for the Church and currently serves as counselor in the BYU Sixth Stake presidency. He was named professor of the year at the Y in 1965, and in 1969 he received an award at the White House in Washington, D.C., for his work in recording for the blind.