The Church and the U.S. Bicentennial: A Conversation with Elder L. Tom Perry of the Council of the Twelve

L. Tom Perry

Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles


L. Tom Perry

Elder L. Tom Perry was appointed in 1974 as chairman of the Church Bicentennial Committee. It was a happy assignment for this tall, cheery, booming-voiced personification of enthusiasm, and he has since successfully brought this same quality of energy into the Church’s Bicentennial efforts. Ensign Managing Editor Jay M. Todd this month discussed the general topic of the Church and the Bicentennial with Elder Perry.

Ensign: Why is the Church—the earthly institution of a worldwide ecclesiastical government—so significantly involved in a national celebration, in this instance, the U.S. bicentennial?

Elder Perry: For many reasons. The United States represents the major source of human and financial resources that go into the expansion of the Lord’s work throughout the world. It is very essential that America remain strong in order that the Church can continue to support the Lord’s work in all corners of the earth. It’s true that Saints in other nations are beginning to come to the point where they can be “independent” in the sense that they can supply their own leadership and resources—but there are few nations in the world where the Saints are of sufficient numbers and have available means to be able to support even among themselves the expansion of the Church in a very significant manner. But as Saints in these and other lands arrive at the point where they can help in the worldwide expansion of the Lord’s work, the Church will have moved into other new lands that will need human and financial support for a long time. To get the Saints in any nation to the point where they can stand on their own feet, so to speak, with their own leaders and supply their own financial resources, represents a long nurturing process. We joyfully look to the day when more and more nations—or the Saints within them—will have arrived at that position.

But until that day comes, it is obvious that the central source of resources for the worldwide Church for the past 146 years has been America—and we think it will continue to be that way for quite some time. So we’re anxious to help America be strong and good, because the American Saints are so central to supplying the needs of others throughout the world for the present.

In addition to that central idea we have a basic religious message, a unique message to tell the world—and that is that God’s hand was in the founding of America. America is the cradle of the Church. We know that the great reformation of centuries ago was God-inspired. The rediscovery of America by Columbus was God-inspired. The founding of this land with a form of government that would permit the gospel to be restored and be established was God-inspired. This is a great message. A message of fulfilled prophecy. A message that God lives—that he is in our lives, that he is involved in the shaping of history in ways that many people do not know. I tell you, this is great news! The Lord himself said that he raised up “wise men” for the purpose of founding the United States’ constitutional government, a form of government that has been modeled and patterned after all over the world because it provides the kind of freedom, agency, and opportunity our Father’s children need in order for them to grow, mature, and develop. It should be apparent then, that the Church would want to commemorate the birth of this nation—first in thanksgiving to God for what he has done for us and for all mankind, and second, because it gives us a chance to teach the gospel, to bear witness that God lives, and to further fulfill our missionary calling to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In addition to these reasons, we are also happy to have our United States members join in this celebration. We want them to be completely supportive of good programs fostered by our communities, states, and nation. We believe in being good citizens. The Church is interested in encouraging its Saints to wear the sandals of citizenship.

The bicentennial celebration is not a Church celebration. It is a national celebration. We hope our members will have become a part of their communities’ activities and efforts. Certainly, in times such as these, we want to teach them to be involved with other good people seeking to do good things.

Ensign: What are some of the things that the Church is doing to help set the tone of the nation’s bicentennial?

Elder Perry: Basically, we’re trying to have the central message go out that the Lord blesses righteous people. The Lord blesses those nations that serve him.

To help convey this message, the Church is doing many things. Let me mention only a handful.

—We’ve asked every stake in the United States to form a bicentennial committee, serving under the stake presidency, to promulgate and oversee activities and events throughout the stake having to do with the bicentennial.

—We’ve supplied these stake committees for over a year with suggestions, booklets, information—everything we can think of to assist them in doing their job on the stake and ward levels.

—Since the family is the basic unit of the Church, we have prepared a special packet of four family home evening discussions for members living in the United States. This packet should be distributed to each family unit through home teachers. It is entitled “The Great Prologue,” using the same title as Elder Mark E. Petersen’s excellent book about the Restoration and America. Family discussion topics deal with America as a foreordained land, its divine mission, its inspired heritage, and its prophetic destiny.

—To help each family unit keep these things on their minds, the Church’s Bicentennial Committee has prepared a poster available for placement in the kitchen or family room. This poster can be obtained through the wards or stakes.

—We have also created a series of seven posters, available for every ward and stake, which we hope will be used by the members as a missionary tool. These posters feature the Lehi-Nephi period, the Savior’s visit to the Nephites, the discovery of America, the Founding Fathers, the establishment of the Constitution, and the restoration of the gospel. They help us look at ourselves by asking, “What are we going to do now about our nation’s level of righteousness?”

—Dramas and pageants have been created for presentation in the wards and stakes throughout the United States.

—We have created a speaker and program bureau at Church headquarters and have asked each stake to do the same in order to provide a list of speakers, singing groups, and musicians who are available to civic, community, and business groups.

—We have encouraged the creation of special publications to be used by the Saints in their home, Church, and civic endeavors. These include this special issue of the Ensign and feature articles in the New Era and Friend. We have also invited major Latter-day Saint book publishers to print books on the bicentennial theme. As a result, several excellent books have been written for the Saints, including Elder Petersen’s The Great Prologue and Latter-day Patriots by Gene A. Sessions.

—We will sponsor the Tabernacle Choir tour to the East Coast in June and July, with the tour ending in Washington, D.C., on July 4, the nation’s birthday. The choir will give a special concert and President Kimball will address the nation on that day.

—On the Fourth of July, Sunday Schools will provide an excellent program dealing with themes of freedom, law, and government. We have asked that these same kinds of themes be presented in the sacrament meetings on that day.

—As a special demonstration of our interest in our nation, the Church is asking that each capable U.S. member become personally involved and donate at least one day, twenty-four full hours, to the nation in community service.

Ensign: Is this service to be individually determined, or is it to be accomplished through a ward or stake organized activity?

Elder Perry: It may be individual, quorum, ward, or stake promoted. We hope each family will discuss how they can help—what needs doing on their street or block and how they could join with their neighbors in doing it. We hope each ward or branch will find a way to make a contribution to the community. We hope district and stake leadership will also be involved. We hope to announce to our nation on January 1, 1977, that we have contributed over three million man-days to help make America better.

Ensign: You mentioned that each stake and district in the United States has formed a bicentennial committee and indicated that they have moved forward in activities and plans as seemed best to them. What kinds of things are they doing?

Elder Perry: Oh, it’s exciting! You wouldn’t believe the great things that have happened and are happening! And I’m sure that most of us will never know all that is being done. I’ve heard of dozens of original plays and musicals that have been written and produced. I’ve heard of a bumper sticker, “Happy Birthday U.S.A. from a Mormon Family,” from Pasadena, California; of a Rexburg, Idaho, stake project to beautify their community; of an East Brunswick, New Jersey, project to give an American flag kit to each newly wedded couple. I’ve heard of a bicentennial quilt made to hang in the township office, of historical plaques being made, of ward work parties that cleaned up city parks and playgrounds, of Young Special Interest and Special Interest groups that volunteered en masse to help the town man their civic bicentennial projects, of stake writing and speaking and fine arts contests, of balls and dances and 1776 games and fairs to which community members are invited, of tree-planting projects like the one Utah Governor Calvin Rampton has inaugurated and to which many wards and stakes have responded, of speakers and program bureaus organized in communities, and of countless hours of service being given to help kindle the spirit of the bicentennial. I could go on and on. I was in Arizona recently and some of our Young Adults went to their community leaders and asked to help clean up the city parks and paint the bleachers in the ball diamond. So many Young Adults turned out that they painted five parks in one day. It’s just exciting! It’s thrilling!

Ensign: What do you hope will be the great result of all this activity?

Elder Perry: We want our nation to hear again the words “And this is our motto—in God We Trust.” We hope that our own members and all citizens throughout the nation will bow down on their knees on July 4 and thank God for his blessings and confess his goodnesses to them and all mankind. We hope it will be a time of recommitment to serving the God of this land.

Ensign: What about the Saints in other lands—how do you hope they will respond to this bicentennial emphasis of the Church?

Elder Perry: We hope they would thank the Lord for providing a cradle for the Restoration. It is through this nation and its human and financial resources that they have been blessed with the gospel message and its present-day program. We are not asking Saints in other lands to become bicentennially involved—only the American Saints. We think the celebration pattern we’re establishing here is one that can be used whenever appropriate in other lands. In the Church, there is a bond that binds us together which knows no national boundaries. However, we of course want all members in all lands to be good citizens.

Ensign: What has been the personal meaning to you of being chairman of the Church Bicentennial Committee?

Elder Perry: It has forced me to study the history of this great land and to read of the faith and trust that our early Founding Fathers had in Divine Providence. I am just amazed at what they were able to accomplish. At first, I could not have named more than three or four of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Now I feel almost personally acquainted with all of them. I love and appreciate their courage, their sacrifice.

I have gained a great appreciation for this land of America. I have received a personal witness of God’s hand in its formation. I have been reassured of the blessings which will be ours if we will only serve Him. May we always have the courage to defend that which is right.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten