The ’80s—Looking Back; The ’90s—Looking Ahead


The Church made great strides during the past decade and prepared us for an impressive new decade.

As a young boy, I obtained my view of the world at the local movie theater. Each week a black-and-white newsreel gave a five- or ten-minute news update on the week’s events that seemed to say all there was to say. The world moved a little slower in those days. Today, the miracle of modern day technology brings news as it happens right into my own home.

The current accelerating pace of world and Church events parallels the speed of technological advances. I considered the pace of the 1970s breath-taking. We were led by four different prophets during a period that climaxed in the whirlwind of significant events put in motion by President Spencer W. Kimball. But the past ten years have included even more remarkable membership growth on an unprecedented and international scale, significant organizational changes in many facets of the Church, and an increasing emphasis on simplicity in order to accommodate the diversity of a vast Church membership. The 1980s, which included the administration of President Ezra Taft Benson, represented change, growth, challenges, and new directions that surely have prepared the Church for the 1990s.

Unprecedented growth of the Church was one of the most significant features of the 1980s. During this ten-year period the increase in membership approximately equalled the entire membership of the Church at the end of 1967. The number of stakes created during the 1980s exceeded the total number of stakes in the Church at the time President Kimball became the twelfth President in 1973. The largest army of missionaries the Church has ever had, including many mature couples, accounts for much of this phenomenal growth. The 1990s should continue to see this force increase in size and effectiveness. For a short time during the 1980s, full-time missions for young elders were limited to eighteen months, the same as for single sisters. But currently most single elders serve for two years.

The building of temples and the work associated with these holy edifices dramatically increased to accommodate new members and the family histories they brought with them. In April 1980, the First Presidency announced the beginning of “the most intensive period of temple building in the history of the Church.” (Ensign, May 1980, p. 99.) The ’80s began with seventeen temples in use, but the ’90s will begin with forty-three temples operating in twenty-three countries. Surely this timely trend will continue, bringing blessings to many the world over.

In order to facilitate temple work, the Genealogical Department became the Family History Department, and the Genealogical Library became the Family History Library. These name changes in 1987 represented an effort by the presiding Brethren to simplify ancestral research and to encourage members to perform vital temple ordinances in their own behalf and for their deceased forebears. (See Ensign, Oct. 1987, p. 78.) Research in family history makes it possible to provide the ordinances of salvation for those on both sides of the veil.

Many inventions and modern technology have greatly facilitated our capacity to do family history research and have expanded our ability to teach and to share the gospel message. Effective use of satellites, satellite dishes, and computer programs should continue into the 1990s, and we will undoubtedly see further innovations that will assist the Church in accomplishing its divine mission.

The tremendous growth in the number of members, stakes, and temples during the 1980s consequently gave emphasis to the threefold focus our leaders have placed on the mission of the Church. This mission was announced in general conference by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1981. President Benson reiterated the mission in April conference 1988: “The mission of the Church is glorious—to invite all of us to come unto Christ through proclaiming the gospel, perfecting our lives, and redeeming our dead.” (Ensign, May 1988, p. 85.)

The mission of the Church, with its threefold emphasis, has been a consistent theme of leadership training during the 1980s and will likely remain so throughout the 1990s. Priesthood and auxiliary leaders have been urged to emphasize and facilitate accomplishing this mission, and in 1982, the highest councils of the Church were organized around it. Representatives from the Quorum of the Twelve, the Seven Presidents of the Seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric currently sit on three administrative councils: the Missionary Executive Council, which directs efforts to proclaim the gospel; the Priesthood Executive Council, which directs efforts to perfect the Saints; and the Temple and Family History Executive Council, which directs efforts to redeem the dead.

The 1980s also saw a significant refinement of the role and work of the Seventy. Seventies quorums in stakes were eliminated, with the active calling of a Seventy being reserved for men called to serve as General Authorities. Most of these men were called to serve in Area Presidencies, another administrative innovation of the ’80s. At the present time, the world is divided into seventeen areas, with a three-member presidency serving in each and accountable to one of the executive councils at Church headquarters.

Another milestone of the 1980s took place when the First Presidency announced a major change in the tenure of General Authorities in 1984. In order to “provide a constant infusion of new talent and a much-widened opportunity for men of ability and faith to serve” as General Authorities, men would be called to serve in the First Quorum of the Seventy for a period of “three to five years,” excluding those called prior to 1984. (Ensign, May 1984, pp. 4–5.) This policy was altered in April 1989 when a Second Quorum of the Seventy was organized with a membership consisting of men who would serve for five years, while members of the First Quorum of the Seventy would serve until factors of age or health make them candidates for ereritus status.

These changes provide the Church with a system of management that will permit growth while keeping General Authorities close and accessible to the people. Interestingly, this development simply extended the basic Church structure provided by the Lord in 1835. The revelations explained how additional quorums of seventy could be organized in the future to meet the expanding needs of the Church. (See D&C 107:93–98.)

The international flavor of the Church intensified during the 1980s, with the calling of General Authorities from Canada, Argentina, Switzerland, Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, who joined colleagues called previously from Belgium, Holland, Germany, Japan, and England. Missionary work and the growth of the Church proceeded vigorously in the West Indies and on the continent of Africa, where in 1988 the Aba Nigeria Stake—the first in West Africa—was organized. Quiet inroads are being made in other lands as the Church reaches out in friendship. Still, in some places, we are restricted by law from proselyting.

Perhaps the most exciting developments internationally in the 1980s occurred within communist-bloc countries. Quietly, yet effectively, the Church has cultivated positive relationships with their governments. These friendships, combined with divine approbation, resulted in several of these lands being dedicated to the preaching of the gospel. Hungary granted the Church official recognition in 1988, and in 1989 ground was broken for the first chapel in Poland. Faithful Church members in these lands will be an influence for good on their fellow countrymen.

In 1985 the German Democratic Republic (DDR) had a temple dedicated within its boundaries. Later in the decade, the government lifted previous restrictions to allow foreign missionaries into the country as well as to permit its own Church member-citizens to serve missions outside the DDR.

We see this as partial fulfillment of the Lord’s declaration that the gospel must go forth “into all the world, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” (D&C 58:64; see also Matt. 24:14.) In April conference in 1980, Elder Bruce R. McConkie prophetically declared: “We see the Lord break down the barriers so that the world of Islam and the world of Communism can hear the message of the restoration.” (Ensign, May 1980, p. 72.) Perhaps the 1990s will see more of these barriers removed.

During the early 1980s, the failing physical health of members of the First Presidency greatly restricted their activities. During this period of time, the Lord called Elder Gordon B. Hinckley to the First Presidency and he, together with the Quorum of the Twelve, provided the vigorous leadership necessary to carry out the plans and policies of the First Presidency.

Upon the death of President Kimball, President Ezra Taft Benson, the senior Apostle, became the thirteenth President of the Church, bringing an enthusiasm to the work that radiated to all.

President Benson’s voice was one of reconciliation and love, a plea to the “less active” (a term of the 80s replacing “inactive”), the alienated, and the disaffected to return to the love and safety of the Master Shepherd’s fold. Consequently, greater efforts are being made to reclaim those who have experienced formal Church discipline. The hope of the 1990s is that we can find, befriend, convert, and retain those not yet in the Church and find, fellowship, reclaim, and reactivate those who have slipped from the faith.

Another vital emphasis of the 1980s has been the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. During the early part of the decade, the curriculum of the Church was revised to encourage members to read and study the scriptures. In 1981, a new edition of the triple combination was published with an improved format and expanded footnotes. A year later the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” was added to the title of the Book of Mormon to more accurately reflect its sacred purpose.

From the commencement of his ministry to the present, President Benson has constantly emphasized the Book of Mormon’s importance and the need for the Church to “get out from under God’s condemnation for having treated it lightly.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 5; see also Ensign, May 1986, p. 78.) While initiated in the mid-’80s, this clarion call to read, use, and live by the Book of Mormon will carry us into the 1990s.

Because of the importance of the Book of Mormon to the world as well as to the Church at this critical time, a major effort will undoubtedly be expended during the decade of the 1990s to have the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scripture translated into many more languages. As of 1989, translations of the Book of Mormon exist in thirty-four languages. In an effort to take the gospel to the entire world, the Church is committed to translating our latter-day scriptures into the principle language of every nation on the earth by the turn of the century.

Taking the gospel into all nations requires adjustments: Church leaders have been concerned about the expense required to operate the full programs of the Church. But a concentrated effort during the 1980s to simplify and reduce curriculum materials and other items originating at Church headquarters will continue into the 1990s. Already existing materials will be used, such as recycled manuals and lessons and reduced and simplified reports. The Family Home Evening Resource Book replaced annual manuals in 1984. The Sunday School introduced a significantly smaller Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual in 1989, a format anticipated to carry on into the 1990s.

Further adjustments to ease the strains of internationalization have resulted in decentralizing Church administration and placing more responsibility on local leadership, with fewer specific instructions from Church headquarters. A renewed emphasis on teaching, leading, and learning by the Spirit has been the guideline. Consequently, stake presidents no longer come to general conference for special leadership sessions. Rather, they now attend area or regional training meetings in which they receive instruction from the Brethren that may apply more specifically to their local needs.

A basic unit program introduced in the fall of 1980 allows families or small units of the Church with few members to operate successfully without the full program of the Church. This program will prove helpful in the future as the Church enters countries that restrict the number of people who can legally gather in one location.

In adjusting to the challenges presented by a world-wide church, particularly in areas where members must travel great distances to get to meetings, the Church made a major change in meeting schedules at the start of the ’80s decade. The consolidated meeting schedule moved all regular meetings to a three-hour block of time on Sunday. In commenting on this change, the First Presidency noted that “the consolidated meeting schedule reemphasizes personal and family responsibility for learning, living, and teaching the gospel. It also allows Church members more time for personal gospel study, service to others, and meaningful activities.” (Ensign, March 1980, p. 73.)

One minor alteration of the consolidated schedule has occurred: brief opening exercises for Sunday School were reintroduced in 1988 to provide time for singing and for members to be together. The 1980s also saw the introduction of a new Church hymnal and a new children’s songbook.

But organizational and international changes weren’t the only milestones of the Church in the 1980s. The decade involved the Church in social issues that resulted in controversy and defined our stance on certain moral issues. The March 1980 issue of the Ensign carried a 23-page insert entitled “The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment—A Moral Issue.” In this insert, Church leaders vigorously opposed proposed passage of this constitutional amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which they deemed to be potentially demeaning and harmful to women, families, and society. A year later, the First Presidency formally opposed the planned placing of an MX missile system in Utah. During the ensuing years of the 1980s, the Church spoke out against the immorality and drug abuse that had escalated the modern-day plague of AIDS, and specifically criticized pornography and gambling, including lotteries. Church leaders undoubtedly will continue to speak out against these and other social ills in the coming decade.

The Church also became involved in promoting social causes during the decade. As an institution it sponsored several fasts in 1985 for hunger relief, collecting and disbursing over ten and one-half million dollars. Also, full-time missionaries in some missions now devote one day a week to Christian service unrelated to direct proselyting. This increased concern with our fellow human beings appears to be a warm wave of the future.

The 1980s also saw increased visibility for women in the Church. Annual women’s meetings were established in the 1980s, and members of general presidencies of auxiliaries spoke more regularly in general conference. Two women leaders, the president of the Relief Society and the president of the Young Women, were called to serve as members of the Church Board of Education, along with members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. At the annual seminar for Regional Representatives in April 1989, a plea went out to priesthood leaders to appropriately involve female leaders in council and committee meetings and to be increasingly concerned with issues affecting women. At the same time, the Brethren have been firm in declaring that women need not hold the priesthood to fulfill their God-given roles in this life, nor to receive a fulness of the blessings of exaltation hereafter.

As the Church continues its phenomenal growth, Melchizedek Priesthood leaders undoubtedly will continue to have increased responsibility in helping to lift the burden currently carried by bishops. Elders quorum presidencies and high priests group leaders will take even greater initiative in designated areas rather than waiting for an assignment from the bishop. The 1980s emphasized flexibility in using high priests to work with prospective elders and to fulfill missionary and temple responsibilities. General Authorities will continue to teach Melchizedek Priesthood leaders to activate, serve, fellowship, and assist the poor and needy.

No discussion of the 1980s would be complete without mentioning a dark side of the decade. In April of 1980, a young man named Mark Hofmann made the first of a series of startling so-called “discoveries” of historical documents of unique interest to the Church. Some of these documents appeared to cast the Church, its claims, and its leaders in an unfavorable light. Some members who were not well grounded began to waver in their faith. The importance of basing one’s testimony upon the witness of the Spirit became even more clear when the Hofmann documents were discovered to be forgeries.

An increase in organized opposition to the Church also cast a shadow on the decade as efforts to discredit and defame that which we hold to be holy frequently occurred. While some written responses have been made to scurrilous claims, perhaps members’ best response to attacks on the Church is to live up to our principles so the world can see the truth of what we profess. History has shown that the efforts of the adversary to thwart the Lord’s work—even in the assassination of missionaries and the closing of some borders to the gospel, two major setbacks of 1989—will ultimately fail.

As we look forward to the decade of the ’90s, we do so without fear, knowing in full faith that the stone Daniel saw rolling forth to fill the earth—even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Kingdom of God on earth—will continue its charted course. (See Dan. 2:44–45; D&C 65:2.) Adversarial attempts to block the stone’s path or to chisel away at its size may cause an occasional chip to break away, but nothing will deter the great stone from its divinely designated course.

As a Church we unite our voices with that of the first Prophet of this dispensation in declaring, “No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church, 4:540.)

[photos] The 1980s saw impressive growth in Church membership in such countries as Nigeria (top inset) and the West Indies, while modern technology made it possible for general conference (backdrop; by Marty Mayo) and other Church satellite programs to be broadcast worldwide. President Ezra Taft Benson (shown here with his wife, Flora; photo by Busath Photography), urged Church members to fellowship and reclaim the less active. He also emphasized the importance of studying the scriptures and challenged Church members to “flood the earth with the Book of Mormon.” During the 1980s, the Book of Mormon received the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” and was translated into new languages.

[photos] President Spencer W. Kimball (shown here with his wife, Camilla; photo by Eldon K. Linschoten) provided vigorous leadership. The decade brought significant changes in responsibilities and tenure of General Authorities. In 1985, the Church held two special fasts for food and construction projects in Ethiopia and other countries. These Bolivian villagers (photo courtesy of the Andean Children’s Foundation) were among those who benefited.

[photos] Many developments in the Church in the 1980s occurred within Communist-bloc countries. In 1985, a temple was dedicated in the German Democratic Republic (top, inset). A change in meeting schedules resulted in a three-hour block schedule of Sunday meetings, designed in part to provide members more time to spend with their families on the Sabbath (backdrop). At the same time, the Church’s army of missionaries grew (bottom, inset), and Church membership reached the seven-million mark.

Hoyt W. Brewster, Jr., manager, Church Administrative Services, is first counselor in the Brighton Ninth (Singles’) Ward bishopric. He lives in Salt Lake City.