On Sunday, February 25, 1996, the Church crossed a twentieth-century historic membership mark when, according to estimates by Church statisticians, there were more Church members that day living outside the United States than there were members living in the United States, the host nation where the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored nearly 166 years ago.
Anticipating this remarkable fact, President Gordon B. Hinckley said in last fall’s October general conference, “Our statisticians tell me that if the present trend continues, then some time in February of 1996, just a few months from now, there will be more members of the Church outside the United States than in the United States” (Ensign Nov. 1995, p. 70).
“We can only estimate from annual Church growth rates that are based on each year’s reports which come in from throughout the Church,” said W. Larry Elkington, manager of the Church’s management information center. “These annual reports show a recent growth rate outside the U.S. of about 6 percent annually and a growth rate inside the U.S. of about 2 percent. The reports and conclusions inherent from them give rise to the general Church statistical report read at April general conferences. But based on all that data, it is estimated that on 24 February 1996 there was a Church population of 4,719,000 members outside the U.S. and the same number inside the U.S. for a total estimated Church population that day of 9,438,000,” he said. “By the next day, of course, the faster growing membership outside the U.S. crossed the equilibrium level of the previous day.”
These population figures, marking more members outside the U.S. than within the U.S., in reality represent a great twentieth-century success story. It is true, however, that in the nineteenth century there was about a five-year period when there were more Church members outside the U.S. than within, such as in 1850 when in the British Isles alone there were 30,747 members and 26,911 members in the United States. But immigration to Zion by many of those members soon reestablished membership majority in the U.S. that began with the Church’s formal organization of six members on 6 April 1830. That Church organization date had been set by the Lord through revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 20 headnote and D&C 20:1). And though the Prophet Joseph Smith and those associated with him in the preparatory work shared with a number of people the good news that a “great and marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men” (D&C 12:1), and though some were stirred by the incipient work even to going out with early printed pages of the Book of Mormon to tell of that which was unfolding, it was not until after the Church’s formal organization that the Lord gave the revelation for the Church’s public missionary work to begin. It was to Oliver Cowdery, he who had received angelic visitors with Joseph Smith and who had been described by the Lord as “an apostle of Jesus Christ, … the second elder of this church” (D&C 20:3), that the Lord now called to “make known thy calling unto the church, and also before the world, and thy heart shall be opened to preach the truth from henceforth and forever” (D&C 23:2; emphasis added).
Consequently, in Fayette, New York, “on Sunday, April 11th, 1830, Oliver Cowdery preached the first public discourse that was delivered by any of our number,” said the Prophet Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 1:81). And thus began the official public missionary work of the newly organized Church of Jesus Christ of taking the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. It was a work destined to eventually result in more members in other nations and in other tongues than in English-speaking United States, the nation whose constitutional government prepared the way for the gospel’s restoration.
Since then, there have followed many important milestones on the restored Church’s journey to reaching the present joyful condition of having more members among other nations and peoples than exist in the land in which the Church is headquartered.
• In addition to his role in the first public preaching of the newly organized Church to English-speaking U.S. residents, Oliver Cowdery was the key figure in the first known preaching of the restored Church into a non-English language within the U.S. In September 1830 the Lord instructed Oliver Cowdery that “you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them” (D&C 28:8). Thus, Oliver Cowdery, with his companions, Peter Whitmer Jr., Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, and Frederick G. Williams, in early October headed through sparsely settled land to a goal 1,500 miles distant in present-day Kansas. En route, near Buffalo, New York, they visited a tribe of Cattaraugus Indians, had difficulty making themselves understood, but left two copies of the Book of Mormon. After spending considerable time in Kirtland, Ohio, they journeyed to Upper Sandusky, Wyandot County, Ohio, where they stayed with Wyandot Indians for several days and then made their truly heroic trek during the famous “winter of the deep snow” to Independence, Missouri. In early February 1831 they went into Indian territory and, through an interpreter, preached to the Shawnee and subsequently to the Delaware Indians (see Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, sixth ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964, pp. 47–58). Of interest, within the United States at that time were many persons who had migrated from other lands and who spoke a language other than English, especially in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York where there were Church member families, some of whose members spoke German. As early as 7 December 1843, a brother was assigned to preside in Nauvoo over the German brethren who were “organized to have preaching in their native language” (History of the Church, 6:103).
• The first nation outside the United States to receive emissaries of the newly organized Church was Canada, or British North America, as it was titled in 1830. In August 1830 the Prophet’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., and the Prophet’s brother Don Carlos set out on a journey from Palmyra to towns north of the St. Lawrence River and preached the gospel.
• To date, the first known entry of the restored Church into a non-English-speaking nation was by Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who on his epic assignment to the Jews and to dedicate Jerusalem (which he did 24 October 1841) arrived in Rotterdam, Netherlands, 22 June 1840. There he had translated into Dutch a pamphlet he wrote. Following his Jerusalem visit he went to Regensburg, Germany, in January 1842 and while there he published an important work in German, but many particulars of his work there are unknown.
More is known about the work of Noah Rogers, Addison Pratt, Benjamin F. Grouard, and Knowlton F. Hanks, who arrived in the Tahitian-speaking Society Islands mission 30 April 1844, perhaps making it the first non-English-speaking nation where converts were made.
• Some other known-to-date milestones in taking the restored Church and its teachings into the native language used by native peoples on the major continents or major portions of earth’s continents and to some islands of the sea are the following:
Europe: Great Britain, 19 July 1837, at Liverpool, England, by Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Australia: November 1840, at Adelaide, Australia, by William Barratt.
Africa: 19 April 1853, Cape Town, South Africa, by Jesse Haven.
Middle East: 31 December 1884, Constantinople, Turkey, by Jacob Spori.
Asia: 12 August 1901, Yokohama, Japan, by Elder Heber J. Grant of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
South America: 6 December 1925, Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
In addition, the first translation of the Book of Mormon into a tongue other than English was a Danish language edition prepared in 1851 under the direction of Elder Erastus Snow of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Also, the first known language training of missionaries took place in Salt Lake City in the winter of 1848–49, when Addison Pratt taught Tahitian three nights a week to 21 members who had been called as missionaries.
Thus, from the Church’s 11 April 1830 first public discourse in Fayette, New York, to its now more than 2,100 stakes, 700 districts, 300 missions, 22,500 wards and branches dotting 156 different nations or territories, the Church is divinely destined to become ever more international. Church statisticians estimate that in 1999 there will be more non-English-speaking members in the Church than there will be English-speaking members. In addition, the Church is approaching the day—estimated to be sometime in 2012, 16 years from now, when Spanish is expected to be the native language spoken by more members than those who speak English, the present tongue with the largest number of members.
In the meantime, the Lord’s call through his prophets continues to be for every member to be a missionary, that the Lord’s purposes will not be “wasted at his coming” (D&C 2:3). Much remains to be done to take the restored gospel to all who would desire gospel light.