As the 1950s opened, Latter-day Saints were feeling optimistic. They had come through both a war and a worldwide depression. Young men and women who had served in the military and hosts of others who had worked on the home front during the war returned to their homes and normal pursuits. Tens of thousands married and started families, thus contributing to what came to be known as the “baby boom generation,” a trend even more pronounced within the Church.
Unresolved international tensions heightened into the Cold War between democratic countries and the communist bloc. With threats of nuclear war hanging over the world, smaller wars raged. One of the earliest fronts was in Korea, where in 1950 a “police action” involving military personnel occurred, ending in 1953 with a truce. During the 1960s and 1970s, Church members from many countries were deeply affected by the Vietnam War.
In addition, various social movements that gained momentum during these years contributed to a worldwide spread of iniquity, seriously threatening the institution of the family. Some contributing factors included relaxed moral standards, increased use of drugs and alcohol, more tolerance for abortion, and greater acceptance of divorce. Simultaneously, life spans increased due to medical advances, and more people began to experience greater wealth and economic stability than in any previous generation.
Amid these world conditions, the Lord through His prophets prepared the Church to step forward as never before. Missionaries took the gospel into new parts of the world, Church leaders made significant administrative adjustments to accommodate growth, and members responded to prophetic counsel with greater commitment and devotion.
As the world moved into the postwar period, President George Albert Smith (1870–1951) stood at the head of the Church. His widely recognized trait of compassion helped Church members acquire healing and charity after the conflicts of war, thus setting the stage for growth. During the October 1950 general conference, President Smith said he would not be satisfied until he could share the blessings of the gospel with the people of the earth. “For a small church, such as we are, having membership a little more than a million, approximately six thousand missionaries is a marvelous record. … This is a missionary church,”1 he said, speaking of a revitalized missionary program.
This proved to be President Smith’s last conference. He passed away on 4 April 1951 at age 81. Five days later David O. McKay (1873–1970) was sustained as ninth President of the Church.
President McKay, who received his call to the apostleship in 1906, had spent over 40 years visiting Church members in many places of the world. By the time he became President, he had traveled widely and visited all the stakes of Zion and had become convinced of the necessity for strengthening the Church outside the American Intermountain West. When he became President of the Church in 1951, he had been prepared to move the Lord’s Church throughout the earth.
For the Church to be built throughout the world, the flow of members to America needed to end. Many European Saints had taken advantage of a window of opportunity provided by the U.S. government to immigrate between 1948 and 1952. But in 1953, the First Presidency wrote to mission presidents: “It is the present intention of the Church to do what is reasonably possible in providing temples throughout the world that the members may remain in the areas and yet have opportunity to receive the blessings of the temple ordinances, all to the end that … spreading the Gospel to all nations, tongues and people might be consummated in the shortest possible time.”2
One of President McKay’s steps was to travel to various continents encouraging the Saints with his counsel and assessing the needs of the Church. During his visits, he identified locations, then broke ground for temples in Switzerland, England, and New Zealand. He also directed Gordon B. Hinckley, secretary of the General Missionary Committee at the time, to prepare the presentation of the endowment ceremony in such a way that it could be delivered in a single ordinance room in different languages to accommodate the multiple languages of the European Saints.
Missionary work during the 1950s became a larger undertaking than at any other time during the previous 100 years, bringing the beginning of fulfillment to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s words of the 1842 Wentworth Letter: “The Standard of Truth has been erected; 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.”3
With the expanded use of commercial airline travel by missionaries and leaders in the late 1950s, the way was opened for both leaders and missionaries to travel to many nations of the earth. Thousands of young men accepted mission calls and joined in an unprecedented effort to take the gospel to many new nations—an effort that grew steadily over decades. A record number of missionaries—over 3,000—had been called and set apart in 1950, but due to the Korean War, the number of new missionaries called was severely curtailed during the next three years.
As the war ended in 1953, President McKay gave inspired counsel that would come to have an immense effect: “Every member a missionary.”4 Members became more aware of their everyday role as examples, friends, and sources of information about the Church to their nonmember acquaintances. Missionaries once again entered the mission field in growing numbers, and multiple missions were created in such lands as Australia, Brazil, Britain, Germany, Mexico, and New Zealand. With more missionaries and more members spreading the gospel, Church membership had jumped by about 50 percent at the end of the decade.
During this time the Unified Church School System was established to oversee schools, seminaries, and institutes worldwide. Early-morning seminary classes became more widespread, and Church leaders directed the expansion of Brigham Young University and founded the Church College of Hawaii, later to become Brigham Young University—Hawaii Campus. Hosts of institute programs started, and several schools in Mexico and the South Pacific were created, all with excellent results for Church youth.
President McKay quickly became the most traveled President in the Church’s history to that date. In 1954 he became the first General Authority to visit the Saints in South Africa, where the Church had been established for more than a century. In 1955 he visited extensively throughout the South Pacific, then returned to Europe and dedicated the Swiss Temple. In 1956 he also dedicated a long-awaited Los Angeles Temple, and in 1958 he dedicated temples in London and New Zealand.
As the focus of the Church turned international, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles directed that more curriculum and leadership instructions be translated into various languages and that more chapels be built for the increasing number of wards and branches both in the United States and throughout the world. In 1958 the first overseas stake was created in New Zealand, and more stakes quickly followed in England and Australia.
In 1961 the United States became involved in Vietnam in a military struggle that had been ongoing since 1949. By 1965 the conflict resulted once again in a U.S. military draft and placed a limit on the number of American young men who could be called to serve missions. But with a vast increase in LDS servicemen and women, the Church’s military committee was strengthened and encouraged to find and support all Latter-day Saint military personnel, regardless of where they were stationed. Many General Authorities visited soldiers in Vietnam and throughout Asia to see that members were cared for and included in a servicemen’s group. Church members in the service were often reminded by their Latter-day Saint buddies to hold true to their religious ideals, to remember the teachings of Church leaders and parents back home, and to keep the law of chastity and the Word of Wisdom.
In the United States, however, an antiwar movement contributed to riots and disrupted many college campuses. A counterculture revolution sprang up with some young people promoting immorality, music with suggestive lyrics and movements, and illegal drugs. This abrupt departure from moral values jolted many communities, families, and individuals.
Latter-day Saints meanwhile were being fortified against the negative aspects of the 1960s. In 1960 President McKay had called Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to head what came to be known as the Priesthood Correlation Committee, one that included many General Authorities, to examine a number of issues connected to Church growth: how to coordinate the priesthood-directed ward and stake structure; how to coordinate auxiliary programs that created their own programs, published their own magazines, and held their own conferences; and how to correlate the curriculum of the Church. In 1961, under the direction of the First Presidency and the Twelve, Elder Lee announced the formation of the All-Church Coordinating Council, which eventually pulled every organization, auxiliary, and professional service under the priesthood umbrella. The eventual goal was to reduce and simplify Church curricula, publications, meetings, and other aspects of the Lord’s work.5 This was the beginning of the Church’s inspired correlation effort.
During the 1960s, the Brethren directed numerous changes to assist families and individuals in staying close to each other and the Lord. In 1964 ward teaching became home teaching, with greater emphasis on committed oversight of the needs of families by priesthood quorums. Of the many changes instituted to help members, one of the most helpful was the renewed emphasis on family home evening, which was to take place in each home each week. “No other success can compensate for failure in the home,” said President McKay.6 Beginning in 1965, a family home evening manual was made available to every family, and by 1970 Monday evenings were set aside Churchwide in an effort to help families spend more time together.
Other effects of the work of the Brethren during the 1960s included altered and refined auxiliary goals and purposes, a uniform Church curriculum year, meetinghouse libraries that served all organizations, and other changes to reduce, simplify, and consolidate Church organization.7 At this time Church leaders counseled members to seek out information on four generations of their ancestry. This encouraged members to become more involved in temple and genealogical work.8
President McKay’s health began to deteriorate in the mid-1960s due to a series of strokes and weaknesses incident to his advanced age. When President McKay died in January 1970, almost two-thirds of the entire Church membership—then nearly three million9—had known no other prophet. On the day of his passing, the Church coincidentally created its 500th stake,10 a number that included stakes in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Japan, Samoa, and Tonga, as well as Australia, Britain, and New Zealand.11 President McKay had opened the door to spreading the Church internationally.
Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972) became the 10th President of the Church in 1970 at age 93. As an Apostle and Church historian, he had already done much to teach Church doctrine. Among his numerous doctrinal writings is the compilation Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, originally prepared as the course of study for the Melchizedek Priesthood for 1942 and 1943. Over the years, his writings helped to shape a unified Church curriculum that would serve the needs of the growing worldwide Church.
In August 1971 President Smith presided at the first area conference held in Manchester, England, for members in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. This and subsequent area conferences brought General Authorities into closer contact with large groups of members worldwide.
During President Smith’s time as Church President, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles established clear guidelines for all Church-published curricular materials and created three Church-correlated magazines called the Ensign, the New Era, and the Friend. On 2 July 1972 President Smith died, having led the Church for two and a half years.
President Smith was followed by President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973), who served for 18 months as President of the Church before passing away on 26 December 1973. An educator by profession, he was an inspiration to members, especially to the youth of the Church, with whom he enjoyed visiting. His years of work as an Apostle overseeing the Priesthood Correlation Committee had helped consolidate Church organization and curriculum and had helped prepare the Church for international expansion. In addition, he was a pioneer in the development of the welfare program, which has had a significant impact on the international Church. Also during this period, the Public Communications Department was organized to handle the Church’s public relations in an increasingly media-oriented world.12
When President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) became President in late 1973, many members at the time assumed his leadership would be brief because he had long suffered the ill effects of heart problems and cancer. Yet the Lord sustained him for nearly 12 remarkable years, during which he moved about the world inviting members to lengthen their stride and to “do it,” meaning to act rather than procrastinate sacred responsibilities.
While administering to a growing international Church, President Kimball also focused on individuals. Speaking to priesthood leaders, he said: “Be mindful always of the members of your flock who are sad, lonely, bereaved, or bereft. There are always some among us who need our special care and attention. We must never forget or overlook them.”13
Early in his administration, President Kimball encouraged the Saints to pray that the doors of many nations would open throughout the world and to prepare for this to happen. He urged members to prepare more missionaries and counseled every young man to prepare himself to be worthy to accept a mission call. Young women and senior couples also heeded President Kimball’s invitation for more and better-prepared missionaries. The 1970s became an era of great excitement for missionary work, and hosts of new missions were created in many new countries. In looking ahead, President Kimball said: “We are turning our attention more diligently now to one day sharing the gospel with our Father’s children behind the so-called iron and bamboo curtains. We have need to prepare. … That day may come with more swiftness than we realize.”14 His words would begin to see fulfillment within a decade.
President Kimball and the Brethren modified General Authority assignments and callings to better serve the growing numbers of Latter-day Saints. In October 1975 the First Council of the Seventy was sustained as the Seven Presidents of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and three other members were sustained to that quorum. Others were added in the April 1976 conference, and then in the October 1976 conference the Assistants to the Twelve were sustained as members of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
The year 1978 brought what President Kimball and others described as one of the greatest changes and blessings ever known.15 In seeking to take the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, he felt a great concern regarding many who were restricted from receiving the priesthood and temple blessings. Over an extended period of time, he and his counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “pleaded long and earnestly in [their] behalf.”16 The revelation came on 1 June 1978, and the blessings of the priesthood were extended to every worthy male. The impact of the revelation was far reaching and effectively opened up the entire earth for the preaching of the gospel.
Following this revelation, missionary work in Brazil expanded dramatically, and a temple was dedicated in Brazil in October 1978. However, the continent of Africa was affected most by this revelation, as tens of thousands of Africans joined the Church in the next 20 years. In the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic was opened to the preaching of the gospel.
With the international Church moving forward in an ever greater way, the Brethren initiated the publication of new editions of the scriptures, replete with many new study aids. The King James Version of the Bible was published in English in 1979 with footnotes; Topical Guide, which for the first time referenced all latter-day scriptures; Bible Dictionary; excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation; and Gazetteer and map section; in 1981 a new triple combination was published in English with the addition of sections 137 and 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration—2, and extensive cross-references.
As the Church expanded worldwide, leaders expressed concern about the proliferation of programs, materials, and special booklets. President Kimball said, “May we keep Church programs and organizations simple. If we do, we will build a thrilling and rewarding momentum in the days and months and years ahead.”17 The goal was to simplify materials so that the gospel message could be translated and taken to all nations.
Thus, correlation efforts during the 1980s and 1990s focused on reducing and simplifying Church materials. One striking example was the 1998 publication of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1 and Book 2, which replaced 30 handbooks and greatly reduced the burden on new leaders to understand the operations of the Church.
During these years, Church leaders again encouraged members to verify and resubmit their four-generation sheets, which became the basis for Ancestral File•. The need for increased attention to genealogy became apparent when President Kimball said that many temples would soon be built closer to the people. More than a dozen new temples for the United States and many other nations were announced, and he himself dedicated temples in Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Atlanta; Tokyo; and São Paulo.
By 1980 President Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney all suffered from advancing age and health concerns. Consequently, in 1981 Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was called to the First Presidency as an additional counselor. He helped carry the heavy load of Church leadership during President Kimball’s last years.
In 1985 a new edition of the hymnbook was published that introduced new music to Church members while emphasizing the hymns of the Restoration. In November of that year, President Kimball died, having served for nearly 12 years as President of the Church.
President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) became the 13th President of the Church in 1985. His declared mission was to testify of the urgent need for Latter-day Saints to use the Book of Mormon to increase their testimonies, to strengthen their faith in Jesus Christ, to bless their families, to prepare their young people to become effective missionaries, and to share the blessings of the Restoration with the inhabitants of the world. He said, “The time is long overdue for a massive flooding of the earth with the Book of Mormon. … In this age of electronic media and the mass distribution of the printed word, God will hold us accountable if we do not now move the Book of Mormon in a monumental way. … My beloved brothers and sisters, we hardly fathom the power of the Book of Mormon, nor the divine role it must yet play, nor the extent to which it must be moved.”18
To meet the needs of the international Church, members of the Seventy were called to serve in presidencies over 13 geographic areas of the world, thus decentralizing decision-making authority. Concurrently area offices were established in many countries to help manage Church concerns and needs at a level closer to the people. By the mid-1980s, some General Authorities were assigned to live within their appointed areas.19
Of great importance for the nations of the earth was the fulfilling of President Kimball’s desire that more doors of the nations would be opened. In 1989 the Iron Curtain came down, with one result being the opening of more nations to the restored gospel. Between 1985 and 1995 numerous new temples on five continents were dedicated and used by members happy to participate in their own temple ordinances as well as vicarious ordinances for their kindred dead. To help accommodate the ever-expanding missionary force, which had soared to over 50,000 by the end of President Benson’s administration, 15 missionary training centers were built next to temples in Asia, the Pacific, Europe, and Latin American countries.
On 6 June 1994 President Howard W. Hunter (1907–95) became the 14th President of the Church. He had been closely involved in the development and computerization of family history projects. Though his administration lasted only nine months, he left an indelible stamp upon the Church by urging all members to become worthy to hold a temple recommend, to make the temple the symbol of their membership, and to “live with ever more attention to the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially the love and hope and compassion he displayed.”20
By the time of President Hunter’s death on 3 March 1995, the Church had grown from 1.1 million members to more than 9 million members,21 with most of that growth outside the United States. In 1951 less than 10 percent of the total membership lived outside of the United States, but by 1995 nearly 50 percent lived in other countries.
The Church had been established in many nations of the earth. Its presence and organization had been strengthened through priesthood direction, and the First and Second Quorums of the Seventy had been formed, allowing more General Authorities to minister to Latter-day Saints worldwide. In homes, members were reading not only the Book of Mormon but all scriptures with greater diligence, implementing family home evenings as a practice, preparing family histories, and indeed looking to the temple as the great symbol of their membership.
The Church was prepared to move out of obscurity with much greater momentum to fulfill the Lord’s promise that the stone cut out of the mountain without hands would someday fill the whole earth.