In His preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord said that His Church should come “out of obscurity and out of darkness.” 1 Obscurity for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 undoubtedly meant many things, but among them it meant beginning with just six members in a log cabin in upper-state New York. For the first years of its existence, the limited size of the Church would indeed place it in relative obscurity.
Even so, from the Church’s earliest periods, the communication vehicles of the day have been used to promote the gospel—print, radio and television, and movies. Today, these and other communication vehicles are being used to bring the Church “out of obscurity and out of darkness.”
The Printed Word
Print on paper has been the most widely used method of communicating about the Church to broad audiences. In the early days of the preaching of the Restoration, the Book of Mormon was the main proselyting tool. It was advertised for sale by 26 March 1830. The precious copies of this first edition were carried by missionaries as a means of establishing the Church upon the earth. When Hyrum Smith inquired through the Prophet Joseph Smith as to what would be the most important thing they could do, they were told to learn the word of the Lord and then preach it. 2
The printed word played an important role in both positive and negative ways in the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth. The Prophet Joseph Smith responded to John Wentworth, a young Chicago newspaper editor asking for information about the Church to be included in a history of New Hampshire. The Prophet wrote what we today call the Wentworth Letter, which included the Articles of Faith. 3 It was also in the Wentworth letter that Joseph Smith issued this magnificent declaration on the future of communications in the Church: “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.” 4
The Prophet Joseph Smith prefaced his own history by mentioning the many false reports “put in circulation by evil-disposed” individuals (JS—H 1:1). Thus media of the time—word of mouth and written—prompted the Prophet to put aside, at least in part, the pressing leadership responsibilities and go to work on what today we would term the public relations aspects of the problem.
As a result, he took time to write about his personal experiences and correct misrepresentations and rumors. The Prophet received revelations and even halted the highly important work of translating to respond to public opinion. In the introduction to Doctrine and Covenants 71 [D&C 71] we find: “The brethren [Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon] were to go forth to preach in order to allay the unfriendly feelings that had developed against the Church as a result of the publication of some newspaper articles by Ezra Booth, who had apostatized.”
The use of print to tell the gospel story is evidenced in material written by early-19th-century Apostles and used extensively in their proselyting ministries. Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote a pamphlet entitled A Voice of Warning, which was published in 1837 and which proved instrumental in converting many people.
Elder Orson Pratt, Elder Parley P. Pratt’s younger brother and a fellow member of the Twelve, was also a writer of great skill. He published a number of pamphlets that were effective in spreading the gospel message. His essay An Interesting Account, published in 1840, was the first publication containing the story of the First Vision. Pamphlets published later in the 1840s in England were very effective in communicating the truths of the gospel. Hundreds of thousands were printed.
The publishing of the good news of the gospel was also accomplished in those early days by the highly popular medium of newspapers. As the Church grew, so did press coverage of the Church. From the first days of the Restoration, newspapers carried negative and positive accounts about the Church, its members and its leaders. The accounts ranged from telling the sublime story of the Restoration to trumpeting the trivial.
The Church’s own newspapers were the primary source of the little favorable attention the Church received in those days.
The Saints fled Nauvoo with the fervent hope that the isolation of their home somewhere in the Rocky Mountains would bring them peace and an opportunity to practice their religion as they felt God intended it. For a while they were relieved of the mischief generated by anti–Latter-day Saint newspapers, orators, and religionists of the day. However, the jarring events of the 1849 Gold Rush in California and the resultant fact that Salt Lake City became the “Crossroads of the West” changed the quiet tranquillity. During the early days in Utah, the Church suffered from a great deal of misinformation and in many cases deliberate lies.
An example of Church leaders’ attempts to get accurate Church information into print took place when Elder Wilford Woodruff served as Church historian during President John Taylor’s administration. H. H. Bancroft, a noted historian of the 19th century, invited the Church to supply materials for use in his historical work. He devoted one of his volumes exclusively to Utah. Elder Woodruff’s journals detail his work with this famous historian and note that he spent most of the day with Hubert Howe Bancroft on the History of Utah and the Mormons: “He was giving both sides of the question for and against. He gave us the privilege of correcting any mistakes on our side.” 5 It’s interesting to note that early Church leaders practiced what we today would call good public relations.
Another example of sound public relations was the open house for the Salt Lake Temple, which set the precedent for what takes place today before our modern temples are dedicated. President Woodruff personally gave tours before the Salt Lake Temple was dedicated in 1893. John M. Whitaker’s journal records: “There is another important thing I wish to preserve as a matter of history. … President Wilford Woodruff felt inspired to invite many prominent Gentiles, even some who had persecuted the Saints, to accompany him and the General Authorities of the Church to go through the various rooms of the temple, and as he did so [he] explained very clearly many of the things that took place in the various rooms of the temple, and what it meant to the Latter-day Saints to have their wives sealed to them for time and all eternity. This great privilege created in the minds of the Gentiles a great and profound feeling, [and] removed much prejudice and misunderstanding.” 6
And so it is today: few endeavors of the Church change the hearts and minds of others not of our faith like attendance at the temple open houses.
Proclaiming the Gospel through the Air
In D&C 58:64 the Lord said: “For, verily, the sound must go forth from this place into all the world, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth—the gospel must be preached to every creature.”
The Improvement Era of November 1907 noted that an event of great importance had taken place on 17 October: the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company had begun sending trans-Atlantic wireless messages between Canada and Great Britain. The Era noted, “Think of sending accurately twenty words a minute, three thousand miles, through the air, without a wire to guide them! It is not only a stupendous scientific feat, but an epoch-making marvel, one of the most wonderful achievements of man recorded in history!” 7
A new epoch in the methods of preaching the gospel was introduced on 6 May 1922, when the Deseret News Radio Station was formally dedicated. Speeches and musical selections were broadcast. President Heber J. Grant spoke at 8 P.M., giving a message to the people of the world. Then the mayor of Salt Lake City spoke, and he was followed by Augusta Grant, President Grant’s wife, who said, “This is one of the most wonderful inventions of this or any other age.” 8
Beginning in 1923, radio was used to broadcast general conference to overflow crowds of some 4,000 people who gathered on Temple Square. By April 1926, the Conference Report noted there were an estimated 50,000 people listening to the proceedings. 9
Television and Movies
Following the success of radio as a means of communication, teaching, and public affairs, the Church moved into the use of television and movies. In October 1949 the Church televised general conference for the first time, and by October 1953 general conference was broadcast outside the Intermountain West. President David O. McKay did much in his nearly 19 years as Church President to preach the gospel to an ever-widening audience. Indeed, President McKay was regarded by many in the world as a great spiritual leader. In 1966 President McKay said that the “scientific discoveries of today” would make possible “untold possibilities.” 10 Those possibilities surely would help preach the gospel to every kindred, tongue, and people.
In 1972 the Church began its public service campaigns. Known as the Homefront series, the brief radio and television messages were of such outstanding quality that they had tremendous impact. In fact, many Americans think of the Church in terms of what it does to strengthen the family.
The LDS Motion Picture Studio at BYU and, on occasion, outside contractors produced some great Church movies like The Last Leaf and The Windows of Heaven. Mr. Krueger’s Christmas has become a holiday classic.
During the early 1990s, the Public Affairs Department produced the first sacrament meeting for television. Called the Latter-day Saint Worship Service, these 30-minute programs featured Church members from many professions, both young and old, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Public Affairs Department also produced other program series such as Family Times and Center Street. These half-hour segments appeared in some 30 million homes across the United States on the VISN (now Odyssey) channel.
The Leadership of President Gordon B. Hinckley
When we speak of bringing the Church out of obscurity in our time, we cannot ignore the fact that President Hinckley has been about that task most of his adult life. President Hinckley, hired in 1935 as executive secretary of the newly formed Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee, helped pioneer the public relations program of the Church.
From that point on, filmstrips, pamphlets, brochures, radio documentaries and dramas were all increasingly used to tell the Church’s story. When radio was the instrument of both entertainment and information, the Church employed it. The Fulness of Times, a series of 39 episodes of Church history, was broadcast over 400 stations and ran for five years. 11
Millions of people learned about the history of the Church and were introduced to the gospel because of the Church’s efforts to use modern technology. In 1945 an article entitled “Twenty-Five Years of Radio Ministry” stated that “Each Sunday evening for many years the Church has sent out its message to this vast audience [estimated at 699,280 families]. Most of the General Authorities, as well as other speakers of repute, have delivered the story of the restoration on this hour. … Scores of inquiries have come from such scattered areas as Iowa, Montana, Saskatchewan, New Mexico, Oregon, and British Columbia. The programs have made easier the work of missionaries, and have led in some cases to further investigation and baptism.” 12
In addition, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Sunday broadcasts have served generations of radio listeners and television viewers. Music and the Spoken Word is the longest continuous weekly broadcast in the history of broadcasting. A choir’s milestone was in July 1998, when the program celebrated its 70th anniversary year.
In a press conference held on 13 March 1995, President Hinckley and his counselors, Thomas S. Monson and James E. Faust were announced as the new First Presidency of the Church. President Hinckley not only spoke to the press and thus to the world, but he answered questions of the reporters who attended. He did so with such openness and skill that they heralded it as a new era of communication.
A pivotal moment in President Hinckley’s administration came at the Harvard Club in New York City when Mike Wallace asked if he would be willing to be interviewed for a piece on 60 Minutes. President Hinckley was quiet for what seemed like a long time, in fact probably about 15 or 20 seconds, and then he said, “I believe I’ll take a chance.” President Hinckley appeared on 60 Minutes on 7 April 1996 and on 8 September 1998 he appeared on the Larry King Show, both distributed worldwide.
Throughout 1997, the Public Affairs Department responded to the request of Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that we help tell the Church’s story to the world during the Church sesquicentennial. It is fair to say that our fondest dreams were exceeded by considerable measure as the events unfolded. The centerpiece was the reenactment of the wagon train, an idea proposed by members and nonmembers alike and then assisted and publicized by the Church. Once articles appeared in the New York Times and Newsweek, the rest of the media realized that there was a story on the American prairies waiting to be told.
We are now seeing the Church learning to use the new medium of the World Wide Web to proclaim the gospel, answer questions, further family history research, and proclaim the word of the Lord through His servants. Truly the Church has come a long way.
Coming Out of Darkness
The scriptural phrase “out of darkness” reminds us that the doctrines of the Restoration were heralded by the magnificent events of the appearance of the Father and the Son to the boy Joseph Smith; the publishing of the Book of Mormon; and in America, the unprecedented persecution and remarkable pioneer trek led by President Brigham Young. Although well known to Latter-day Saints, these singular events have never been given the attention they deserve in the world. Yet as the world’s moral values grow weaker, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands in stark contrast. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve said in April 1994 general conference:
“We are not in doubt as to the course we must follow. It was given in the beginning, and guidance from on high is renewed as need may be.
“As we continue our course, these things will follow as night the day:
“The distance between the Church and a world set on a course which we cannot follow, will steadily increase.
“Some will fall away in apostasy, break their covenants, and replace the plan of redemption with their own rules.
“Across the world, those who now come by the tens of thousands will inevitably come as a flood to where the family is safe. Here they will worship the Father in the name of Christ, by the gift of the Holy Ghost, and know that the gospel is the great plan of happiness, of redemption.” 13
Though the Church has not yet fully emerged from darkness and obscurity, “no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing … till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country and sounded in every ear.” 14
See D&C 11:21.
The Papers of Joseph Smith, Dean C. Jesse, ed., 2 vols. (1989), 1:427–29.
History of the Church, 4:540.
Wilford Woodruff Journal, Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 27 Aug. 1884.
John M. Whitaker Journal, typescript, Church Archives, 1:46; spelling and punctuation modernized. He served for several years as private secretary and reporter for Church historian Franklin D. Richards.
Improvement Era, Nov. 1907, 80.
Improvement Era, June 1922, 735.
In Conference Report, 4 Apr. 1926, 1.
In Conference Report, 30 Sept. 1966, 4.
Cited in Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (1996), 100.
Church News, 26 Apr. 1947, 5.
“The Father and the Family,” Ensign, May 1994, 21.
History of the Church, 4:540.