President Wilford Woodruff died September 2, 1898. At the age of 84, when most men have laid aside their life’s work, Lorenzo Snow succeeded him as President of the Church. As with the men who had gone before him, early in life he had gained extensive experience in the Church, serving on missions both at home and abroad.
When he took over the leadership of the organization, the Church was in a desperate financial condition. The nation had passed through a severe economic depression, which had been felt in the West as elsewhere. Then, too, under the anti-polygamy prosecution, the payment of tithing had seriously decreased. The property of the Church had been confiscated, and much of the incentive for paying tithing had gone. The organization was under a staggering burden of debt.
Under these conditions, President Snow made a trip in the spring of 1899 to the town of St. George in southern Utah. Drought had blighted the land. The preceding winter had been the driest in thirty-five years, and the one preceding that the driest in thirty-four years. The people were discouraged, for it appeared as if a curse had come over what once had been a garden-land.
By inspiration, as President Snow said, he spoke to the assembled Saints on the law of tithing. Had not the Lord said through the prophet Malachi that Israel had robbed Him in tithes and offerings? And had He not also given them a prom-ise that if they would bring their tithes into the storehouse He would open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing that they would not have room enough to receive it?
The President then went on to promise the Saints that if they would faithfully pay their tithes, they could plant their crops and rain would come. The people heeded the counsel. They paid their tithes, not only in St. George, but throughout the Church as the President continued his appeals for obedience to this commandment of God. But weeks passed in the southern colony, and still the hot winds blew and the crops wilted.
Then one morning in August a telegram was laid on the President’s desk: “Rain in St. George.” The creeks and rivers filled, and the crops matured.
In 1907 the last of the Church’s debt was paid. Since then, the Church has been free of financial stress.
President Joseph F. Smith
Lorenzo Snow died October 10, 1901. He was succeeded by Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith, who was murdered in Carthage Jail. His life reflects the history of the Church from a position of ignominy to one of wide respect.
He was born November 13, 1838, at Far West, Missouri. At the time, his father was a prisoner of the mob-militia, whose avowed purpose was to exterminate the Mormons. When he was an infant, his mother carried him in the flight from Far West to Illinois.
One of his earliest recollections was of that historic night of June 27, 1844, when he was five years of age. A knock was heard on his mother’s window, and a trembling voice whispered that his father had been killed by the Carthage mob. As a seven-year-old boy he heard the roar of guns incident to the final expulsion of the Saints from Nauvoo, and before reaching his eighth birthday he drove a team of oxen most of the way across Iowa.
In 1848 the family crossed the plains. It was no small task for a ten-year-old boy to yoke and unyoke oxen as well as drive most of the day. When the boy was thirteen, his mother died, her vitality exhausted by the experiences through which she had passed.
Two years later he was called on a mission to the Hawaiian Islands. Making his way to the Coast, he worked in a shingle mill to earn money to pay his way to the Islands.
Following his missionary experience in Hawaii, he served the Church in the British Isles as well as in other fields of labor. He became President of the Church in 1901.
Shortly after this, Reed Smoot, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, was elected U.S. Senator from Utah. His seat was soon contested by political enemies who played on the old polygamy issue. It was Joseph F. Smith, however, rather than the senator, who became the principal target of attack. He was cartooned and slandered throughout the nation. But he had seen so much of intolerance that he passed over this new outburst, saying, “There are those … who will shut their eyes to every virtue and to every good thing connected with this latter day work, and will pour out floods of falsehood and misrepresentation against the people of God. I forgive them for this. I leave them in the hand of the just Judge.” 1
In spite of all such attacks, these were years of progress for the Church. Missionary work was extended. Scores of beautiful buildings were erected, including three temples—one in Arizona, one in Canada, and one in the Hawaiian Islands. A bureau of information was established on Temple Square in Salt Lake City to greet the thousands of tourists who came from all parts of the world, usually out of curiosity. They learned the facts concerning the Church, and the old hatred, the old bitterness slowly gave way.
On November 19, 1918, Joseph F. Smith died. Newspapers which had slandered his character paid editorial homage to him, and prominent men throughout the nation voiced high tribute to his memory. The years had vindicated him and the cause to which he had dedicated his life.
President Heber J. Grant
Four days following the death of President Smith, Heber J. Grant became President of the Church. His father, who had been a counselor to Brigham Young, had died when the boy was nine days old. He was born November 22, 1856, the first of the presidents of the Church to have been born in the West.
Heber J. Grant was by nature a practical man. He had a recognized talent in the field of finance, and as a young man he made an enviable record in business. But at the same time he was active in Church affairs, and when only twenty-six years of age, he was ordained a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. From that time forward he was a zealous worker in the cause of the restored Church.
His financial abilities were shown to marked degree when, during the depression of the nineties, he was sent east by the President of the Church to borrow money. In spite of business conditions and the negative attitude many people had toward the Church, he returned with hundreds of thousands of dollars, which proved a great boon in those difficult times.
Heber J. Grant was also a leading figure in the establishment of the western beet sugar industry. The Church was interested in this because it meant a cash crop for thousands of its members. Accordingly, he materially assisted in the found-ing of this industry, which has put millions of dollars into the hands of western farmers.
One of President Grant’s favorite projects was giving away books. The funds for this purpose he called his “cigarette money” because, he claimed, the money some of his friends wasted on cigarettes he was able to spend on books. During his lifetime he passed out more than a hundred thousand volumes at his own expense.
Unflinching in his loyalty to his church and its teachings, he was nevertheless a great friend maker. Leaders in business, education, and government were his intimate friends, and his capacity for getting along with people greatly helped in breaking down the wall of prejudice against the Church.
His administration was an era of progress. The Church passed its hundredth anniversary in 1930, commemorating the event with a great celebration. Unhampered by the oppression of religious bigots, freed from the brutality of mobs, strong enough to assert its power for good, it flourished in an era of good will previously unknown in all of its history.
President George Albert Smith
President Grant died May 14, 1945, in his eighty-ninth year. He was succeeded by George Albert Smith. President Smith was born April 4, 1870. As a young man he served a mission in the southern states, and, after becoming a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, he presided over the affairs of the Church in Europe.
One of his major interests was Scouting. He served as a member of the National Executive Board of Boy Scouts of America and received the highest awards for local and national service to the cause of Scouting. An official citation given him by national officials stated that “to his enthusiasm for its [Scouting’s] program must be largely traced the fact that Utah stands above all other states in the percentage of boys who are Scouts.” 2
For many years President Smith took a leading part in preserving the story of America’s pioneers. He was the organizer and served as president of the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association, under whose sponsorship the Mormon trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City was marked with stone and bronze. He likewise served as vice-president of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, and was one of the organizers of the American Pioneer Trails Association.
President David O. McKay
President Smith passed away on April 4, 1951, his eighty-first birthday. His funeral was held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on April 7, and two days later, in the same building, members of the Church, “in solemn assembly,” sustained David Oman McKay as President of the Church. President McKay was then seventy-seven, having been born at Huntsville, Utah, September 8, 1873.
By training he was an educator, but he devoted most of his life to the Church. He was named a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles at the age of 32. A man of commanding appearance and dynamic personality, he won friends for the Church wherever he went on his worldwide travels in the interest of the cause to which he had given his heart.
He promoted a greatly expanded building program which created thousands of new houses of worship; temples in Switzerland, England, New Zealand, and the United States; and a dramatic expansion of the Church school system.
President Joseph Fielding Smith
President McKay passed away in Salt Lake City, January 18, 1970, at the age of 96, and was succeeded five days later by Joseph Fielding Smith, President of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, of which he had been a member for sixty years. He was the son of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the Church, and a grandson of Hyrum Smith, who was murdered with the Prophet Joseph in 1844.
President Joseph Fielding Smith was a lifelong student of the doctrine and history of the Church. His extensive writings on these subjects made of him a recognized authority in these fields, and for many years he served as Church Historian and Recorder, responsible for maintaining the extensive archives which have become a treasure-house of information, not only on the Church and its history, but also on the cultures in which it has developed.
President Harold B. Lee
President Smith died in Salt Lake City on July 2, 1972, and was succeeded by Harold B. Lee on July 7 of the same year. In 1936, when the nation and most of the world were paralyzed by a tragic economic depression, officers of the Church, building on principles laid down by Joseph Smith, inaugurated what was termed the Church Security Program, later called the Church Welfare Program. Governments were trying to stem the tide of unemployment with various make-work and dole systems. But the Church taught the principle that in times of stress, responsibility for remedying the problem lay first with the individual, then with his family, and then with the Church, rather than with his government. Elder Lee was given the major task for setting up a system under which “the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people.” 3 All Church members were expected to work together to help those in distress.
Farms were acquired; processing, production, and distribution facilities were constructed; and other resources were put in motion to provide the unemployed with the opportunity to fulfill their needs and preserve their integrity. This program, which continues to expand as the Church grows, has been commended by social welfare experts from many parts of the world.
President Spencer W. Kimball
President Lee died in Salt Lake City, December 26, 1973. Four days later Spencer W. Kimball was given the reins of presidency. Church membership had now passed the three-million mark, and within five years under his dynamic leadership another million members were added to the rolls.
Spencer W. Kimball was born in Salt Lake City, March 28, 1895, but was reared in Arizona. There he served in many Church capacities while carrying on his private business. He was ordained an Apostle in 1943 and traveled over much of the earth building and strengthening the kingdom.
Although small of stature, he was a veritable dynamo in fulfilling the responsibilities of President of an expanding Church. He repeatedly called on the membership to “lengthen our stride” and “quicken our pace.” New missions were opened in many parts of the earth, and thousands of young men and women served in those missions, giving freely of their time and means to teach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations of the earth.
Of great significance was President Kimball’s announcement of June 9, 1978, that the Lord “has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessing of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” 4 News of this change in a policy that had been observed for almost a century and a half was carried in the media across the world, and the response was highly favorable.
During the years of President Kimball’s leadership, the Church received a growing measure of respect. Three items indicative of this may be mentioned:
As we have previously noted, the Latter-day Saints were driven from Missouri by an inhumane and illegal extermination order issued by Governor Boggs. On June 25, 1976, his successor in office several times removed, Governor Christopher S. Bond, issued another executive order which reads in part:
“Whereas, Governor Boggs’ order clearly contravened the rights to life, liberty, property and religious freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, as well as the Constitution of the State of Missouri; …
“Now, therefore, I … do hereby order as follows:
“Expressing on behalf of all Missourians our deep regret for the injustice and undue suffering which was caused by this 1838 order, I hereby rescind Executive Order Number 44 dated October 27, 1838, issued by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs.” 5
In 1978, an impressive memorial to the women of the Church was dedicated in Nauvoo, Illinois. It portrays in a variety of bronze figures set in a spacious park women young and older, mothers and children who lived in Nauvoo and were compelled to leave their homes and flee to the sanctuary they established in the mountains, many of them dying on the way. On the occasion of this dedication, national and state officials and men and women of prominence from Illinois and other parts of the nation paid tribute to those who once had built a beautiful city from the swamplands they found there.
Also in 1978, the President of the United States signed a bill passed by Congress which repealed the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887—the legislation that had been employed to disincorporate the Church and escheat its property in the harsh persecutions and prosecutions against the Latter-day Saints during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
President Ezra Taft Benson
President Spencer W. Kimball passed away November 5, 1985, and five days later, on November 10, Ezra Taft Benson was set apart as the thirteenth President of the Church. Upon becoming Church President he led six million members located in countries throughout the world.
Named after his great-grandfather, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Ezra Taft Benson was born in Whitney, Idaho, in 1899. While still in his teens he shouldered a large portion of the responsibilities of operating a farm while his father served a full-time mission for the Church. He was called on a mission to Great Britain, and after returning graduated from Brigham Young University. Following the completion of his master’s degree at Iowa State University, he served as an agricultural extension economist in Boise, Idaho. In 1939 he went to Washington, D.C., as Executive Secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. There he was named stake president of the Washington D.C. Stake of the Church, comparable to the previous calling he had held in Idaho. In 1943, he was sustained a member of the Church’s Council of the Twelve Apostles. When Dwight Eisenhower was elected United States President in 1952, he asked Elder Benson to become Secretary of Agriculture in his administration. Elder Benson accepted and served with distinction in the President’s cabinet for eight years.
Almost immediately after his call as the Church’s prophet, President Benson emphasized to Church members the reading and use of the Book of Mormon. “We not only need to say more about the Book of Mormon, but we need to do more with it,” he declared. 6 From that time the use of this volume of scripture in missionary work and in personal and family studies and teaching increased dramatically.
In their first Christmas message, President Benson and his counselors made an eloquent appeal for the disaffected, the critical, and the transgressors to “come back. Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.” 7 President Benson also spoke out strongly in support of family strength and solidarity.
President Howard W. Hunter
President Benson died on May 30, 1994. Six days later, President Howard W. Hunter was ordained and set apart as the fourteenth President of the Church. He had served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve since 1959, and as its president from 1988 to 1994.
A former corporate lawyer and businessman from Southern California, President Hunter was known for his modest ways and quiet demeanor. Upon becoming Church president, he issued two invitations to members of the Church. He first invited all members to live with ever more attention to the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially the love, hope, and compassion He displayed. Second, he invited members of the Church to establish the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of their membership and the supernal setting for their most sacred covenants. He expressed the desire that every member of the Church be temple worthy and challenged every adult member to be worthy of and carry a current temple recommend.
He continued these themes through his months as Church president. Temple work increased as a result of his challenge, and countless lives were blessed as more and more people became temple worthy. President Hunter dedicated the Orlando Florida and Bountiful Utah Temples during his administration.
In spite of physical limitations, President Hunter traveled to Europe, Hawaii, and throughout the United States, meeting with and blessing the Saints. In December 1994, he organized the two-thousandth stake of the Church in Mexico City, a significant milestone.
President Hunter passed away quietly on March 3, 1995, having served as President of the Church only nine months, the shortest tenure of any president. Despite the shortness of his term, his kind and gentle ways and entreating voice had dramatic impact for good on Church members worldwide.
President Gordon B. Hinckley
Nine days following President Hunter’s death, President Gordon B. Hinckley was ordained the fifteenth President of the Church. Church membership was over nine million. President Hinckley had served previously as a counselor to Presidents Kimball, Benson, and Hunter for nearly fourteen years. Before that he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for twenty years. During those years he helped administer most of the business interests of the Church and had an essential role in constructing and dedicating temples in various areas of the world.
A native of Salt Lake City, President Hinckley graduated from the University of Utah and served as a missionary to the British Isles. During most of his mission he was assistant to Elder Joseph F. Merrill of the Quorum of the Twelve, who was then president of the European Mission headquartered in London. In 1935 President Hinckley was hired to work in the Church Administration Building, and he has had an office in that building almost continuously since then. He pioneered the use of media in the Church. He later directed the Missionary Department of the Church before his call as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1958.
Following his ordination as President of the Church, President Hinckley immediately began a rigorous travel schedule. He challenged members of the Church to “stand a little taller, to lift our eyes and stretch our minds to a greater comprehension and understanding of the grand millennial mission of this, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” 8
Under President Hinckley’s direction, temple building has occurred at an unprecedented rate. The 100th operating temple was dedicated in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 1, 2000, as the work continues to bring the temples closer to the people.
To help administer the worldwide growth of the Church, in April 1995 President Hinckley announced the creation of the office of Area Authority. In April 1997 he announced the creation of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Quorums of the Seventy. He also announced that the Area Authorities would be ordained Seventies and be members of these quorums, working under the direction of the Twelve.
In 1995 the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” At a time when the family and traditional values were being threatened throughout the world, this statement reaffirmed that “the family is ordained of God” and that “marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.” 9 In January 2000, President Hinckley and the other Apostles issued a declaration called “The Living Christ,” reaffirming their testimony of the divinity of Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God. 10
In April 1996 President Hinckley announced the building of a house of worship that would accommodate more than 20,000 people for general conferences and other events. Later named the Conference Center, this building was dedicated by President Hinckley in October 2000.
President Hinckley has frequently emphasized the need to strengthen converts and reach out to less-active members. “Every one of them needs three things,” he said: “a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God’ (Moroni 6:4). It is our duty and opportunity to provide these things.” 11
President Hinckley presides over the Church in an era when it has achieved widespread respect and favorable responses from media, government, and other religious institutions. It is also a time of ever-accelerating growth. In addition to North America, strong and developing congregations of the Saints are found in the British Isles and Western Europe, throughout Central and South America, in Africa, in Asia, in Australia, in New Zealand, and in the islands of the South Pacific.
Today the same testimony Joseph Smith first bore to his neighbors in upstate New York may be heard in scores of languages, declaring that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that His ancient gospel has been restored to the earth, and that the Church of Jesus Christ is again available to all mankind.
1. In Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1969), p. 351.
2. In Preston Nibley, The Presidents of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1968), p. 366.
3. Message of the First Presidency, in Conference Report, Oct. 1936, p. 3.
4. In Ensign, July 1978, p. 75.
5. Executive order of 25 June 1976, copy in Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
6. In Conference Report, Apr. 1986, p. 4; or Ensign, May 1986, p. 5.
7. In Church News, 22 Dec. 1985, p. 3.
8. In Conference Report, Apr. 1995, p. 95; or Ensign, May 1995, p. 71.
9. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, p. 102.
11. In Conference Report, Apr. 1997, p. 66; or Ensign, May 1997, p. 47.