“Wards and Stakes,” Church History Topics
“Wards and Stakes”
When the Church was organized in April 1830, there was no need for an extensive organizational structure, as most Saints could meet together in the same place. As individuals and families joined the Church in more distant locations, they were organized as separate congregations, or “branches.” Then, within a year of the Church’s founding, revelation directed these groups of believers to gather to one place.1 Gathering centers were soon established in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Jackson County, Missouri. The Saints in Missouri expected to build the city of Zion in preparation for the Second Coming. Kirtland was designated as a “stake of Zion,” referring to Isaiah’s metaphor of a giant tent that would serve as a dwelling for God’s covenant people.2 Church members in both gathering places were led by a presidency, bishop, and high council.3
Missionaries were sent out from these gathering places to preach the gospel throughout the United States, Canada, and, by 1837, Great Britain. Converts were expected to gather to Missouri or Ohio with other Latter-day Saints whenever possible. Nonetheless, many small Church branches formed in areas where missionaries had success. These branches were administered by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which had been given responsibility to act as a “traveling high council” for the branches outside of the centers of gathering.4
More stakes, in addition to that in Kirtland, were created after the Saints were driven from Jackson County and later from the entire state of Missouri. The stake in Nauvoo, Illinois, was particularly large and served as the main center of gathering during the early 1840s. The city grew to such an extent that it was divided into municipal wards, a common way of administering large cities at the time. These wards became an important way to administer Church business as well as civic affairs, which often blended together in the predominantly Latter-day Saint city.5 In 1842, the Nauvoo high council established 10 wards and called bishops for each ward. Bishops were primarily responsible to care for the poor in their respective wards, and wards were used as a way of organizing the collection and distribution of tithing and temple labor. Priesthood quorums continued to be organized at the stake level, and the Saints in Nauvoo most often worshipped together as a stake.6
After the main body of the Church moved to yet another gathering center in Utah in the late 1840s, these same organizational structures continued. Salt Lake City was almost immediately established as a stake and divided into 19 wards. Between 1847 and his death in 1877, Brigham Young organized 20 total stakes in Utah and Idaho, each covering a large geographical area encompassing many settlements. Smaller towns and settlements typically had their own bishops, and when they grew larger, they too were divided into wards, each with its own bishop. Gradually, most members began to worship together as wards rather than as towns or stakes.7
In 1877, Brigham Young directed an extensive streamlining of Church organizations, establishing or reinforcing many of the same basic structures that exist in the Church today: smaller groups as branches with branch presidents, larger groups as wards with bishops, all contained within and administered by stakes, which were presided over by stake presidents.8
In areas outside of these stakes, primarily in the Church’s missions, small branches continued to nurture new converts and those who were unable to gather. Groups of branches would meet together in regularly convened conferences, and Church leaders and members began using the term conference to describe these groups of branches. Conferences were led by a conference president, usually a missionary.
In the early 20th century, Church Presidents Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith made changes to the stakes in Utah, dividing large stakes based on their member population rather than their distance from one another. For example, the 40,000-member Salt Lake Stake was divided into six smaller stakes. These adjustments led to wards of a more manageable size and encouraged greater participation among local members. Wards and stakes participated in building programs that led to the construction of thousands of meetinghouses. Wards provided access to channels of priesthood authority in order to administer gospel ordinances, fully carry out the Church’s auxiliary programs, and meet the temporal needs of the Saints.9
Outside of the area around Utah, missions, presided over by mission presidents, oversaw the operations of the Church. The hundreds of branches in the missions, now spread over nearly every continent, continued to grow as converts were increasingly encouraged to remain in their homelands rather than gather to Utah. Conferences (groups of branches) in the missions were renamed districts. Beginning in the 1920s, Church leaders established stakes outside of the western United States. The first were established in California, northern Mexico, and the eastern United States, then a handful in the Pacific and Europe. In the 1970s, Church leaders began establishing stakes throughout the world, with each stake supervising several wards or branches.10
Stakes and wards offer a strong sense of community and belonging to members, many of whom now live in busy, urban settings or in areas where Latter-day Saints are a small minority. At the local level, bishops and ward members care for and minister to one another as they strive to live according to the principles of the gospel. Most priesthood quorums and Church auxiliaries are organized at the ward level. Lines of ecclesiastical authority connect wards through stake presidencies to the General Authorities and Officers of the Church.