“A Status Report on Church Magazines,” Ensign, Feb. 1976, 70
The recent passing of Doyle L. Green (see January Ensign, p. 95), who served as director and editor of Church magazines and who was perhaps the major figure in Church magazine journalism during the last three decades, marks the end of an era from which we can look back at the significant advances made over the years in Church periodicals.
His personal association with General Authorities who were assigned to Church publications gave Brother Green firsthand experience with Church publication leaders whose influence spanned much of this century. He loved to tell the story of how President Heber J. Grant, as a young member of the Council of the Twelve, had prayed for the opportunity to be involved in founding a new magazine, the Improvement Era, because he believed so deeply that the Church needed the new publication. Elder Grant shortly thereafter became the business manager of the Era and involved his daughters in typing personal letters to thousands of his friends and acquaintances encouraging support of the new magazine. Visitors to Elder Grant’s home for months often found letters spread out to dry all over the floor, chairs, tables, window sills, etc., because Elder Grant did not like to blot his name after he had written it in ink. Brother Green often noted that he had seen how each succeeding Church president had given significant and strong, personal support to Church magazines.
Publishing a magazine presents many difficulties associated with obtaining quality articles and visual materials. Occasionally, when a difficulty presented itself, Brother Green told of Elder John A. Widtsoe’s comment after he had accepted Elder Widtsoe’s invitation to join the Era: “Now I don’t want you to feel too good about this. It takes a person with a certain brand of insanity to be the managing editor of a Church magazine. And we think you’re just the man.”
Elder Widtsoe loved natural foods and one day Brother Green brought in some strawberries from his garden. Elder Widtsoe began to eat them, one by one, admiring each one for some moments before he’d eat the next. “Doyle,” he said, “did you really raise these?”
“Yes, I did,” replied the young managing editor.
“Well, anyone who can raise strawberries like these has no business in an office.”
“And,” said Brother Green, “many a day when a problem came up, I wished I was out raising strawberries.”
He never forgot a lesson learned from President George Albert Smith. A painting of the Prophet Joseph Smith had been printed on the cover of the Era, with an inside cover note indicating that as far as was known, there was no original painting or photograph of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Brother Green said, “President Smith called our office and asked me to come over. When I arrived, Elder Widtsoe and Elder Richard L. Evans were in the room also. “Brother Green,” President Smith said, “this information is not true. We can’t let it go out.” President Smith explained that his relatives of the Reorganized Church (a group that did not come west with Brigham Young and formed their own church) thought they had a painting or a daguerreotype that might be original. Elder Widtsoe explained that, if this were so, the note was correct because it said “as far as is known”; but President Smith said, “That’s not right. I know better.” To President Smith there were some people who felt that they did know, and he wanted total accuracy. “So,” said Brother Green, “we decided to change it. By then the mailing had already started. We stopped the press, stopped the binding, called the U.S. Post Office and got permission to have people pull the first printed magazines from the mail bags. We then reprinted four pages. The President of the Church felt very keenly that it must be right. A lot of things happened like that to bring me of age as an editor.”
The mention of Elder Richard L. Evans, with whom Brother Green was associated for his entire twenty-four-year Improvement Era tenure, always made him smile. He often sent certain kinds of manuscripts to Elder Evans for an appraisal. “Sometimes the notes that came back were better than the manuscripts. On one he wrote, ‘This is good, but it starts pages before it begins and ends paragraphs before it finishes.’” On another manuscript Brother Green had asked Elder Evans, “Do you see any problems here?” Elder Evans wrote back, “I see problems everywhere.”
Few types of manuscripts have the capacity to divide a staff so quickly as do poetry and fiction, with camps of “for” and “against” quickly grouping over what is “important” and what is “drivel.” One poem had been going back and forth amongst staff members and had gone to Elder Evans for a resolution. On the second time that it came to him, Elder Evans wrote back, “I would resist this more, but when I resist I want to resist something worth resisting.”
“Obviously,” said Brother Green, “we never used that poem.”
We all know what our Church magazines of today look like—beautiful, quality cover paper, much four-color printing (although limited due to expense), beautiful art and photography, articles on Church programs and major Church news, a reading diet calculated to reach some of the needs and interests of all Saints as they seek to apply gospel living to their lives.
However, unless one personally has spent some hours looking at the early publications of the Church—and those that followed through the years—one probably will not be able to completely appreciate the present nature of today’s Church magazine program.
Even before the Church was organized a publication existed that distinguished this Church from all others—the Book of Mormon. But it, of course, was not a periodical. Briefly, the historical picture falls into the following pattern:
Phase 1. For the first forty to fifty years of the Church, wherever the Church was headquartered there generally existed a periodical, usually a monthly, that “represented” the Church in one form or another meaning that it enjoyed some claim to ecclesiastical support. The first such periodical was The Evening and Morning Star, 1832–33, in Independence, Missouri (founded there even though most Saints were in Kirtland because Independence was regarded as the eventual Church headquarters site); then came the LDS Messenger and Advocate, 1834–47, in Kirtland, after frontier mobbers pushed the Saints out of Independence; then the Elders Journal, 1837–38 at Kirtland and Far West, Missouri, after apostasy and the national financial panic of 1837 took the heavily indebted Advocate from its private owners. This was followed by the Times and Seasons (which became a bimonthly), 1839–46, at Nauvoo where several other papers for general news sprang up with Church approval. Then followed the Frontier Guardian 1849–53, at Council Bluffs, Iowa, during the pioneer period, which was almost a travelers’ pamphlet; and then the weekly Deseret News, 1850 to the present, in Salt Lake City, which also served as the Church religious periodical for the first several decades while the Saints were putting down their roots in the Rockies.
Phase 2 is directly related to the missionary program of the Church. Wherever a sizeable body of Saints was located after the 1830s, little periodicals flourished, often reprinting materials from previous periodicals. In the 1840s they were published in England, New York City, Wales, and California. In the 1850s came the missionary explosion into non-English-speaking lands, and periodicals were started in Denmark, Germany, France, Australia, Switzerland, and India. The same pattern continued in other lands throughout the 1860s, 70s, 80s, and on into this century. These were basically mission-headquartered publications, generally reprinting previously printed materials, articles, hymns, revelations, etc., until that language area received a full translated set of Church scriptures, hymnals, and other books.
Phase 3 saw a new development in Salt Lake City. Due to the need of the Deseret News to become a daily newspaper (1867) to serve both the Mormon and non-Mormon general public, a void began to be felt in the “religious” area, and Church publications somewhat associated with Church auxiliaries began to develop—the Juvenile Instructor, 1866–1929 (changed to Instructor for 1930–70), the Women’s Exponent, 1872–1914 (becoming the Relief Society Magazine, 1915–70), the Contributor, 1879–96 (giving life to the Improvement Era, 1897–1970), the Children’s Friend, 1902–70, and the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, 1910–40.
Phase 4 is marked in the great “correlation movement” of the Church during the 1960s and 70s, wherein the Church unified its many non-English-speaking mission-headquartered publications in 1967, providing a standardization of format and editorial content, and then in 1970 established three magazines along age-group lines (Ensign, New Era, and Friend) to “organizationally represent” the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve and the Church. Doyle Green played a major role in achieving this correlation of Church magazines. A consolidation of Church periodicals had long been contemplated. When Elder Harold B. Lee was assigned by President David O. McKay to head up the Church correlation program, Elder Lee said in his address at the priesthood session of the 1961 October General Conference: “We may possibly and hopefully look forward to a consolidation and simplification of … church publications.” (Conference Report, Oct. 1961, p. 81.)
By 1967, the non-English-speaking magazines had been “unified,” which meant that their editorial content, except some pages for local news, was being selected by Church publication, translation, and curriculum leaders in Church headquarters. By 1968, a committee of Elder Spencer W. Kimball, Elder Howard W. Hunter, and Doyle L. Green was formulated to provide recommendations to the brethren on Church periodicals.
Two years later, President Joseph Fielding Smith said: “Recognizing a need to strengthen the family, the basic unit of the Church, the brethren have directed that three new publications … begin publication in January.” (Ensign, November 1970, p. 10.)
Leaders and members were asked to “place the adult magazine in every English-speaking home in the Church; to place the youth magazine in every English-speaking home in the Church in which there are youth, … to place the children’s magazine in every English-speaking home in the Church where there are pre-teen children; to encourage all who subscribe to the magazines to read them monthly … to encourage teachers to use the publications in their classes; to teach parents how they can make use of the material from the publications in family home evenings and other teaching opportunities throughout the week.” (Letter of July 21, 1970, to Church leaders in the stakes and missions.)
In the creation of the new magazines, the brethren called for the following aims: (1) to provide wholesome literature for the various age levels; (2) to furnish reading material that will help Church members increase their faith and develop strong testimonies; (3) to give insights into the workings of the Church, its policies, and its progress; (4) to explain the principles of the restored gospel; (5) to help members apply gospel principles to everyday living; (6) to teach everlasting truths, such as virtue, honesty, integrity, and loyalty; (7) to represent the Church to nonmember friends and investigators in an impressive way; (8) to answer questions and give guidance concerning current topics of concern to all.” (Letter of July 21, 1970.)
Following the changeover, Brother Green directed the development of the publications, ensured that the new periodicals were strong of spirit and body, and assisted in the formation of the procedures that are still used in the publication of each monthly issue.
He brought great strength and experience to his task. In guiding the establishment of the three new magazines, he knew that adults of the Church need in-depth treatment of gospel subjects and contemporary issues of social significance. He knew that youth need something they can call their own—something that can speak to them in their way, handling their kinds of questions in their state of maturity. He knew that youth need to see it as well as read it—especially early teenaged youth. He knew that children need a literature that is hopeful and child-appealing but still rooted in basic gospel traits. He knew children need stories of the gospel in action—not written “down” to them, but rather by the finest writers available. He knew that even the most gifted authors who write for adults generally do not write well for children.
He helped develop the current magazine subscription program which divides the Church into three geographic areas and calls for subscriptions in these areas to expire at a set time during the year. This system makes it very effective for entire stakes and wards to conduct their magazine subscription renewal program in a few nights with a large group of people in each ward working with the assistance of a ward magazine representative.
But above all, Doyle Green knew the impact of magazines on the lives of people. To long-time General Authority acquaintances, he often would affectionately say after he learned that they had given an inspiring address somewhere: “I was thrilled to hear that 1,000 people were uplifted by your recent talk. You know, if you’d like to spend a few more hours and write it into an article—over a million and a half persons could also be inspired by it.”
He loved to repeat the many true stories that had come to his attention over the years of how Church magazines had blessed people’s lives, helped convert them, change them, inspire them, save them from disaster, suicide, broken marriages, had given answers to personal religious problems. One such person he knew personally. He remembered a former bishop of his ward who had stood at the pulpit and, with tears streaming down his face, had held up a recent issue of the Improvement Era and said, “I would not take $1,000 for this magazine.” Ward members who knew of their bishop’s love for everything in the gospel thought they understood, but the bishop said, “No, I mean what I say. I wouldn’t take $1,000 for this magazine.” Then he told of his inactive son, of how he had gone off to the university, changed his views and standards, and how it had been such a heartache for the parents. He then told of the magazine coming in the mail, of his wife reading an article on science and religion, of how she impatiently waited for her husband’s return from work, and of how after discussing it and praying about it, they fearfully placed the open magazine on their son’s dresser, hoping even that small act would not give offense. The bishop then told of how his son came out of his room dressed in his suit early the next Sunday morning and said to his father, “Dad, may I go to priesthood meeting with you? I guess I have been wrong about a lot of things.”
All those involved in this phase of the Lord’s work, as well as parents, youth, teachers, and leaders throughout the Church, know the impact of Church periodicals upon their lives and assignments. Doyle L. Green will long be remembered for his contributions to this important task.