Update on Western Europe
August 1976

“Update on Western Europe,” Ensign, Aug. 1976, 30

Update on Western Europe

What characterizes the Church in Europe as it prepares for its second area conference?

When young Jakob Tobler first encountered Mormon missionaries in his native Switzerland in 1857, he could hardly have dreamed that this event and his subsequent decision to cast his lot with the peculiar American sect would completely change his life and the life of his descendants into the fourth and fifth generations.

After baptism in a nearby lake, he and his wife, Catherine, labored diligently during the next three years to help build their fledgling branch in Herisau. Though both were to be disappointed by the responses of their own respective families to the gospel, Jakob nonetheless was instrumental in baptizing sixteen neighbors, confirmed a like number and, like other new converts, worked earnestly to build the kingdom.

Soon, however, severe persecutions came; some of the stalwarts emigrated; and the young couple, as Jakob later recalled in a sacrament meeting in Santa Clara, Utah, heeded their own desire and the urging of the Spirit “to gather with the Saints” in the tops of the mountains. There they could practice their new faith in freedom, enjoy the company of the Church leaders—a cherished longing—and raise their families in the atmosphere of Zion.

So in May 1861 they bid families farewell, made their way to England, and joined with more than 900 other Saints from all over Europe who were also embarking on a new life in America. That new life promised them and the thousands who followed during the next century and a quarter not only a religious haven, but also economic prosperity, social recognition, and educational opportunities surpassing even their expectations.

In the experiences of Jakob and Catherine Tobler, I believe, we can discern some of the elements of a pattern that characterized the Church in Europe from the 1830s to 1960 and which are now gradually giving way to a new era. Some of these include:

1. Most of those Europeans who joined the Church in that age were industrious, God-fearing people from the lower socio-economic strata of their societies—artisans, small farmers, factory workers, miners—who commanded little wealth and less status in their traditional cultures. Only a rare soul, like Karl G. Maeser, had had the formal education necessary to bring about social mobility there.

2. The preeminence of the “gathering,” the emigration of Saints to the United States, was essential for the establishment of the foundation of Zion but placed a heavy burden on those left behind. It was difficult to develop a nucleus of enough two- and three-generation Latter-day Saint families to provide the permanence and stability needed to sustain the local membership and help the kingdom grow. Most Saints were torn between “going” and “staying,” and those who stayed started over again and again. Sometimes an entire branch would leave; but more often couples and individuals who had been the most active and dependable were the first to depart.

3. The organization of the Church in Europe relied heavily upon American mission presidents and missionaries to bear most of the administrative and some of the teaching responsibilities. Members often were dependent on them for their understanding of gospel principles and practices and did not always develop a sense of full responsibility for the progress and well-being of the Church in Europe. In an age of nationalism, members and nonmembers therefore tended to see the Church as an American church primarily recruiting Europeans for its kingdom in America.

4. European society was generally hostile to and contemptuous of the Mormons, their church, and their doctrines during most of the nineteenth century. At first, under the influence of traditional Christian churches, the restored gospel was considered an aberrational, immoral, polygamy-practicing “sect,” a word with dire connotations in most European languages. As the secularization of European culture progressed, Latter-day Saints were rejected either for their unsophisticated fundamentalism and supposed fanaticism, or ignored for their numerical insignificance. In any case, European cultural, religious, and intellectual leaders did not see any reason to take the Church seriously.

5. The Church found most of its converts in the countries of northern and central Europe, primarily where Protestantism had been dominant since the time of the Reformation; governments and people in Catholic countries were less open to hearing a message different from that which they had grown up with.

There is, however, ample evidence that the pattern mentioned above is changing. During a recent research trip for the preparation of a volume in the new sesquicentennial history of the Church, I had the privilege of interviewing over forty leaders and members of the Church from Oslo, Norway, to Milano, Italy, and from Helsinki, Finland, to Edinburgh, Scotland. The picture that emerged was almost unrelated to that held by both the native members and the missionaries. What I thought I saw was a process similar to what happened to the Church in the United States during the 1930s and ’40s, which I had observed and participated in as a boy on the periphery of the Church. This development, the process of internal consolidation and emerging respectability, helped create the foundation for the tremendous growth of the Church since the 1950s, especially in the United States.

This is not to say that all is well in the European Zions, but the process has begun and the multiple Zions referred to by President Harold B. Lee are as likely to become as much a haven for the Saints in Europe as the Great Basin kingdom was for those of another era. (See Ensign, July 1973, pp. 2–6.)

Some of the changes taking place are well known and significant: the general increase of Church membership in Europe from 34,000 in 1950 to 129,000 in 1974; the calling of local brethren as General Authorities, Regional Representatives, and mission presidents; the recent creation of new missions in Belgium, Italy, and France, and of new stakes in Denmark and France; the continued regional conferences which provide necessary spiritual, psychological, and social support to members whose daily struggles in smaller wards and branches sometimes make it difficult to perceive the real parameters of the expanding Church; the perfecting of programs for intercultural communications where manuals, handbooks, and instructions of all kinds are written in the cultural language most conducive to understanding and implementation; the building of chapels during the past decade and a half, which bear both substantial and psychological witness of permanence and stability in the community. All of these, and other equally publicized changes, are contributing their share to the important consolidation process by which the Church gradually and naturally works out its universal destiny.

But there are also quiet changes beneath the surface and away from the lights, where, as the late Elder Richard L. Evans of the Council of the Twelve was wont to say, common people and common Saints bring about the uncommon results. For example, though often burdened with the day-to-day cares of administration, the new generation of European Church leaders with long-range perspective exudes a quiet, optimistic confidence in the future of the Church in their countries now that the early era of emigration is over. Where formerly converts would be won and assimilated into the branch and then leave, and where Latter-day Saint children would mature and then emigrate to find an eternal mate, now they will remain, if not in the home ward or branch, at least within an enlarging and more mobile European Church member population.

More importantly, local units are now beginning to enjoy the blessing not only of more numerous complete families—father, mother, and children—but of a network of two- and three-generation families who provide both stability and leadership within the branches; they also become a more effective leavening agent in their communities, changing the image of the Church with the neighbors and planting the seeds that later missionaries will reap and harvest.

Recent studies in the U.S. and Canada have confirmed the decisive influence upon their non-Mormon neighbors of Latter-day Saint families who are happy, practicing Christians. We may even predict that to the extent that European Latter-day Saint families, like LDS families everywhere, are able to provide this example in societies where family disarray has become epidemic, many will be moved to inquire about the Church. One can hardly overstate the central role a nucleus of strong families can have for the total well-being of the Church.

Equally important in the long run is the emphasis for more young European members to serve on missions. The example of our Salzburg Branch in Austria, with six missionaries out in the field in 1974, is becoming more common. Moreover, most European mission presidents have set goals of twenty-five to thirty or more local missionaries within a two-year period. The example of Elder Wolfgang Pils from Darmstadt, Germany, who served as a mission assistant in the London England Mission, provides a prototype that many European brethren may follow. During his mission Elder Pils experienced the usual spiritual strengthening, learned the gospel through study and faith, and was able to discuss it in considerable depth with members and nonmembers alike. He also gained valuable experience in Church administration and formulated the resolve to return to his home to help share the load there. Further secular plans call for university training in medicine, which will prepare him for an influential role in community affairs. Parenthetically, the growing interest being shown by Latter-day Saints in participation in community and national affairs is also an encouraging sign of the times.

Already in several stakes and districts in Europe, brethren with mission experience or its equivalent are providing a changed spirit of Church leadership. The influences of the post-War democratic age, together with the breakdown of more traditional authoritarian family and social customs, has helped produce a leadership style more in line with that counseled in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–46. [D&C 121:41–46] In addition, instruction and example by local brethren is developing a leadership practice based on love unfeigned and service without vanity. The benefits over a generation of this type of leadership are well known to American Saints and probably will become increasingly apparent in Europe in the years to come.

Other internal changes which have begun in recent years are: First, the establishment of the seminary program with its systematic study of the gospel and the resultant strengthening of testimonies. Earlier European Saints had often desired more Church literature to be able to deepen their understanding of the gospel; now more young Latter-day Saints have mastered English, a few native European Church authors are emerging, and there is an improved transcultural translation of a broader range of materials. All of this bodes well for producing a generation that not only believes the gospel but knows what they believe.

Second, it is difficult to measure the impact of temple work, but conversations with European Saints often turn to expressions of gratitude for new insights into life and new motivation from the instruction and spirit coming from the temples. Moreover, more careful interviewing by local authorities for temple visits has also done its part in strengthening the Saints.

Besides the several ways we have considered in which the Church in Europe is gradually consolidating itself as an institution, there are other changes taking place in European society that are creating a more favorable climate for the Church. Consider some of the following:

1. The important experience gained by European peoples in the practice of democracy has helped break down many traditional prejudices which kept Europeans from considering a “new” religion. This is especially important for the younger generation. They seem to have a greater yearning for a whole philosophy of life or ideology than did earlier generations, which had been spiritually scarred by wars, depression, and false “gods that had failed.” One Latter-day Saint university professor in Berlin, President Dieter Berndt, sees the recent student demonstrations in Europe as expressions of the young people’s desire to free themselves from the values of the past and find something substantial to believe in. He believes that the future of the Church with many of these students is bright, if we can successfully communicate our message to them. (Interview in West Berlin, April 1974.)

2. Others are approaching the Church favorably from another perspective. Professor Ernst Benz, the noted religious historian from the University of Marburg (West Germany), told the author that European scholar-intellectuals can no longer condescendingly consider Mormonism a sect. After two visits to Utah, he has taught seminars to theology students at the University of Marburg, pointing out not only the unusual vitality in Mormonism, as compared to traditional Christianity, but also the uniqueness of the Church’s view of eternity and the similarity of its doctrine of the God-man relationship to that preached in the early Christian Church and by several European mystics. (Ernst Benz, “Der Mensch als Imago Dei,” Eranos Jahrbuch, 1969, 38:297–329.)

Against this backdrop, he has argued, attempts to dispatch the Mormons through the old polygamy diatribes or, in a more modern setting, as a monolithic bastion of finance capitalism, fall short of the mark and will not do.

The long-range psychological significance of losing the disparaging “sect” appellation, plus the willingness of educated Europeans to see what ideas Latter-day Saints may have for fashioning a happy, meaningful life in today’s world, should not be underestimated, especially when ten times more European students are presently attending universities and colleges than did in the 1920s and ’30s. It is conceivable that as confidence in traditional Christianity continues to decline, those seeking a new creed will more seriously consider the Church and its doctrine.

3. The economic recovery and prosperity that have come to Europe since the end of World War II have also affected the Church. Members in Europe, as in America, enjoy a new affluence and are more representative of the broader spectrum of social classes now than ever before. These conditions, plus the training and hard work of common working-class parents, have made it possible for the second and third generations to become educated, enjoy professional careers and community recognition, and thus bring additional leadership skills to Church assignments. At the same time they interest like-minded friends in the Church.

4. Finally, the changing attitude in Europe will undoubtedly be affected positively by such events as the forthright explanation of Church doctrines and intent over French national television by Elder Charles Didier in 1973, by the invitation of the publisher of The Times of London to a mission president in England to publish news and features on the Church, by the life and work of a successful but humble government minister in Sweden, and by the thousands of optimistic Saints in both free and restricted parts of Europe who foresee a future built upon but not determined by the past.

Finally, the Church has gained a strong footing not only in traditionally Catholic France, but in Italy and Spain as well, and is moving vigorously to carry its message also into other countries. (Deseret News 1976 Church Almanac, pp. E14–19.)

This evaluation may seem euphoric to some; I am aware of the problems that beset the Church in Europe; they are not to be taken lightly. Temptations are as great and the Saints are as human in Europe as anywhere in the world. But there are, as I have tried to point out, numerous similarities and parallels with the condition of the Church in the United States a decade or two ago. European Saints and leaders need not be discouraged. In those days, attendance at many of our own sacrament meetings hovered around 10 to 15 percent, and the number of missionaries in the field or young people being married in the temple was not where it is today. Nevertheless, a foundation was being laid for the expansion of the Church, first out into the rest of the United States and then to the world.

Europe will not lag behind; the harvest there is by no means over. What is presently happening to the families of Hans Malzl, Jean-Albert Babin, Thomas Hill, and Bo Wennerlund in contemporary Europe could have happened to Jakob Tobler and his nineteenth-century generation only in America.

  • Douglas F. Tobler, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Orem Twenty-sixth Ward, Orem Utah East Stake.

Top left: Chapel in Frankfurt, headquarters for the Church in Europe. Top right: Primary children in Sweden. Bottom: Fellowshipping is basic for members of the Church, as is exemplified by these French Saints.

Top: This tailor and his family are Church members in Spain. Bottom left: Seminary students in Belgium. Bottom right: Elders approach a prospective Church member out strolling in a Stockholm park.