Planting the Banner of Zion: A Brief History of the Church in Los Angeles

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“Planting the Banner of Zion: A Brief History of the Church in Los Angeles,” Ensign, Sept. 1992, 44–45

Planting the Banner of Zion:

A Brief History of the Church in Los Angeles

Four months before Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Battalion arrived in Los Angeles, the former Spanish California capital, from San Diego. There, in March 1847, members of the battalion began work on Fort Moore, the first public structure built by the United States in Los Angeles. The first American flag to be raised over the city was hoisted when the battalion soldiers dedicated the fort on July 4.

Three weeks later, as Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley, the members of the Mormon Battalion left Los Angeles to reunite with family members in Salt Lake or still along the trail. For the next fifty years there was no organized Church presence in southern California, except for the short-lived Mormon settlement established in San Bernardino between 1851 and 1857. Still, a number of Latter-day Saints made the Los Angeles area their home and hoped to one day have a branch in their midst.

In March 1895, the first missionaries assigned to Los Angeles, Elders John R. Smith and Moroni H. Thomas, arrived in the city. One of the first stops these elders made was at the home of Eliza Woollacott, a widowed Church member who had frequently written to Church leaders, requesting missionaries. Eliza opened her home to missionary work, with Sunday services also held there until larger quarters were needed. On October 20, seven months after the elders arrived, a branch, with a membership of more than seventy, was formally organized.

The branch continued to grow, and in 1913 it was determined that the area’s first LDS chapel should be built. A site on Adams Boulevard was selected. By this time, other groups of Saints had also been organized in Long Beach and Santa Monica.

After World War I, economic conditions in Utah forced many to seek employment in California. From 1919 to 1923, the Church population in Los Angeles grew from four hundred to more than four thousand, and President Heber J. Grant determined it was time to organize a stake in southern California. Although the stake was the eighty-eighth created since the Saints had moved to Utah, this was the first to be created in a major urban area where Mormons were a small minority.

The new stake, under the direction of President George McCune, faced challenges unfamiliar then but common today: a ward with only two hundred members but over two hundred thousand people within its boundaries, a ward that doubled in membership in one year, stake leaders who had to travel fifty miles or more to attend meetings, and members having to travel as far as fifteen miles to go to church.

Between 1923 and 1927, more than 60 percent of all wards created in the Church were established in Los Angeles. During that period, Church membership in the city topped eight thousand. The tremendous growth and the faithfulness of the Saints opened the door to the creation of a second stake in Los Angeles in 1927—this before other major metropolitan areas had their first stake.

In April 1931, LeGrand Richards, later a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, was called to replace President McCune as stake president. Other leaders from the area to become General Authorities include two more former stake presidents—President Howard W. Hunter of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder John K. Carmack of the Seventy—and one of the early presidents of the Los Angeles Branch, Hyrum G. Smith, who later served as Patriarch to the Church.

In the 1920s, very few Spanish-speaking Saints lived in Los Angeles, but by 1929 the Ditman Branch was organized in the eastern portion of the city to serve Spanish-speaking members. Nearly three decades later, in 1958, the West Spanish American Mission was organized, with headquarters in Los Angeles. Initially, a very few missionaries attempted to serve the nearly 600,000 Spanish-speaking residents of Los Angeles, as well as the rest of California and two adjoining states.

In the 1960s, Spanish-speaking Saints living in the western portion of the city had to travel great distances to attend church services presented in their native tongue or even to attend the local English-speaking ward. Such distance prevented Trinidad Reyna and Josefina Gallardo, emigrants from El Salvador, from regularly attending. Missionary efforts were rewarded in 1964 when another Spanish-speaking branch began to meet at the Wilshire Ward chapel.

Large numbers of immigrants from Latin America arrived in the city in the 1960s, both to escape political unrest in their native lands and to take advantage of the greater economic opportunities in the United States. Among these arrivals were Latter-day Saints who needed to be assimilated into the Church, while others needed the opportunity to hear the gospel in their native language. Both needs are now being met in the two Spanish-speaking stakes that have been organized in Los Angeles, as well as in the numerous Spanish-speaking wards and branches throughout the southland.

Immigrants from other cultures are also being served as the Church has established Asian-speaking branches for the growing Oriental population. As has happened in other large urban areas, ethnic members in L.A. provide a large portion of the Church’s population. With this diversity, the commitment of local, general, and mission leaders to serve those who reside in the area ensures that in spite of changing demographics, the Church will continue to meet the needs of all who live in the L.A. area.

One of the most important events in the history of the Church in Los Angeles occurred in 1956 with the dedication of the Los Angeles Temple. When the temple was first constructed, only one other building in the city was taller, and though skyscrapers now tower over the building, it continues to be a beacon of spirituality for both members and nonmembers alike. In the dedicatory prayer, President David O. McKay prayed, “Cause, 0 Lord, that even people who pass the grounds or view the temple from afar may lift their eyes from the groveling things of sordid life and look up to thee and thy providence.” For the Saints in Los Angeles, the temple continues to serve as a reminder of God’s love and plan for all his children.

Eliza Woollacott, an early member who helped missionaries.

The Mar Vista chapel, dedicated in 1928.