Growing with a Living Church
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“Growing with a Living Church,” Ensign, Oct. 1996, 25

Growing with a Living Church

Change is constant in a church directed by continuing revelation, and our path to spiritual security is the way marked by inspired leaders

In the priesthood session of general conference on the evening of 1 April 1995, President Gordon B. Hinckley signaled a new development in the Church with these words: “Now in the ongoing of this work, administrative changes sometimes occur. The doctrine remains constant. But from time to time there are organizational and administrative changes made under provisions set forth in the revelations.”1

He then recalled that 28 years earlier, in 1967, “the First Presidency was inspired to call men to serve as regional representatives of the Twelve. At the time that was a new calling in the Church. The Presidency stated that this was necessary because of ‘the ever-increasing growth of the Church.’” Between the years 1967 and 1995 the group of regional representatives had grown from 69 to 284; and as a result, President Hinckley said, “the organization has become somewhat unwieldy.” He extended an honorable release to all regional representatives, effective 15 August of that year, and announced “the call of a new local officer to be known as an area authority.”

“These will be high priests chosen from among past and present experienced Church leaders,” President Hinckley explained. “They will continue with their current employment, reside in their own homes, and serve on a Church-service basis. The term of their call will be flexible, generally, for a period of approximately six years. They will be closely tied to the Area Presidencies. They will be fewer in number than have been the regional representatives.”

President Hinckley said the leaders of the Church had been “guided in setting up this new corps of area officers, as were our Brethren before us in the calling of regional representatives, by the provision contained in the revelation on priesthood, section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants.” After giving direction to the Twelve and the Seventy, that revelation declares: “Whereas other officers of the church, who belong not unto the Twelve, neither to the Seventy, are not under the responsibility to travel among all nations, but are to travel as their circumstances shall allow, notwithstanding they may hold as high and responsible offices in the church” (D&C 107:98).

A Living Church

The announcement of this new calling is representative of one of the most important phenomena in the ongoing building up of the Lord’s kingdom on earth: change and development in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On 1 November 1831 the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that the restored Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (D&C 1:30; emphasis added). Elder Neal A. Maxwell, when he was a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, observed: “The Church, like the living God who established it, is alive, aware, and functioning. It is not a museum that houses a fossilized faith; rather, it is a kinetic kingdom characterized by living faith in living disciples.” He added: “A prophecy from the Lord describes his church as an expanding church, as the Lord’s army, that is to become numerically ‘very great.’ Surely a diminishing, shrinking church is not the kingdom Daniel foresaw that was to have small beginnings (the stone cut out of the mountain without hands) but that eventually would fill the whole earth. (Dan. 2:35, 44–45; compare Dan. 2:44 and D&C 65:2; D&C 105:32.)”2

The Church is sometimes referred to as a perfect organization, not in the sense that it never needs to change, but rather because as it faces current challenges and trials it moves to address those challenges under inspired leadership—which is the perfect thing for it to do.3 This, of course, is necessary in order to meet the needs of its members at any given time in history. Concerning organizational change, Elder Orson Pratt declared: “To say that there will be a stated time, in the history of this Church … when the organization will be perfect, and that there will be no further extension or addition to the organization, would be a mistake. Organization is to go on, step after step, from one degree to another, just as the people increase and grow in the knowledge of the principles and laws of the kingdom of God.”4

Speaking of this expansion of our understanding of doctrine, the Prophet Joseph Smith once observed: “Even the Saints are slow to understand. I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.”5

On one occasion President Daniel S. Wells, counselor to President Brigham Young, expressed a similar concern: “How true it is that, when any new principle, or any new idea concerning an old principle is promulgated, the human heart seems to rise up in rebellion against it, and the Saints are no exceptions in this respect, for when the Lord condescends to reveal any new principle pertaining to their welfare and the building up of His kingdom on the earth, many are ready, both in feelings and practices, to rise up and rebel against it.”6

As one carefully examines many of the divinely directed changes that have taken place in the Church, it seems evident they have brought blessings into the lives of members who have humbly adapted to them and followed the counsel of Church leaders. This article will examine just three of the numerous changes in practice and organization that have come as the Church has developed: first, the practice of gathering; second, the concept of Zion; and third, the office of seventy.

The Practice of Gathering

In the early days of the Church, members demonstrated their loyalty by gathering to a central location, usually the headquarters of the Church, for the purpose of strengthening the Lord’s kingdom. Thus, in the 19th century, converts relocated to designated gathering places such as Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, or Utah. During its first four decades in Utah, the Church even sponsored a systematic program that assisted converts from the eastern United States and Europe in relocating to Church headquarters in the Intermountain West. This program, called the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, helped tens of thousands of Europeans to immigrate. This was such a dominant movement that, as the 1870 Utah census indicates, more than one-third of the people living in the territory were foreign born.7

By the 1890s, however, circumstances began to change. The United States government put greater restrictions on immigration. At the same time, the Latter-day Saint stronghold in the West had grown and solidified. The leaders of the Church began to work toward “an expanded vision … of the distant stakes of the tent of Zion (see Isa. 54:2; D&C 82:14).”8 As a result, in 1898 President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, made the Church’s first formal statement discouraging European converts from immigrating to Utah. They were admonished to “remain quiet for a while; to not be anxious to break up their homes to gather to Zion.”9 By the 1920s, the First Presidency specifically admonished the missionaries to cease preaching emigration; the converts in foreign countries could do more to build the kingdom if they would remain in their own lands. The great movement to gather to a central location had been an important phase in our church’s history, the First Presidency said, “but we must realize that times and conditions change and that therefore the application of the principles and teachings must change.”10

One of the most instructive statements in helping us understand the concept of gathering for the Church today was made by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. While a member of the First Council of the Seventy, he said in a sermon to the Saints of Mexico and Central America in August 1972: “The place of gathering for the Mexican Saints is in Mexico; the place of gathering for the Guatemalan Saints is in Guatemala; the place of gathering for the Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; and so it goes throughout the length and breadth of the whole earth. … Every nation is the gathering place for its own people.”11

President Spencer W. Kimball gave emphasis to this important concept in 1978: “Now the gathering of Israel consists of joining the true church and … coming to the knowledge of the true God. … Any person, therefore, who has accepted the restored gospel, and who now seeks to worship the Lord in his own tongue and with the Saints in the nations where he lives, has complied with the law of the gathering of Israel and is heir to all of the blessings promised the Saints in these last days.”12 Any adjustments to the current policy will come through the First Presidency.

The Concept of Zion

Through the years our inspired prophets, seers, and revelators have helped broaden our understanding of the important concept of Zion. In their teachings and in the scriptures, Zion can be seen in different perspectives.

Many of the earliest revelations in this dispensation emphasized the concept of Zion as a people, or a group of the Lord’s followers. Before the Church was organized, the Lord commanded several brethren, “Seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (D&C 6:6; D&C 11:6; D&C 12:6). On the day the Church was organized, the Lord said that he had inspired the Prophet Joseph Smith “to move the cause of Zion in mighty power” (D&C 21:7). Then, after the establishment of the Church, various brethren were commanded at different times to devote themselves to the cause of Zion (see D&C 24:7; D&C 30:11; D&C 93:53). Thus Zion came to be associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see D&C 68:25; D&C 115:4–6). Even today, a person who joins the Church becomes a citizen of Zion and is expected to labor in its behalf, Elder McConkie taught.13

A second concept of Zion treats it as a state of being—people who are pure in heart. Perhaps this ideal first came to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s attention in December 1830 when he was working on his inspired translation of the Bible. During this process, numerous details concerning the patriarch Enoch and his ancient city of Zion were revealed to the Prophet.14 With regard to the character of the citizens who lived in that great city, the record states: “And the Lord called His people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). From this we can see that in order to be a good citizen of Zion, it is not sufficient for a person merely to join the true Church; one must also strive diligently to keep the commandments. In 1833 came the scriptural injunction: “Verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—THE PURE IN HEART” (D&C 97:21). President Brigham Young once taught: “Who are Zion? The pure in heart are Zion; they have Zion within them. Purify yourselves, sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and have the Zion of God within you.”15 On another occasion, President Young harmonized these first two concepts of Zion—belonging to the community of believers and striving to be pure in heart—in one comment: “Where is Zion? Where the organization of the Church of God is; and may it dwell spiritually in every heart; and may we so live as to always enjoy the Spirit of Zion.”16

In the 1830s a third concept of Zion emerged almost concurrently with the two ideas already discussed: Zion as a specific geographic location.

In September of 1830, in the same revelation that called Oliver Cowdery to be a missionary to the Lamanites, the Lord stated: “It is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites” (D&C 28:9). Then on 20 July 1831, just after the Prophet Joseph Smith arrived in Missouri, the Lord revealed the specific location. He proclaimed Missouri to be “the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.

“Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.

“… Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place” (D&C 57:1–3).

Soon thereafter, thousands of Saints started gathering to Missouri—site of the new geographic Zion. Within a few short years, however, they were driven from the state. Still, they maintained the hope that they would return sometime in the future and redeem, or reclaim, the latter-day Zion.

Yet even before the Saints were expelled from Missouri, the Lord provided through the Prophet Joseph Smith an even broader vision of Zion. In 1832 the Prophet was told, “Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged” (D&C 82:14; emphasis added). Then in 1844, while the Saints were living in Illinois, the Prophet Joseph Smith boldly declared: “You know there has been great discussion in relation to Zion—where it is, and where the gathering of the dispensation is, and which I am now going to tell you. … The whole of America is Zion itself from north to south.”17

When the Prophet announced this remarkable view, it must have been stirring to the Saints. It foreshadowed the most expansive concept of Zion: many stakes spreading over the earth as multiple gathering places for faithful Church members. In 1833, during the time that the Saints were being expelled from Jackson County, Missouri, the Lord offered a glimpse of this broad vision of Zion. He revealed to the Prophet Joseph that the day would come when there would be “no more room” for the Saints in Missouri; “and then I have other places which I will appoint unto them, and they shall be called stakes, for the curtains or the strength of Zion” (D&C 101:21; emphasis added). In the dedicatory prayer on the Kirtland Temple in 1836, there was a plea that new converts to the Church “may come forth to Zion, or to her stakes” (D&C 109:39; emphasis added). Two years later, another revelation taught that “the gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, may be for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth” (D&C 115:6; emphasis added).

More recently, President Spencer W. Kimball underscored this important doctrine: “The First Presidency and the Twelve see great wisdom in the multiple Zions, many gathering places where the Saints within their own culture and nation can act as a leaven in the building of the kingdom.”18

What, then, do we know relative to the future of Zion? Elder McConkie taught: “Let Israel gather to the stakes of Zion in all nations. Let every land be a Zion to those appointed to dwell there. … But still there is a center place, a place where the chief temple shall stand. … And that center place is what men now call Independence in Jackson County, Missouri.”19 On another occasion he wrote: “The return to Jackson County will be by delegates, as it were. Those whose services are needed there will assemble as appointed. The rest of Israel will remain in their appointed places.”20

In evaluating these concepts of Zion, we can appreciate the perceptive observation by Elder Erastus Snow of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that when early members “first heard the fulness of the Gospel preached by the first Elders, and read the revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, our ideas of Zion were very limited. But as our minds began to grow and expand, why we began to look upon Zion as a great people, and the Stakes of Zion as numerous. … We ceased to set bounds to Zion and her Stakes.”21

The Office of Seventy

In order to accommodate the increasing number of stakes of Zion throughout the world, it became necessary for leaders of the Church to implement organizational changes. Perhaps the most significant modification of this type in the 20th century has to do with the office of seventy.

The Prophet Joseph Smith organized the original First Quorum of the Seventy in this dispensation on 28 February 1835.22 The seven presidents of that quorum came to be known as the First Council of the Seventy. These seven men and their successors became General Authorities, and it was understood that they presided over all the quorums of seventy that were established throughout the Church.

Five of the original members of the First Council of the Seventy had been ordained high priests before they were called into the Seventy. As a result, it was determined in 1837 that these men would be released from their positions in the Seventy and replaced by men who had never held the office of high priest.23 For the next 124 years, high priests did not serve in the First Council of the Seventy. Then in 1961 the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were inspired to change that policy. In the October general conference of that year, President David O. McKay announced that the members of the First Council of the Seventy were being ordained to the office of high priest so that their duties as General Authorities could expand to include such responsibilities as setting apart stake presidents and ordaining high priests.24

This change of policy was evidently disturbing to a few members of the Church. One such member approached Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with the question, “Didn’t the Prophet Joseph Smith say that this was contrary to the order of heaven to name high priests as presidents of the First Council of Seventy when they were named in the beginning?” To this, Elder Lee replied, “Well, I had understood that he did, but had you ever thought that what was contrary to the order of heaven in 1840 might not be contrary to the order of heaven in 1960?” With respect to the complaining member, Elder Lee explained: “You see, he had not thought of that. He … was following a dead prophet, and he was forgetting that there [is] a living prophet today. Hence the importance of our stressing that word ‘living.’”25

The First Council of the Seventy had been sustained as General Authorities since the Nauvoo era in Church history, but the organization of quorums of seventies had changed through the years. A revelation recorded in 1883 is evidence that these changes came under divine direction. The First Presidency—President John Taylor and his counselors, President George Q. Cannon and President Joseph F. Smith—had drafted instructions calling upon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the “First Seven Presidents of the Seventies” to “fill up, organize, and set in order the various quorums of the Seventies.” These instructions were presented to the members of the Twelve and the First Seven Presidents of the Seventies, who approved them. Then the new instructions were presented to the Lord, following the pattern of seeking revelation by spiritual confirmation (see D&C 8:2–3, 9–10; D&C 9:8–9).

The Lord’s answer is recorded:

“What ye have written is my will, and is acceptable unto me: and furthermore,

“Thus saith the Lord unto the First Presidency, unto the Twelve, unto the Seventies and unto all my holy Priesthood, let not your hearts be troubled, neither be ye concerned about the management and organization of my Church and Priesthood and the accomplishment of my work. Fear me and observe my laws and I will reveal unto you, from time to time, through the channels that I have appointed, everything that shall be necessary for the future development and perfection of my Church, for the adjustment and rolling forth of my kingdom, and for the building up and the establishment of my Zion. For ye are my Priesthood and I am your God. Even so. Amen.”26

In the October general conference of 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball made the historic announcement that the time had come to begin organizing the First Quorum of the Seventy as a quorum of General Authorities. In addition to the seven Presidents in the First Council of the Seventy, three men were “added to the First Quorum of the Seventy,” all seventies at the time of their call. President Kimball explained: “The First Quorum of the Seventy will be gradually organized, eventually with seventy members.”27

One year later, during the October 1976 general conference, President Kimball announced that the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve “felt inspired to call all of the Assistants to the Twelve into the First Quorum of the Seventy … and to restructure the First Council of the Seventy.”28 Thereafter the titles of Assistants to the Twelve and First Council of the Seventy were no longer used. The seven men who presided over the Quorum were now called the Presidency of the Seventy.29 The prophet then declared: “With this move, the three governing quorums of the Church defined by the revelations—the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the First Quorum of the Seventy—have been set in their places as revealed by the Lord. This will make it possible to handle efficiently the present heavy workload and to prepare for the increasing expansion and acceleration of the work.”30

In following years, the First Presidency announced other inspired changes pertaining to the Seventy: in 1978 emeritus status was given to some members of the quorum for the first time; in 1984 several new members of the Seventy were sustained for a period of three to five years, instead of for life, as had been the practice before; in 1986 all stake quorums of seventy were dissolved; and in 1989 the First Presidency announced the organization of a Second Quorum of the Seventy, the members of which would be General Authorities who would not serve in that capacity for life.31

Elder McConkie saw the organization of the First Quorum of the Seventy as one of the key events in the administrative development of the Church during his lifetime. He said it had “come to pass as a result of the inspiration of heaven to President Kimball,” and added, “Organizationally, this is what perfects the arrangement in the Church so that no matter how big the kingdom grows or how wide and varied its interests are, the framework is there for proper divine government.”32

“Blessed Are Those Who Hearken”

Looking to the future, we are assured that the Church will continue to grow until it one day fills the whole earth (see Dan. 2:35, 44–45; D&C 65:1–5). With this growth we can certainly expect to witness even more change and development. Our security in the midst of this anticipated change is to follow the living prophet. In 1975 President Ezra Taft Benson proclaimed: “The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one who is living in our day and age. This is the prophet who has today’s instructions from God to us today. God’s revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the ark. Every generation has need of the ancient scripture plus the current scripture from the living prophet.”33

In the Book of Mormon, the Lord promises great blessings to those who humbly submit themselves to the inspired changes that he reveals to his living prophets. He gives a solemn warning to those who refuse to follow his counsel given through these prophets. In 2 Nephi 28:30 [2 Ne. 28:30] we read: “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”

May we always be found in the mainstream of “the only true and living church” (D&C 1:30), with our eyes, ears, and hearts focused on the true and living prophet of our day.

Joseph Smith, courtesy of Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Auditorium, Independence, Missouri

Joseph in Nauvoo, 1840, by Ted Gorka

Photo courtesy of LDS Church Archives

Pioneers Laying the Cornerstone for the Temple at Far West, by Dale Kilbourn

Taipei Taiwan Temple photo by Michael McConkie; photo of lettering by Floyd Holdman

The Seventy, by Del Parson

Photo by Welden Andersen