The Church Grows in Strength
September 1999

“The Church Grows in Strength,” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 32

A Great and Marvelous Work—
Part Four: 1898–1951

The Church Grows in Strength

While the world focused its attention on two world wars and a depression, the Church was essentially left alone to grow and gain strength.

After the death of President Wilford Woodruff on 2 September 1898, President Lorenzo Snow of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles sought guidance in the Salt Lake Temple. The Savior stood “about three feet above the floor,” he told his granddaughter as they stood at the spot where it happened. “It looked as though he stood on a plate of solid gold.” President Snow described the Savior’s hands, feet, face, and beautiful white robes and said all was of such a glorious “whiteness and brightness” he could hardly look at Him.1 President Snow affirmed that he and the Savior talked face to face. On 13 September 1898, President Snow became the fifth President of the Church.

When the 20th century dawned on 1 January 1901, President Snow issued a formal proclamation. “I hope and look for grand events to occur in the twentieth century,” it read. “I lift my hands and invoke the blessing of heaven upon the inhabitants of the earth.”2 For the next half century, blessings upon the earth did increase, and so too did their opposites: poverty, wickedness, and injustice. For 50 years the world focused on two horrific world wars and the cruel Great Depression. But before, after, and even during those cataclysmic world events, the Church made notable progress in terms of finances, image, numbers, operations, programs, member involvement, and geographic growth.

Turn of the Century: 1898–1914

Utah statehood in 1896 marked a turning point for the Church and its members. Now, with settlements in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho, Latter-day Saints needed time to strengthen their communities. Though inaccurate and negative information about the Church continued to circulate in the United States and abroad, Church leaders could at last begin to turn their attention to the internal affairs of the Church, the most serious challenge being financial.

During the debilitating depression of 1893–96, heavy debt—caused by federal confiscations in the 1880s and a drop in tithing—saddled the Church. Bonds, issued to keep the Church operating, had to be paid off. In May 1899, President Snow felt prompted to travel to St. George, Utah, but did not know why. There, on 17 May, he opened a two-day conference. During his 45-minute address he paused, looked toward the back of the room, and then resumed speaking on a new topic: tithing. “The time has now come for every Latter-day Saint” to “pay his tithing in full,” he said, because “that is the word of the Lord to you.”3

As a result of President Snow’s tithe-paying crusade, Church revenues soon increased markedly and solved the debt crisis, although not before President Snow died in 1901. At the April 1907 general conference, President Joseph F. Smith was able to announce that the Church “owes not a dollar that it cannot pay at once. At last we are in a position that we can pay as we go.”4

Amid the Church’s move toward financial security, national attention again turned briefly to Utah. Elder Reed Smoot of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1903, but the Senate refused to seat him until they investigated charges that he and the Church still promoted plural marriage and that the Church controlled Utah politics. After extended hearings, the Senate accepted Senator Smoot in 1907.

But hardly had the hearings’ negative press subsided when investigative journalists called muckrakers published defamatory articles about the Church in Pearson’s, Everybody’s Magazine, McClure’s, and Cosmopolitan. Their spirited crusade slowed significantly in 1911 when Collier’s magazine published a letter by former United States president Theodore Roosevelt countering much of the distorted information. In addition, Americana magazine began publishing serially a solid history of the Church penned by LDS historian B. H. Roberts (1857–1933) of the Seventy, which was later published in book form.

In 1912, members living in LDS colonies in northern Mexico had to evacuate to the United States after revolution and civil war broke out in Mexico. Only Colonia Juárez and Colonia Dublán were resettled and continue today.5 From those nine original LDS colonies came a mighty corps of missionaries and leaders who have facilitated great growth of the Church in Mexico and Latin America.

World War I: 1914–18

After World War I broke out in 1914, Church members, in company with the rest of the world, faced a new and much more ominous challenge: war. The Church pulled most of its full-time missionaries out of Europe. As war spread, members in various countries, committed to obeying the law of their lands, became soldiers. President Smith sent word that they were soldiers of a nation but also soldiers of the Lord and should be ministers of life, not death. They should “go in the spirit of defending the liberties of mankind rather than for the purpose of destroying the enemy.”6 Utah’s generous support of America’s war efforts, which included raising troops, buying war bonds, rationing, and sending food and supplies, helped in changing the national image of the Church. For example, in answer to the U.S. government’s appeal for grain, the Relief Society sold to the government about 200,000 bushels of wheat, gleaned over the years by Relief Society sisters. During the visit of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to Utah in 1919, he and Mrs. Wilson personally thanked Relief Society president Emmeline B. Wells for that wheat.7

Against this backdrop of World War I, the Church continued to strengthen its programs. In an effort to provide LDS high school students with religious training, the Church developed seminaries near schools so students could attend on a released-time basis. The first seminary opened in 1912 in Salt Lake City. Later, in 1926, a similar program was developed for college students, with the first institute of religion at the University of Idaho in Moscow. By 1939 the Church had 102 seminaries and 12 institutes in operation.8

In 1913 the Church made the new Boy Scout organization part of its MIA program. Two years later the First Presidency urged the inauguration of a weekly “home evening” during which parents and children could learn, play, sing, and enjoy refreshments together.

Church authorities at this time engineered an extensive strengthening of local priesthood operations, particularly between 1908 and 1922. A weekly ward priesthood meeting replaced the practice of quorums meeting at irregular times. A new visiting program called ward teaching reduced the size of visiting routes previously expected for acting teachers, enlisted young men to be junior companions, and provided lesson materials for the visit.

For the first time, specific ages were assigned for ordination to Aaronic Priesthood offices: deacons, 12; teachers, 15; and priests, 18. This priesthood movement produced an increase in boys’ participation in their quorums, in ward teaching visits, and in priesthood and sacrament meeting attendance.

An interesting change in ward sacrament meetings took place about 1911, when new medical knowledge showed that drinking from a common cup spread disease. Until then, Church members drank sacramental water from a large goblet that was passed from person to person. Very quickly, small individual glass or metal sacrament cups were adopted instead of the common cup.

In addition, LDS meetinghouses became more functional and comfortable, with electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, and recreation halls.

Post–World War I: 1918–29

World War I ended in 1918 but left in its wake an epidemic of Spanish influenza. The epidemic, which lasted from 1918 to 1919, killed more than 21 million people worldwide and at least 2,600 Utahns. As a defense, communities banned public gatherings, including church meetings and school classes, and in some places people were required to wear gauze masks when out in public.9 Thus when President Joseph F. Smith died of pleurisy and pneumonia in November 1918, no public funeral could be held.

However, on 3 October 1918, before his death, President Smith received a remarkable “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” which he shared with the Church and that is now contained in Doctrine and Covenants section 138.

By the time Elder Heber J. Grant became Church President in 1918, America was in a reform crusade called Prohibition. One year earlier, in December 1917, the U.S. Congress had approved an amendment to the Constitution making the production and sale of alcohol illegal; the states ratified the amendment in January 1919. President Grant, a Word of Wisdom advocate, called Prohibition “the greatest financial and moral blessing that has ever come to humanity.”10 But Prohibition failed to end the alcohol trade, driving it underground instead.

Missionary work moved slowly forward. During the 1890s, unmarried young men had in large part replaced married men as the Church’s main missionary force, and the first proselyting sister missionaries had been called in 1898.11 In 1925 the Church opened a mission home in Salt Lake City designed to provide new missionaries one week of training before leaving for their mission areas.

During the 1920s, when hard times hit farmers and workers, large numbers of LDS families migrated to find jobs. This out-migration helped establish the Church in several states not part of the intermountain region, particularly along the West Coast. In 1923 the Los Angeles Stake became the first modern stake outside the Latter-day Saint Rocky Mountain settlement region. Church membership in California grew from about 4,000 in 1920 to nearly 45,000 in 1940.12 The out-migration to the East Coast came as a result of government and business opportunities. Many LDS young people went to work in Washington, D.C., and Senator Reed Smoot helped many of them find jobs in the nation’s capital.13

Back in Utah, Church auxiliaries adjusted to meet new needs and new attitudes. The Relief Society had replaced the Woman’s Exponent in 1915 with the Relief Society Magazine. Though ward Relief Societies continued to meet in their own Relief Society halls, in 1921 the Presiding Bishopric requested that ward meetinghouses provide rooms for the Relief Society. Such rooms, Relief Society president Clarissa Williams said, should not be “the darkest room in the basement!”14

By 1902 the Primary had begun publishing the Children’s Friend for officers and teachers, but soon it became a magazine with stories, games, and other features for children; today it is called the Friend.

And finally, new technologies brought benefits to the Church after World War I. Automobiles made it easier for members to travel to Church meetings. Telephones helped Church officers do their jobs better. After radio became part of the American life in the mid-1920s, the Church utilized it to broadcast general conferences, missionaries found ways to speak and sing “on the air,” and in the early 1930s the Tabernacle Choir’s program, Music and the Spoken Word, became a popular weekly radio show nationally and in some places overseas.

The Great Depression: 1929–41

The Church had strengthened its internal workings during the first three decades of the 20th century. But the United States stock market crash in 1929 brought on the Great Depression, crippling the nation and much of the world. Thousands of members became dependent partly or entirely on some form of government assistance. Unemployment became so severe that the Church’s normal relief resources fell short. Several hard-pressed stakes innovated by creating job listings, arranging for men to sharecrop on members’ farms, setting up used-clothing and household-goods centers, establishing food canning and bottling projects to salvage crops that could not be sold, and building warehouses for food and donated clothing.

In spite of this economic disaster, the Church took time in 1930 to celebrate its centennial. One highlight was broadcasting the centennial April conference via the new medium of radio to a thousand specially wired chapels. And to commemorate the centennial, historian B. H. Roberts presented his monumental, six-volume A Comprehensive History of the Church, still in wide use today.

Hardships continued, however. In Salt Lake’s Pioneer Stake, more than half of the breadwinners became unemployed. President Grant asked Harold B. Lee, president of the Pioneer Stake, to design a new welfare program for the Church. President Lee said that while he sought God’s guidance to organize such a vast program, his spiritual understanding was opened and he was shown that the priesthood system and not any new organization should be used. In April 1936 the Church announced the bold program President Lee had helped shape. In October general conference of that year, President Grant said the guiding purpose of the plan was to remove “the curse of idleness” and to abolish the “evils of a dole” by helping the needy to experience independence, industry, thrift, and self-respect. Work was to be “the ruling principle” for welfare assistance, President Grant said.15 The plan grouped western stakes into welfare regions. Stakes were instructed to create projects to provide jobs while producing food, clothing, commodities, and life necessities.

In response, stakes used priesthood quorums as well as women and youth organizations to obtain orchards, develop farms, build soap factories and flour mills, and establish canneries and bishops’ storehouses. The Church met its first goal—to provide food, clothing, and shelter for every LDS member in need—the first year. By late 1943 the Church was operating 90 bishops’ storehouses, 65 canneries, 598 livestock projects, and 324 manufacturing and processing plants, and had 14,578 acres under cultivation.16

The Relief Society, meanwhile, established a Social Services Department—the forerunner of today’s LDS Family Services—which utilized trained social workers. In 1938 the Church borrowed an idea from Goodwill Industries in California and established Deseret Industries stores to receive, repair, and sell at low cost used clothing, furniture, and household items.17 Since those years, the welfare program has worked so well that it has become an integral part of the Church’s efforts.

In 1933, while the Church was in the process of assisting its needy, a constitutional amendment ending Prohibition was proposed. Ignoring President Grant’s objections, Utah cast the deciding vote to repeal Prohibition. An unhappy President Grant remarked that some members who sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” seemed to add the words, “provided he keeps his mouth shut politically.”18

Amid all these internal Church improvements and economic struggles, the Church continued to grow. The Improvement Era, a magazine that had been devoted to MIA work, became the leading Church magazine for all adults. Another significant development involved the Sunday School program. Previously an organization for children, it began in the 1930s to offer a Gospel Doctrine class for adults.

Though full-time missionary work declined in the 1930s because many families could not afford to support missionary sons or daughters, these years saw the growth of the stake missionary program. In 1911 a stake in Utah had proposed the idea of calling stake missionaries. The idea had succeeded and, with First Presidency approval, soon spread. In 1936 the Church placed stake missionary work under the direction of the First Council of the Seventy. By 1939 the Church had 128 stake missions, and 2,000 baptisms resulted from the work of those missionaries.19

In the midst of the Great Depression, an Easterner asked Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards, “Is there something in the Mormon Church against the use of paint?” In response, Bishop Richards helped direct a Church beautification movement after 1937 in which meetinghouses and grounds were painted, repaired, and landscaped.20

World War II: 1939–45

In 1939 war again erupted in Europe and soon spread into Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Once more LDS missionaries had to be evacuated, leaving missions and branches on their own.21 When local leaders had to assume leadership responsibility, many performed extremely well. Though the war limited missionary work, the work continued due to sisters, older couples, and brethren with health deferments who accepted calls, as well as members in various countries who served locally.

“For the Saints this is a fratricidal conflict,” the First Presidency said of the war, for LDS soldiers again fought on both sides.22 The Church was able to provide its American servicemen with pocket scriptures, chaplains in larger units, and group leaders at many bases.

In Germany the Nazi regime did not formally prosecute Church members, but door-to-door tracting was banned and Church members sought to balance their affiliations to Church and state.23 Members met in homes and shared food and belongings. In 1943 Allied bombs destroyed four LDS meetinghouses in Hamburg alone and the East German Mission Home in Berlin. During the war, 95 percent of Bremen Branch members lost their homes. More than 600 German members were killed. Many homeless members sought refuge in LDS branches that were still operating.24

In Salt Lake City in 1941, the First Presidency called five men as Assistants to the Twelve because there were too few General Authorities to regularly visit conferences and supervise work in the rapidly multiplying stakes. Then in the October 1942 general conference, after preaching Word of Wisdom adherence for years, President Grant said that he and the Brethren felt it was time for “every officer in every Church organization, strictly to keep the Word of Wisdom from this moment forward” or step aside from their callings.25 Since then, that standard has continued in place.

On 14 May 1945, a week after Germany surrendered, President Heber J. Grant died. George Albert Smith, senior Apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve, became the next Church President.

Postwar Vigor: 1945–51

At World War II’s end, European Saints had great need for food and clothing. In response the Church sent about 140 train cars full of food, clothing, and bedding.26 Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spent months helping distribute the relief supplies.

After the war, members tried to get on with their lives. War had produced jobs, and a growing prosperity marked the postwar years in the United States. Missionary work mushroomed because LDS men were once again able to accept calls and families could afford to send them. In 1948 the Church gave missionaries a standardized teaching plan developed in the northwestern United States, and two years later Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards published his influential missionary text, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Tithing totals rose, giving the Church resources to undertake a vigorous building program, which war restrictions had previously blocked. Between 1945 and 1951 some 600 new meetinghouses were built.27

In a number of European war zone communities, bombs and fires had destroyed civil and church records, which had been prime family history sources. To help preserve surviving records, the Church expanded its microfilming program to some records in Great Britain and to some Scandinavian countries.

As the Church continued to expand internationally, President Lorin F. Jones and Sister Ivy Huish Jones of the Spanish-American Mission received First Presidency approval to conduct the Church’s first non-English temple sessions—in Spanish—in the Arizona Temple late in 1945. Annually, for years, those sessions drew about 200 Hispanic members from great distances.28 By 1951, when President and Sister Jones finished their mission, they had helped Spanish-speaking members prepare some 12,000 family group sheets at the mission home in El Paso, Texas.

During this postwar expansion, an important historic milestone arrived. In 1947 President George Albert Smith participated in grand celebrations of the centennial of the Mormon pioneers’ arrival in the Great Salt Lake Valley. For the occasion, the large and stately This Is the Place monument overlooking Salt Lake City was unveiled. A 72-car caravan, with cars having plywood oxen strapped to their sides and wagon covers on top, recreated the 1847 pioneer journey from the midwest to Utah.29 Because of the centennial, Time magazine featured President Smith’s picture on one of its covers, an amazing turnaround from conditions at the beginning of the century! That year the Church passed the one-million mark in membership.

In the midst of this buoyant postwar period, President Smith died on 4 April 1951 on his 81st birthday and just beyond the 20th century’s midpoint. President David O. McKay succeeded him.

Symbolizing the nation’s growing favorable acknowledgment of the Church, in 1950 a heroic-size statue of Brigham Young, sculpted by his grandson Mahonri M. Young, was placed in Statuary Hall in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. Such acknowledgment of Brigham Young as a great American leader and colonizer was monumental evidence that a significant shift in attitude had taken place in the federal government and the nation toward Latter-day Saints.30

What a contrast the Church in 1951 provided when compared with its situation a half-century earlier. Whereas President Lorenzo Snow had agonized over Church debts and President Joseph F. Smith had seen the nation vilify the Saints, by 1951 the Church was prospering numerically, financially, and in its internal organizational operations. When the media gave the Church any attention in the 1940s, they often voiced admiration for Church programs and practices, particularly for its welfare plan, Church members’ patriotism in wartime, and Latter-day Saints’ important positions in government, business, and education.

President Snow had voiced high hopes for mankind in the 20th century. Undoubtedly the strides the young Church made would have pleased him. Like a well-maturing adolescent, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was finding its place in the world and marching with self-assurance toward its future.


  1. LeRoi C. Snow, “An Experience of My Father’s,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1933, 677, 679.

  2. In James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (1965–75), 3:335.

  3. In Clark, Messages, 3:312–13.

  4. In Conference Report, Apr. 1907, 7.

  5. Thomas C. Romney, The Mormon Colonies in Mexico (1938).

  6. Joseph F. Smith, “Our Duty to Humanity, to God and to Country,” Improvement Era, May 1917, 647.

  7. See Reed Smoot, “Loyalty and Patriotism of the Latter-day Saints,” Improvement Era, May 1930, 484; Jill Mulvay Derr and others, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (1992), 210–13.

  8. See Richard O. Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century (1985) 115; “Church School System Reaches New Heights in 1930’s,” Church News, 16 Dec. 1939, 5.

  9. Leonard J. Arrington, “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918–19 in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly (spring 1990), 165–82.

  10. In Conference Report, Oct. 1920, 11.

  11. See Jessie L. Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries: An Oral History Response, 1910–70,” Journal of Mormon History, spring 1997, 100–139; Lydia D. Alder, “Thoughts on Missionary Work,” Woman’s Exponent, 1 Aug. 1901, 21–22.

  12. See Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer, California Saints: A 150-Year Legacy in the Golden State (1996), 264–85.

  13. By the 1920s and into the 1930s, talented Latter-day Saints had developed notable careers and helped establish the Church in the East: James H. Moyle became an assistant secretary of the treasury, J. Reuben Clark an undersecretary of state, Edgar B. Brossard the U.S. tariff commissioner, Marriner S. Eccles the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Merlo J. Pusey a writer for the Washington Post, David M. Kennedy a high banking official in Chicago (and later U.S. treasury secretary), and Harvey Fletcher a world authority in acoustics with Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey.

  14. See Derr and others, Women of Covenant, 242.

  15. In Conference Report, Oct. 1936, 3.

  16. See Clark, Messages, 6:198–203.

  17. See Clark, Messages, 6:58–59; Garth Mangum and Bruce Blumell, The Mormons’ War on Poverty (1993) 148–49.

  18. Quoted in Cowan, The Church, 132.

  19. See Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., “A New Plan for Missionary Work in the Stakes of Zion,” Improvement Era, May 1936, 273; “Stake Missions under First Council of Seventy One of Leading Movements in Decade,” Church News, 16 Dec. 1939, 5.

  20. LeGrand Richards oral history interview with William G. Hartley, 1, 8, and 15 Mar. 1975, typescript, Church archives, 18; Improvement Era, Feb. 1938, 103.

  21. See David F. Boone, “The Worldwide Evacuation of Latter-day Saint Missionaries at the Beginning of World War II” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1981), 1–15.

  22. In Clark, Messages, 6:116.

  23. See Cowan, The Church, 175.

  24. See Gilbert W. Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany (1970), 105, 108, 114–16, 130–31.

  25. In Clark, Messages, 6:172–73.

  26. Mangum and Blumell, The Mormons’ War on Poverty, 152.

  27. See LeGrand Richards, oral history interview, 18.

  28. See Henry A. Smith, “200 Lamanites Gather in History-Making Conference, Temple Sessions,” Church News, 10 Nov. 1945, 1.

  29. See Wendell J. Ashton, “The Centennial Trek,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1947, 580–81.

  30. See James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (1992), 552.

  • William G. Hartley is an associate professor of history and a research professor at BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute.

Historical photos and artifacts courtesy of LDS Church Archives and Museum of Church History and Art, except as noted

Above: View of Temple Square and the Hotel Utah in 1912. (Photo by L. Holland.) Right: After April 1936, many stakes established farms to help the needy. Inset: Ornamental trowel used by Elder David O. McKay at the cornerstone ceremony for the temple in Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Below: President Lorenzo Snow with counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Background: President Joseph F. Smith. Left: Saints gather for the Alberta Temple dedication in 1923. (Photo by George Edward Anderson.)

Top: President Heber J. Grant. (Heber J. Grant, by C. J. Fox.) Above: Church Administration Building. (Rendering by Emil Fetzer/Young and Sons Architect.)

Above: Tithing scrip from the bishops’ storehouse in St. George, Utah. Right: St. George Tabernacle, where President Lorenzo Snow, center, received the revelation on tithing.

United States president Theodore Roosevelt visited Salt Lake City in 1903.

Below: Some missionaries of 1922. Inset, bottom: Elder Reed Smoot of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1903 but was not seated until 1907, after extended Senate hearings.

Right: President Heber J. Grant delivered the Church’s first radio broadcast over Salt Lake City’s station KZN on 6 May 1922. Far right: Deseret Industries, established in 1938, was part of the Church welfare program.

Microphone © Photodisc

By late 1943 the Church was operating 65 canneries, such as this one is Portland, Oregon.

Above: Church members in Holland helped deliver potatoes to Germany after World War II. Right: In 1947 Time magazine featured President George Albert Smith on one of its covers. Above, center: Scouting’s Silver Buffalo award given to President Smith in 1934.

Above: In 1950 this statue of Brigham Young was placed in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. Such acknowledgment of President Young was evidence of the nation’s shift in attitude toward the Church. (Brigham Young, by Mahonri M. Young.)