I was a high school senior when the new Church magazines were announced—the Ensign for adults, the New Era for youth, and the Friend for children. I remember a feeling of excitement and anticipation.
A few months later, in January 1971, the first magazines arrived in the mail. I read them cover to cover. A short time later, my stake president, who knew I had been working for a daily newspaper since I was 17, asked me to give my impressions of each magazine in a talk during stake conference. Again I read each magazine cover to cover. In my talk I said I was impressed with both the content and design, but I was especially impressed with the spirit of truth the magazines conveyed. Since that time, my opinion has never varied.
Little did I know that just six years later I would become a member of the Church magazines staff and over the years write many articles for the magazines myself.
Today, as changes to the Church magazines are announced once again, all Church members have reason to feel excitement and anticipation. In January 2021, the Ensign is merging with the Liahona to provide one publication for adults worldwide. Magazines for youth and children, as independent publications, will become available throughout the world. And digital content and local pages will expand and enhance the insight and resources available to members of the Church everywhere. I have no doubt that the content and design will become even more impressive and that the magazines will continue to convey a spirit of truth.
For five decades, the Ensign, published in English, stood as a banner “to the nations” (Isaiah 5:26), calling to mind the hymn that proclaims, “Zion’s standard is unfurled” (“The Morning Breaks,” Hymns, no. 1). Beginning in January 2021, it merges with the Liahona, the international Church magazine published in multiple languages worldwide. The new Liahona will serve as a spiritual compass guiding us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, as we give “faith and diligence and heed” (1 Nephi 16:28) to the voice of the Lord and His prophets.
The print edition of this month’s Ensign features a time line, including memories and insights from those who have worked on the magazine over the years. With 50 years of history, there are, of course, lots of highlights—so many, in fact, that we couldn’t squeeze in all the memories and insights. So here’s an opportunity to share a few more, from those who have served as managing editor of the Ensign.
Jay M. Todd, who served as managing editor of the Ensign for more than 30 years, says, “My work was [like] walking into a room with the light [already] on. Sometimes the light might seem only similar to that of a 25-watt light bulb—maybe due to a shortcoming of mine that day. Other times it might seem similar to a 100-watt bulb, and sometimes it seemed similar to a 300-watt bulb. But the ‘light in the room’ [was always on.]
“The gift of the Holy Ghost works on all of us in our various life settings,” he continues. “By having that light on it means we can live our lives His way, which really means receiving the Spirit’s guidance, impressions, and doing the Lord’s work—whatever that work is, at home or elsewhere—in harmony with the Lord’s doctrines, teachings, current leaders’ directions, and ever-changing emphases to meet changing circumstances.”
Brother Todd notes that “the word ensign appears in ancient and modern-day scriptural texts, often about the last days when the Lord would raise up an ensign—which is a banner, a symbol, a sign for others to see. That great ensign is the Restoration of the gospel itself, the great prophesied marvelous work and a wonder of the Lord in the last days.”
Since its beginning, Brother Todd says, the Ensign has been “a spiritual and temporal lifeline to the homes of Church members—the means of carrying words of counsel, uplift, and direction from the prophets and Church leaders, a testimony-building vehicle for showing the power of the gospel in members’ lives as they apply those truths in all kinds of real-world circumstances.”
“For a lot of people, the Ensign seemed like a direct connection with the official Church,” says Brian K. Kelly, who became managing editor when Brother Todd retired. Brother Kelly had worked for the magazines for years before being called as a mission president. “When I returned they asked me to be the managing editor of the Ensign. As a mission president, I was used to receiving inspiration on a regular basis, and when I went to the Ensign, that continued. There were specific things I felt prompted to do, and with the help of the staff, we went ahead and tried to accomplish them.”
He remembers the Ensign as providing more than just articles and information. “It helped to establish a sense of belonging,” he says. “Readers felt they were ‘fellowcitizens with the saints’ [Ephesians 2:19].”
Don Searle, who became managing editor after Brian Kelly, says, “It would be impossible for me to list all the good qualities of the people with whom I worked while at the Ensign—staff members of the New Era and Friend, designers, photographers, other Church employees—and I was even assigned a number of times to work with General Authorities or to interview them.
“The personal associations that came through all of these assignments were great sources of learning and growth for me. I often reflected during those years that there were many qualified members in the Church who would love to work for the magazines, but only a handful of us actually had that opportunity. I will be ever grateful that the Lord allowed me to be one of them.”
The Church was rapidly becoming more and more international when R. Val Johnson was asked to become the managing editor of both the Ensign and the Liahona. He had previously worked for both publications and was encouraged to continue the effort to bring identical magazine content to all members of the Church.
Brother Johnson says that one of the great lessons he learned while working at the Church magazines was the value of both counsel and councils. “One person may feel strongly about an idea walking into a meeting, but when the group has a chance to counsel together as they bounce the idea off one another, perspectives and opinions often change. Revelation comes through the counsel of councils. I saw that over and over again and came to appreciate how important councils, both on earth and in heaven, really are.”
He also says, “Over the years my admiration of the General Authorities and General Officers of the Church grew tremendously, and my testimony of Jesus Christ, of His intimate leadership, and of His gospel—administered at a personal level—has expanded. In interacting with the leaders of the Church, I came to recognize them as fallible human beings who, despite their imperfections, sought for and received divine direction in their work. These are good men and women, in every sense of the word, and the world is lucky to have them doing the work they do.”
He feels a similar admiration for staff members who have worked for the magazines over the years, describing them as “sent to serve the Lord and His Church at times when the Lord needed their particular skills and talents to build His kingdom.”
Adam Olson, the current managing editor of the Ensign and Liahona, says the time is right for the two magazines to become one.
“The scriptures encourage us to have our ‘hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another’ [Mosiah 18:21],” he says. “Technology is allowing that to happen more and more. For 50 years, the Ensign has blessed the Church. Now we turn to a future where the voice of the Lord increasingly will be to all people [see Doctrine and Covenants 1:4]. As Lehi and his family did, we will turn to the Liahona—and the words of Church leaders that it contains—to provide guidance and direction as we move toward a unity of faith.”
When I first started working at the Church magazines so many years ago, I regarded the Ensign staff as coworkers with offices in an adjacent hallway. Over the years, I have come to see these friends and colleagues—dedicated writers, editors, designers, and photographers who have worked and who now work on the magazines—as fellow servants who more than anything seek to build the kingdom of God. And I have learned that the Ensign editorial family also includes equally diligent translators, local pages editors, and contributors all around the world.
As Church magazines move toward a marvelous future, may we remember the wonderful role the Ensign and the other magazines have played for 50 years. As we rejoice in the banner of truth we have followed, let us now look to the Liahona as a compass that will guide us in the future.