“A Brighter and a Better Day,” chapter 1 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3, Boldly, Nobly, and Independent, 1893–1955 (2022)
Chapter 1: “A Brighter and a Better Day”
Evan Stephens and the Tabernacle Choir had the opportunity of a lifetime. It was May 1893, and the World’s Columbian Exposition had just opened in Chicago, a booming metropolis in the midwestern United States. For the next six months, millions of people from around the world would come to the exposition. There were six hundred sprawling acres to explore, filled with grassy parks, shimmering lagoons and canals, and gleaming ivory-colored palaces. Everywhere visitors turned at the fair, they heard beautiful concerts, breathed in enticing new aromas, or beheld awe-inspiring exhibits from forty-six participating nations.
If you wanted to get the world’s attention, Evan knew, you could find no bigger stage than the world’s fair.1
As the conductor of the choir, he was eager to perform in the Grand International Eisteddfod, a prestigious Welsh singing competition to be held at the fair that fall. He and many choir members were Welsh or of Welsh descent and had grown up steeped in the musical traditions of their homeland. Yet the competition was more than a chance to celebrate their heritage. Performing in Chicago would give the Tabernacle Choir—the premier singing group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the perfect opportunity to put their talent on display and introduce more people to the Church.2
Time after time, misinformation about the Saints had brought them hardship and conflict with their neighbors. Half a century earlier they had fled to the Salt Lake Valley, far from their harassers. Yet peace had been fleeting, especially after the Saints began openly practicing plural marriage. In the decades that followed, the United States government waged an unrelenting campaign against plural marriage, and critics of the Church deployed every means to destroy its public image and portray the Saints as a crude, unenlightened people.
In 1890, Church president Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, an official statement calling for the end of plural marriage among the Saints. Since then, the federal government had eased its opposition to the Church. Change was slow, however, and misunderstandings persisted. Now, at the century’s end, the Saints wanted to give the world a true picture of who they were and what they believed.3
As eager as Evan was to have the choir represent the Church at the fair, he very nearly had to pass up the opportunity. A financial crisis had just struck the United States, crippling Utah’s economy. Many choir members were poor, and Evan did not want them to use their income for the journey. He also worried that they were not ready for competition. Although they had sung like angels at the recent Salt Lake Temple dedication, they were still a choir of amateurs. If they were no match for the other choirs, they could embarrass the Church.4
In fact, earlier that year Evan and the First Presidency of the Church had decided not to enter the contest after all. But then the Eisteddfod had sent representatives to Salt Lake City. After listening to the choir sing, the representatives informed George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the First Presidency, that the Saints could win the competition.
Turning to Evan, President Cannon asked, “Do you think our choir has a fair chance?”
“I do not think we can win the contest,” Evan replied, “but we can make a fine impression.”5
That was enough for President Cannon. Other Saints, also hoping to represent the Church well, had already left for Chicago. Leaders of the Relief Society and Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association would be speaking at the fair’s Congress of Representative Women, the largest assembly of women’s leaders ever held. B. H. Roberts, one of the seven presidents of the Seventy, hoped to speak about the Church at the Parliament of Religions being held at the fair.
At the First Presidency’s request, the choir began rehearsing immediately—and scrambling to find a way to fund the trip. Evan needed to do the impossible, and he had less than three months to do it.6
That spring, the economic crisis hampering the Tabernacle Choir was also threatening the Church with financial ruin.
Six years earlier, at the height of its antipolygamy campaign, the United States Congress had passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, authorizing the confiscation of Church property. Worried the government would seize their donations, many Saints had stopped paying tithing, greatly reducing the Church’s main source of funding. To cover its losses, the Church had borrowed money and invested in business ventures to provide enough funds to keep the Lord’s work moving forward. It also took out loans to cover the cost of finishing the Salt Lake Temple.7
On May 10, 1893, the First Presidency asked apostle Heber J. Grant to travel east immediately to negotiate new loans to relieve the Church’s financial burdens. In Utah, banks were failing and agricultural prices plummeting. Soon the Church would not be able to pay its secretaries, clerks, and other employees.8 Since Heber was the president of a Salt Lake City bank and had many friends in the finance industry, Church leaders hoped he could secure the money.9
Once Heber agreed to go, President Cannon gave him a blessing, promising that angels would assist him. Heber then caught a train for the East Coast, the weight of the Church resting on his shoulders. If he failed, the Church would default on its loans and lose the trust of its creditors. It would then be unable to borrow the money it needed to stay running.10
Soon after arriving in New York City, Heber renewed several loans and borrowed $25,000 more. He then pursued another loan, ultimately securing an additional $50,000. But his efforts were not enough to keep the Church financially afloat.11
As the days went by, he struggled to find more lenders. The crisis had frightened everyone. Nobody wanted to issue loans to an institution already deep in debt.
Heber began losing sleep. He worried his health would fail before he fulfilled his mission. “I am over six feet high and weigh but 140 pounds,” he noted in his journal, “so there is not much surplus for me to draw on.”12
On the morning of May 19, Emmeline Wells was anxious. At ten o’clock, she and other leaders of the Relief Society would be speaking about their organization to the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago World’s Fair.13
She hoped their speeches would correct harmful stereotypes about women in the Church. Since most of the Church’s two hundred thousand members lived in the American West, few people had ever met a Latter-day Saint woman. What people knew about them usually came from books, magazines, and pamphlets that spread false information about the Church and characterized its women as uneducated and oppressed.14
When ten o’clock arrived, the room’s eight hundred seats were not all filled. Although the Relief Society session had been well advertised, other important sessions were happening at the same time, drawing away people who might otherwise have come to hear the Utah women speak. Emmeline recognized a few faces in the audience, many of them Saints who came in support. She did, however, spot one important audience member who was not a Latter-day Saint: reporter Etta Gilchrist.15
Ten years earlier, Etta had written a novel condemning plural marriage and the Saints. But since then, she and Emmeline had found common cause in advocating for women’s voting rights, leading Emmeline to publish one of Etta’s articles on suffrage in the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper Emmeline edited in Utah. A positive report from Etta would certainly help the Saints’ reputation.16
The session opened with a performance of Eliza R. Snow’s hymn “O My Father.” Relief Society general president Zina Young and other leaders then delivered short addresses about the work of the Relief Society and the history of the Church. The speakers included women who had come to Utah as pioneers as well as those who were born in the territory. When Emmeline spoke, she praised the sophistication of Utah’s women writers and described the Relief Society’s many years of experience in grain storage.
“If ever there is a famine,” she told the audience, “come to Zion.”17
Before the meeting ended, Emmeline called Etta to the platform. Etta rose and took a seat beside Zina. She shook hands with each of the women from Utah, touched that they would treat her kindly after she had once belittled them.
Etta’s report on the Relief Society meeting appeared in the newspaper a few days later. “The Mormons are apparently a most religious people,” she wrote. “Their faith in their religion is marvelous.”
Describing the welcome she received from the Saints, she added, “This one meeting was to me worth coming to Chicago for.”
Emmeline was grateful for the compliment.18
As banks and businesses in Utah failed, nineteen-year-old Leah Dunford worried about her family. They were not wealthy, and her mother, Susa Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young, had sold precious land so Leah could study health and fitness at a summer school held on Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Leah was not sure she should go. Was it right, she wondered, to benefit from her mother’s sacrifice?19
Susa wanted Leah to attend the summer school, no matter the expense. At the time, many young Latter-day Saints were leaving Utah to study at prestigious universities in the eastern United States. Susa had studied at the summer school the previous year, and she hoped her daughter would have a similarly good experience. She also thought that one of the students she met there, a young Norwegian Latter-day Saint named John Widtsoe, would be an ideal match for Leah.20
Worries about money aside, Leah was eager to further her education. Her mother believed that young Latter-day Saint women needed a good education and career training. Until recently, plural marriage had made a covenant marriage available to virtually any Latter-day Saint woman who desired it. But Leah’s generation, the first to reach adulthood after the Manifesto, no longer had that guarantee—or the guarantee of financial support that marriage brought women at that time.21
Though educational and career possibilities were expanding for women in many parts of the world, parents in the Church often worried that these opportunities would lead their daughters to marry husbands outside the Church and leave the faith. For this reason, leaders in the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association had begun emphasizing that young women should develop strong testimonies and make important decisions prayerfully.22
Susa, in fact, had already encouraged Leah to fast and pray about her relationship with John Widtsoe. Susa’s marriage to Leah’s father, who was a heavy drinker at the time, had ended in divorce. She yearned for her daughter to have a happy marriage to a righteous young man. Of course, Leah had yet to meet John in person. So far, they had only exchanged a few letters.23
In June 1893, Leah traveled to Harvard, a distance of more than two thousand miles, with four other women from Utah. They arrived late at the house where John and the other Latter-day Saint students lived, so they did not have time to meet the young men. The next morning, though, Leah noticed a quiet young man sitting in a corner by himself. “I guess you’re Brother Widtsoe,” she said to him. “I heard my mother talk about you.”
She had always imagined John as a tall, strapping Scandinavian. Instead, he was short and slight. What on earth did her mother see in him?
Thoroughly unimpressed, Leah ignored John until dinnertime. When the housekeeper recruited John to carve the meat, Leah thought, “At least he’s useful.” Then, after everyone knelt to bless the food, John offered the blessing. His prayer went straight to Leah’s heart.
“There’s the man,” she told herself.24
After that, Leah and John were almost always together. One afternoon, while wandering together in a park, they stopped on a small hill overlooking a pond. There John told Leah about his childhood in Norway and his youth in Logan, Utah.
It soon started to rain, so they took shelter in a nearby tower, and Leah went on to tell John about her life. They then climbed to the top of the tower and talked for another hour and a half about their hopes for the future.25
John Widtsoe was in love with Leah Dunford, but he did not want to admit it. When she first came to the school, he wanted to ignore her. He was too busy and not interested in romance at this stage in his life. He had big plans for his future. Leah was a distraction.
But he liked how she could play several instruments and talk lightly or seriously depending on the occasion. He liked that she helped the housekeeper clean up when everyone else sat and did nothing. More than anything else, he liked her ambition.
“She has a desire to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother, Anna, in Salt Lake City. “She will be one of Utah’s leading women in education.”
By his calculations, he would need at least two or three years to pay off his Harvard debts. He would then need four years for graduate school in Europe—and another four years to pay off that debt. Then he would need at least three more years to earn enough money to even consider marrying Leah.26
John was also still sorting out his own religious beliefs. He had faith in Jesus’s purity and goodness. When he first came to Harvard, he had also received a strong spiritual witness that God had helped him pass his entrance exams. But he was less sure about the Church. Earlier that year, he had written to his mother with questions he had about the Church and its leaders. The letter had so distressed Anna that she had written back immediately, certain he had lost his testimony.27
In his next letter, John had tried to explain himself. Like some other Saints his age, he grappled with doubts. Church leaders had always taught him that he lived in the last days, when the Lord would deliver His people from their enemies. But over the last three years, he had watched the Saints set aside plural marriage and grow bitterly divided over politics. He now questioned whether the Saints would ever succeed in building Zion.
“Everything seems to have gone against expectations,” he had told his mother.
In his letters home, John had also tried to explain that it was not enough for him to simply believe something. He had to know why he believed it. “It is of no use to say that ‘I believe it’ and think no more about it,” he had written. Still, he continued to pray for greater understanding of things pertaining to the Church.28
Then, on July 23, he had a powerful spiritual experience. A Methodist woman attended the Latter-day Saint students’ Sunday service, and John was asked to give an impromptu sermon. Surprised, he stood up, unsure what he should say. He quickly decided to talk about the personality of God, hoping his words would help the visitor understand what the Saints believed. As he spoke, he did not get flustered or repeat himself, as he sometimes did when speaking in public. Instead, he preached a clear, intelligible sermon for more than thirty minutes.
“I felt God’s Spirit help me,” he wrote to his mother. “I have never known so much about God and His personality.”29
After the meeting, John spent the rest of the day with Leah. As they talked, John told her he wanted her to visit his mother. He had already told Anna so much about Leah. Now he wanted them to meet in person.30
As midnight approached on September 1, 1893, Heber J. Grant lay wide awake in a New York City hotel room. Earlier that day he had received a terrifying telegram. Zion’s Savings Bank and Trust Company, the Church’s most important financial institution, was on the verge of failure. So too was the State Bank of Utah, where Heber served as president. If he did not wire money to the banks the next day, they would not be able to open for business. Both Heber’s and the Church’s reputation with creditors would be damaged, perhaps forever.
Heber tossed and turned for hours. Earlier that year, George Q. Cannon had promised that angels would help him. More recently, Joseph F. Smith, the second counselor in the First Presidency, had promised him success beyond his expectations. But now Heber could not imagine anyone loaning him enough money to save the banks.
He prayed for help, pleading with God as tears streamed from his eyes. Finally, around three o’clock in the morning, he fell asleep, still unsure how he would solve this dilemma.31
He awoke unusually late. Since it was Saturday, the banks would close at noon, so he needed to hurry. Kneeling in prayer, he asked the Lord to find someone willing to loan him $200,000. He said he was willing to make any sacrifice, including giving the lender a hefty commission on the loan.32
After the prayer, Heber felt cheerful, sure the Lord would help him. He decided to visit John Claflin, the head of a large mercantile company, but John was not in his office. With time running out, Heber caught a train to the city’s financial district, hoping to visit another bank. On the way, he became absorbed in a newspaper and missed his stop. Exiting the train, he walked along aimlessly. When he came upon the office of another acquaintance, he stepped inside. There he ran into John Claflin, the very man he wanted to see.
Knowing Heber’s predicament, John agreed to loan the Church $250,000, provided he receive a 20 percent commission.33 Despite the high cost, Heber could see that the Lord had answered his prayers.34 He wired money to Salt Lake City immediately.
The funds arrived just in time to save the foundering banks.35
“Pay no attention to your competitors until you have sung,” Evan Stephens told the members of the Tabernacle Choir. “Simply be calm.”
It was the afternoon of September 8. The choir had finished their final rehearsal for the Eisteddfod. In a few hours, the singers would take the stage to perform the three musical numbers they had practiced nearly every day that summer. Evan was still not sure they could win, but he would be satisfied if they did their best.36
The choir, in company with the First Presidency, had arrived in Chicago five days earlier. To meet the requirements of the competition, Evan had trimmed the choir down to two hundred and fifty singers. When their star soprano, Nellie Pugsley, had a baby weeks before the concert and did not think she could perform at the fair, arrangements were made for her sister to care for the baby while Nellie sang.37
Funding the trip during an economic depression proved as challenging as getting the choir ready to sing. Choir leaders first tried raising money from Salt Lake City’s businessmen. When that failed, the choir decided to hold several concerts, hoping ticket sales would cover costs. They held two concerts in Utah and four more in major cities between Salt Lake City and Chicago.38
The concerts were a financial success, but they were a strain on the singers’ voices. The choir had continued to prepare in Chicago, drawing hundreds of spectators to their rehearsals at the Utah Building, a large exhibition hall displaying goods and artifacts from the territory.39
After their final rehearsal, Evan and the singers assembled in the basement of the concert hall. As they waited for their turn to perform, John Nuttall, the choir’s secretary, offered a prayer, reminding each singer that she or he represented the Church and its people at the fair.
“Enable us at least to reflect credit upon Thy work and Thy people,” he prayed, “in our endeavor to represent them here before the world—a world that mostly deems us as ignorant and uncultured.”40
When the choir’s turn came, Evan took his place at the conductor’s podium. The hall was full of around ten thousand people, almost none of them members of the Church. In times past, a Latter-day Saint could expect to be heckled in front of such an audience, but Evan sensed no enmity from them.
Once the singers arranged themselves onstage, the hall went silent. The choir then sang the opening words of Handel’s “Worthy Is the Lamb”:
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,
and hath redeemed us to God by his blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength,
and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Their voices were strong, and Evan thought they sounded splendid. When the choir finished the number, the audience erupted in applause. The choir then sang two more numbers, and though Evan could hear the weariness in some of their voices, they finished well and exited the stage.41
“We have done the very best possible,” Evan told the First Presidency afterward. “I am satisfied.”
Later, when the results were announced, the Tabernacle Choir took second place, finishing only half a point behind the winner. One of the judges said the Saints should have won the competition. Yet President Cannon believed the choir had achieved something greater. “As a missionary enterprise it is likely to be a success,” he noted, “for it will give thousands of people the opportunity of learning a little truth about us.”42
Evan was likewise pleased with all his singers had accomplished. News about the “Mormon choir” winning a prize at the World’s Fair appeared in newspapers across the globe. He could not have asked for a better reward.43
The day after the concert, President Woodruff spoke about the Saints during a formal banquet at the fair. “Come and see us,” he said, his voice strong. “If you have not already been to Salt Lake City, you are all welcome.” He also invited ministers of other faiths to speak in the city. “If there is not room in the churches,” he said, “we will give you our tabernacle.”44
The prophet returned to Utah ten days later, cheered by the kindness the Saints had received in Chicago. The only incident that marred the Church’s experience at the fair occurred when organizers of the Parliament of Religions resisted B. H. Roberts’s efforts to speak about the Church at their assembly. Their actions were a sad reminder that prejudice against the Church still existed, yet Church leaders believed that people across the nation were beginning to see the Saints in a new light.45 The warm reception the Relief Society and the Tabernacle Choir had received at the fair offered hope that the persecutions of the last sixty years were coming to an end.46
At a small meeting in the Salt Lake Temple on October 5, the evening before the Church’s general conference, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles partook of the sacrament together.
“I feel deeply impressed,” George Q. Cannon said, “that a brighter and a better day is dawning upon us.”47