Church History
Servicemember Branches

“Servicemember Branches,” Church History Topics (2022)

“Servicemember Branches,” Church History Topics

Servicemember Branches

Latter-day Saints have participated in various military organizations and diplomatic agencies since early members of the Church first joined militia units in the 1800s. Foreign service in the 20th century introduced new organizational and fellowshipping challenges for Church congregations, as military and diplomatic demands regularly required servicemembers and their families to relocate abroad. During periods of conflict, greater numbers of Latter-day Saints from various nations enlisted or were called into service, which occasionally warranted organizing temporary branches and creating special channels of correspondence. After World War II, servicemember branches proved instrumental in expanding local support in areas where the Church had not previously had much opportunity to establish permanent congregations.

Military Service in the 19th Century

For much of the early history of the United States, where the first generation of Latter-day Saints gathered, military and paramilitary units were organized geographically. Latter-day Saint communities in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah mustered militia units that were often composed of Church members, with local Church leaders serving as commanders.1 Occasionally, militia units composed of Latter-day Saint volunteers served as part of the Regular Army of the United States.2 Several Latter-day Saint units, such as the well-known Mormon Battalion, fought for the United States in the Mexican-American War (1846–48), the American Civil War (1861–65), the Spanish-American War (1898), and World War I (1914–18).3

During the Spanish-American War, Elias S. Kimball, the first commissioned Latter-day Saint chaplain in the United States military, struggled to balance the religious neutrality of his commission with the specific needs of Latter-day Saint soldiers assigned to his regiment. Unable to hold regular worship services and prevented from offering counsel specific to Latter-day Saint beliefs and doctrine, Kimball often felt frustrated, an experience future Latter-day Saint chaplains would share.4 Church leaders devised certain accommodations for Latter-day Saint soldiers in other military units. They encouraged wards and branches with members serving in the military to send scriptures, Church literature, and regular correspondence to their soldiers. They urged members of wards and branches near military encampments to invite soldiers to join in local services and to fellowship them where needed. Permission was sometimes granted to soldiers in active combat or other remote locations to organize their own Mutual Improvement Association (MIA) groups, the first of which was organized in 1898 near Manila, Philippines, during the Battle of Manila.5 Under the auspices of this “Mutual Improvement Association of the Far East,” Latter-day Saint servicemen met to study the scriptures, partake of the sacrament, and attend social events.6

The Two World Wars

During World War I, numbers of Latter-day Saints served on both sides of a major international conflict for the first time in the Church’s history.7 Regular correspondence from home wards and branches reached soldiers serving from the Central powers of Germany and Austria and the Allied nations of Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. Sometimes, as with the 13th Mounted Rifles (the so-called “Alberta Regiment”) of the Canadian Army, a number of Latter-day Saints held regular Church meetings. Lieutenant Hugh B. Brown, a future General Authority, led efforts to provide spiritual support to Latter-day Saints in his regiment.8

The entry of the United States Armed Forces into the war in 1917 impelled Church leaders to develop new programs to support Latter-day Saint servicemembers. Three Latter-day Saints received commissions as chaplains in the United States Army, and servicemembers across the world were encouraged to seek local congregations wherever stationed. MIA groups were organized near training bases or combat arenas where servicemembers were prevented from attending regular wards and branches.9

As the Second World War broke out in the 1930s, Church leaders had learned from World War I and were prepared to develop a more thorough support network for servicemembers. In 1940 and 1941, as the number of Latter-day Saints engaged in the conflict began to climb, leaders created new distribution channels for sending Church literature and correspondence to servicemembers abroad. MIA groups provided the main nucleus of Latter-day Saint camaraderie in the field. The Military Servicemen’s Committee—organized in 1941, with Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as chair and Hugh B. Brown as coordinator—devised a servicemember support plan that included a formal process for calling and setting apart MIA group leaders.10 The committee also published the Handbook for Chaplains and Group Leaders and pocket editions of the scriptures and other Church literature for servicemembers. A directory, updated annually, provided servicemembers with contact information of local branches, wards, and missions wherever they were stationed. Local Church members served as assistant coordinators to connect nearby military posts with local congregations.11

While the number of Latter-day Saint chaplains increased during World War II, the Military Servicemen’s Committee preferred calling enlisted men as group leaders. The arrangement allowed for more overtly Latter-day Saint worship meetings to convene without running against military policies requiring nondenominational services. Young men set apart as group leaders before leaving home could organize groups and hold meetings wherever they were stationed, including while in combat.12 MIA groups were organized in every theater of the war, including some prisoner of war camps, and many of the servicemembers who attended took every opportunity to share the gospel with fellow soldiers and local people with whom they interacted. Many servicemembers, like L. Tom Perry, a United States Marine and future Apostle, collaborated with military companions, other churches, and branch members to rebuild areas devastated by the war.13

Foreign Service and Church Growth

Since World War II, the Church has continued to sponsor and refine efforts to support Latter-day Saints in military and diplomatic service.14 In parts of Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific, branches organized for Latter-day Saint families in military and diplomatic service have been instrumental in providing early local support and leadership for establishing the Church in many nations. Rapid membership growth throughout the world often followed directly from the work and efforts of expatriate Latter-day Saints.15

Related Topics: Mexican-American War, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Growth of Missionary Work

  1. Joseph Smith, for instance, served as the commander of the local militia in Nauvoo, the Nauvoo Legion, as a brigadier general. When the Nauvoo Legion was reorganized in Utah to respond to conflicts between United States federal forces and local Indigenous communities, Daniel H. Wells, Apostle and future counselor to Brigham Young, was appointed its commanding officer. See “Nauvoo Legion,” Joseph Smith Papers,; Daniel H. Wells, Special Orders, 25 June 1849, Territorial Militia Records, Utah, 1849–1877, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City,

  2. When primary military organizations in the United States were local militias, the Regular Army was smaller than the later professional armed forces. During the 1800s, the Regular Army, when authorized by a congressional declaration of war, would call upon militias as “volunteer army” units.

  3. See Topics: Mormon Battalion, Mexican-American War, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I.

  4. James I. Mangum, “The Spanish-American and Philippine Wars,” in Robert C. Freeman, ed., Nineteenth-Century Saints at War (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2007), 168, 171–72.

  5. George Seaman, “The ‘Far East’ Improvement Association,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1898, 152–54.

  6. Mangum, “The Spanish-American and Philippine Wars,” 179–81.

  7. See Topic: World War I.

  8. James I. Mangum, “The Influence of the First World War on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2006), 4.

  9. Robert C. Freeman and Andrew C. Skinner, Saints at War: World War I (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort Press, 2018), 57–58, 119–24, 138.

  10. “Elder Brown Is Named to New Post,” Deseret News, Apr. 28, 1941, 9; Eugene E. Campbell and Richard D. Poll, Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1975), 144; David L. Clark, “Hugh B. Brown’s Program for Latter-day Saint Servicemen during WWII,” Interpreter, vol. 34 (2020), 143–60.

  11. First Presidency, Letter to Bishops and Stake Presidents, 6 Aug. 1941, Servicemen’s Committee Circular Letters, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; First Presidency, Letter to Bishops and Stake Presidents, 14 Oct. 1942, Servicemen’s Committee Circular Letters, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  12. Robert C. Freeman and Dennis A. Wright, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-day Saints in World War II (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2001), 190–93.

  13. Colleen Whitley, “Prisoners of War Minutes of Meetings of Latter-day Saint Servicemen Held in Stulag Luft 1, Barth, Germany,” BYU Studies, vol. 37, no. 1 (1997–98), 207–17; Freeman and Wright, Saints at War, 45–46, 57–61, 153–54, 174, 184, 203–5; Lee Tom Perry, L. Tom Perry: An Uncommon Life (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 126–31; see also “Lifetimes of Service,” Global Histories: Netherlands,; “The Lord Is Smiling on the Philippines,” Global Histories: Philippines,

  14. See “Military Relations and Chaplain Services,”

  15. See, for example, Perry, An Uncommon Life, 126–39; Frederick S. Williams and Frederick G. Williams, From Acorn to Oak Tree: A Personal History of the Establishment and the First Quarter Development of the South American Missions (Fullerton, California: Et Cetera, 1987), 195; Topic: Growth of Missionary Work; “The Lord Is Smiling on the Philippines,” Global Histories: Philippines,; “Feed My Sheep,” Global Histories: South Korea,; “Tatsui Sato: Translator for Life,” Global Histories: Japan,; “The Gathering of Saints in Rwanda,” Global Histories: Rwanda,; “Bringing the Gospel to the Congo,” Global Histories: Democratic Republic of the Congo,; “The Timing of the Lord,” Global Histories: Spain,; “Clear and Wonderful,” Global Histories: Haiti,; “The Book of Mormon Seemed to Be Speaking,” Global Histories: Panama,; “I Need to Open Up the Doors,” Global Histories: Guam,