Church History
Tabernacle Choir
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“Tabernacle Choir,” Church History Topics

“Tabernacle Choir”

Tabernacle Choir

Two years after Latter-day Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young announced that a tabernacle would replace a thatched pavilion located on Temple Square called the bowery. Stephen Goddard had directed a choir in worship services held in the bowery, and he continued rehearsals and performances before and after the Old Tabernacle was dedicated in 1852. Eight years later, an association of musicians in Salt Lake City appointed Charles John Thomas to direct the tabernacle choir and the local theater orchestra. Thomas extended the all-volunteer choir’s repertoire beyond hymns to include European classical and other popular works. By 1863 Brigham Young and other Church leaders contemplated constructing a new tabernacle with upgraded seating, improved acoustics, and a world-class organ. The new building would accommodate not only general conference sessions and Church meetings but also concerts and cultural events. The new Salt Lake Tabernacle was dedicated in 1867 with music provided by a 150-member choir soon named after its location. 1

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Temple Square: Historical

Original tabernacle and bowery on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, circa 1861.

The excellent acoustics of the Tabernacle made the building a premier concert hall in the North American West. George Careless, the Church director of music, continued to enlist volunteer singers and organized concerts with the Salt Lake Theater Orchestra, collaborating with local music instructors to enhance the city’s reputation as an artistic center. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, along with a variety of choirs, the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir regularly performed in general conference. 2

Additional directors, including Ebenezer Beesley and Evan Stephens, added members to the Choir, bringing average rehearsal attendance to over 300 by the 1890s. They also led the Choir on tours. Stephens increased performances to over 120 Church services and assemblies in his first year as director and led the Choir to its most celebrated performance of the time, a second-place finish in a choral competition at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 3 Joseph F. Smith of the First Presidency praised the Choir for garnering positive national acclaim and helping “to remove the prejudices” that existed against the Church. 4 In 1895 the First Presidency issued official callings to singers to serve in the Choir, considering them missionaries and pledging support to maintain the Choir’s reputation as an accomplished and skilled musical group. 5

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Columbian World's Fair 1893

“The Tabernacle Choir performing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to an audience of 10 thousand.”

Evan Stephens’s successor, Anthony Lund, embraced the emerging technology of radio broadcasting and led the Choir in live local broadcasts beginning in 1924. Five years later, the Choir and Salt Lake City radio station manager Earl J. Glade launched a national weekly broadcast on Sundays featuring sacred music and, in later episodes, a short sermon and an organ solo. 6 Three months after the first national broadcast, stock markets crashed, precipitating the economic collapses of the Great Depression. Across the United States, many listeners suffering through prolonged unemployment and food shortages were inspired by the Choir’s music. 7

In 1930 a young radio employee and later Apostle Richard L. Evans joined the Music & the Spoken Word broadcast as its program announcer. Evans settled on a signature opening, “From the Crossroads of the West, we welcome you to Temple Square in Salt Lake City for Music & the Spoken Word with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” and a trademark sign-off, “May peace be with you this day and always.” During his 41-year tenure, Evans’s short sermons and the Choir’s performances established the weekly broadcast as an award-winning and nationally acclaimed program. 8

The popularity of the broadcast attracted renowned musicians and conductors to collaborate with the Choir. By the 1950s, performance tours brought the Choir into famed concert halls in the United States and Europe and onto television sets nationwide. As radio syndication grew and recordings multiplied, the Choir was popularly associated with the national culture of the United States and was often called “America’s Choir.” In 1964 United States President Lyndon Johnson invited the Choir to sing at his inauguration ceremony, a performance Church President David O. McKay considered “the greatest single honor that has come to the Tabernacle Choir.” 9 In decades since, some of the Choir’s most notable performances have included five other United States presidential inaugurals, the American Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, and the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The Choir’s recording career and extensive international tours further augmented its reputation as a premier music group and built a global audience. After a seven-week, six-nation European tour in 1955, the Choir mounted several large tours across the United States and Europe, and by the 1990s had also performed in parts of Asia, South America, Oceania, and Israel. In some cases, the tour created opportunities in countries that had been previously closed to missionary work. 10

The Choir’s recordings have also received wide acclaim. The Choir’s 1958 recording of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah oratorio sold over one million copies and was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the United States Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. 11 Other recordings and radio performances from a catalog of over 200 albums and over 4,700 broadcasts have received other honors such as the Peabody Award, the National Radio Hall of Fame, National Medal of Arts, four Emmy Awards, and a Grammy Award. 12

As tours, recordings, and broadcasts increased, Church leaders and Tabernacle Choir presidents expanded the Choir’s business concern and performance schedule to reach new audiences. Conductors J. Spencer Cornwall, Richard P. Condie, Jay E. Welch, Jerold Ottley, Craig Jessop, and Mack Wilberg each expanded the Choir’s repertoire and maintained renowned skill while fulfilling the Choir’s charge to provide edifying devotional music to Church members and represent the Church as “goodwill ambassadors.” 13

In 2018 the Choir changed its official name from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in response to Church President Russell M. Nelson’s request to drop the word “Mormon” from the names of Church-sponsored organizations in an inspired effort to use the correct name of the Lord’s Church. 14

Related Topics: Columbian Exposition of 1893, Hymns

  1. Michael Hicks, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 16–24.

  2. Hicks, 25–26.

  3. See Topic: Columbian Exposition of 1893.

  4. Hicks, 44.

  5. Hicks, 44–45. Admission and release letters to Choir members eventually referred to membership as a “mission call”; see Hicks, 171.

  6. Hicks, 71–72.

  7. See Topic: Great Depression.

  8. Lloyd D. Newell, “From the Crossroads of the West,” in Scott C. Esplin and Kenneth L. Alford, eds., Salt Lake City: The Place Which God Prepared (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2011), 305–22.

  9. Hicks, 124.

  10. Hicks, 152–53; Cynthia Doxey Green, “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s European Tours,” in Brent L. Top and Donald Q. Cannon, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Europe (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2003), 185–99.

  11. Hicks, 116–17.

  12. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, “FAQs,” https://www.thetabernaclechoir.org/about/faqs.html; “2019 by the Numbers,” https://www.thetabernaclechoir.org/articles/the-tabernacle-choir-2019-by-the-numbers.html.

  13. Hicks, 171.

  14. World-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir Changes Its Name,” News Release, October 5, 2018, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/world-renowned-mormon-tabernacle-choir-changes-name.