“The Church Is More than a Meetinghouse,” Liahona, May 2020.
Latter-day Saints gather. In the 19th century, this meant converts arranged to leave behind their homelands and move to Utah, where they could build communities together.
As the Church continued to grow, leaders urged the Saints to remain in their countries of origin and build strong stakes, wards, and branches throughout the world. Today, in accordance with the Lord’s direction to “meet together oft” (3 Nephi 18:22), we hold general conferences, stake conferences, sacrament meetings, training meetings, classes, activities, and on and on.
But what happens when war, politics, or the spread of disease disrupt the gathering of the Saints? How do we show our devotion to God and our concern for one another when our congregations can’t meet together to worship?
The First Presidency’s recent landmark announcement that all Church gatherings will be suspended is not the first time Church leaders have taken such measures. In times of need, they have postponed general conference or canceled sacrament meetings in an effort to protect the well-being of Church members and be responsible citizens. Stories from Church history offer examples of Latter-day Saints rising to the challenge in these moments of crisis and disruption.
In 1918, a strain of influenza commonly known as the Spanish flu ravaged the world’s population, infecting 500 million people and killing more than 20 million. At the urging of the United States surgeon general, health officials in Utah and Idaho banned large public gatherings, including religious meetings.
Church leaders complied and canceled Sunday services from October to December of that year to help contain the disease’s spread. It is believed that the ban on Latter-day Saint meetings applied worldwide, but records in the Church History Library suggest some congregations continued to hold weekly meetings. Beulah Leona Andrus, a Latter-day Saint from Idaho, remembered holding sacrament services in her home during this time. “I recall so well the lessons and the bearing of testimony,” she said. Church services resumed in early January 1919, following a Churchwide fast. Still, the April 1919 general conference was postponed until June.
The pandemic accelerated the adoption of individual sacrament cups. Earlier generations of Latter-day Saints had passed around a common cup, but in the wake of the pandemic many wards raised funds to purchase sacrament sets with individual cups. These first individual cups were made of glass and metal, and while they were a much more sanitary means of partaking of the sacrament, it would be decades until disposable paper and plastic cups were produced.1
The threat of yet another influenza pandemic in 1957 prompted the First Presidency under the leadership of President David O. McKay (1873–1970) to cancel October general conference that year. By the 1950s, general conferences were drawing Church members from many parts of the world, and the decision to cancel was intended to help public efforts to contain the disease’s spread.
A letter from the First Presidency expressed “the reluctance we feel in foregoing the uplifting, inspiring experiences of a general conference of the Church” but concluded that “life is so precious the Lord expects us to do all within our power to conserve it.”2
In May 2014, an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus reached Sierra Leone. Thousands were infected and hundreds died as the disease raced across the country. On July 30 the government deployed troops to enforce quarantines in areas where the disease was particularly rampant.
Concerns about the disease had a negative effect on the country’s economy. Many families were already struggling to find their next meal when the government declared a three-day national lockdown in September. “All of my money was gone in September,” said Sai Kamaia, a Church member concerned about how to feed her children during the lockdown. “People were afraid to trade. I did not know what I was going to do.”
Fortunately, Africa West Area leaders had begun organizing shipments of sanitary supplies, rice, and cooking oil for members in need in Sierra Leone before the lockdown was announced. Local members received the supplies and helped distribute them to those in need just before the lockdown began. “As a widow and the head [of] our family, I feel so good that the Church was able to help us,” said Mary Margay, a member in Freetown.
Throughout the crisis, local missionaries continued to serve, adjusting to crisis conditions by teaching investigators and new converts by phone as needed. “We had no time to feel sorry for ourselves,” remarked Bai Seasy, a district president in Kossoh Town. “We had the work of salvation to do.”
Some Church members died of Ebola during the epidemic. Haju Julloh, who worked as a nurse caring for the sick, also contracted the virus. “I could not attend church, so branch members called and encouraged me,” she said. While confined at home, she focused on studying the Book of Mormon. “I read about many spiritual experiences, including miracles that happened to ordinary people like me. I wanted a miracle but did not know if I should even ask,” she said. After several weeks of treatment and quarantine, she recovered. “That was a miracle to me,” she said.3
World War II disrupted the worship and community life of Latter-day Saints throughout the world. In the United States, this meant that stake leadership training meetings were canceled for the duration of the war, beginning in 1942. Though the war was not being fought on U.S. soil, the cancellation was made necessary by taxes and limitations on automotive travel due to shortages of rubber and gasoline, which had been diverted to support the war effort. Local ward meetings continued, and bishops did all they could to make their sacrament services cheerful and interesting to help lift the spirits of their members.
The Church’s Mutual Improvement Association, the organization for young men and women, canceled its monthly Sunday evening meetings for local youth and its annual June conference. Sessions of the April 1942 general conference were held in the assembly room in the Salt Lake Temple and in the Assembly Hall rather than in the Tabernacle. “Owing to conditions incident to the War emergency,” the report of the conference explained, “the general public were not invited to attend this Conference”4 to cut down on travel. Only Church leaders were present. The Church did, however, make conference addresses available to members via radio broadcast, a practice that had begun in 1924.
Disruptions to Church life were more severe in Europe. In 1939, Church leaders evacuated all missionaries from France. Mission leaders told Léon Fargier of Valence that he was the “only active member of the priesthood in France” and encouraged him to “use the talent that the Lord has given you” to support local members.
During the war, Fargier traveled extensively to visit members living throughout the country. He performed ordinances, blessed the sacrament, and ministered to his fellow Saints. Traveling by train, bicycle, or foot, his weekly journeys often began early Saturday morning and concluded late Sunday evening. On many occasions, Fargier traveled hundreds of miles in a single weekend to help Church members.
At the same time, Eveline Kleinert, Relief Society president in Paris, tirelessly served the members of her branch. When the mission closed, the branch president left the country, and Kleinert was the only remaining local leader. She held meetings in her home. When the stress of war made it impossible for branch members to meet weekly, she maintained contact with them by mail.
As the war dragged on, many members of the branch became sick and discouraged. Kleinert wrote to Fargier. In February 1944, Fargier traveled to Paris to uplift the disheartened Parisian Saints. Kleinert recorded in her journal how joyful the Saints were to finally partake of the sacrament again and receive priesthood blessings. The efforts of Fargier and Kleinert brought hope to members in France during some of its darkest hours.5
On June 14, 1989, the government of Ghana banned all activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the country. Foreign missionaries were sent home, meetinghouses were locked, and Church members were forced to keep a low profile. This time came to be known as the “freeze.”
“It was like being orphaned,” said Church member Kweku Ghartey, recalling the situation. With no end to the suspension in sight, members felt pressure from friends and family to leave the Church and wondered if they would be able to meet together as Saints again.
The Church soon authorized members to hold meetings in their homes. Sundays were spent singing hymns, reading scriptures, and partaking of the sacrament in families and small groups. “Our homes became sanctuaries of the Spirit,” recounted William Acquah.
Active and dedicated home and visiting teachers also played an essential role in holding the Ghanaian members of the Church together during the freeze. Newer converts remained in contact with fellow worshippers thanks to these visits. Members began to realize that they could still enjoy the blessings of living the gospel even though Church activities were banned.
“We realized that the Church is not the meetinghouse that had been taken away by the authorities but in our own hearts,” said Doris Aggrey-Barlow.
In November 1990, the government of Ghana ended the freeze, and the tried and tested members of the Church rejoiced to join together once again in their meetinghouses. Emmanuel Kissi summed up the experience of the Ghanaian Saints: “We’ve been through the furnace. We’ve come out refined.”6
As we face the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we have the benefit of communications technologies to stay in touch with one another and gain access to uplifting Church materials. We also have inspired programs such as Come, Follow Me, which have given us experience in home-based devotion. Let us exercise caution and follow the direction of health officials, local Church leaders, and the First Presidency. Let us reach out and minister to others in love and look to the example of generations of Latter-day Saints who have faced similar challenges.
Latter-day Saints still gather, even if only with our families at home or via the internet. As the Savior said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).