“Chapter Forty-Two: Growth into a Worldwide Church,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 550–61
“Chapter Forty-Two,” Church History in the Fulness of Times, 550–61
President George Albert Smith1 died on his eighty-first birthday, Wednesday, 4 April 1951, just two days before the scheduled opening of general conference. The Saturday sessions of conference were canceled for President Smith’s funeral. The conference had been scheduled to conclude on Sunday, but a special solemn assembly session was convened on Monday, 9 April, at which David O. McKay was sustained as the ninth President of the Church.
As he accepted this high and holy office, President McKay acknowledged, “No one can preside over this Church without first being in tune with the head of the Church, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our head. This is his Church. Without his divine guidance and constant inspiration, we cannot succeed. With his guidance, with his inspiration, we cannot fail.”2
President McKay’s seventy-eight years of unusually rich experiences prepared him well for his calling as President of the Church. He was born in September 1873, when Brigham Young still served as President of the Church. The gold spike completing the first American transcontinental railroad had been driven only four years before his birth, and yet he lived to watch the first man land on the moon. In 1897 he was called as a missionary to the British Isles. At an unusually spiritual missionary conference two years later in Glasgow, Scotland, James L. McMurrin, counselor in the mission presidency, turned to Elder McKay and said, “If you will keep the faith you will yet sit in the leading councils of the church.”3
In April 1906, at the age of thirty-two, David O. McKay was called to the Council of the Twelve, and in October of the same year he became a member of the general Sunday School presidency. During the next three decades he also served as commissioner of Church education and as chairman of the General Priesthood Committee and other committees assigned to correlate various Church programs. His 1920–21 world tour to assess conditions in the Church’s missions and his two years of presidency over the European Mission substantially broadened his horizons. In 1934 he became a member of the First Presidency, serving as a counselor to both Heber J. Grant and George Albert Smith. Thus, President David O. McKay was well prepared to lead the Church during an era of rapid expansion.
By 1950 the Church was 120 years old, and membership had reached approximately 1.1 million. During the next twenty years the number of Latter-day Saints almost tripled, reaching more than 2.9 million. Taking into account those who had died during this period, nearly three-fourths of all Church members living at the beginning of 1970 had probably known no other president than David O. McKay. During the 1950–60s Church membership increased about twice as fast as it had in earlier decades. The Church was not only becoming strong numerically, its members were more widely distributed throughout the world. This came about through increased missionary success worldwide and through Church leaders’ urging the Saints to remain in their own lands and build up the kingdom.
As the Church expanded into more areas of the world, its members increasingly faced a diversity of challenges and opportunities. Gospel principles had to be understood and applied by Saints who lived in many different environments and cultures. In some parts of Europe, the aftermath of war and slowly increasing prosperity brought religious apathy. Some countries, which required their citizens to pay taxes to support established state churches, reported attendance of less than 5 percent at their Sunday services. High taxes and other economic pressures made having more than one or two children a real sacrifice and required many mothers to work outside of the home. Lax moral standards and liberal laws on pornography also threatened to undermine strong families. Among some Europeans, drinking of alcoholic beverages was an accepted part of life. Finally, because so many diverse languages are spoken by peoples of the world, Church conferences, temple sessions, and other activities generally needed to be multilingual.
The Polynesians of the South Pacific have been characterized as some of the most lovable people on earth. Their spirituality was evidenced by remarkable healings and inspiring manifestations of the gift of tongues. Traditions describe how their forebears sailed thousands of miles in primitive craft from the Americas to the South Pacific. Speaking at an area conference in New Zealand, President Spencer W. Kimball affirmed that the Maori’s origin is recorded in the Book of Mormon.5 Hence, Latter-day Saints in Polynesia came to identify themselves with the Book of Mormon people. The importance of families to the Polynesians is evidenced by elaborate genealogies memorized and recited or intricately carved in wood. The Church flourished among these people.
Nowhere outside of Utah was there a higher ratio of Church members among the total population. In 1970 the ratio was 13 percent in Samoa and approximately 20 percent in Tonga, as compared to only 1 percent in the United States as a whole. Nevertheless, life in this tropical paradise was not always easy. In some areas dependence on a single crop provided only a meager living. Latter-day Saint missionaries sometimes had to overcome opposition from governments strongly influenced by European missionary societies. Transportation was a practical challenge Church leaders faced as they visited local units on separate islands.
The Saints in Latin America faced a different set of challenges. Perhaps nowhere else is a single religion so pervasive throughout the culture, as evidenced in place-names and holidays and other aspects of everyday life. Conversion to the restored gospel represented more of a change for people here than in other areas. Church members in Latin America, especially in Mexico, Central America, and western South America, regarded themselves as being among the descendants of the Nephites and Lamanites described in the Book of Mormon and hence as heirs to the great promises contained there (see 2 Nephi 30:6). In no other area was there greater Church growth during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Church membership in Latin America skyrocketed from less than nine thousand members in 1950 to over two hundred thousand by 1970.
North American missionaries carrying the gospel to Asia felt they were entering a different world. Christians represented only a very small minority, and not even the familiar western alphabet was used. Despite the cultural differences, the gospel took root in several of the nations of Asia, and the Church began to experience rapid growth there. The Latter-day Saint emphasis on the importance of families struck a responsive chord in the hearts of many whose families had for generations revered their ancestors.
Even though the Church was growing rapidly in many parts of the world, some forces threatened to block this progress. In 1950 international tensions led to the closing of missions in the Near East and in Czechoslovakia. The 1949 Communist takeover in China and the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War also led to the temporary closing of the Chinese Mission in Hong Kong.
The impact of the Korean War was not limited to the Far East, however. As the United States assumed a major role in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force, young men were again being drafted. This meant that fewer elders were available for missionary service. In contrast to the 3,015 missionaries called by the First Presidency in 1950, only 872 received mission calls two years later.
In the midst of the Church’s rapid growth, President McKay felt the need to stress the vital importance of spiritual as well as numerical growth. He was convinced that “man’s chief concern in life should not be the acquiring of gold, or of fame, or of material possessions. It should not be development of physical powers, nor of intellectual strength, but his aim, the highest in life, should be the development of a Christ-like character.”6
He believed that in order to live on this loftier plane, man must overcome the worldly or carnal aspects of his character. “The world needs to be saved, first, from the dominating influence of animal instincts, of passions, of appetites.” Selfishness, he believed, was a major cause of man’s ills.7
President McKay insisted, “The development of our spiritual nature should concern us most. Spirituality is the highest acquisition of the soul, the divine in man; ‘the supreme, crowning gift that makes him king of all created things.’ It is the consciousness of victory over self and of communion with the infinite. It is spirituality alone which really gives one the best in life.”8
David O. McKay became the most widely traveled President in the history of the Church. In 1952 he visited the missions in Britain and on the European continent. The following year he returned to Europe to dedicate sites for the first temples outside of North America or Hawaii. In 1954 he stopped briefly in London on the first leg of a thirty-seven-thousand-mile tour that took him to South Africa and Latin America. On this trip he became the first General Authority ever to visit South Africa (the one area he had not visited during his 1921 tour) and the first President of the Church ever to be in South America.
In 1955 he traveled throughout the South Pacific, returning to places where he had enjoyed sacred experiences some thirty-four years earlier. While on this trip he announced plans to construct a temple in New Zealand—a further step in making the blessings of the house of the Lord available to the Saints in various parts of the world. A few months later he was in Europe for the fourth time in four years, this time to dedicate the Swiss Temple in Bern, Switzerland. In 1958 he returned to the Pacific to dedicate the Hamilton New Zealand Temple. While in that country, he also organized the Auckland Stake, the first outside of North America or Hawaii, and a further evidence of the Church’s international growth. Later that same year he returned to England to dedicate the London England Temple.
Everywhere President McKay went he was greeted with love and respect. He was the first living prophet most of the Saints had ever seen in person. At airport after airport they welcomed him with tear-filled eyes and choked voices as they sang the familiar strains of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.”
President McKay often felt the reality of divine blessings and guidance as he traveled. In 1955, for example, his flight was delayed because of warnings that a hurricane was headed toward Fiji, his next stop. By the time the plane reached the area, however, it was able to land safely. Officials in Fiji were puzzled as to why the hurricane “had suddenly reversed its course at the same time of his arrival at Suva and President McKay remarked that something very unusual had happened.”9 Heavy tropical rains delayed the Prophet’s departure from Fiji.
Until he unexpectedly met two elders, President McKay was not aware that only three months earlier Latter-day Saint missionaries had been assigned in the area. He arranged to meet the following day, which was Sunday, with the small group of Saints living in Suva. They met at the home of Cecil B. Smith, who, all alone, had kept this little flock of Saints together for many years. As Brother Smith welcomed God’s prophet to his home and to their meeting “he broke down and wept tears of joy and thanksgiving. …
“The congregation sung so sweetly, ‘We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet.’ … With tears of joy in their eyes they said every word as if it were a prayer. …
“In his remarks President McKay declared this was a significant meeting. He explained we had not intended to remain in Suva over Sunday because our schedule called for us to be somewhere between Suva and Tonga but we were delayed a day because of the hurricane warnings. He explained we were not aware there were Church members in Suva.
“… He explained that circumstances have provided that they were here today to preach the Gospel in Suva and commence the building up of the Kingdom of God. ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘God has had a hand in changing our schedule so that we can be with you members of the Church.’”10
President McKay’s travels were a source of inspiration to more than just those scattered Saints he visited. The Church News carried day-by-day accounts of his experiences, and they were followed with great interest. Even those in the strong central areas of the Church found their faith strengthened as they read about the faith and gratitude manifested by their fellow Saints in far-flung countries.
President David O. McKay recognized that effective missionary work was the key to the Church’s continued growth. The first proselyting plan officially published by the Church appeared in 1952. Missionary presentations were condensed into six discussions featuring a logical presentation of gospel principles bolstered by scripture reading, testimony bearing, and sincere prayer. In 1961 Church leaders convened the first worldwide seminar for mission presidents. Under the leadership of the General Authorities the mission presidents pooled their experience to further refine proselyting methods.
Using the slogan “Every Member a Missionary,” President McKay stressed the Saints’ role in finding and fellowshipping potential converts.11 He admonished Church members to lead exemplary lives that would win the respect of others and open the way for gospel discussions. The Saints were encouraged to invite nonmember friends into their homes to hear the missionaries’ message. This enabled missionaries to use their time more effectively in teaching rather than in looking for people to teach. Furthermore the families who introduced their friends to the missionaries could also fellowship them as they became converted to the gospel, helping them make the transition from one way of life and circle of friends to another.
During these years the Church continued to refine its orientation for outgoing missionaries. A significant step came in 1961. Elders were experiencing lengthy delays in obtaining visas to enter Argentina and Mexico, so a special language-training program was set up for them at Brigham Young University. Instruction focused on conversation; the “live your language” program encouraged missionaries to speak only in the tongue they were learning. There was also opportunity to practice the proselyting discussions with native speakers posing as contacts. Furthermore, the elders and sisters adhered to standards of missionary life and conduct and developed proper habits and attitudes even before reaching the mission field. Because of the program’s success, it was officially organized in 1963 as the Language Training Mission. Instruction in numerous other languages was added during subsequent years.
To supplement the personal contacts of proselyting missionaries, the Church employed a variety of other methods, including the mass media, to present its message to the world. Visitors’ centers and broadcasting media played an increasingly important part in improving public understanding of the Church and its members.
As the volume of travel increased following World War II, the annual number of visitors to Temple Square soared past the million mark. In 1966 the Church built a more spacious visitors’ center on Temple Square, equipped with dioramas and other displays designed to explain various facets of the gospel.
In light of the success on Temple Square, the Church continued its program of opening visitors’ centers at other historic sites, such as Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont; the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah in New York state; Independence, Missouri; and Nauvoo, Illinois. Because of the continuing positive response to the Hill Cumorah pageant, additional pageants at Independence, Nauvoo, the Manti Utah Temple, and other locations became another important means of sharing the gospel message with the public.
The restoration of the old Mormon city of Nauvoo began during the 1960s. This ambitious project was patterned after the very successful restoration of the American colonial city of Williamsburg, Virginia. The Nauvoo Temple site was landscaped with a row of stones in the lawn indicating where the original structure had stood. Missionary guides escorted visitors through homes and shops restored to their 1840s appearance and functions. The objective was to depict interesting facets of Nauvoo life in the 1840s, when Nauvoo was one of the largest cities in the state of Illinois. Also, more important, its purpose was to communicate the faith of the Saints who sacrificed to build the city and then were forced to leave it in the face of religious persecution.
The Church also took advantage of opportunities to share the gospel with the public at fairs and expositions. More than three million people visited the Mormon pavilion at the New York World’s Fair during 1964–65. For this exhibit the BYU Motion Picture Studio produced a new film titled Man’s Search for Happiness, depicting the Latter-day Saint concept of life before and after mortality. Experience with displays and methods of presentation at the fair enabled the Church to transform its visitors’ centers into more effective tools for teaching the gospel.
As television was perfected during the years immediately following World War II, the Church quickly made use of it. As early as April 1948, sessions of general conference were being carried from the Tabernacle by closed circuit television to other buildings on Temple Square. In October 1949 the conference was broadcast for the first time beyond Temple Square. Television coverage of conference was extended to California by the late 1950s, and in 1962 sessions were carried from coast to coast for the first time. The Church paid to get the conference broadcast to the local stations, many of which in turn donated air time as part of their public service commitment.
Beginning in 1952 the priesthood session of general conference was transmitted by closed circuit direct wire to selected stake centers and other Church buildings. In time, well over a thousand groups of priesthood bearers throughout the United States and Canada as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries had the privilege of simultaneously hearing these conference sessions. Still another broadcast medium was employed in 1962, when shortwave radio carried general conference sessions in English to Europe and Africa and in Spanish to Latin America.
Over the years the Church developed materials to be used by the media. For example, the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee distributed radio programs, filmstrips, and literature. As demands increased, a division of responsibility was effected in 1957 when the Church Information Service came into being to handle nonmember contacts. The primary objective was to promote missionary work by projecting a positive image of the principles and activities of the Church. It maintained a photo library; coordinated publicity for such special events as conferences and temple dedications; and prepared feature articles on such phases of Church activity as the welfare plan, family home evening, or youth activities. It also provided posters, displays, and support for open houses conducted in local chapels.
A hosting service introduced important visitors to Church headquarters, including government and business officials, heads of other churches, artists, and entertainers. The groups were taken to such points of interest as Temple Square and Welfare Square. These visitors often appreciated being entertained in individual Latter-day Saint homes as well as attending church services in local wards.
The basic character of the Church’s educational program had been established in the 1930s, placing the emphasis on part-time religious education to help supplement the instruction available in the public schools.
From then on, growth, especially following World War II, has been a major focus of the Church in education. Enrollment in the Church’s various educational programs increased approximately five-fold during the two decades when David O. McKay presided over the Church. President McKay’s background and personal commitment to education suited him well to lead the Saints during this era of phenomenal growth.
In 1953, President McKay directed the formation of a unified Church Educational System, including schools, seminaries, and institutes of religion worldwide. Surging enrollments following the close of World War II created great pressures on the Church’s educational programs. Furthermore, in 1950 the First Presidency affirmed that they wanted Brigham Young University to become “the greatest educational institution in the world.”12
BYU therefore launched an unprecedented building program. The capacity of on-campus student housing was tripled; other facilities, including a motion picture studio, student center, and new stadium, were added. Major new academic buildings were constructed. Ernest L. Wilkinson, president of BYU at the time, took steps to see that academic progress kept pace with physical growth. In 1960, BYU offered a doctorate program for the first time. In the same year the university also launched an honors program, which allowed more serious students to enjoy small classes with some of the university’s most outstanding faculty members.
The church activity of students was also a source of concern. Some students became careless in their church attendance while away from home. Wards adjacent to college campuses became overcrowded by the attendance of active college-age students. As early as 1947 two branches were formed to meet the needs of both the married and single students at Brigham Young University. At first these units were considered experimental, but they soon demonstrated their success by setting the highest attendance record in the East Provo Stake. As enrollment at the university grew, the first student stake in the Church was organized at BYU in 1956. This made a unique and significant contribution to life at BYU and to the students’ personal development.
Soon student wards and stakes were organized on many other campuses, wherever numbers were sufficient. Typically the bishop was a faculty member or an adult from the community, but students filled most other ward positions. Students thus gained experience as quorum and auxiliary leaders, teachers, and clerks. Mature students even had the opportunity to serve as counselors in bishoprics or as members of the stake high council. In contrast to campuses of most major universities, which were almost deserted on Sundays except for the handful attending chapel services, at Brigham Young University and Ricks College, the buildings where student wards met were as crowded on Sunday as on weekdays. President Wilkinson, reflecting on his two decades of leadership at BYU, declared that the organization of these student stakes and wards was “the most satisfying accomplishment during the time I have been here.”13
Significant progress was also being made in Church educational programs for part-time religious education. Seminaries and institutes were being started throughout the United States and around the world to meet the needs of high school and college students.
Adaptations in the seminary program made possible rapid growth in the number of high school students enrolled. Originally all seminaries were the “released-time” variety, with students attending classes in a seminary building near a high school. As the Latter-day Saints spread beyond the Intermountain stakes, however, this arrangement was not possible. Therefore, early-morning and home-study programs were developed to meet the needs of Church members.
Early-morning seminary classes were inaugurated in Salt Lake City and Pocatello, Idaho, in 1929; however, the program in Pocatello was discontinued after only one year. The need existed in other areas. As early as 1941 the institute director in southern California reported that five high schools in the Los Angeles area each had more than one hundred Latter-day Saint students and that several others approached that number. Wartime restrictions, however, precluded any new programs from being developed at that time. In 1950 the eleven Los Angeles area stake presidents unanimously urged that early-morning seminaries be started at once.
Formidable obstacles had to be overcome: many classes had to serve more than one high school. Differences in school schedules meant that seminary could only be held at 7:00 a.m. or even earlier. Almost no chapels were located within walking distance of the high schools, so car pools or other transportation had to be arranged. In September 1950, six pilot classes were inaugurated, and their success led to the addition of seven more classes that same school year. Despite the difficulties, the 461 southern California seminary students registered had an average attendance of 88 percent that first year.
Three years later there were fifty-nine classes, with an average attendance of 92 percent. This record was a tribute to the devotion of the students and their parents who were willing to get up as early as 5:00 a.m. to support a religion class before school. During the next quarter century, early-morning classes made seminary instruction available to Latter-day Saint students in many parts of the world, especially in centers of Church population in the United States and Canada outside the Intermountain area.
Home-study seminaries were established where there were not enough students to make a regular daily class possible. These were started as a pilot project in the Midwest during the 1966–67 school year. The young people studied their seminary lessons at home during the week and met Sunday with a volunteer teacher to go over the material. About once each month all the students from a district gathered at a central location under the direction of a full-time seminary coordinator. During the morning they reviewed the highlights of their past month’s study. In the afternoon they enjoyed social or recreational activities conducted by Mutual leaders, while the volunteer teachers received a preview of the coming month’s lessons from the seminary coordinator. Home-study programs have made seminary instruction available to Latter-day Saints everywhere. A similar home-study institute course for college students was inaugurated in 1972.
In the Pacific and in Latin America, two areas of particularly rapid Church growth, public education was not widely available. Church leaders were concerned that a substantial portion of the Saints lacked the opportunity for even an elementary education. In these areas, therefore, the Church returned to the practice of nineteenth-century pioneer times and established schools to teach the basics of secular education along with religious instruction.
During the early twentieth century, several of the Pacific missions had conducted schools for the benefit of Latter-day Saint children. These were usually small, but an outstanding example was the Maori Agricultural College in New Zealand. Full-time missionaries were called on to act as teachers in these schools. Church growth after World War II heightened the need for expansion of these schools. During the early 1950s the Church opened the Liahona College in Tonga, the Pesega and Mapusaga high schools in Samoa, the Church College of New Zealand near Hamilton, and several elementary schools in these countries. Even though two of these schools were called colleges, they included work only to the high school level. Buildings for these badly needed schools were constructed through the building missionary program, which had its beginning at this time in the South Pacific. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of labor missionaries were called to help build chapels, schools, and other Church-sponsored projects. The program of using labor missionaries to construct church buildings was stopped when it was no longer cost effective.
The Church College of Hawaii, a two-year institution of higher education at Laie, opened in 1955. In 1957 it became a four-year institution. The school came to serve about a thousand students, most coming from the Pacific Islands. Emphasis on teacher education made it possible for many Polynesian young people to return to their homelands and become faculty members in the Church schools there. In 1958, President David O. McKay dedicated a complex of new buildings on the Church College of Hawaii campus. A 33-foot mosaic on the facade of the administration building depicted the flag-raising ceremony that had prompted Elder McKay to prophesy some thirty-seven years earlier that Laie would one day become the educational center for the Saints in the Pacific.
In 1963 the Church opened the Polynesian Cultural Center adjacent to the college campus. This center not only helped to preserve and share the unique cultures of several Pacific peoples, but it also became a very popular tourist attraction, which created goodwill for the Church and provided meaningful employment for a large number of Polynesian students at the Church College of Hawaii. In 1974 the Church College of Hawaii was renamed the Hawaii Campus of Brigham Young University, emphasizing subjects that could be taught more advantageously in the Pacific setting than on BYU’s main Provo campus.
The expansion of the Church’s educational program in Latin America also came between 1950 and 1975. The Juarez Academy in the Mormon colonies of northern Mexico was started in 1897. Beginning in 1960, however, with the encouragement of President David O. McKay, a system of forty elementary and secondary schools was established to meet the educational needs of the Saints in various parts of Mexico. Over two thousand students, many at the college level, attended the Church’s school Benemerito de las Americas, near Mexico City. Here again, emphasis was on teacher training. As in the Pacific, these schools made a significant contribution to Latter-day Saint activity as a whole since a sizable number of local Church leaders were graduates from them. For a time, the Church also operated a few schools in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
An especially important contribution was made by the Church’s literacy program. In some developing areas, people who did not know how to read or write were being called as leaders and teachers. Under the direction of Brigham Young University, a simple plan was developed to teach these basic skills. In Bolivia, for example, Spanish-speaking members received fifteen hours of individual instruction teaching them how to read. After they completed this course, an additional four hours of training prepared these people to teach others. In this way hundreds of Latter-day Saints were enabled to read the scriptures, as well as handbooks, lesson manuals, and other Church literature. Many were able to obtain better employment, and their self-esteem received a substantial boost. One branch president commented that before he had learned to read, opportunities had been like a closed book for him; now his life was rich and full like an open book.