“Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Church during the Great Depression,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 508–21
“Chapter Thirty-Nine,” Church History in the Fulness of Times, 508–21
Few external events1 have influenced the course of Church history more than the Great Depression of the 1930s. On 29 October 1929, known as Black Tuesday, the bottom fell out of the New York stock market, ruining millions of investors. People stopped buying unnecessary goods, and many businesses soon failed. The impact of the Great Depression was quite severe in the Mountain West, where most Latter-day Saints lived. In 1932 unemployment in Utah reached 35.9 percent, and per capita income fell by 48.6 percent.2 Heads of families had to swallow their pride and wait in long lines for handouts of bread or other foods. In rural areas, families lost their farms when they could not meet mortgage payments.
Along with its individual members, the Church organization felt the Depression. Expenditures from tithes, the Church’s major source of income, dropped from $4 million in 1927 to only $2.4 million in 1933, resulting in many activities being curtailed.3
In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, the United States government under President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of sweeping measures popularly known as the New Deal. Although these programs were supported by most Latter-day Saints, Church leaders were concerned that some Saints could succumb to a “dole mentality.” President Grant sadly acknowledged:
“Many people have said, … ‘Well, others are getting some [government relief], why should not I get some of it?’
“I believe that there is a growing disposition among the people to try to get something from the government of the United States with little hope of ever paying it back. I think this is all wrong.”4
As Church leaders sought to counsel the Saints and meet their needs during the Depression, they found guidance in the scriptures. From the beginning the Lord has commanded, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18), a principle which the Apostle James designated as “the royal law” (James 2:8). When the Lord gave this commandment to the children of Israel, he also instructed them to provide for the poor (see Leviticus 19:10). He has vigorously condemned those who are able to but refuse to help their less fortunate brethren (see Mosiah 4:16–27; D&C 56:16; 104:14–18).
The Church had a welfare program even before the Depression. During the 1920s the Presiding Bishopric and the Relief Society general board were active in finding employment, maintaining a storehouse, and in other ways helping the needy. Therefore, as economic conditions grew worse following the stock market crash, the Church was able to build on existing foundations.
In 1930, Presiding Bishop Sylvester Q. Cannon insisted bishoprics were responsible “to see to it that none of the active members of the Church suffers for the necessities of life. … The effort of the Church … is to help people to help themselves. The policy is to aid them to become independent, … rather than to have to depend upon the Church for assistance.”5 Local leaders developed innovative solutions to the economic distress of members. The Granite Stake in Salt Lake County put the unemployed to work on various stake projects, operated a sewing shop where donated clothing was renovated, and secured food for the needy through cooperative arrangements with nearby farmers. The Pioneer Stake, in an even less prosperous area, was especially hard hit by the Depression. Under the leadership of its young stake president, Harold B. Lee, a storehouse was stocked with goods produced on stake projects or donated by Church members. Through local Church units the General Authorities gave encouragement, counsel, and support to these efforts to help meet the emergency.
Particularly influential in the early development of Churchwide welfare activities was J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who became a counselor to President Grant in 1933. Before receiving this call, President Clark had a distinguished career in international law and diplomacy, having served as under secretary of state and as the United States’ ambassador to Mexico. President Grant instructed his new counselor to formulate a plan for assisting the Saints.
In July 1933 the First Presidency set forth fundamental principles and for the first time outlined specific relief measures that could be carried out Churchwide. “Our able-bodied members must not, except as a last resort, be put under the embarrassment of accepting something for nothing. … Church officials administering relief must devise ways and means by which all able-bodied Church members who are in need, may make compensation for aid given them by rendering some sort of service.” In compensation for help received, individual wards were asked to be prepared to meet the needs of their own members and then to give assistance to other units requiring help. The Presidency concluded its message by encouraging the Saints to remember the “paramount necessity of living righteously, of avoiding extravagance, of cultivating habits of thrift, economy, and industry, of living strictly within their incomes, and of laying aside something, however small the amount may be, for the times of greater stress that may come to us.”6
A significant step in developing the Church’s welfare program took place in 1935. At this time the federal government was considering shifting to the states the burden of providing relief, a load which hard-hit Utah was not in a position to assume. On 20 April of that year the First Presidency assigned stake president Harold B. Lee to introduce the welfare program Churchwide. He later recalled, “I was astounded to learn that for years there had been before them [Church leaders], as a result of their thinking and planning and as the result of the inspiration of Almighty God, the genius of the very plan that is being carried out and was in waiting and in preparation for a time when in their judgment the faith of the Latter-day Saints was such that they were willing to follow the counsel of the men who lead and preside in this Church.”7
At the conclusion of his meeting with the First Presidency, Harold B. Lee drove up to the head of nearby City Creek Canyon and walked into the trees where he could pray about the organization that might need to be set up. He later recounted, “My spiritual understanding was opened, and I was given a comprehension of the grandeur of the organization of the Church and the Kingdom of God, the likes of which I had never contemplated before. The significant truth which was impressed upon me was that there was no need for any new organization to do what the Presidency had counseled us to do. It was as though the Lord was saying: ‘All in the world that you have to do is to put to work the organization which I have already given.’”8
For the next year Harold B. Lee and other Church leaders met repeatedly to formulate the program for the entire Church. President David O. McKay, who had become President Grant’s second counselor in 1934, played a key administrative role in this planning phase. The committee felt assured that their deliberations were guided by inspiration and their decisions received divine approval.
On Monday, 6 April 1936, following the close of the final regular general conference session, a special meeting for stake presidencies and ward bishoprics convened in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. The First Presidency reported the distressing fact that about one-sixth of all Church members were being supported by public relief and many of them were not being required to work for what they received. The Presidency appealed to local leaders “to build again within the ranks of the Latter-day Saints a feeling of financial independence.” Church leaders declared: “The Lord has given us, within our Church, the government, organization and leadership to accomplish this great purpose and if we fail we stand condemned.” An immediate goal was to provide sufficient food and clothing for all the needy in the Church. Ward teachers (later known as home teachers) were to work closely with the Relief Society in “discovering and appraising the wants of the needy of the ward.” The Saints were challenged to increase their fast offerings in order to provide funds for relief efforts. The First Presidency concluded with the admonition that the program’s success depended on the faithfulness of the Saints.9
The First Presidency appointed a Church Relief Committee to help the Presiding Bishopric with the details of administration. This committee included Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Harold B. Lee. Their assignment was to motivate and coordinate the welfare activities of local Church units. A new level of Church administration, the region, was created to coordinate the functioning of the welfare program. Each region, consisting of from four to sixteen stakes, was to have a storehouse where surpluses from its own stakes or from other regions could be exchanged.
In May 1936, Elder Ballard was invited to Washington, D.C., to explain the Church’s “security” program (as the welfare plan was known at first) to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president knew of and was pleased with the Church’s efforts. He and Elder Ballard each pledged full cooperation with the other’s efforts to meet the continuing challenges of the Depression. President Roosevelt said that he hoped the Church’s success would inspire other groups to launch similar programs of their own.10
At the October 1936 general conference, the First Presidency reviewed basic principles underlying the welfare plan, stating, “Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help the people help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.”11
Speaking for the First Presidency at the April 1937 general conference, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., exhorted the Saints to live within their means:
“Let us avoid debt as we would avoid a plague. …
“Let every head of every household see to it that he has on hand enough food and clothing, and, where possible, fuel also, for at least a year ahead. … Let every head of household aim to own his own home, free from mortgage.
“Let us again clothe ourselves with these proved and sterling virtues—honesty, truthfulness, chastity, sobriety, temperance, industry and thrift; let us discard all covetousness and greed.”12
Statistics during the later 1930s reflect a quickened pace in providing relief for the economically distressed. Church expenditures for welfare increased by more than one-third between 1935 and 1936. The output of welfare projects in the latter year included 37,661 bottles of fruit, 175,621 cans of fruit or vegetables, 134,425 pounds of fresh vegetables, 105,000 pounds of flour, 1,393 quilts, and 363,640 items of clothing. Fast offerings, the major source of cash for the welfare program, also increased. The gains were substantial in both the number of people paying and in the size of the offerings. Wards and stakes continued to acquire farms, canneries, and other projects to produce food, clothing, and other items required to help those in need. The Co-operative Securities Corporation was created in 1937 to hold title to welfare program properties and to coordinate its finances. This corporation also made loans to individuals who could not borrow from banks or through other ordinary channels.
Although Latter-day Saints believed in the importance of self-reliance, many who wanted to work could not find jobs because of age or physical, mental, or emotional handicaps. Consequently, in 1938 Church leaders initiated the Deseret Industries program. Members donated clothing, furniture, appliances, newspapers, magazines, or other items they no longer needed. Employees sorted, cleaned, and repaired these materials. They were then sold at thrifty prices in the Deseret Industries’ own retail stores. Proceeds paid the employees’ wages and covered operating expenses. Modest salaries could be supplemented with help from the bishops’ storehouse if necessary. The program was consistent with the Church’s welfare philosophy. Members were off the dole, performed worthwhile work, and achieved a sense of self-reliance.
The Relief Society continued to play a vital role in helping families to help themselves. In 1937, with the encouragement of the First Presidency, the sisters sponsored courses in sewing, baking, and food preservation. Individual instruction was provided in the home, and group classes convened at welfare canning or sewing centers.
Elder Harold B. Lee regarded the welfare program as a fulfillment of prophecy. He reminded the Church that in 1894 President Wilford Woodruff had anticipated the time when “we shall see the necessity of making our own shoes and our own clothing, and providing our own foodstuffs, and uniting together to carry out the purposes of the Lord.”14
President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., was convinced that the welfare plan had a purpose beyond providing help to the poor. He pointed out that although this program was not the same as the law of consecration, “when the Welfare Plan gets thoroughly into operation—it is not so yet—we shall not be so very far from carrying out the great fundamentals of the United Order.”15
Elder Marion G. Romney, a key participant in directing the welfare program of the Church, also gave his testimony: “The welfare program was a direct revelation from the Lord to President Heber J. Grant. I heard President (J. Reuben) Clark tell that to a group of stake presidents at a meeting in Orem.”16
During the decade of the Great Depression, Church leaders were concerned not only with temporal needs but also with the importance of blessing the lives of both members and nonmembers in other ways. For example, they gave considerable thought to how Church programs could better work together in meeting the needs of young men and preparing them for missionary service. As a result the Aaronic Priesthood Correlation Plan was introduced at the April 1931 general conference. Quorums trained their members in priesthood responsibilities, encouraged worthiness and activity, and promoted feelings of brotherhood. The Sunday School provided instruction in gospel principles and ordinances, while the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association taught proper application of these principles in the physical, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of life. The roles of these organizations were not redefined, but their work was correlated more closely than ever before. Under the direction of the bishop, officers and teachers came together monthly to consider the welfare of the young men.17
To involve the youth more completely in Church activity, the Presiding Bishopric announced the goal for 1935 of having one million “priesthood assignments” performed, emphasizing that every boy should fulfill at least one assignment. Certificates of achievement were provided for local quorums meeting specified standards. This was the beginning of group and individual awards programs that would be important in Church activity during the following decades.
Church leaders emphasized that the increasing number of inactive young men growing to maturity without receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood should not be neglected. Much of the credit for developing a successful means of reaching them belongs to A. P. A. Glad, bishop of the Salt Lake Twenty-eighth Ward. He realized that these inactive men needed a separate class where they could feel comfortable. In 1932 he called a group of enthusiastic and devoted leaders to give their full attention to these brethren. Group members helped plan their own activities. One of Bishop Glad’s slogans was, “We learn to do by doing.”18
After eight months of persistent effort, forty men were brought into activity. One member of the original group recalled how he had been rousted out of bed to attend the class. For him this began a pattern of regular Church activity, which led to his receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood and serving as a high priests group leader, bishop, and high councilor.19 Bishop Glad’s work became the basis of a similar Adult Aaronic program introduced throughout the Church during the fall of 1933.
The Church continued to emphasize missionary work despite the problems caused by the Depression. Because many families needed their sons to work at home and could not afford to send them on missions, the number of missionaries entering the field fell sharply as the effects of the Depression spread. In 1932 only 399, or 5 percent of the potential missionaries were able to serve. Despite this missionary shortage, missionary work continued, with notable success in some places. Missionaries developed more innovative and systematic methods in order to maintain productivity. In 1937, LeGrand Richards, president of the Southern States Mission, issued “The Message of Mormonism,” outlining twenty-four weekly presentations of gospel topics. This outline, published as A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, became the basis of many subsequent proselyting plans.
Missionaries employed various techniques to reach interested persons: A missionary chorus attracted favorable attention in England and Ireland. A missionary basketball team made friends in Czechoslovakia, and in Germany four elders were recruited as basketball judges for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Lectures on ancient America featuring color slides were particularly productive in making contacts. The Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee was organized in 1935 to supply materials for these illustrated lectures. With Gordon B. Hinckley, who had recently returned from a mission to Britain, as executive secretary, the committee directed the preparation of tracts, other mission literature, and scripts for radio programs.
One beneficial by-product of the Depression was a greater involvement of local members in missionary work. In California, missionaries lived in members’ homes to reduce expenses. Alabama Saints traveled long distances in order to take investigators to district conferences. In many areas members provided referrals, enabling missionaries to reduce time spent in less productive door-to-door tracting. The missionary force around the world was expanded by local members who donated several hours weekly to work with the full-time missionaries or accepted special short-term mission calls. In many areas congregations had been led by missionaries, but during the Depression local Saints assumed more responsibility for their own affairs. This not only freed the missionaries’ time for proselyting, it also fostered the Saints’ pride in their own branches. President Grant concluded that the shortage of missionaries “has probably been a blessing in disguise, because it has forced us to make greater use of the local saints.”20
Hundreds of people were converted as a result of the missionary efforts that were organized in the stakes of Zion.21 At April general conference in 1936 all stakes were instructed to organize a mission, and supervision of these missions was assigned to the First Council of the Seventy.22 As a result, hundreds of converts were baptized each year, and the spirituality of the Saints seemed to increase. One ward reported that there was a 50 percent increase in overall activity among its members as a result of local missionary work.23
During the Depression the Church adopted a variety of other methods to supplement the work being done by its increasingly scarce proselyting missionaries. The continuing success of the weekly Tabernacle Choir broadcasts prompted the Church to expand its use of radio. Several wards and stakes as well as missionary groups produced programs for local stations. A portion of general conference was broadcast to Europe via international shortwave radio on 5 April 1936. Partly as a result of the Tabernacle Choir’s increasing popularity, Temple Square continued to be an effective missionary tool. Many visitors went miles out of their way to attend choir broadcasts or noon organ recitals. Temple Square attracted even more visitors than popular national parks in the area.
The Church also began more regular participation in national and international fairs and exhibitions. An estimated 2.3 million people visited the Church’s booth at the Chicago Century of Progress exposition in 1933–34. The Church’s new positive image was apparent as Elder B. H. Roberts, who had been denied the opportunity to speak at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, was well received as he spoke at the Congress of Religions held in conjunction with the 1933 Chicago exposition. At the California-Pacific International Exposition held in San Diego during 1935–36, the Church erected its first exhibit building. The Golden Gate International Exposition was held on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in 1939–40. Capitalizing on the Tabernacle Choir’s popularity, the Church designed its exhibit building in the form of a miniature Tabernacle with a fifty-seat auditorium in which missionaries could present illustrated lectures on the history and beliefs of the Church.
Begun in 1937, the Hill Cumorah Pageant became one of the Church’s most successful public relations ventures. Featuring a cast composed mostly of missionaries serving in the area, “America’s Witness for Christ” was presented on three large stages constructed on the slopes of the hill. It depicted scenes from the Book of Mormon, culminating with the Savior’s visit to the ancient inhabitants of America. Just a month before the first pageant was presented, Elder Harold I. Hansen, who had just received his bachelor’s degree in drama, entered the Eastern States Mission. He was immediately assigned to help with the final preparations and rehearsals. Elder Hansen was convinced that his call to this particular mission at this time resulted from divine guidance. He would continue to be associated with the annual pageant for the next forty years, most of this time as its director. Over the years additional stages, lighting, and other technical effects were added.
As the Depression’s impact eased, the Church expanded its educational programs. During the later 1930s the number of campuses served by institutes of religion grew to seventeen, including all the major schools in the Mountain West and in California. A companion program, the Deseret Club, began in 1933 when a group of southern California Latter-day Saints felt the need to bring students together for intellectual and social activities within the influence of Church ideals and standards. In 1936, while visiting in the Los Angeles area, Elder John A. Widtsoe recognized the value of Deseret Club activities in the lives of students and helped bring this program under the sponsorship of the Church Board of Education. Deseret Clubs were organized on campuses where there were not enough Church members to justify a full institute program. Eventually they were replaced by the organization of the Latter-day Saint Student Association.
Church educational leaders placed greater emphasis on adequate professional training for college-level faculty members, especially in religion. Noted scholars offered summer workshops at BYU, and promising graduate students were encouraged to attend various theological seminaries.
By the mid-1930s, however, an increasing number of Church members and leaders were concerned over religion teachers being trained by non–Latter-day Saint scholars. They felt that “higher criticism” of the scriptures (the scientific investigation into the origin and authenticity of biblical texts) and other humanistic ideas were creeping into the curriculum. These concerns led the General Authorities to give closer supervision to the Church’s educational system, especially to religious instruction. By this time, David O. McKay, with his rich background in Church education, had become a counselor in the First Presidency. Both Presidents Clark and McKay exerted a powerful influence over the Church’s educational program.
In 1938, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., was assigned to set forth the mission of the Church’s education program and to outline the qualifications and duties of those employed to teach in the Church’s schools, institutes of religion, and seminaries. His address, The Charted Course of the Church in Education, was delivered on 8 August at a summer gathering of these teachers at Aspen Grove in Provo Canyon near the BYU campus and has become an oft-quoted classic. President Clark insisted that two fundamental truths must be proclaimed fearlessly and cannot be explained away:
“First: That Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, … that He was crucified; that His spirit left His body; that He died; that He was laid away in the tomb; that on the third day His spirit was reunited with His body, which again became a living being; that He was raised from the tomb a resurrected being, a perfect Being, the First Fruits of the Resurrection; that He later ascended to the Father; and that because of His death and by and through His resurrection every man born into the world since the beginning will be likewise literally resurrected. …
“The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is: That the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods; that other heavenly visions followed to Joseph and to others; that the Gospel and the holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God were in truth and fact restored to the earth from which they were lost by the apostasy of the Primitive Church; that the Lord again set up His Church, through the agency of Joseph Smith; that the Book of Mormon is just what it professes to be; that to the Prophet came numerous revelations for the guidance, upbuilding, organization, and encouragement of the Church and its members; that the Prophet’s successors [are] likewise called of God.”
President Clark then reminded teachers that the youth of the Church are hungry for these truths to be taught in a straightforward manner, and he warned teachers that doubt must never be sown in the hearts of trusting students. He concluded by charging his listeners to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ from the standard works and from the words of latter day prophets.24
Because of their interest in the spiritual growth of LDS youth, the General Authorities desired to be involved personally in the direction of Church schools. Brigham Young University, Ricks College, and the LDS Business College had each been under a separate board of trustees. To achieve a more centralized control, these local boards were released in 1938, and all units were brought under the direct supervision of the General Church Board of Education, which consisted of General Authorities and a few others.
Latter-day Saints understandably pointed with pride to their educational attainments in the decade of the Depression. Census data in 1940 indicated that Utah, where the majority of the population were Church members, had the highest level of educational attainment of any state in the Union: young adults in Utah completed an average of 11.7 years of school compared to 11.3 in the next two highest states, and the national median was 10.3 years.25 Church magazines proudly reported the results of studies conducted by E. L. Thorndike of Columbia University, who found that Utah had the highest proportion of persons listed in Who’s Who and American Men of Science. Thorndike concluded that “the production of superior men is surely not an accident, that it has only a slight affiliation with income, that it is closely related to the kind of persons.”26
The expansion of Church activities during the 1930s increased demands on the time and financial resources of the Saints. To lessen this load, the General Authorities undertook a new study of all Church programs with the goal of correlation and simplification where possible.
At the beginning of 1939, the First Presidency wanted the work of the auxiliary and other organizations to be “coordinated, unified, and standardized to avoid duplication and overlapping.” They therefore appointed a Committee of Correlation and Coordination, headed by three members of the Twelve. The First Presidency affirmed that the real reason for all Church organizations “is to instruct the people in the Gospel, to lead them to a testimony of the Truth, to care for those in need, to carry on the work entrusted to us by the Lord.”27
In 1940, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., instructed a group of Church executives that “the home is the basis of a righteous life, that no other instrumentality can take its place nor fulfil its essential functions, and that the utmost the Auxiliaries can do is to aid the home in its problems, giving special aid and succor where such is necessary.”28
A tangible step toward greater simplification was discontinuing weekly genealogy meetings in 1940 and incorporating genealogical instruction into the curriculum of the Sunday School. At the same time, the Utah Genealogicaland Historical Magazine, published since 1910, was discontinued and its function assumed by the Improvement Era.
During the 1930s the Church continued to grow throughout North America and abroad. This expansion was reflected in two extended overseas trips by General Authorities. During three months of 1937, President Heber J. Grant and other Church leaders visited the missions of Europe. Everywhere he went President Grant encouraged the Saints to stay where they were and build up the Church. Large public meetings and extensive press coverage helped build goodwill for the Mormons in areas where they had been unknown or misunderstood. When President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., joined President Grant to commemorate the British Mission’s centennial, this marked the first occasion when two members of the First Presidency were in Europe at the same time.
During the first one hundred years of this key mission’s existence, over 125,000 converts had been baptized. Approximately half of these had emigrated, providing strength to the Church in the West. In 1938, Elder George Albert Smith of the Council of the Twelve spent six months visiting the Pacific missions, where he was warmly received by the Saints. A high point was his participation in the Maori Saints’ annual “hui tau,” or conference. As President Grant had done in Europe the year before, Elder Smith strengthened Church members in the Pacific and also encouraged more favorable attitudes toward the Church through giving interviews with the press, speaking on the radio, and meeting with government officials.
Continued Church growth and the multiplication of stakes and missions around the world placed a heavier administrative load on the shoulders of the General Authorities. Not only did this mean a greater number of conferences to conduct, but it also involved more travel, as during the 1930s the Saints increasingly moved to scattered areas, and stakes were organized in such distant cities as New York; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Seattle; and Honolulu.
This was the setting for the decision to create a new group of General Authorities to help shoulder the increased load. At the April 1941 general conference the First Presidency announced the appointment of “Assistants to the Twelve, who shall be High Priests, who shall be set apart to act under the direction of the Twelve in the performance of such work as the First Presidency and the Twelve may place upon them.”29 Initially, five men were called—Marion G. Romney, Thomas E. McKay, Clifford E. Young, Alma Sonne, and Nicholas G. Smith. As the administrative burden continued to increase, additional members were added.
The decade of the 1930s is best known for the formation of the welfare plan, but many other important and far-reaching strides were made in enlarging and refining Church programs. A stronger and more confident Church emerged from the Depression years. Nevertheless, while the Church was successfully coping with problems caused by the Depression, the threat of war began to pose new challenges.