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The Box Elder Tabernacle in Brigham City, Utah (built 1865-1890, burned in 1896, and rebuilt in 1897 with additional spires added). In pioneer Utah, the tabernacle and other stake buildings were the religious and social center of LDS community life. These outlying stakes were viewed symbolically as the "stakes" holding in place the tent of God's covering over the Church, Courtesy Utah State Historical Society.
by Stan L. Albrecht
Stakes are an intermediate unit of organization between Church headquarters and the local wards. A stake ordinarily comprises between five and twelve wards, totaling at least 3,000 members. Depending on LDS population density, a stake may cover only a small part of one city or include many towns or cities spread over hundreds of miles. Where there are not sufficient Latter-day Saints to organize functioning wards, members belong to branches, which are supervised by missions or stakes. The stake is "a miniature Church to the Saints in a specific geographic area" (Benson, p. 4); the stake presidency is fully charged and authorized to implement all the programs of the Church within the stake boundaries and directly supervises the bishops of wards. Stake presidents are supervised by area presidencies, who report directly to the presiding quorums of the Church. For the sake of administrative convenience, training and support are provided to geographically proximate stakes by regional representatives.
THE SCRIPTURAL CONCEPT OF STAKES. When the resurrected Jesus visited the Nephites in the Western Hemisphere, he taught them the words of Isaiah: "Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes and make the desolate cities to be inhabited" (3 Ne. 22:2-5; cf. Isa. 54:2-3). He promised to reveal to them his new covenant of priestly sacrifices and ordinances, including those of the temple (3 Ne. 9:19-20; 10:6-7; WJS, pp. 212-13). The rich imagery of Isaiah chapter 54 associates the concept of "stake" with the tent pegs that firmly held the curtains around the tabernacle that Moses built, the central Israelite sanctuary and seat of the Lord. In Doctrine and Covenants 101:43-62, this imagery is expanded: the stakes of Zion are represented as twelve thriving olive trees nurtured in peace (WJS, p. 415); in the redemption of Zion, they will never "be removed" (Isa. 33:20).
Stakes are gathering places for the Saints, "the curtains or the strength of Zion" (D&C 101:21). They are established as protected enclaves of spiritual strength and righteousness around the globe, symbolically holding the curtains around God's presence in the Church and among his people, in preparation for the establishment of the New Jerusalem (D&C 115:6; Isa. 4:6) and the rebuilding of the "old" Jerusalem in the Holy Land.
The portable tabernacle of Moses with its sustaining cords and stakes eventually came to rest in Shiloh, and was replaced centuries later with the construction of the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. In all ages, "the main object" of the gathering of people is to construct a temple, "to build unto the Lord an house whereby he [can] reveal unto his people the ordinances of his house and glories of his kingdom and teach the people the ways of salvation" (WJS, p. 212; cf. Benson, p. 4). In the modern Church, stake presidents hold the keys to issue temple recommends, and stake high priests quorums coordinate temple participation to strengthen Zion: "Put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled" (Moro. 10:31; cf. Isa. 52:1).
President Ezra Taft Benson listed four purposes that stakes serve in the Church: (1) "to unify and perfect the members by extending to them the Church programs, the ordinances, and gospel instruction"; (2) to be models or standards of righteousness to the world; (3) to provide a defense from error, evil, or calamity; and (4) to be "a refuge from the storm" prophesied to come upon the earth in the last days (pp. 4-5).
THE ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY OF STAKES. For the first several months following its organization, the Church had no need for a complex organizational structure. In response to increasing membership, the first stake was organized in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1832. The Kirtland Stake was presided over by Joseph Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency. Most affairs of this original stake that did not fall under their direct purview were handled by a council of high priests who operated under the direction of the bishop (Allen and Leonard, p. 79).
In 1834 the Kirtland high council was organized and became the official judicial body for the stake. The First Presidency continued to function as the presidency of the stake until Kirtland was abandoned, but as new stakes were organized, these roles changed. In July 1834, a stake was organized in Clay County, Missouri, with its own presidency and high council (Allen and Leonard, p. 79). From that time forward, stakes were presided over by a president with two counselors, who were assisted by a high council comprised of twelve high priests residing within the stake's boundaries.
For several decades, stake organization tended to be less emphasized and often quite haphazard in comparison with the ward. While there was a functioning stake in Salt Lake City following the migration westward, most other areas of the Church had none. Where stakes existed, they filled two major functions: they held conferences designed to bring together members of several wards for instruction and spiritual guidance, and they had responsibility for many disciplinary actions that were brought before the stake high councils. However, much direction from the top proceeded directly between general Church authorities and the local ward bishops (Arrington and Bitton, p. 212).
When President Brigham Young began a major restructuring of Church organization in 1877, changes were made that significantly affected the role of the stake (Hartley, p. 3). Earlier, President Young had declared that the Salt Lake Stake held no authority over other stakes of the Church, all stakes being equal and autonomous relative to each other (Hartley, p. 5). He also released members of the quorum of the Twelve from their callings as stake presidents so that they could assume more fully their general Church leadership assignments. New stake presidencies were called for most of the stakes, and several new stakes were organized by dividing those that had become too large.
As part of the organizational change instituted by Brigham Young, stake presidencies were given responsibility for all Church matters within their stake boundaries. Stake presidencies were instructed to hold quarterly conferences, which would be visited and presided over by General Authorities. Stake presidencies were also instructed to visit the wards in their stake on a regular basis and to call local priesthood leaders as home missionaries to help them preach in the wards.
Other changes in stake organization were designed to improve administrative efficiency. Stakes were made into more manageable units to give stake presidents more time for their private commitments and to create smaller and more cohesive units with which members could more readily identify (Alexander, pp. 95, 107). During this same period, financial accounting procedures were regularized and Church membership records systematized, and the newly streamlined stakes were given greater oversight responsibility in both areas.
Following these important organizational changes, the stake assumed its role as the major governing unit between the wards and Church headquarters. Stakes were now expected to have responsibility for every person and every program within their boundaries. Decentralization by the transference of more priesthood responsibility to the stakes has continued as Church membership has expanded. Stake presidents and bishops have been clearly identified as the links in the organizational chain between the General Authorities and local Church members.
The historical importance of stakes in the Church is exemplified by the stake-level innovations that have been adopted throughout the Church. Family home evenings and the Welfare program began as programs of the Granite Stake in Salt Lake City in the early 1900s. The "Home Evening" program was designed to help parents develop closer relationships with their children. The suggested format for these weekly family meetings included prayer, music, scripture reading and gospel instruction, discussion of family concerns, recreational and cultural activities, and refreshments. The Granite Stake Welfare plan was designed to promote temporal well-being by stressing home industry and cooperation. Stake committees were appointed to promote gardening, the development of canneries, livestock raising, and the establishment of new industries. This program foreshadowed the work of President Harold B. Lee as president of the Pioneer Stake during the Great Depression, which led to the establishment of a Churchwide Welfare program. Other Church programs that originated in stakes include the seminary program for high school students, stake missionary work, systematic stake supervision of temple and genealogical work, and a variety of youth programs.
THE CONTEMPORARY STAKE. The continuing centrality of stakes in the Church's organizational structure is emphasized by additional recent expansions of the responsibilities assigned to stakes. Stake conferences are held semiannually, with stake presidents responsible for presiding when Regional Representatives or General Authorities are not present. Other functions formerly performed by General Authorities but now assigned to stake presidents include issuing temple recommends, setting apart counselors in the stake presidency and missionaries, ordaining bishops and stake Patriarchs, and giving special temple recommend clearances.
Stake officers have primary responsibility for training ward priesthood and auxiliary officers. Stake presidencies recommend new bishops to the General Authorities and, with their high councils, train ward bishoprics and quorum leaders. Under the direction of the stake presidency and the high council, stake auxiliary leaders hold regular leadership meetings to train their counterparts at the ward level (see Leadership Training). Stake presidencies and high councils continue to serve as the major judicial organization of the Church and conduct disciplinary councils for members who have committed serious sins.
New stakes are created when the membership of an existing stake becomes too large or when Church numbers and leadership strength in a mission district where a stake has not previously existed reach a level that justifies its organization (Kimball, p. 11). This process has accelerated greatly since the mid-twentieth century, with stakes being organized in many nations. Before 1840, 11 stakes had been established in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. In 1870 there were 12, all located in Utah. By 1882 the number had grown to 27, and by 1940, to 177. The 321 stakes in 1960 included one in Mexico and 19 in English-speaking countries outside the United States. In 1991 there were over 1,800 stakes worldwide, with almost weekly additions.
Stake presidents are called by revelation and set apart by a General Authority under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They are sustained by the membership of the stake in the stake conference following their call. After a period of service (often about ten years), they are released from their assignment and a replacement is selected in the same manner.
(See also Area, Area Presidency; Bishop, History of the Office; Organization: Contemporary; Region, Regional Representative; Ward; Stake President, Stake Presidency. Basic Beliefs home page; Church Organization and Priesthood Authority home page)
Interior of the St. George Tabernacle in St. George, Utah, built 1863-1875 and regular site of local stake conferences, concerts, and community events. Courtesy Utah State Historical Society.
Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition, pp. 93-115. Urbana, Ill., 1986.
Allen, James, and Glen Leonard. Story of the Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1976.
Arrington, Leonard, and Dennis Bitton. The Mormon Experience. New York, 1979.
Benson, Ezra Taft. "Strengthen Thy Stakes." Ensign 21 (Jan. 1991):2-5.
Coleman, Neil K. "A Study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an Administrative System, Its Structure and Maintenance." Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1967.
Hartley, William G. "The Priesthood Reorganization of 1877: Brigham Young's Last Achievement." BYU Studies 20 (Fall 1979):3-36.
Kimball, Spencer W. "The Image of a Stake." Unpublished speech to regional representatives, Salt Lake City, Oct. 4, 1973.
Soltau, Henry W. The Tabernacle, the Priesthood, and the Offerings, pp. 135-41. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1972.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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