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Humanitarian Service

by Isaac C. Ferguson

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a continuing commitment to relieve human suffering, to help eliminate life-threatening conditions, and to promote self-reliance among all people. Assistance is to be provided as Christian service, without regard to race, nationality, or religion. This obligation is an expression of scriptural counsel such as is found in the Book of Mormon:

They did not send away any who were naked, or…hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need [Alma 1:30].

Church giving is possible because of donations by individual members, who honor the counsel of Joseph Smith regarding one's temporal obligation to others:

Respecting how much a man…shall give annually we have no special instructions to give; he is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever he finds them [T&S 3:732].

The Church has always felt a responsibility to "take care of its own" (see Welfare Services), but traditionally it has also reached out to the general population in times of need, both in North America and throughout the world. As early as 1851, just four years after reaching the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young instituted a program of teaching Indians to farm by appointing three men as "farmers to the Indians." By 1857 more than 700 acres were under cultivation among the Indians (L. J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, New York, 1985, pp. 217-18).

The Church has responded to major world calamities according to its ability to give. In 1918 the U.S. House of Representatives formally expressed its appreciation to the Relief Society women of the Church "for…contributions of wheat to the Government for the use of the starving women and children of the allies, and for the use of our soldiers and sailors in the army and navy of the United States" (IE 21:917). The Relief Society had provided from its storage granaries more than 200,000 bushels of "first-class milling wheat" to the United States for the cause of human liberty and to save the lives of thousands who might have suffered for the lack of bread.

Even more extensive assistance to Europe during and after World War II was made possible in part because of a Church Welfare Services plan implemented in 1936. The plan taught members frugality and provident living and encouraged donations for the needy, which then would be available for emergencies and calamities.

President David O. McKay summarized the Church's actions during World War II: "We have given to the national Red Cross in Washington very large sums, and expect to add to these from time to time. Insofar as contributions toward foreign sufferers in war-ridden countries is concerned, we have sent considerable sums…to those countries to help our needy Church membership there and have made available for charitable purposes considerable local funds in those countries" (MFP 6:163-64).

Post-World War II humanitarian aid included ninety-two railway carloads of Welfare supplies (about two thousand tons) sent to Europe from the Church in Salt Lake City. Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spent 1946 in Europe supervising the distribution of this aid, consisting mainly of food, clothing, utensils, and medical supplies. These goods were supplemented by a program in which Church members in North America sent tens of thousands of individual food and clothing parcels. While a primary objective of the Church's efforts was to assist Church members in Europe, generous amounts of food and clothing were given to local child-care and feeding programs (Babbel, pp.168-69).

In 1953, a cooperative movement on the part of all Utah denominations collected relief supplies for Greece to relieve suffering caused by earthquakes. The United Churches Ionian Relief Committee was formed with Dr. J. Frank Robinson, president of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, as chairman. Among the denominations represented were the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the Jewish synagogues, and the Latter-day Saints. Expressing thanks to the Church for its efforts, Mr. John Tzounis, Greek consul in San Francisco, stated: "It is no secret, and I am thankful for this opportunity to stress the fact publicly, that the contribution of the Mormon Church was the greatest single contribution to the relief fund, not only in the United States, but the whole world over" ("President McKay Given Royal Award by King of Greece," Deseret News, Dec. 4, 1954, p. 2).

The Church's humanitarian response to the proliferation of refugees coming from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1970s began, through an agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), with a team of Welfare Services missionaries at the Phenot Nikom Refugee Camp in Thailand. From 1978 to the present, missionary teams have provided continuous training in English language and American culture for refugees bound for the United States at camps in Thailand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.

By 1980, some 768 Welfare missionaries (volunteers to give humanitarian aid) were serving in more than forty Church mission areas throughout the world. By 1990, more than 350 missionaries with specific professional backgrounds (nurses, doctors, educators, agricultural specialists) also were providing temporal assistance in many nations (including countries in eastern Europe), primarily in health, agriculture, and leadership development.

A severe drought and civil war in northeast Africa resulted in famine during 1984 and 1985. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve "determined that Sunday, January 25, 1985, should be designated as the special fast day when our people will be invited to refrain from partaking two meals and contribute the equivalent value, or more, to the Church to assist those in need. All fast offering funds contributed on this day will be dedicated for the use of the victims of famine and other causes resulting in hunger and privation among people of Africa, and possibly in some other areas,…regardless of Church membership" (The First Presidency Letter to General and Local Priesthood Authorities, Jan. 11, 1985). This special fast day in the United States and Canada produced contributions from the Latter-day Saints of $6.4 million (Welfare Services Department, unpublished document).

The Church immediately collaborated with reputable organizations in providing temporal assistance to the famine-stricken populations of northeast Africa. Specific contributions of grain, tents, and trucks for transporting the needed goods were made to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Catholic Relief Services, valued at more than $3.5 million. Additional donations were made to Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and Africare for projects relating to longer-term relief in the same geographic region (see Economic Aid).

Additional monies were later contributed to the ICRC and Catholic Relief Services for airlifting needed food to isolated populations in Ethiopia and the Sudan, where civil strife made trucking the goods impossible. The entire $6.4 million contributed during the first fast, as well as the accumulated interest, had been spent for assistance to Africa by the end of 1986. A second fast, also undertaken in 1985 in concert with a resolution by the U.S. Congress (The First Presidency Letter to General and Local Priesthood Authorities, Jan. 11, 1985), produced an additional $4 million to assist the needy. Special events such as these supplement regular, ongoing humanitarian efforts in the Church. Surpluses from the Welfare Services system are regularly contributed to charitable organizations in the form of food, clothing, and other in-kind household goods throughout the United States and internationally.

Most recently, more than twenty development projects have been sponsored by the Church in Africa (e.g., Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zaire, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana) as well as additional projects in Central and South America, Asia, and the United States.

(See Daily Living home page; Welfare and Humanitarian Assistance home page)


Babbel, Frederick W. On Wings of Faith. Salt Lake City, 1972.

Ballard, M. Russell. "Prepare to Serve." Ensign 15 (May 1985):41-43.

Benson, Ezra T. "Ministering to Needs through the Lord's Storehouse System." Ensign 7 (May 1977):82-84.

Ferguson, Isaac C. "Freely Given." Ensign 18 (Aug. 1988):10-15.

"Food for Destitute Greeks." Deseret News (Church Section), Feb. 20, 1954, pp. 8-9.

Hinckley, Gordon B. "The Victory over Death." Ensign 15 (May 1985):51-54, 59.

Pace, Glenn L. "Principles and Programs." Ensign 16 (May 1986):23-25.

Smith, Joseph F. "Our Duty to Humanity, to God and to Country." IE 20 (May 1917):645-56.

Times and Seasons 3 (Mar. 15, 1842):732.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Humanitarian Service

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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