"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Church History 1945-1990

by James B. Allen and Richard O. Cowan

Elder Spencer W. Kimball puts his arms around President Harold B. Lee during a break at the Munich Area Conference, August 1973, four months before Lee died and Kimball became President. Courtesy Edward L. Kimball.

Throughout his life and ministry, President George Albert Smith's prevailing message was one of love. It was fitting, therefore, that it was during his administration that goods were sent from America to Europe to help relieve the suffering of the Saints following World War II, especially those in Germany who had been devastated by war. In 1946 Ezra Taft Benson, of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, directed the reopening of the European Mission and the Church's relief efforts there. He found branches disorganized, meetinghouses destroyed, and many members without homes. Most had lost possessions and everywhere there was pressing need for food and clothing. The Church's Welfare Services became a significant factor in the recovery of many Saints as well as some nonmembers.

Since the war had postponed everything from missionary work to building construction, it was necessary to reestablish and revitalize Church programs everywhere. The missionary force was rapidly rebuilt and hundreds of meetinghouses were constructed. Half of all the chapels in use in the mid-1950s were erected in the years following World War II, a period when more than half of all Church expenditures went for building projects.

Becoming an International Church

The close of World War II marked the dawn of a new era in Church history in which a dominant theme was international growth. In 1947 Church membership reached one million, and by 1990 the total was over seven million. Growth was especially strong along America's West Coast, in Latin America, and, after 1978, in Africa. In 1950 the Church had 180 organized stakes, nearly half of them in Utah; in 1990 there were 1,700 stakes, with less than one-fourth in Utah. In 1950 the Church was organized in fewer than 50 nations or territories, but by 1990 it had expanded to 128. Less than 8 percent of the Church lived outside the United States and Canada in 1950, but forty years later this was approximately 35 percent. During the same period the number of missionaries grew from 6,000 to 40,000 and the number of temples increased from eight, only one of which was outside the United States, to forty-four, with twenty-three outside the United States.

This remarkable growth resulted from renewed efforts to fulfill the revelation given to Joseph Smith "that the kingdom…may become a great mountain and fill the whole earth" (D&C 109:72). Early in his administration President David O. McKay, the first to travel so extensively as Church President, toured missions in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the South Pacific, dedicating two temple sites in Europe and announcing that a temple would be built in New Zealand. In 1955 he declared that the Church must "put forth every effort within reason and practicability to place within reach of Church members in these distant missions every educational and spiritual privilege that the Church has to offer" (CR [Apr. 1955]:25). Building temples, increasing the number of missions, organizing stakes worldwide, persuading the Saints to build up Zion in their homelands rather than emigrate to America, and eventually putting Church leadership into the hands of each country's native people were all significant steps toward fulfilling that goal. In addition, increasing emphasis was placed on calling local missionaries who, in some areas, later essentially replaced American missionaries.

Growth did not come without its problems, however, not the least of which was sorting out which practices, teachings, and programs really constituted the essence of the gospel and which were reflections of the American culture in which the Church had grown. To open the eyes of members—particularly Americans—to the need for defining the gospel in terms of universal principles, Church leaders spoke out with increasing frequency. In 1971, for example, Elder Bruce R. McConkie reminded some American Saints that in New Testament times even the apostles were so indoctrinated with the idea that the Plan of Salvation was limited to a particular people that they found it difficult to take it to gentile nations, and he applied the lesson to the modern Church. He called upon American Saints to rise above their biases, though there would be "some struggles and some difficulties, some prejudices, and some uncertainties along the way." Other peoples, he noted, "have a different background than we have, which is of no moment to the Lord…. It is no different to have different social customs than it is to have different languages…. And the Lord knows all languages" (Palmer, pp. 143, 147). In 1987 Elder Boyd K. Packer reminded a group of Church leaders that "We can't move [into various countries] with a 1947 Utah Church! Could it be that we are not prepared to take the gospel because we are not prepared to take (and they are not prepared to receive) all of the things we have wrapped up with it as extra baggage?" (as quoted in Dialogue 21 [Fall 1988]:97). The goal was to ennoble people of diverse cultures and perspectives to more fully find true brotherhood and sisterhood within the common spiritual bounds of the Church.

Elder Helvécio Martins was the first black General Authority

In 1974 President Spencer W. Kimball challenged members to "lengthen our stride" in carrying the gospel to all the earth, and urged them to pray that barriers might be removed. He appointed David M. Kennedy, former U.S. secretary of the treasury and ambassador-at-large, as the Church's international representative to work with governments in resolving problems that had hindered the Church's activities. In 1977 the Church was legally recognized in Poland, and in 1985 a temple was dedicated in the German Democratic Republic. The dramatic political revolutions of 1989-1990 opened other eastern bloc countries and led to the beginnings of LDS missionary work in the Soviet Union.

One of the far-reaching changes in the twentieth century was the revelation received by President Spencer W. Kimball in June 1978 extending priesthood blessings to all worthy male members. The result of long and earnest prayer, the revelation meant that "the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood…without regard for race or color" (see Doctrine and Covenants: Declaration 2; Blacks home page) Without delay, worthy blacks were sealed in temples and many received assignments as missionaries and leaders. In Ghana and Nigeria, where blacks had been pleading for the establishment of the Church for years, the Church grew rapidly, but it also expanded in other areas with large black populations. The first black General Authority, Elder Helvécio Martins of Brazil, was sustained at the general conference of the Church in April 1990.

Administrative Changes

Numerous administrative changes also reflected the demands of Church growth. In 1967 stakes were organized into regions. Beginning in 1975, several regions were organized into areas, and by 1984 area presidencies, each consisting of three General Authorities, were assigned responsibility for stakes throughout the world.

In 1975 President Kimball announced the organization of the First Quorum of the seventy, members of which were General Authorities of the Church and included the former assistants to the Twelve. In 1989 the Second Quorum of the Seventy was organized; these General Authorities serve for terms of three or five years. In 1978 the practice was begun of placing members of the Seventy on emeritus status for reasons of health or age, and the following year the patriarch to the church also became an emeritus.

General Authorities also took steps to more effectively coordinate Church programs and, beginning in 1961, placed greater emphasis on "priesthood correlation" (see Priesthood; Correlation of the Church). Under the chairmanship of Elder Harold B. Lee, committees at Church headquarters planned, prepared, and reviewed curricula and activities for all organizations or age groups. They defined more carefully the unique roles of each organization and eliminated unnecessary duplication. Leaders focused on the home as the most effective place for teaching and applying gospel principles. Family Home Evening received renewed emphasis, and beginning in 1965 attractive manuals providing lesson helps were issued.

In the early 1970s there was also a consolidation of administrative responsibilities at Church headquarters. Agencies were grouped into several large departments, each under the jurisdiction of one or more General Authorities, with full-time professionals generally managing day-to-day operations. For example, the Welfare, Social Services, and health programs were consolidated into a Welfare Services Department. A tangible symbol of this consolidation was the new twenty-eight-story Church office building in Salt Lake City, bringing most Church administrative units together. In 1970, functions of Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association were combined (see Young Men). In 1971 the publishing program was consolidated (see Magazines). Magazines in other languages than English were unified in 1967, with standardized content except for local matters (see International Magazines).

Other changes came as rapid international growth increased the travel and administrative load of Church leaders. In the 1970s stake presidents were authorized to "set apart" full-time missionaries (see Setting Apart), ordain bishops and Patriarchs, and dedicate chapels. General Authorities met in conference with individual stakes less frequently but, beginning in 1971, the Church began holding "area conferences," where a delegation of General Authorities met with the Saints gathered from geographic regions. In 1979 the number of stake conferences each year was reduced from four to two, and in the 1980s regional or multiregional conferences replaced area conferences (see Conferences).

Church Education

Between 1950 and 1990 total enrollment in the church education programs increased from 38,400 to 442,500 (see Church Educational System). Full-time enrollment at Brigham Young University soared from 5,400 in 1950 to nearly 25,000 by 1975, leading to an enrollment ceiling. Rather than devoting ever larger amounts to higher education, funds increasingly went to meet more basic needs associated with worldwide growth. The major expansion in enrollment came in the area of religious education. Since the early twentieth century, students in predominantly LDS communities had attended "released time" seminary classes adjacent to their secondary schools. Beginning in California in the 1950s, "early morning" seminaries convened in church buildings near public secondary schools. After 1968, in areas where members were even more scattered, young people received "home study" seminary materials. The Church also increased the number of institutes of religion placed adjacent to college and university campuses. By 1990 seminary or institute programs were conducted in seventy-four nations or territories.

The Church also gave special attention to the religious life of college students. In 1956 the first student stake, with twelve wards, was organized on the Brigham Young University campus. This provided Church services that ministered directly to student needs and offered expanded opportunities for leadership. The plan spread to other areas where there were enough students to justify it. Subjective evidence suggested greater spiritual growth; and in such statistically measurable matters as temple marriage and attendance at meetings, student wards led the Church.

In some areas of the Pacific and Latin America, areas of particularly rapid Church growth where public education was not widely available, the Church returned to its earlier practice of establishing schools for religious instruction and to teach educational basics. It established forty elementary and secondary schools in Mexico, and established a junior college on the outskirts of Mexico City. As better public educational facilities developed, the Church closed many schools.

Building Program

New congregations required new buildings. Even with two or three wards sharing most buildings, the Church found it necessary to complete more than one new meetinghouse every day. Potential costs were enormous, and in many areas the local Saints could not afford to raise their share.

One solution emerged when the Church encountered a labor shortage while erecting school buildings in the South Pacific. Beginning in 1950, it called young men as "building missionaries" to donate their labor for two years. As they completed buildings at a much lower cost, experienced builders taught them construction skills; labor missionaries also learned marketable skills from experienced builders. In the 1950s and 1960s building missionaries erected schools and chapels in the South Pacific, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere. Later, in an effort to minimize construction and maintenance costs, the building department developed a series of standardized plans that could be adapted to different locations and expanded as needed.

Though general Church funds assisted with meetinghouses, local congregations were expected to contribute not only labor but also a significant portion of the money needed—in addition to paying regular tithes and offerings. With a view toward easing the financial burden on local congregations, the share borne by local Saints gradually diminished until, by 1989, local contribution was no longer required.

By the 1980s, new meetinghouses were generally smaller and sometimes more austere than earlier ones, but this approach allowed the Church to erect hundreds of chapels annually, and especially to provide badly needed meeting places in developing areas. It was also a move towards equality. Money that might have gone to build more expensive buildings in affluent areas instead provided comfortable places for worship throughout the Church.

Technology and the Modern Church

The Church began seeking to harness the astonishing developments in modern technology to enhance its administrative capabilities and to aid in delivering its spiritual message. Since the Church installed its first computer in the Financial Department in 1962, it has made use of this technology in myriad ways, including in architectural design, a computerized membership record system, automated accounting, processing missionary papers, record keeping at both the general and local level, and in providing resources for historical and genealogical research.

Perhaps no Church activity has felt the impact of technology more than genealogical work. As Church membership grew, so did the need for more effective means of gathering and processing names for temple work. The Genealogical Department (now the Family History Department) microfilmed vital records from around the world, making them available in its library in Salt Lake City (see Family History Library) and in hundreds of family history centers throughout the world. In the 1960s, the Genealogical Department also began using the computer to organize names obtained from these records. Since 1978, designated Church members have been devoting four or more hours of weekly service "extracting" information from microfilms for the sake of temple work. The Family History Department also produced personal ancestral file, a widely used computerized genealogical program, and began making key genealogical data available on laser disks.

Technology touched the temple in other ways. Motion picture and video technology allowed temple instructions to be presented more efficiently and more effectively. Because this could be done in one room instead of the former series of four rooms, temples could be built smaller and thus were less expensive to construct, making it possible for more members throughout the world to have a temple nearby. The new technology also made it possible to present the ordinances in several languages simultaneously, if necessary.

The effect of television on Church communications and the Church public image was also dramatic. General conferences of the Church were first broadcast on KSL Television in Salt Lake City in 1949, and by the mid-1960s one or more session of each conference were being televised coast-to-coast in the United States. In the 1980s the Church developed a satellite communication system connected to stake centers throughout the world so that Latter-day Saints could view both conference and other Church-initiated programs.

Missionary Work

By 1990 over two-thirds of the Church's annual growth came from convert baptisms. Approximately 30,000 of more than 40,000 full-time missionaries were young men ages nineteen to twenty-one; single women twenty-one years of age or older and couples who had reached retirement age made up most of the remainder.

Considerable attention was given to improving proselytizing techniques and abilities. After much experimentation, a systematic plan based on a series of regularized lesson discussions was officially adopted in the 1950s. After considerable refinement and modification, by 1990 the plan focused less on memorization on the part of the missionaries and more on their ability to rely on the Spirit in the presentation of outlined subject matter.

Missionaries were also given more effective training, especially in languages. In 1963 a Language Training Mission, later known as missionary training center, was established near Brigham Young University, and five years later a similar program opened near the Church College of Hawaii (see Brigham Young University: Hawaii Campus). By 1990 missionaries were receiving intensive language and missionary training in fourteen missionary training centers around the world, though about 75 percent were attending the Provo center.

Innovations in the missionary program included encouraging more nonproselytizing activities and Christian service. In 1971, for instance, "health missionaries" began teaching the basics of nutrition, sanitation, and disease prevention, especially in developing countries. By 1990 all missionaries were urged to spend two to four hours a week in community service, in addition to proselytizing. Also, older missionary couples were often assigned to nonproselytizing Church service, including health and Welfare work, leadership training, staffing visitors centers and doing other public relations activities, assisting patrons in the Church's various family history centers, temple service missions, and teaching missions.

Public Issues and Social Concerns

Though the Church attempted to distance itself from direct political involvement, Church leaders nevertheless from time to time declared official positions on moral issues. The First Presidency publicly lamented the growing flood of pornography, the widespread practice of birth control, and abortion, and the general decline in moral standards, including the rising number of divorces and the increased prominence of homosexuality. In 1968 the Church became directly involved in Utah's political process by openly opposing liquor-by-the-drink. It has also made public pronouncements in favor of Sunday closing laws and state right-to-work laws and against state lotteries (see Gambling).

Amid the intense civil rights conflict that characterized the United States in the 1960s the First Presidency openly called for "full civil equality for all of God's children," and specifically urged Latter-day Saints to work for civil rights for blacks. In the 1970s, as the controversy in America over women's rights escalated, the First Presidency took a public stance in favor of full equality before the law for women but, at the same time, publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment as anti-family. The First Presidency was also deeply concerned with the morality of the nuclear arms race and officially denounced it in 1980 and again in 1981 (see War and Peace).

In contrast to the early twentieth century when most Latter-day Saints lived in predominately rural settings, since mid-century, most have lived in urban centers. The hectic lifestyle in large cities created added emotional strains, and an array of attractions and temptations tended to pull family members in different directions. Responding to these and other needs, the Church instituted a series of social programs. Since 1919 the Relief Society had operated an adoption agency and provided foster homes for disadvantaged children. This was expanded. The Indian Student Placement Services, begun in the 1950s under the chairmanship of Elder Spencer W. Kimball, extended to thousands of native american children the advantages of attending good schools while living in wholesome LDS family environments. A "youth guidance" program provided counseling to families in need. These three programs, required by law to employ licensed professional social workers, were combined in 1969 to form the Church's Social Services Department. This department also sponsored youth day camps, programs for members in prison, and counseling for alcohol or drug abusers.

Church leaders also began to show more concern for the special needs of unmarried men and women. Whether divorced, widowed, or simply never married, their social and spiritual needs were often not being met through traditional Church activity oriented toward couples and families. In the 1970s special programs for young single adults as well as older singles were created under the auspices of the priesthood and Relief Society. Through self-directed councils at the ward, stake, and regional level, they participated in dances and other cultural activities and found broader opportunities to become acquainted with other members their own age who shared common interests. In addition, wards for young singles were organized, first in the Emigration Stake in Salt Lake City, and then in other areas.

Return to Basics

One of President Ezra Taft Benson's clarion calls to the Saints in the 1980s was to return to traditional values. In particular, he urged regular study of the Book of Mormon as a means to strengthen faith in Christ and to receive guidance in meeting contemporary challenges. His call, however, was only one manifestation of the efforts of modern Church leaders to respond to the ever-deepening challenges of the world and to lead the Saints in a return to basics.

In 1972 the adult Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday School began a systematic study of the standard works. The scriptures were the only texts, and they were to be studied in an eight-year (later four-year) rotation. Soon all Church curricula were tied to the scriptures. To support the curriculum and encourage individual scripture study, Church leaders supervised the publication of new editions of the standard works, each cross-referenced to the others. The Church publication of the King James Version of the Bible, in 1979, contained an important 800-page appendix that included a Bible dictionary, a topical guide to all the scriptures, maps, and extracts from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. In 1981 new editions of the other standard works appeared, including additional study helps.

The "return to basics" theme was echoed also in many other changes in Church policies and programs. In 1980 the Church meeting schedule was consolidated into a single three-hour block on Sundays, replacing the traditional schedule of priesthood meeting and Sunday school in the morning, Sacrament meeting in the late afternoon or evening, and auxiliary meetings during the week (see Meetings, Major Church). The move simplified transportation challenges for many members, but Church leaders emphasized that the central objective was to allow more time for families to study the scriptures or engage in other appropriate Sabbath activities together.

Beginning in 1990 in the United States and Canada and extended to other parts of the world in 1991, ward and stake budget donations were no longer required from members; all operating expenses of local units would be paid from tithes and offerings. The uniform system promoted greater equality, cutting many local operating budgets while increasing others (see Finances of the Church; Financial Contributions). In explaining the new policy, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve called it an inspired "course correction," part of an overall effort to get back to basics (Ensign 10 [May 1990]:89-91). The metaphor could well be applied to much of what had happened since 1945.

Church members have generally accepted changes well, and have seen in them an opportunity for further spiritual growth. As a result, in 1990 the Church was moving more rapidly than ever before toward being able to accommodate diverse nationalities, language groups, and cultures. Church leaders continued to emphasize the traditional doctrines, but general conference addresses increasingly tended also to define Sainthood in terms of what Elder M. Russell Ballard characterized in April 1990, as the "small and simple things": love, service, home, family, and worship of the Savior (Ensign 10 [May 1990]:6-8). These are among the universals that constitute the essence of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1945-Present home page)


The Salt Lake Temple, the twenty-eight-story Church Office Building, and former Hotel Utah Building (c. 1989, being renovated into Church offices, a chapel and other facilities).


Much has been written about this period in professional journals. A few broad treatments are mentioned in the introduction to this history section. See also Spencer J. Palmer, The Expanding Church (Salt Lake City, 1978). For additional information, consult the bibliographies accompanying the biographies of Church Presidents who served during this period: George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, and Ezra Taft Benson.


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Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, History of the Church

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