International Growth

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See also Church growth.

International Growth


Since World War II, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, has experienced rapid international growth. After a brief summary of postwar revitalization and the attendant increases in membership, this article focuses on the adaptations that accompanied growth and internationalization. In surveying recent developments, it provides an introduction to the contemporary Mormon Church.

1945-1990 Post World War II International Growth

Following World War II, Mormon Church President George Albert Smith was actively involved in sending goods from America to help resolve the suffering of Church members and others in Europe, especially those in Germany who had been devastated by war. In 1946 Ezra Taft Benson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, organized the reopening of the European Mission and the Church's relief efforts there. He found Church branches disorganized, meetinghouses destroyed, and many members without homes. Most had lost their possessions and were in great need of food and clothing. The Church's Welfare Services became a significant factor in the recovery of many Church members and also those of other faiths (Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p.639).

Since many church operations, including missionary work and building construction had been postponed, it was necessary to revive and reestablish Church programs everywhere. It wasn’t long before the missionary force was reassembled and hundreds of meetinghouses were built. Following World War II, more than half of all Church expenditures went for building projects. Half of all the chapels in use during the mid-1950s were erected during this period of reconstruction (Ibid.).

Becoming an International Church

The conclusion of World War II began an era of international expansion for the Mormon Church. In 1947, Church membership totaled one million, and by 1990 the sum reached 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 Mormon missionaries grew from 6,000 to 40,000 and the number of Mormon temples increased from eight, only one of which was outside the United States, to forty-four, with twenty-three outside the United States” (Ludlow, 639).

Church President David O. McKay was the first president to travel extensively. He toured missions in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the South Pacific, dedicating two temple sites in Europe and announcing a new temple 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)." Emphasis was also placed on calling local missionaries to replace American missionaries (Ibid.).

International expansion called for a sorting of practices, teachings, and programs to determine which of these truly constituted the core of the gospel and which reflected the American culture where the Mormon Church was founded. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in speaking to American Mormons said, "Other peoples 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, Apostle Boyd K. Packer said to Mormon leaders, "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 empower people of all cultures and perspectives to find true brotherhood and sisterhood within the Church (Ludlow, 642).

In 1974 President Spencer W. Kimball challenged members to increase their efforts of carrying the gospel to the world and “urged them to pray for barriers to be removed.” Efforts were made to work with international governments in resolving problems that 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,” leading to the beginnings of LDS missionary work in the Soviet Union (Ibid.).

On June 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation extending priesthood blessings to all worthy male members. The revelation was preceded by long and earnest prayer. With this revelation, every faithful, worthy man in the Church was able to receive the holy priesthood without regard for race or color. (See Doctrine and Covenants: Declaration-2). Immediately, worthy black Mormons in Africa and other areas with significant black populations were sealed in temples, given the priesthood, called on church missions and called to serve in church leadership positions. “The first black church-wide General Authority, Elder Helvécio Martins of Brazil, was sustained at the general conference of the Church in April 1990” (Ibid.).

Church Education

Between 1950 and 1990 total enrollment in the Church's educational programs increased from 38,400 to 442,500 (see Church Educational System). Full-time enrollment at the Mormon Church’s Brigham Young University soared from 5,400 in 1950 to nearly 25,000 by 1975. 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. Seminary for Mormons is somewhat similar to Sunday School except that it is held on weekdays. All Mormon youth are encouraged to attend. Non-Mormons are also invited to attend and many do so. In the 1950s, beginning with California, "early morning" seminaries began meeting for studies in church buildings near public secondary schools. After 1968, in areas where the church was small, Mormon youth were given "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” (Ludlow, 644).

In this time period, college aged Mormons were given special attention. “In 1956 the first student stake, with twelve wards, was organized on the Brigham Young University campus.” This offered leadership opportunities to students and allowed church services to cater directly to students needs. Student wards were also established in areas where there were substantial college aged members. “Subjective evidence suggested greater spiritual growth [in these students]; and in such statistically measurable matters as temple marriage and attendance at meetings, student wards led the Church” (Ibid.).

In Pacific and Latin American areas, where the Church grew rapidly, 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 just outside of Mexico City. As these countries developed their own educational facilities, the Church closed many schools (Ibid.).

Building Expansion

New Mormon congregations required new buildings. The Church found it necessary to complete more than one new meetinghouse every day. Potential costs were great, and many local Saints could not afford to raise their share (Ludlow, p.644).

While erecting school buildings in the South Pacific, a solution was discovered. A shortage of laborers began a program called, the “building missionaries.” The missionaries were called to donate their labor for two years. Experienced builders taught marketable skills to missionaries and the Church was able to build school facilities and church houses at a much lower cost. “In the 1950s and 1960s building missionaries erected schools and chapels in the South Pacific, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere.” To minimize construction and maintenance costs, a series of standardized plans were created. The plans could be adapted to various locations and expanded as needed (Ibid.).

In addition to their tithes and fast offerings, local congregations were expected to contribute a significant portion of the money needed, as well as labor, for the building of their chapels. By 1989, local contribution was no longer required (Ibid.).

New meetinghouses became generally smaller and less original than earlier ones. This approach allowed hundreds of chapels to be erected annually, and most importantly, it provided badly needed meeting places in developing regions. This move also provided equality among church members. Whether or not a particular area was affluent, they could have a comfortable place to worship (Ibid.).

Technology and the Modern Church

The Church uses technology in many ways, including “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” (Ludlow p.644).

Genealogical work has perhaps been affected the most by technology. As the Church grew, the need for an effective mode of gathering and processing names for temple work became greater. Vital records from around the world were filmed, making them available in the Church's Salt Lake City Library and in hundreds of family history centers around the world. Beginning in the 1960s, the Genealogical Department began using computers to organize names obtained from these records. A widely used computerized genealogical program, called the “Personal Ancestral File,” was produced by The Family History Department. This allowed genealogical data to be available on laser disks (Ludlow p.645).

Temples were also affected by technology. Temple instructions were able to be presented more efficiently and more effectively through motion picture and video technology. Because one room instead of the former series of four rooms could be used, temples could be smaller, incurring less cost to construct. This made it possible for members around the world to have a temple close to them. “New technology also makes it possible to present the ordinances in several languages simultaneously, if necessary” (Ibid.).

The Church has used television for communication and advertising. Both of these uses have had a dramatic effect on public opinion. In 1949, General conferences of the Church were first broadcast on KSL Television in Salt Lake City. By the mid-1960s, one or more session of each conference was being televised nationwide in the United States. A satellite communication system was developed in the 1980s which “connected to stake centers throughout the world so that Latter-day Saints could view both conference and other Church-initiated programs” (Ibid.).

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; couples who had reached retirement age made up most of the remainder” (Ludlow p.645).

After analyzing and experimenting with proselytizing techniques and abilities, a systematic plan of lesson discussions was officially adopted in the 1950s. Refinement and modification resulted in the 1990 plan which focused less on memorization on the part of the missionaries and focused more on their ability to rely on the Holy Spirit in the presentation of outlined material (Ibid.).

Missionary training, including language instruction, became more thorough. “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” (Ibid.).

Improvements to the missionary program included encouraging more Christian service and non-proselytizing activities. “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 proselyting.” In addition, the Church often assigned older missionary couples to non-proselyting 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” (Ibid.).

Administrative Changes

Due to the rapid international growth, in the early 1970s, administrative responsibilities at Church headquarters were consolidated. Formerly separate agencies were grouped into large departments. For example, “the Welfare, Social Services, and health programs were consolidated into a Welfare Services Department.” A new twenty-eight-story Church office building in Salt Lake City assisted in bringing most Church administrative units together. In 1970, the organizations of the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association were combined. In 1971 the Church publishing program was consolidated. “Magazines in other languages than English were unified in 1967, with standardized content except for local matters (Ludlow p.643).

Public Issues and Social Concerns

Though infrequent, Church leaders occasionally declare official political positions on moral issues. The growing flood of pornography has been lamented, as well as 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. Public pronouncements have also been made in favor of Sunday closing laws and state right-to-work laws and against state lotteries” (Ludlow p.645).

In the 1960s, amid the American civil rights conflict, 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 women's rights controversy escalated, the Church leaders took a public stance favoring full equality for women but, at the same time, publicly opposing the Equal Rights Amendment as anti-family. Church leaders were also “deeply concerned with the morality of the nuclear arms race and officially denounced it in 1980 and again in 1981” (Ludlow p.646).

Since mid-century, most church members have lived in urban locations. The busy lifestyle in large cities “created added emotional strains, and an array of attractions and temptations tended to pull family members in different directions.” In response to the needs of church members, a series of social programs was established. A Church program which “operated an adoption agency and provided foster homes for disadvantaged children” was expanded. The Indian Student Placement Services, which began in the 1950s, now extended thousands of Native American children the opportunity to attend a good school while living in wholesome LDS family environments. Families who needed it had access to family and youth counseling. These three programs were combined in 1969 to form the Church's Social Services Department. Youth day camps, programs for members in prison, and counseling for alcohol or drug abusers were also sponsored by this organization (Ibid.).

In the 1970’s the Church also began to recognize 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 activities oriented toward couples and families.” Special programs were created for young single adults as well as older singles. The programs allowed them to participate in dances and other cultural activities, as well as providing better opportunities “to meet other members their own age who shared common interests” (Ibid.).

Return to Basics

In the 1980s, Mormon Church members were called to return to traditional values. In particular, they were urged to study of the Book of Mormon as a way of strengthening their faith in Jesus Christ and receiving guidance through their trials (Ludlow p.646).

In 1972 a systematic Gospel Doctrine program was established for Sunday school. The only texts would be the Bible, the Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These were to be studied in an eight-year (later four-year) rotation. Soon all Church curricula were tied directly to the scriptures (Ibid.).

In their effort to "return to basics," 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.” This was a result of the Church’s objective to allow more time for families to “study the scriptures and engage in other appropriate Sabbath activities together.” The new meeting schedule also relieved transportation challenges for many members (Ibid.).

As a result of these changes, in 1990 the Church was more prepared than ever to “accommodate diverse nationalities, language groups, and cultures.” Traditional doctrines were continuously emphasized by church leaders. General Conference addresses encouraged love, service, home, family, and worship of the Savior (Ensign 10 [May 1990]:6-8). Striving for these values is a significant part of what it means to be a Mormon.

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Ludlow, Daniel H., ed. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 1-4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1992

Periods of Mormon History
New York Period | Ohio Period | Missouri Period | Nauvoo and the Martyrdom | The Utah War | Post-Civil War Persecution | Stability and Growth | International Growth | Contemporary Developments