The 1930s began under the ominous, black cloud of the Great Depression and ended 10 years later with Europe once again embroiled in war that threatened to engulf — and later did — most of the entire world.
But in between those bleak bookends of deep economic depression and a raging war on the European continent, the Church continued to move forward at a pace only slightly slower than the record-setting years of the 1920s.
As the 1930s began, the Church numbered 663,652 members. By the time the calendar was turned over to the 1940s, Church membership had risen to 803,528, an increase of 139,876 members, second only during any 10-year period in the history of the Church to the 1920s' gain of 155,691.
But it wasn't just the number of members that increased during this time. The localities where the Church was growing were also expanding. The gate to establishing the gospel beyond the borders of the western United States and the Mormon settlements in Canada and Mexico was beginning to swing open a bit. During the decade, among the 25 new stakes that were organized were those with headquarters in New York City and Chicago.
In 1935, there were only 10 missions in the entire United States, out of the 32 total worldwide. Two years later, in 1937, when the New England Mission — one of eight missions that was created in the 1930s — was carved from the Eastern States Mission it clearly demonstrated how large an area was covered by missions of that day and how few Church members lived in those missions.
The New England Mission extended 1,500 miles from the suburbs of New York City to Canada's Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador. Just a handful over 1,000 members lived in that vast area, and of that number about 40 percent lived in areas where they had no contact with any local Church unit whatsoever. (Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: New England, "Yankee Saints: the Church in New England During the 20th Century," Richard O. Cowan, p. 106.)
Still, near the end of the decade, President Heber J. Grant reflected in the April 1939 general conference: "We are growing splendidly. There is a feeling of absolute confidence; there is no fear on our part of the final triumph of the work of God."
During the 1930s, the Church was also gaining more positive exposure and recognition in the nation's press.
When the Chicago Stake was organized Nov. 29, 1936, five reporters met President Grant at the train station in Chicago. "Cameras clicked. Questions popped. And Chicago's daily papers carried the story," reported The Improvement Era of January 1937.
However, the most far-reaching and encompassing aspect to come out of the 1930s for the Church was the inauguration of the Church welfare program.
The devastating effects of the stock market crash of 1929 had thundered into the 1930s. Jobs were scarce, forcing 13 million Americans out of work.
However, in an upbeat Christmas message in 1930, the First Presidency wrote: "The Latter-day Saints are less seriously affected by the state of prevalent depression than are the people of our nation generally.
"We have much for which we ought to be thankful, much over which we have great reason to rejoice; not only because there is less of poverty and suffering and more of material bounty and plenty among us than is found in many other communities, but especially because we have the light of latter-day prophecy to enlarge our perception and enlighten our understanding as to the expressed significance of the times." (Deseret News,Dec. 20, 1930.)
But, still, Church members were not immune to the awful effects of the Depression. Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City, for example, saw 60 percent of its wage earners unemployed in the early 1930s. By September 1935, 88,460 Church members were either on county or Church relief. Of that total number, 13,455 were on relief due to unemployment. (Improvement Era,May 1936, p. 305.) To help alleviate the suffering and the evils of the dole, the Church at the April 1936 general conference announced the Church Security Program.
Two years later in 1938, the program became known as the Church Welfare Program, the same year that Deseret Industries was established to create jobs for the unemployed and disabled. (The Church Welfare Program was one of the top 12 stories of the 20th century in a survey by the Church News. For a more detailed account of Church welfare, please see Feb. 27, 1999, Church News.)
However, the 1930s was not all bleak. It was also a time to reflect on the Church's heritage, a time of celebration.
The 100th anniversary of the Church was celebrated in April 1930, which resulted in more than 3,000 newspapers giving favorable publicity to the Church, causing President Grant to comment later that year: "The great change that has come about since the days of my boyhood in the general attitude toward this people is almost beyond contemplation or expectation." (Gospel Standards,p. 91.)
The centennial observance was a grand occasion and reports were that 100,000 people gathered in Salt Lake City to participate in the festivities.
At the first session of general conference on April 6, President Grant read an address from the First Presidency that was carried by radio to all meetinghouses within the broadcasting range of KSL Radio. At every ward and branch meetinghouse beyond the range of the radio station, the exact same service, as held in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, was conducted at the same hour with the First Presidency address read by one of the local elders. (Conference Report, April 1930, p. 2; Encyclopedia of Mormonism 1:261.)
The address covered many subjects, ranging from the technology and scientific advancements of the day to many experiences of Joseph Smith as the Restoration events began to be ushered in. The final section of the message spoke of the future.
". . . The outlook for the future passes beyond the vision of human comprehension," the address stated.
Echoing that same sentiment, Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, in his address later in the conference, said, "I believe we are at the dawn of far more glorious things than have ever been known in the history of all the glorious past."
During the decade, a total of 75,617 converts were baptized into the Church, a little over 7,000 per year — a significant number when considering the relatively few missionaries who were going out. In 1930 just 896 missionaries were set apart during the year, dropping to only 399 in 1932, the lowest number for any year in 43 years. The next year, in 1933 — the year that President Gordon B. Hinckley was called to serve in the British Isles — the number of missionaries started to pick up again, but in that year only 525 missionaries were called. (Deseret News 1999-2000 Church Almanac, p. 554.)
"Very few missionaries were out at that time because of the terrible scarcity of money," President Hinckley told a missionary meeting in Boston, Mass., on April 23, 1995. "It was a very bleak time."
The average cost per missionary Churchwide in 1934 was $28.85 per month, as reported in the April 1935 general conference, but even that, for most members, represented a huge obstacle. Wages were low and unemployment was high. Serving in England as President Hinckley did, "was inordinately expensive, costing what would have been the equivalent of roughly $500 a month in 1990 dollars." (Go Forward With Faith, the Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 58.)
Before the 1930s, the Church had purchased a number of historical sites, including the Carthage Jail in Illinois (1903), Joseph Smith's birthplace in Vermont (1905), and the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York (1928).
In the 1930s, efforts continued to purchase other sites of historical importance to the Church. These efforts resulted in the purchase of the Nauvoo Temple site in Illinois in 1937 and the old Liberty Jail property in Missouri in 1939, two major acquisitions of sites so significant in the history of the Church.
After the temple site was acquired by Wilford C. Wood for the Church in a trustee's sale for $900, the Improvement Era of April 1937 wrote: "To a temple-loving people, the repurchase of the Nauvoo Temple site by the Church . . . comes as happy news."
Two years later, Brother Wood purchased on behalf of the Church what remained of the Liberty Jail, where Joseph Smith and others were incarcerated for four months during the winter of 1838-39. Even after 100 years the old stone floor and part of the original stone wall of the infamous jail, which has been called a "prison-temple" because of what transpired there, were still intact. The Church Section of the Deseret News wrote on July 22, 1939: "The recent acquisition by the Church of the property on which the Liberty Jail stood stirs many memories of the events in the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith connected with this historic building."
Seven years after the Church acquired the Hill Cumorah, a 40-foot bronze and granite monument of the Angel Moroni was placed on the hill in 1935.
The monument was dedicated by President Grant on July 21, 1935, during a celebration that lasted three days and included special meetings in the Sacred Grove and on the hill. At the dedication, 20 reporters and photographers from newspapers in Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, as well as from the two national wire services, the Associated Press and United Press, covered the event. "Sitting at the press tables near the stand where they could watch the audience and look into the eyes of the speakers, they told through their established channels the story of the restoration of the gospel and it went all over America — perhaps beyond," stated the September 1935 Improvement Era.
The restoration of the gospel, particularly the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, was also portrayed through pageants on the hill. The first pageant, entitled "Footprints on the Sands of Time," was presented July 24, 1930, during the Church's centennial year. Six years later, in 1936, "Truth from the Earth," was presented and plans were announced to make a pageant on the hill an annual event. In 1937, two pageants were presented: one was a play about the Mormon pioneer handcart companies entitled "The Builders"; the other was "America's Witness for Christ," which has been presented since then with occasional revisions.
During this period, the Church also began placing markers at historical locations. The first of the Mormon Trail markers were unveiled at Henefer, Utah, and Casper, Wyo., on July 16, 1932. The next year, on July 26, 1933, the first effort to mark historic sites in Nauvoo was made by the Relief Society when it placed a monument at the site of its organization in 1842 in Joseph Smith's red brick store. (Deseret News 1999-2000 Church Almanac, pp. 500-501.)
In 1937, the 80-year-old President Grant made an extensive tour of Europe, leaving Salt Lake City on June 13, and returning home 13 weeks later on Sept. 12 "with," as the October 1937 Improvement Era reported, "firm grip and the driving vigor of youth."
It was the first visit by a president of the Church to Europe in 27 years and was President Grant's first visit there since 1906.
The president visited 11 countries, including England, Wales, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Czecho-Slovakia, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. During the time he was in Europe, he dedicated nine meetinghouses, gave some 55 addresses, and participated in the 100th anniversary of the Church in the British Isles.
But even as President Grant was touring Europe, war clouds were blackening over the continent two years before war broke out.
One thing that President Grant found "very pleasing" on the trip was that "we had perfect liberty in the holding of our meetings in Germany, notwithstanding the fact that more than 30 different denominations have been prohibited from preaching there." (Gospel Standards, p. 232.)
As time passed, conditions became more and more ominous, eventually forcing the evacuation of all the missionaries from European soil.
On Aug. 24, 1939, the First Presidency directed all missionaries in Germany to move to neutral countries. Only eight days later, Germany invaded Poland, igniting a declaration of war from Great Britain and France. Once again, Europe was embroiled in war.
One of the missionaries serving in Germany at the time was Edwin Q. (Ted) Cannon Jr., now a member of the Canyon Road Ward, Salt Lake Eagle Gate Stake, who was called to the East German Mission in the fall of 1937.
"The German secret police were aware of the missionaries and kept track of us," remembered Brother Cannon. "We were required to register in and out of areas where we were working and often had visits by the secret police into our meetings."
About halfway through his mission, he said, the missionaries were advised not to proselyte, not to go from door to door.
When the evacuation order came, he was serving as president of the East Berlin Branch. "We already had a 'fire drill' the year before at the time of the Munich conference in 1938. There was a scare of possible outbreak of war. The missionaries were directed to go to Copenhagen, Denmark.
"We stayed about a week and a half and then returned to Germany," remembered Brother Cannon. But when he got to Stettin, Germany (now in Poland), he received a telegram to return to Denmark. This time he only stayed one day, and then returned again to Germany.
But in August 1939, there were no more "fire drills," it was the real thing!
"We had already received from the mission president a code. 'Pack the books' was the code to pack our belongings and get ready to move. 'Ship the books' meant to get out," related Brother Cannon.
Because he was branch president in Berlin, he was in close contact with the mission office, which was also in Berlin. "I received verbal information that we would be getting out very quick, and was told to pass the Church records on to the local people in the branch."
At that time all missionaries serving in the East German Mission were directed to go to Denmark, and all those of the West German Mission were to go to Holland.
"I had mixed feelings about leaving Germany," Brother Cannon related. "I felt sorry for the people who couldn't leave. Some had already had a difficult time. I felt sorry to have to turn over the records of the branch to the people, knowing what they would be facing."
Later, all of the 697 missionaries serving in the 12 missions of Europe were told to evacuate Europe and return to the United States where they were either released or reassigned.
Brother Cannon was reassigned to the Canadian Mission in Toronto. (Years later, from 1971 to 1974, Brother Cannon served as president of the Switzerland Mission and twice served as a counselor in the International Mission. In November 1978, he was called with his wife, Janath, and Rendell and Rachel Mabey to open West Africa for missionary work.)
In the April 1940 general conference, President J. Reuben Clark Jr., first counselor in the First Presidency, spoke about the missionary evacuation: "The entire group was evacuated from Europe in three months, at a time when tens of thousands of Americans were besieging the ticket offices of the great steamship companies for passage, and the elders had no reservations. Every time a group was ready to embark, there was available the necessary space, even though efforts to reserve space a few hours before had failed. Truly the blessings of the Lord attended this great enterprise."
The missionaries returned to the United States in 23 different ships, mostly freighters that had been improvised to care for the numerous passengers returning to America. The evacuation, under the direction of Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve, was complete, with few exceptions, when the last of the missionaries arrived in New York City Nov. 6, 1939.
And so, the 1930s came to a close, committed to the pages of history.