Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. - Rom. 12:21
Perhaps one of the Church's most significant developments in the 20th century was born of one of the century's most destructive - World War II. For immediately after the war ended, the successful internationalization of the Church began.
The 50th anniversary of the end of World War II is an appropriate time to look back through the pages of the Church News during the 1940s at the war's impact on the missionary program of the Church.
The foundation for the international Church began with Joseph Smith and the missionary efforts he instigated in the 1830s and '40s. Although such efforts reaped thousands of converts who became the lifeblood of the Church, these converts gathered and built a center of strength that, for a century afterward, was largely isolated to America's Mountain West.
Later pre-World War II efforts in other countries resulted in more immigrants, and a few small branches. But generally, many obstacles faced early international branches and progress was slow.
As the war began in Europe in 1939, its impact on missionary work was ominous. Mission presidents were notified to evacuate their missionaries from Europe in August 1939. The last group arrived in the United States by February 1940. Eventually most missionaries except those in the United States and Canada were brought home. (Church News, Aug. 26, 1989.)
The First Presidency issued a statement in 1939 saying, "God is grieved by war and He will hold subject to the eternal punishments of His will those who wage it unrighteously. . . . We condemn all of war's foul brood - avarice, greed, misery, want, disease, cruelty, hate, inhumanity, savagery, death." (Oct. 14, 1939.)
Through the pages of the Church News is seen the onslaught of hostilities, the resilience of the Latter-day Saints and the eventual day of peace and the resumption of missionary work.
The Church News of Jan. 19, 1946, reported that some 100,000 Latter-day Saints served in the military during World War II. This drastically depleted the missionary force, reducing those set apart to 261 in 1943, the fewest since before the turn of the century. However, members lived the gospel as they worked in defense factories and shared the gospel by example.
Mission leaders maintained a cautious optimism and worked with members. The Northern States Mission, for example, adopted the slogan, "Every member missionary conscious."
In 1942, the First Presidency noted the "worldwide disaster in material and spiritual matters has brought vital and difficult problems to the nations and the Church. . . . We ask that until further notice bishops, presidents of branches confine their recommendations of brethren for missionary service to those who . . . are either seventies or high priests." (Church News, April 4, 1942.)
Later, a number of older brethren, some with their wives, served in U.S. missions, while their counterparts in other lands served "home missions."
This faithfulness served local leaders and members well as they developed a strength that endured throughout the war and after.
Pres. W.W. Seegmiller of the Brazil Mission commented in December 1944, "I had grave doubts of holding together the Brazilian Mission after the missionaries went home. This was evidence of lack of faith on my part. Now we have local priesthood presiding over all of the branches. . . . No one could have believed at the time that the missionaries were evacuated that such good organization could be made with the local priesthood."
While local leaders were getting along without missionaries, the young men of the Church faced the horrors of war firsthand. From this experience, many grew in faith.
"Soldiers at the front are vitally interested in religion and they attend services whenever possible," wrote Calvin Bartholomew, an infantryman who took part in an invasion by boat on the shores of Casablanca and Tunisia in Africa.
He described in a letter to Church leaders a religious service in Kasserine, Tunisia: "With shells screaming around, services continued and none of them sought shelter until the meeting had been dismissed."
Prayer became a vital source of strength. A Latter-day Saint serving as a torpedoman in a submarine recounted in a letter "praying while I worked to extricate a readied torpedo
lodged in the firing chamberT and the Lord evidently listened, because we were soon able to set it free. . . ."
Occasionally, war-time conversions occurred. Burl F. Booth of Safford, Ariz., released as full-time missionary from Central States Mission in 1943, immediately enlisted in the Navy. He told of the baptismal service of a Navy buddy, Gordon McElhannon, on a Pacific island.
"Gordon and I changed into our white Navy uniforms and walked over to the edge of the river where the other two boys were watching beautiful colored fish swimming about in the crystal clear water. We couldn't help feeling the closeness of our Father in Heaven there in the quiet jungle forest."
Servicemen met and organized branches and took the sacrament wherever they were - from the Aleutians to Africa.
Men in the Pacific area wrote of making sacrament cups from 20mm shell casings, and a water pitcher from a 40mm shell casing. In Sardinia, Italy, 12 LDS soldiers built a tiny chapel of brick and wood that held 30 people - the exact number of Church members at a B-26 Maurader Station.
The end of the war was welcomed with fasting and prayers of gratitude. Lt. Thomas W. Thorsen, a former missionary to Norway, was in the liberation force of that country. He described the members:
"I found the same old faces. . . . They were a good deal thinner, many faces were drawn and weary. The occupation had left its physical mark upon the Saints. Their clothes hung distortedly upon their shrunken bodies but the Saints have won an overwhelming spiritual victory. They seemed to draw closer and closer together. They waxed stronger and grew in the faith. Their humble testimonies make one feel . . . proud to be associated with people of God who have stood the test of the fiery furnace and yet come out unscathed." (Church News, July 14, 1945.)
The war took a major toll. In Germany, for example, 40 members lost their lives in air raids while some 400 were killed while in the service. The homes of 250 families were destroyed and 95 percent of the rest were damaged. (Church News, Nov. 24, 1945.)
After the war, newly called presidents of 36 missions reported being desperate for more missionaries and chapels. Although the missionary emphasis was focused in the United States, Canada and Mexico, the international influence of the gospel was manifest in many LDS conferences held by servicemen, from Asia to the Pacific, from Africa to Europe.
John A. Hopkin, one of 470 servicemen attending a conference in Japan, commented on May 4, 1946: "This conference was something new and dynamic. Everyone was impressed with participating in something destined for a great future."
In September 1945, the First Presidency began calling mission presidents for areas vacated during the war. The process continued through 1946.
That month, 63 missionaries departed for fields of labor, adding to 389 missionaries already in the field, the largest group to leave since the start of World War II. This small entourage was but a beginning. Many others followed.
In January 1946, the first post-war missionaries were sent to Samoa, New Zealand and Australia. They were "all ex-servicemen and all inclined toward carrying the gospel which has meant so much to them during the past, to their fellows in those far-off lands."
By April of that year, mission presidents, brought to Salt Lake City for general conference, enthusiastically reported progress and developments in their missions. They were "jubilant because of the upswing in the availability of missionaries that was sending many capable and experienced members into the mission field as bearers of the gospel message."
"According to their reports, among these new workers are the many ex-servicemen who are proving of great value because of their experience, their faith and their ability to immediately get into the program to proclaim the gospel to those anxious to hear the truth."
Mission presidents were also enthusiastic and noted that a record number of missionaries would soon be in the field.
"As of May 1, 1946," the Church News reported, "the Church has 1,134 missionaries. They are now being called at the rate of 150-200 per month. Should the rate be continued, more than double number is expected. The following assignments were made: Sweden, 10; Norway, 5; Denmark, 10; Holland, 15; France 5; Switzerland, 10; Czechoslovakia, 4 Argentine, 6; Brazil, 6; Australia, 6, New Zealand, 6; Tonga, 6; Tahiti, 6; Samoa, 4; Hawaii, 6; Central Pacific (Japanese) 8."
The leaders noted that missionary costs had risen sharply and were "now 50 percent higher, $50-55 per month."
"The larger number of missionaries being sent out also has made necessary the enlarging of the classroom on the fourth floor of the Church Office Building where the missionaries and their parents meet with members of the Council of the Twelve, and the first Council of the Seventy for their final instructions before being set apart for their missions." (Church News, May 11, 1946.)
By January 1947, the missionary force total reached 3,000 for the first time in history, and projections were made that the Church could have 5,000 full-time missionaries by year's end.
In Europe, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve and president of the European Mission reported:
"The mission in Europe is making splendid progress. Inspired mission-wide conferences have been held in England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Holland. The Saints are loyal, and devoted, supporting their capable leaders. . . . Perhaps at no time has the need of and the prospects for missionary work been more favorable than they are today." (Church News, Nov. 2, 1946.)
In December of 1947, President David O. McKay noted that 45 missions were in operation. He wrote in the Church News: "Though the Church is still young . . . it is moving steadily toward its worldwide destiny."
In 1947, the Church reached its first million members. More importantly, the Church extended and made permanent its presence in areas as nearly broad as had been the fighting.
Truly, the Saints were not overcome of evil, but overcame evil with good.