A half century of modern Church expansion: 1947-97

A silver lining began to show after the black cloud of World War II lifted half a century ago, and missionary work blossomed abroad as never before.

Riding a wave of tremendous optimism and opportunity, leaders, missionaries and members in 1947 renewed missionizing efforts across the breadth of the world that were to bear the fruit of a truly international Church before the century ended.Taking the gospel worldwide has been an effort as old as the Church. Priesthood holders carrying mission assignments braved the seas as early as 1837. But during most of the 19th century, permanent congregations abroad were held back by the emphasis to "gather to Zion" and a general lack of religious freedom in those countries, combined with persecution. In the first half of the 20th century the stifling effects of two world wars and the worldwide depression acted as brakes on such efforts overseas and at home.

But the end of World War II on Sept. 2, 1945, with its accompanying social upheavals, brought a new day for missionary work. By 1947, missionary work was in full blossom. President David O. McKay, then second counselor in the First Presidency and supervisor of the Church's missionary work, decried in general conference the drop in moral standards and looked insightfully at the future as he called for more missionary efforts:

"We are living in what may be the most epoch-making period of all time. Scientific discoveries and inventions, the breaking down of heretofore approved moral and social standards, the uprooting of old religious moorings all give evidence that we are witnessing one of those tidal waves of human thought which periodically sweep over the world and change the destiny of the human race.

"I call attention to the world conditions because the mission of the Church of Christ is world wide. Its responsibility and commission is to "teach all nations. . . . " (Conference Report, October 1947.)

President McKay's uncannily accurate observation was made the year the Church reached its first 1 million members, 86 percent of whom resided in the United States. Today, by comparison, the Church is nearing 10 million in membership with about 55 percent outside the United States. Some 55,000 missionaries are serving in about 160 lands in 310 missions.

The will to acknowledge and fulfil the Church's mission, as described by President McKay, was evidently Churchwide, as reflected many times in the pages of Church News in 1947.

Another who expressed this will was the executive secretary of the Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, who observed:

"Century one in the West is behind us. It was a century of pioneering. . . . What of the future, this second century? One fact appears certain as the truthfulness of the gospel. That fact is that this will be a missionary century. Freed from the oppression of mobs and mass prejudice, strong and vocal in its own right, sure of its mission and its opportunity, the Church will give its message to a curious and anxious world more effectively than ever before." (Church News, Dec. 20, 1947, p. 11.)

As servicemen returned from overseas in 1946, many were called as missionaries. The Church's missionary force swelled from a wartime low of 261 new missionaries in 1943 to 2,297 in 1946 and 2,132 in 1947. Some 4,000 missionaries were serving in about 31 countries in 1947. The Church was poised to "go ye unto all the world" as never before.

Richard O. Cowan, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU and a student of the modern expansion of the Church, described in a Church News interview how this situation came to be in the United States:

"Before the war, the political mood was to be more isolationist. As trouble began to brew in Europe, the people in the United States were fighting to stay alive in the Depression. They didn't want to get involved in foreign problems."

When World War II began, with defense industries cycling up, "there was a sort of rebound from the Depression," he said. "With the end of the war in 1945, the depressing feeling of war was past, and I am sure that contributed to the optimism."

In addition, he said, non-members were more open to the gospel. "We often talk about how people who are uprooted and moving to new area want to start a new way of life and there was certainly was a lot of that.

"The war broadened the perspective of Latter-day Saints as many from the Mountain West area moved away to work in defense industries, and many non-LDS moved to Utah for the same reason. In addition, LDS servicemen received basic training in bases across the United States, and then served overseas."

Some servicemen, through the caldron of action, found themselves spiritually renewed and tempered for missionary work, he said.

One of the most successful servicemen-missionaries was Richard L. Anderson, a naval air corpsman during the war who was called to the Northwestern States Mission in late 1946. By 1948 and 1949, he had developed a very successful teaching plan, called the Anderson Plan. "It was combination of his improved methods, plus people being more receptive to a new life, that made his the first mission ever to baptize 1,000 converts in a year," said Brother Cowan.

Outside the United States, "those post-World War II years are a period of great boom for the greater Church," he said.

The Church also geared up for the boom with an "extensive translation of the scriptures," updating and translating the Book of Mormon into German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and French, and translating the Doctrine and Covenants into Spanish and Portuguese.

In addition, a great deal of humanitarian donations of food and clothing had been made by the Church after the war to many countries, including Germany and Japan.

The following are areas indicating progress made following the end of World War II.

United States

In 1940, one year before the war, most of the Church membership was centered in the Mountain West with the preponderance of membership in Utah and Idaho. A decade later, membership in California, Washington and Oregon had doubled while Utah and Idaho, which remained the stronghold, also made gains. Strong increases were also made in states east of the Rocky Mountains after 1950. Membership in the United States increased from 670,500 in 1940 to 926,700 in 1950. At year-end 1996, United States had 4,810,000 members.


In Germany, where in 1940 the Church had its strongest foothold in Europe, membership was 13,481 in 1940, but dropped to a post-war low of 12,000. Today, Germany has 36,000 members, retaining the largest membership of any nation in Europe. However, Portugal is a close second with 34,000 members. Throughout Europe, membership before the war was 30,092. Today, membership in Europe stands at 185,000.

(On Sept. 1, 1947, the Finnish Mission was created, and membership has grown to 4,400. See related article about Finland.)

Central Amerca

Until World War II ended, there were virtually no members in Central America except a few U.S. servicemen or expatriates. Work began in Costa Rica in 1946 under the direction of Mexican Mission Pres. Arwell L. Pierce, but was interrupted by a revolution in 1948. On Sept. 4, 1947, four missionaries from the Mexico Mission arrived in Guatemala and began a very successful work. Work resumed in Costa Rica in 1948. From there the work expanded further south to El Salvador and Honduras. A new Central America Mission was created in 1952.

(Membership in the seven Central American nations reached 374,000 at year-end 1996.)

South America

Missionary work began in Argentina in 1925 and expanded to Brazil in 1928. However, progress was slow in both countries, with membership in 1940 in Argentina at 518 and Brazil at 233, for a total of 751.

After the war, missionary work expanded to Uruguay in 1947 (see related article), and to other nations in the 1950s and 1960s. (Membership for the South American nations today is 2,096,000.)


Long before he became president of the Church, Elder Heber J. Grant was one of four missionaries to enter Japan in 1901. Few people were baptized and membership was only 60 in Japan before the war, with another 82 members elsewhere in Asia for a total of 142.

During the war, Pres. Hilton A. Robertson, who had been recalled from Japan, re-established the mission among Japanese-Americans in Hawaii in 1937. In 1948, the mission was re-opened in Japan. Some of the first missionary work after the war was done by servicemen, among them Boyd K. Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve. In 1946, he baptized Chiyo Sato and a fellow serviceman, C. Elliot Richards, baptized her husband, Tatsui Sato, the first Japanese baptisms in more than 20 years.

In 1950, the first missionaries began work in Hong Kong, and after the Korean War, work began in Korea. Although U.S. military personnel began teaching and baptizing members in the Philippines as early as 1946, the first missionaries came in 1961.

(Membership throughout Asia is now 610,000, with the largest numbers in the Philippines, with 367,000.)

South Pacific

Although the Church had a strong foothold South Pacific before the war, primarily in New Zealand, Australia, Tonga and Samoa, work soon expanded into Micronesia and other island groups where many of the war's most severe fighting took place.

In 1940, the Church had some 20,000 members in the South Pacific. (Membership in the South Pacific today has reached 330,000. In islands where the Church had no members, including Micronesia, the membership increased from zero to 26,400.)

Truly, the post-World War II vision of Church leaders and members laid the foundation for the internationalization of the Church that has taken place in the following half a century.

Sorry, no more articles available