On January 1 of 1900, following a prolonged and turbulent period in its history, members of the Church couldn't help wonder what the new 20th century would bring. It lay before them, an unopened book, as mysterious to them as the upcoming 21st century is to us.
They knew nothing of the great human tragedies ahead, the World Wars and future genocidal conflicts that are as defining as our stunning technological advances. But they knew the Church would grow and increase its influence. They had faith that they were building something of great significance.
Now, as we begin the last year of the millennium, we look back on a century of enormous change for the Church. While its basic, core message of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ has never wavered, the Church itself has adapted to enormous change. This year, the Church News is beginning two monthly series on the Church in the 20th century as well as on the top Church stories of the century. Articles in both series will be published monthly.
The new Deseret News Church Almanac gives some insights into what a century of growth has done to the Church: When the century began, the Church had 271,681 members, almost all of them living in Utah and the West, where many of their parents or grandparents had settled to avoid persecution. When the 21st century arrives, the Church will have nearly 11 million members living in 165 lands. Sometime in February, 1996, the Church passed a milestone of more members living outside the United States than within it. Politically, B.H. Roberts was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1900, but Congress refused to seat him. In 1903, Apostle Reed Smoot was elected to the Senate but faced three years of intensive investigation before being accepted. Now many members serve in Congress, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang at the inaugural ceremonies of four presidents. The Church began the century in debt. Not until 1907 was it able to make the last payment on debt bonds issued in 1899. A renewed emphasis on tithing and prudent use of its funds has allowed the Church to finance its great growth. In the past few years it has even been able to send humanitarian aid with a total value of $163 million to 146 nations. Four temples were operating when the century began, and the Salt Lake Temple, which took 40 years to build, was in its seventh year. Spurred by increasing worldwide growth, temple construction grew significantly, and now nearly 100 temples are in operation or some phase of planning or construction. Doctrinally, the Church issued several significant statements, including a momentous revelation in 1978 that extended the priesthood to all worthy male members of the Church. Other statements came on the origin of man, on defining the relationship of God the Father and Jesus Christ. New additions were made to the Doctrine and Covenants. And who would have thought that a growing immorality in the world would require a special proclamation on the family? In 1900, the Church set apart 796 missionaries. By the end of the century, the Church was approaching 60,000 missionaries serving in the field. Some 50 languages are taught in 17 missionary training centers. Six million copies of the Book of Mormon are printed each year, and by 2000, more than 100 million copies will have been distributed. The Church is now constructing between 350 and 400 new buildings a year. The growth that represents brings on its own set of challenges, and throughout the 20th century the Church continued to adapt its organizational structure and lesson plans to handle them. For instance, when the century began, everyone in the Salt Lake Valley lived in one stake of 51 wards. Now, about 2,500 stakes are scattered around the world. In 1900, members were amazed at the new technological marvels of the telegraph and the telephone. Then the pace of technology exploded beyond all expectations. Conference sessions, then limited to those who could fit into the Tabernacle, are now seen by millions. General Authorities routinely travel the world during a week’s time.
The sobering fact behind this growth is that it may just be a precursor for an even more explosive century ahead. If that happens, the Church will be facing even more challenges and changes in the future.
President Ezra Taft Benson, whose life spanned much of the century, once said that ". . . In the early days of the Church, the Lord kept urging the Saints to look up . . . to raise their sights that they might get the vision of the magnitude of this work, that this is a world organization. The gospel teaches a world message. This message is going to be carried to the entire world, to all of our Father's children, in spite of all opposition by the adversary and its lieutenants." (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 164-165.)
As one century nears its end and another approaches, that counsel is still needed.