‘Past comes alive’ as Sunday School capsule opened

Time has clouded the memory of some details, like where she sat in the Tabernacle during the Deseret Sunday School Union Conference when the 1949 centennial box was ceremoniously closed.

But, as a member of the Sunday School general board, Claribel Aldous was there. She had been a member of the Centennial Committee that helped organize the 100-year celebration of the organization of the Sunday School.

And 50 years later, on April 1, when the lid on that shiny wood chest was lifted, she was there again.

Now, 87, she was one of four surviving members of the 1949 board to attend ceremonies presided over by the First Presidency in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Elder Harold G. Hillam of the Seventy, along with his counselors in the general Sunday School presidency, Elders Neil L. Andersen and John H. Groberg, used electric screwdrivers to unfasten the brass screws and lift the lid off the 1949 centennial box.

"Well, this is a very interesting thing," said President Gordon B. Hinckley as he walked to the box and took a sweeping view of the items stored inside.

"I see before me the Deseret News issue of Monday evening Sept. 19, 1949," he began. Then, noting various books, minutes of the general board and manuals written by some members of the board, President Hinckley read a letter signed by Milton Bennion and George R. Hill Jr., and other leaders of the then-Deseret Sunday School Union.

" 'To our successors in the Deseret Sunday School Union — greetings. It is hoped that the 50 years that now separate us will bring to you and the world far greater conformity to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ than now prevails throughout the world,' " he read.

"I was a member of the Sunday School general board for nine years," President Hinckley said while perusing the 1849-1949 centennial scrapbook. "Two years after returning from my mission I was made a member. I think Wendell J. Ashton and I were the two youngest men ever appointed to the Sunday School board.

"There's my picture right there," he said, spotting his picture. "I looked wiser [then] than I feel now," he said to the delight of the approximately 500 in the audience that included General Authorities; family of former board members; and descendants of Richard Ballantyne, organizer of the first Sunday School in the Salt Lake Valley in 1849.

"There is the First Presidency of the time," President Hinckley continued. "Members of the Twelve . . . and others. They all look so young. Now, they're all gone.

"This is a book of memories which brings back recollections of a great institution, which was established in 1849 . . . and which has blessed the Church ever since."

President Hinckley then pulled a 16-inch phonograph record from the chest that included the recording of several conference addresses, including an address by Nellie Kuhn in the April 1949 Sunday School Conference where she extolled the leadership of Lorenzo Snow.

The record also included a recording of President George Albert Smith recounting a lesson taught to him in Sunday School. President Hinckley handed the record over to be played on a phonograph preserved by the Church historical department that was typical of the day.

The vigorous voice of President Smith was heard over the scratchy background of the record. He explained how he was about 15 years old when he was taught that one day he would be held accountable for his thoughts. "I didn't want to be held accountable," he said. "Thoughts just came and went."

He told how over the years he learned that "of course, I would be held accountable for the things I think, because I will be the sum of my thoughts when my life is complete. I can control my thoughts," he concluded.

"This is a wonderful thing," President Hinckley said, returning to the contents of the box. "This box is filled with memories and my own recollections of those very happy days when I served as a member of the general board."

The 1949 centennial box was created out of 39 different woods sent from missions around the world. Elder Hillam in his opening comments said, "My initial reaction when I learned that the request was sent through the missions, was 'Why did they not ask the stakes to respond to the request?'

"The answer was quick and obvious," he continued. "With the exception of two stakes just over the border in Canada, and one stake in the colonies of Mexico, there were no stakes outside the United States in 1949.

"We note changes that have taken place in the last 50 years," Elder Hillam said. "The number of stakes has grown from 175 stakes in 1949 to 2,515 today. And 1,227 are outside the U.S. — almost half."

Elder Hillam recounted comments made by President Smith during the Oct. 2, 1949, Sunday School Conference. " 'I watched with great interest while they were filling the centennial box. I understand that when it is sealed it will not be opened for 50 years. I'm telling you that I would like to be present when that box is opened.' "

Then, turning to then-Superintendent George R. Hill Jr., he said, " 'If you are around, I hope you will see that I have an invitation.' "

The 1949 centennial box was the second time capsule created by the General Sunday School of the Church. The first time capsule was created as part of the celebrations held during the jubilee year of the Sunday School in 1899. The jubilee box was closed that year and then opened in 1949.

The third time capsule, the sesquicentennial box of 1999, currently under construction, will be opened in the year 2049. It will be closed in ceremonies sometime around this year's October general conference.

The sesquicentennial box is actually a 28-inch sphere in the shape of the world. It is being created out of titanium by engineering students at BYU in a project commissioned by the General Sunday School.

After it is sealed in October, it will be placed on a granite monument to be on display in the south lobby of the Church Office Building.

Back in 1949, "1999 seemed so distant then," said Sister Aldous after the opening of the 1949 centennial chest. "Memories flooded back as the lid was lifted. I don't remember the hard work, just the lovely experiences. I don't know how I had time to write three manuals for the Junior Sunday School while raising two boys."

Other surviving members of the 1949 board include Vernon J. LeeMaster, Lorna Call Alder, Wilford M. Burton and Melba Glade.