In many ways, the 1950s was the hinge upon which the century turned.
The decade began with the showing of the Lone Ranger on a gray and snowy television screen, and ended in the showing of space age rockets in color; the 10-year period covered big band crooning to jitterbugging and rock 'n roll; from young women wearing saddle oxfords to young men in pink shirts and ties; and almost everyone swiveling in hula hoops.
It became a decade of design opulence: some people bought a new, chrome-laden car each year. In 1957, the year of the first space rocket, the Russian Sputnik, automobiles sprouted tail fins like rockets. Some cars were even painted in three colors.
The decade began with McCarthyism, but gave way to a struggle for school integration.
Within this context, the 1950s brought permanent change to the growth rate, demographics and public profile of the Church. Annual conversions jumped from 16,000 in 1949 to 33,000 in 1959, as the Church expanded internationally and became known in a more positive way.
During the 1950s, youth took part in drama and dance festivals, attended firesides on the "Be Honest With Yourself" theme and were eager observers of Churchwide softball and basketball tournaments. Welfare projects expanded and reports and awards were emphasized. Where members had scattered across the nation during World War II and held home Sunday Schools in the 1940s, in the 1950s they had branches and building fund drives. The new meetinghouses they would erect would establish the Church as an integral part of their local communities.
Yet, perhaps the greatest impact upon the decade was made by the specter of atomic warfare that pressed sensible people to construct bomb shelters in their backyards. The confrontation between the nations of the East and West, dubbed the "Cold War," heightened the national anxiety level, and had an impact on Church members. This anxiety was prodded and provoked many times during the 1950s, with such developments as the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental missiles.
A real war began June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea and soon captured Seoul. The fledgling United Nations responded with its first military action, sending mostly U.S. troops to protect South Korea. Among these troops were thousands of LDS servicemen. In August of 1950, the Church Servicemen's Committee pleaded for support of Church members in the armed forces. Within the next three years, more than 2,500 members were involved in active duty on bases in Asia. Many others served in the United States. Considerable efforts were made to supply these men and women with the Church News, Church magazines and other materials. LDS chaplains also gathered the Church members in the military for meetings.
Among the LDS servicemen in Asia was J. Rulon Teerlink of the East Millcreek 16th Ward, Salt Lake East Millcreek North Stake. He had just returned from the East Central States Mission when he was drafted and sent to Seoul, Korea.
"Religious retreats" as the Armed Forces called them, or conferences, as the Church called them, were a great support to those in the trenches, he said. "We had servicemen who came off the front line in the morning, attended our meetings during the day, and were back up on the line at night."
The later growth of the Church in Korea was not surprising to him. "I felt there were some good people there," he said. "It was a case of being able to begin to teach them, and the servicemen opened that door, and not long after that, things really started to happen."
At home, Church leaders were deeply concerned that the 43 missions (including the new West Central States Mission created in 1950) then operating, which had a complement of 3,000 missionaries at the end of 1949, would soon be understaffed. Their fears were realized as the number of missionaries called in 1952 dropped, because of the Korean War, to 872, the lowest number for a single year since World War II.
On July 20, 1951, just three months after the death of President George Albert Smith, the new leader, President David O. McKay, and the First Presidency issued a letter, noting, "our proselyting force is rapidly diminishing." The letter requested 1,000 members of seventies quorums, who were older, married men, to stand in for those being called to serve in the Korean conflict. They also encouraged those returning from Korea to serve missions as had their counterparts returning from World War II.
A milestone in missionary work followed on April 4, 1952, at a special missionary meeting held the day before general conference. In this meeting, it was announced that standard missionary lessons would be used by all missionaries in all missions. These standard missionary plans, which were largely written by the executive secretary of the Missionary Committee, Gordon B. Hinckley, led to a substantial increase in convert baptisms.
Illustrative of this, in 1951, some 17,175 converts were baptized by 5,065 missionaries. In 1953, with a missionary force reduced by nearly half at 2,742, the total of converts was still 16,436. (Conference Reports, April 1952 and 1954.)
The increase of missionary work in the decade also included the opening of the South Australian, Northern Far East and Southern Far East missions, all created in 1955; the Northern Mexican Mission, created in 1956; the West Spanish-American and New Zealand South missions, both created in 1958; and the Brazilian South, South German, and Andes missions, all created in 1959. At year-end 1959, some 5,500 full-time missionaries were serving, baptizing a total of 33,060 converts.
When the decade began, membership was about 1 million members. During the 10-year period, the Church grew about half a million members to 1.5 million. One of the reasons for this was the continued emphasis on missionary work by President McKay.
In the April 1959 general conference, President McKay declared what became a well-used slogan in the Church: "Somebody will hear the good message of the truth through you. And that is the message today. Every member — a million and a half — a missionary!"
During the 1950s, many new countries, such as Paraguay, Hong Kong, Honduras, Peru, Chile and Austria, were opened to missionary work.
"It was always a pleasure when we learned that another country had given recognition to the Church so they could expand the missionary program," said Nola Alleman, a secretary in the offices of the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency for nearly 40 years, from 1954-94. She came to work for the Church after serving a mission in Switzerland.
"When I was in the mission field I was assigned to a branch to increase membership. Then I was called into the mission home, and my interest expanded from the branch to the mission. After the mission I went to work in the Church offices and my horizons were again expanded and the whole Church became my interest. What a change it was to move from a small branch up to the headquarters of the Church, watching it grow!"
In the 1950s, she said, the offices of First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, Assistants to the Twelve, as well as the First Council of the Seventy, Presiding Bishopric, Missionary Department and Membership Department were all housed on the five floors of the Church Administration Building at 47 E. South Temple in Salt Lake City.
"Everyone knew everyone else; it was like a big family," she said. "There was no Church security. If someone wanted to come into the Church office, they'd come right on in and wander wherever he or she wanted to go, and many did."
Communications in the mid-1950s were slow, she said. "We would send a letter and wait for a reply, eight to ten days from Europe. If there was an emergency then, yes, we would place a phone call. But phone calls were expensive and it wasn't often that we would place phone calls."
When a letter had to be sent to all the stake presidents, she and a receptionist would each take half the stakes and type addresses with their manual typewriters.
"It was quite a project," she said.
She remembers President McKay traveling overseas. Before she was hired, President McKay had traveled to Europe in 1952 where he selected sites for the first two temples in Europe in London, England, and Zurich, Switzerland. A year later he returned and broke ground for the edifice in Switzerland. In 1954, the year Sister Alleman began Church employment, President McKay traveled to England, South Africa, and South and Central America. During this trip a site was approved for a temple in New Zealand. At the same time a temple was being constructed in Los Angeles, Calif.
She remembers that the Tabernacle Choir was sent to Europe for the dedication of the Swiss Temple on Sept. 11, 1955. This temple was the first in which a film was used and multiple languages were provided for people of various nationalities.
Even though the choir won great attention for the Church, it was decided that in the future, local choirs would sing at temple dedications so the Church would not have to bear the expense of transporting the Tabernacle Choir to every temple dedication, she said.
However, the choir continued to distinguish itself and went into the recording field to become more self-supporting. One of its most popular records was "Battle Hymn of the Republic," for which it won a Grammy award on Nov. 29, 1959.
The dedication of the Church's 10th temple in Los Angeles on March 11, 1956, "was a really big deal," Sister Alleman said. Before the dedication, some 650,000 visitors toured the imposing building that overlooked a major boulevard near the center of the world motion picture industry.
During the 1950s, education was also emphasized. Enrollment in seminaries, institutes of religion, and at BYU, doubled. Seminary and institute enrollment grew from 31,000 in 1950 to 67,000 in 1960, and BYU enrollment grew from 4,900 in 1950 to 10,200 in 1960.
Another development that brought the Church into the public eye during much of the decade began in 1952 when U.S. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve to be Secretary of Agriculture. Although Elder Benson tried to talk the nation's leader out of the appointment, "Ike" responded: "A good part of America's problems are spiritual — you can't refuse to serve America."
Elder Benson accepted and was immediately known as a Mormon. He served for eight years, often the center of political controversy as he stuck to his principles in a very political setting.
"His philosophy was that it isn't good for government to do for people what they can and should do for themselves," said his eldest son, Reed A. Benson, retired and part-time professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
Twice Elder Benson's picture was on the cover of Time magazine. By the time his tenure was over, he had become a nationally recognized figure.
His son, who stood alongside him during stormy times, observed: "The ripples of that ministry we'll never know until the next life, but it brought the Church front and center in a way never before. If anyone ever analyzed the media, it would show that the most favorable publicity that came to the Church in an eight-year period, came during that period of time."
One of the first headlines the apostle-Cabinet member made was when he asked that all Cabinet meetings begin with prayer. Brother Benson also recalled that his family was featured on the then-popular Edward R. Murrow nationally televised show. The program included a 12-minute segment showing the Benson family in home evening. That segment produced "more fan mail than any show Murrow had produced," said Brother Benson.
"Each one of us was kind of briefed to say something that would strengthen the family, or tell about our missionary efforts," recalled Brother Benson. "Then we sang, 'Love at Home,' and a trio of the Benson girls sang, with the fourth girl accompanying. Then Beth did a little tap dance with an umbrella."
Brother Benson told of the visit to the United States in 1959 of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In a shuffle of cars following a visit to an agricultural site, young Reed found himself in a chauffeured limousine with Mrs. Khrushchev; Mrs. Andrei Gromyko, wife of the foreign minister; and Alexei Adzhubei, the editor of Izvestia; the Soviet news service. He told them about the Book of Mormon and the Restoration.
"For 45 minutes, I had a captive audience," he said. His father later presented copies of the Book of Mormon to the group. The editor of Isvestia related years afterward that he had been touched by the Mormons and their philosophy of life, said Brother Benson.
At the end of his service, Elder Benson turned nearly 9,000 names of associates over to the Missionary Department as referrals. One of these was Kenneth Leroy Scott, the late father of Elder Richard G. Scott, now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
In some ways, the 1950s ended as they began with heightened anxiety in the Cold War as Fidel Castro moved Soviet influence in Cuba ever nearer to the United States. But in other ways, especially for the Church, the 1950s closed a door on the obscurity of the past that would never be re-opened. Never again would the Church be looked upon as a small organization located mostly in the Mountain West. Never again would it be seen as a minor influence. Nor would its missionary program and growth rate ever again be described in small numbers.
The 1950s was a decade that carried the Church to new thresholds of opportunity.