Remarkable international development characterized the 1980s, a decade that saw the Church sail intrepidly into unchartered waters.
In the 1980s, smaller temples were erected distant from Church headquarters, strengthening LDS populations in those areas. Church administration was decentralized, providing General Authority area presidencies with significant decision-making responsibilities to 13 areas of the world. And the fearful spectre of Soviet communism dissolved, paving the way for missionary work in the Eastern bloc nations.
The Church also entered such nations as Bangladesh, Belize, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and the Solomon Islands during the 1980s.
The decade that began with 4 million members being introduced to the Consolidated Meeting Schedule, a move to conserve family and Church resources, ended with 6.8 million members, many of whom made significant contributions for humanitarian needs in far corners of the world.
These were heady years as BYU's football team won a national championship, Sharlene Wells of Utah, daughter of a General Authority, was named Miss America, U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited a Church cannery in Ogden, Utah, the president and premier of the People's Republic of China visited the Church's Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii on separate occasions, and Church leaders met with the British Prime Minister and mingled with a former Prime Minister during the sesquicentennial of the Church in the British Isles. Indeed, a national Gallup Poll showed that 70 percent of Americans then had a favorable view of Church members.
Missionary work, reflecting in the glow of public approval, gained significant increases in both the number of missionaries serving and conversions, beginning the 1980s with about 30,000 missionaries and 211,000 converts and emerging at year-end 1989 with 40,000 missionaries and 318,000 converts. During this time-span, direct gospel messages through the media bolstered the work in the United States.
The changes of the 1980s began dramatically with a First Presidency announcement Feb. 1, 1980, that weekly meetings would be reduced to a three-hour block on Sunday.
Richard Seemann was president of the Superior Branch, Missoula Montana Stake, in 1980 when the change was announced. At that time, he said, members of the branch drove up to 40 miles to attend sacrament meetings and Sunday School, and week-day Primary and Relief Society meetings. The branch struggled with attendance, but after the consolidation of meetings, attendance improved.
"I work 10-hour day shifts and this schedule gives me time on Sunday to visit the hospital, do home teaching and look in on those people who need to be visited," he said.
Two months later the First Presidency announced another dramatic development: Seven smaller temples would be built in mostly international areas.
The First Presidency stated: "It is our intention to provide temples as close as practicable to where the members reside. The temples will be of a quality that will be pleasing to all and at a cost that will not be burdensome for members to bear. . . ." At that time, there were 17 operating temples in the Church, four of which were outside the United States and Canada.
Henry A. Haurand, then international construction manager for the Church, noted that in 1981 when the Jordan River Temple was completed, the Church had 20 temples.
"In 1983, we dedicated six temples, in 1984, six temples, in 1985, five temples and in 1986, we dedicated three temples," said Brother Haurand. "We doubled the number of temples in four years, and President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated 18 of the 20 temples." Sixteen of the new temples were in countries outside the United States.
Brother Haurand and his family moved to Europe to supervise the construction of the Stockholm, Freiberg and Frankfurt temples. The members in what was then the German Democratic Republic "were thrilled" to have a temple, he said, but noted that members have a similar response wherever new temples are announced. The temple in Freiberg was small, only 7,840 square feet — not as large as many of the smaller temples being constructed today — a third the size of the Frankfurt temple, he observed.
Ten years after the Frankfurt temple was dedicated, Brother Haurand was called back to Germany with his wife, Margarethe, this time to be president of the temple he had helped construct. He saw first-hand the impact of the temple on the lives of members in the temple district.
"The Frankfurt Temple was not only for Germany, but also for the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the northern half of France, and other countries," he said. "Remember, some of these countries had been at war against each other and even though the war had ended more than 40 years earlier, there were still some very strong feelings. Those feelings can be easily understood if their father or brother had been killed in the war. We had wonderful experiences in the temple where some people broke down and wept and got rid of those feelings."
Brother Haurand said, "It is my opinion that the only way peace will finally come among the nations, and the feelings of resentment dissolved, is through the gospel of Jesus Christ," and that temples may play a part in that.
Temple work received another boost in the 1980s as hundreds of thousands of members completed and turned in family four-generation charts to the Family History Department. These became the basis for Ancestral File, a family linked database with millions of names. The Family History Department kept pace with the times by developing computer software to assist in temple work and reached another milestone in mid-1987 when the last card in the Family History card catalog was computerized. Marking the increase in temple work, the Church reached the milestone of 100 million endowments in mid-1988.
At the same conference where the announcement of seven temples was made — the Sesquicentennial of the Church — a satellite was used to connect two portions of conference. One was at the Tabernacle and the other in Fayette, N.Y., where President Spencer W. Kimball spoke at the restored cabin where the first Church meeting was held 150 years earlier.
Bruce Hough, then director of satellite communications, commented in 1980 on the possibility of a Church satellite system. The potential "is mind boggling," he said. "All sessions of general conference could someday be within the reach of every member in the United States, for example."
Some 18 months later, just such a network was announced, one that has fulfilled Brother Hough's hope to the letter.
As 1984 ended, the news media of the world focused on a famine in Eastern Africa. This famine affected millions and the media presented the throngs of victims graphically, their dark eyes staring helplessly from shrunken bodies. It was typical media coverage of a catastrophic event. But this famine was different; now the Church had members in nearby areas of Africa, as well as resources to apply. A special fast was held Jan. 27, 1985, that was wholly designated toward African famine relief. Members eagerly participated and some $6.8 million was raised.
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, accompanied by Elder Glenn L. Pace, then managing director of Welfare Services and shortly called to be second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, traveled to the desiccated land and observed firsthand the starvation and deaths by famine. It was a traumatic, deeply moving experience for them. It was traumatic also for the Church, which looked through their eyes.
The visit to Africa "changed my life," Elder Ballard said at the time. "I will never be the same." He described relief workers bringing people back to life. "You see barrels of rice and lines of children as far as you can see, just as courteous as can be."
Brother Pace described children clinging to them, thinking they were doctors. "We felt very inadequate," he said.
In a later conference address, he observed that while poverty is relative, "There is a state of human misery below which no Latter-day Saint should descend while others are living in abundance. Can some of us be content living their affluent lifestyles while others cannot afford chlorine to purify their water? Can we ignore the most basic temporal needs of our brothers and sisters and still profess belief in President Joseph F. Smith's statement that 'a religion that has not the power to save people temporally. . . . cannot be depended upon to save them spiritually?' " (April conference, 1986.)
While quietly contributing to alleviate such troubles of the world's people for many years, the Church from that time forward began to openly give millions in cash and commodities to the suffering of the world, whether beset by famine, war, or natural disaster.
On Nov. 5, 1985, President Spencer W. Kimball died in his apartment at age 90, having served as president for about 12 years and a General Authority for 42 years. He was succeeded by President Ezra Taft Benson, a man who had served as a General Authority for a like number of years and who had vast experience as a Church leader. President Benson emphasized the Book of Mormon, and encouraged members "to make the study of this book a lifetime pursuit" and to "flood the earth" with the inspired volume. Through President Benson's efforts, the Book of Mormon increased in circulation from 1.3 million books printed in 1980 in 35 languages to more than 3 million in 1989 and printed in 81 languages.
But perhaps the most dramatic advance of the Church in the 1980s was made in Eastern Europe. President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, was well acquainted with the situation in East Germany. In a Church News interview for an earlier article, President Monson related his experiences in East Germany:
"One of my assignments as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and later as a member of the First Presidency pertained to work behind what was known as the Iron Curtain, in the German Democratic Republic, around East Germany," he said. "Our members were true and firm in their resolve to live their religion. It was not always easy. There were many restrictions with which they had to cope. I observed that the Lord's handiwork in His own time brought to pass the real miracle."
He said that the miracle began in the early 1980s.
"The way was opened for our people to receive more training and material. Buildings were permitted, including chapels, large and small, and ultimately a temple of the Lord. Government relations turned from a hindrance to cooperation. Finally the Freiberg Temple held its open house prior to its dedication. More than 89,000 people stood in line, sometimes up to two or three hours, sometimes in the rain, just to have the opportunity to go into what would become the House of the Lord. The vast majority were not members of the Church. When the temple was dedicated, our people were so eager to go into the House of the Lord that reservations actually had to be made to participate in an endowment session.
"Spirituality exemplified by the membership was like water stored behind a dam. The real converts streamed forth hungry for the truth. Great faith had been exercised and truly faith did precede the miracle. There is no doubt in my mind that the Lord in His own way answered the prayers of His people and brought to them a temple."
President Monson noted that from the German Democratic Republic, the work spread to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and other nations.
"The Church is now strong and growing within their boundaries," said President Monson.