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How the Mormon Tabernacle Choir changed the Church's role in Russia

“There’s more to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert tour than meets the ear. Much of what makes the choir great touches the heart and soul.”

With those sentences, I began one of several reports on the choir’s 1991 tour to eight European countries June 8-29. In past years, the choir had performed in three of those countries: Germany, France and Switzerland. Five were new for the choir: Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia.

I had traveled in Europe but had never been to the four “Iron Curtain” countries of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia. When Dell Van Orden, then Church News editor, assigned me to cover that tour and I saw the itinerary, I immediately thought of President Spencer W. Kimball’s announcement of a “prayer campaign” in which he asked all Latter-day Saints to join “in a serious continuous petition to the Lord to open the gates of the nations and soften the hearts of the kings and the rulers to the end that missionaries may enter all the lands and teach the gospel in the approved way” (Ensign, October 1975, p. 70).

Members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir went on that 1991 tour not just as singers but also as missionaries. Along with learning the songs, anthems, hymns and classical music for their concerts, they also learned some basic phrases in the languages of the countries on their tour. They made friends, many of whom joined the Church.

President Russell M. Nelson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, traveled with the choir — and his wife, Sister Dantzel Nelson, one of the singers — on its tour to central and eastern Europe.

In a fireside address during the tour, then-Elder Nelson explained how, many centuries before Jesus was born, the star that was to appear at Bethlehem had to be positioned so when the proper time and place were ready the star would shine over the place of the birth of the Savior of the world.

He described the tour as “part of the Lord’s plan to preach the gospel to the people of the world.” He said the First Presidency and Wendell Smoot, then president of the choir, planned the tour “years ago, well before the crumbling of communism, well before the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. They even had the boldness to conceive the idea that when June 1991 came around, the choir would sing in Moscow, Russia. All that time, religion was not so well considered throughout the then-Soviet Union. But the ‘star’ was put in place so that six days after the first Russian election in a thousand years, the Tabernacle Choir would sing in Moscow.”

After the choir performed in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on June 24, 1991, Alexander Rutskoi, vice president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, announced that the republic had granted official recognition to the Church. The recognition gave the Church a legal voice to make requests to various ministries of the Russian government. The announcement was the high point of the choir’s eight-country European tour.

Despite the hurried pace and little sleep on the schedule for 10 concerts in eight countries in 22 days, choir members remained exuberant and enthused. One choir member, Lorraine Jones, told me, “This is just like being on a mission. There’s a spirit of service among us.”

I have retired from full-time employment, so someone else from the Church News staff will go with the choir on its “2018 Classic Coast Tour” to California, Washington, and Vancouver in British Columbia June 19-July 2. I traveled with the choir on all its tours from 1991-2013. I plan to deal with a huge case of nostalgia by writing about some of those tours in future columns.

For information about this year’s tour, go to mormontabernaclechoir.org and the Church News online and in print.

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