Church News turns 90 — Here’s a look back on nine decades of covering leaders, members and events

On April 3, 1931, a notice ran on the front page of the Deseret News announcing a new Church Section where readers could find news relating to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conveniently collected.

It’s an idea first thought of in 1856 when Deseret News editor Albert Carrington suggested a second newspaper in order to separate religious and secular news. However, it took 75 years before Henry A. Smith helped make it a reality.

On April 4, 1931, the first day of the 101st Annual General Conference and the day before Easter, the Church Section was first published, featuring a drawing of the Resurrected Savior among the Nephites accompanying an article written by Elder B. H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of the Seventy and assistant Church historian.

Ninety years have passed since that first Church Section was published. In that time, it underwent a few name changes before settling on “Church News,” expanded in size, added room for more photos, went from black and white to color, began covering stories from Church members around the world, started publishing in Spanish and Portuguese in addition to English, and added additional products like the Church News Almanac and the Church News podcast. It is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Because of the collective work of many, many writers and editors over the past nine decades, this week we celebrate 90 years of the Church News.

The purpose of the Church News

In 2018 when the Church News was last significantly redesigned, the tagline “A Living Record of the Restoration” was added.

Sarah Jane Weaver, who has been editor of the Church News since 2017, explained what it means for the Church News to be a living record of the Restoration. “To me it is two parts: to create a living record of the Restoration and to connect members to the Restoration — we want them to feel a part of this ongoing Restoration.”

Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver interviews President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the 110th NAACP convention in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver interviews President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the 110th NAACP convention in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Church News provides a link that connects members to Church headquarters, Church leaders and significant Church events, as well as to one another, she said. “We want them to feel like the Church News makes them part of this large, wonderful Church community. We often say that the Church News is a window to the Church. And we want people to peer through the window and be able to see the Church and all the good it does in so many ways.”

The Church News has covered many historic Church events such as temple dedications, the aftermath of natural disasters affecting Church members and the travels of Church leaders as they minister to members all over the world.

“There are so many things that happen in the Church that connect us that not just become a piece of history, but we want members to connect to history right now and look at how the Restoration is impacting their lives today, how it makes life better for them today and for other members of the Church.”

Although the Church News bears a new tagline, its purpose has largely remained the same through its 90-year lifespan.

Timeline: Notable events in the 90-year history of the Church News

In 1931, the Church Section was advertised as a gathering of “All subject matter pertaining to doctrine, church news and activities, and other items of interest to those who care for that type of reading … .”

The Church News “aims to be a strength to every reader,” Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who wrote editorials for the Church News for over 50 years beginning in 1943, stated in the Sept. 19, 1981, issue of the Church News. “It strives to be a voice in building faith and integrity and in being a wholesome asset to every home.”

Dell Van Orden was the Church News editor from 1976 to 1999.
Dell Van Orden was the Church News editor from 1976 to 1999. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dell Van Orden, editor of the Church News from 1976 to 1999, said, “The Church News, in my opinion, has been a witness and the window of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 90 years and has informed, strengthened and uplifted the members of the Church through its pages.” 

Of his focus as Church News editor, he said, “I wanted the paper to be able to touch the lives of the readers.” Van Orden didn’t want to just inform readers of what the Apostles and Prophets were doing or saying. “I wanted to be able to have written by the staff the fruits of the gospel so they could touch [readers’] lives, they could make a difference in their lives.”

Van Orden also ensured that the Church News staff periodically reported on stories happening all over the globe, assigning each staff member different parts of the world to cover.

“We’re a worldwide Church and the Church News is a worldwide publication,” he said.

Gerry Avant, Church News editor from 1999 to 2017, said her goal was to “carry on the foundation that had already been laid.”  

After dedicating the Hong Kong Temple May 26-27, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Sister Marjorie Hinckley, visited Shenzhen, China, a “sister cultural center” to the Church’s Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. A burst of confetti added to the festive welcome they received. It was the first time a Church President visited mainland China. Photo by Gerry Avant.
After dedicating the Hong Kong Temple May 26-27, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Sister Marjorie Hinckley, visited Shenzhen, China, a “sister cultural center” to the Church’s Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. A burst of confetti added to the festive welcome they received. It was the first time a Church President visited mainland China. Photo by Gerry Avant. Credit: Gerry Avant, Church News

Avant wrote in an email: “The Church News has been and continues to be a record of the Church, its leaders and members. Over the years we’ve documented accounts of Prophets and Apostles and other leaders as well as members throughout the world whose stories lift spirits, exemplify discipleship and testify of Jesus Christ and His gospel.”

She remarked that in the past, the Church News was crucial to Church members learning about new policies and programs. “Before the emergence of laptops, the internet, cellphones with digital photo capacity, I was acutely aware that, at times, I was the only reporter/photographer on the scene to report in a timely manner the news of the Church, and that my articles and photos would make their way into the historical record of the Church,” Avant wrote.

“In those days, the Church News was the quickest method for members to learn of events, including area conferences, temple dedications, announcements of new programs, the travels and activities of Church leaders and other newsworthy happenings.”

Behind the scenes with Church leaders, members

Since joining the Church News in 1995, Weaver has followed and reported on the ministries of three prophets: President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Thomas S. Monson and now, President Russell M. Nelson. In 2018 and 2019, she traveled with President Nelson as he visited 35 nations, as well as many cities in the United States and Canada.

“It is always remarkable to watch members respond to a visit from a prophet, to see what happens when a prophet enters their land, and blesses their lives and testifies of the Savior,” Weaver said.

While working for the Church News, “I have learned how sweet, compassionate, caring, humble, grateful and committed the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are,” she said. This applies to every leader from the President of the Church down to local leaders.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Sister Katherine Christofferson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Sister Katherine Christofferson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Recently while covering President Nelson in Vietnam, she learned an interesting lesson about Church members from Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. While Church members often make up a small part of a given population, he said, they act as leaven in the loaf and give rise to their communities.

“As we document the living record of the Restoration and the ministry of the leaders and the good works of the people, we discover that the Church is leaven in this world loaf and that it gives everything a little lift. It makes things just a little better,” Weaver said.

Avant has had many remarkable experiences traveling with presidents of the Church and other Church leaders as she reported on conferences and temple dedications. But just as powerful an experience was witnessing the faith of Church members. “Sometimes I was just astounded at what they would do in order to be active and to live the gospel,” she said.

President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, and Keith B. McMullin, president and CEO of Deseret Management Corp., right, present Gerry Avant, retiring editor of the Church News, center, with a letter from the First Presidency at Avant's retirement party at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 27, 2017.
President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, and Keith B. McMullin, president and CEO of Deseret Management Corp., right, present Gerry Avant, retiring editor of the Church News, center, with a letter from the First Presidency at Avant’s retirement party at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

General Authorities and general organization leaders of the Church receive an extra boost from the Lord — “more so than what I would have,” Avant said. “There have been times that I have been so tired, that I could hardly even stand up. And here’s a prophet who’s 80-something years old and he’s getting out of his bed at the hotel in order to go back down to the hotel ballroom to meet with a group of people on a bus who were coming for a conference that was being held in this hotel; their bus broke down.”

She recalled that President Spencer W. Kimball got out of bed, got dressed and went down to meet these faithful members who had gone the extra mile, spending their life savings to meet the Prophet. “Would I spend my life savings to get on a bus or on a boat or on a plane in order to do what these people have done?” she asked herself.

“I’ve just been tremendously impressed,” Avant said. Many of the faith-promoting stories she’s covered took place not with the General Authorities, “but with these members that I have met here and there.”

One of Van Orden’s most powerful experiences working for the Church News came while covering President Spencer W. Kimball’s visit to the Holy Land. While on Mt. Tabor — the traditional site of Jesus Christ’s transfiguration — President Kimball said: “This is why we came here. This is the highest point on earth.”

“When I heard President Kimball say that, tears came into my eyes and I felt I was on holy ground.”

President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, at the Peter Whitmer Sr. Farmhouse in Fayette, New York, in 1980 for the sesquicentennial of the Restoration. Church News editor Dell Van Orden reported that nearly 30 television and newspaper reporters and photographers covered the event.
President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, at the Peter Whitmer Sr. Farmhouse in Fayette, New York, in 1980 for the sesquicentennial of the Restoration. Church News editor Dell Van Orden reported that nearly 30 television and newspaper reporters and photographers covered the event. Credit: Intellectual Reserve

He also accompanied President Kimball to area conferences where he would shake hands with everyone there. “That was a monumental task,” Van Orden said. “[President Kimball] shook hands with so many people because he enjoyed it. He enjoyed meeting the people.”

Van Orden’s travels for the Church News took him to 45 countries on six continents. One of the things that moved him spiritually was meeting the people who attended the area conferences he covered.

For instance, he went to the home of a Church member in Mexico. “They were gracious and they invited me to eat with them, invited me to spend time with them,” Van Orden said. “It was an extremely special experience. And to know that this is now a worldwide Church with people all over on every continent who are affected by the messages of the prophets.”

John Hart, who worked as a Church News reporter between 1977 and 2003, said, “One of the things that I have learned behind the scenes is that the people who are employed by the Church, by and large, are very dedicated, wonderful people.”

Former Deseret News and ChurchNews staffer John Hart os photographed on Jan 22, 2003.
Former Deseret News and ChurchNews staffer John Hart os photographed on Jan 22, 2003. Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

One of the lasting blessings or memories Hart has from working for the Church News “is the people that I met all around the world,” he said. “I met them in Tasmania, I met them in Kenya, I met them in Canada, I met them in the South Pacific, I met them in Latin America.” There was a special unity that he felt with the Church members wherever he went.

“There are so many people who helped me, and I could never say thank you to all of them. I would, I would like to because I remember them, they’re special to me, and I appreciate all that they did.”

Looking forward

“I think it’s very remarkable for any enterprise to stay in business for 90 years,” Van Orden said. “As we commemorate this outstanding achievement, I think it’s important that we remember those who came before us. They laid the foundation for the Church News.”

Weaver said, “The Church News has a bright and strong and vibrant future because we have a mission to amplify the words of leaders and to report the good works of members.” The Church News plans to do that through multiple mediums. “You’re going to see more Church News videos and more Church News podcasts, and more opportunities to connect with Latter-day Saints through text message and email and through our website.”

President Nelson has used this phrase often in regards to the Church, and Weaver applies it now to the Church News: “The best is yet to come.”