20 Significant Milestones in 175 Years of Church History

This article is in two parts.  Part 1 is below.

It’s been 175 years ago since the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, in a 20 x 20-foot room in the log cabin of the Peter and Mary Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York.  The 50 or so who came to the meeting were taught that the date was significant, being 1830 years since the very date of the birth of Christ.

They must have had another sense as well — that from this small, obscure gathering this kingdom would roll forth, like the stone cut without hands described in Daniel, to fill the whole earth. Could they have imagined how many millions, and then billions will be influenced by this event?    

New York law required at least three and no more than nine members to found a religious organization.  Six were chosen:  Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Hyrum Smith, Samuel H. Smith and Peter Whitmer Jr.

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were accepted and sustained as the first elders of the newly formed Church.   The sacrament was passed, members were confirmed by the laying on of hands, and the Holy Ghost was poured out in a miraculous manner.  Many prophesied, spiritual gifts were poured out upon them, and some declared that the heavens were opened unto them and they saw Jesus Christ sitting on the right hand of God.

For Joseph, it was a cause for personal swellings.  His mother Lucy wrote of the occasion, “My husband and Martin Harris were baptized.  Joseph stood on the shore when his father came out of the water, and he took him by the hand and cried out, “Praise to my God!  I have lived to see my own father baptized into the true Church of Jesus Christ,” and covered his face in his father’s bosom and wept aloud for joy as did Joseph of old when he beheld his father coming up into the land of Egypt.” [i]

To commemorate the day, Meridian is highlighting 20 significant events from Church history, chosen because of their broad impact on doctrine, members or the church organization.  We set some ground rules.  All of the events occurred after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.  If we had included his time period, we couldn’t have condensed it to twenty.

We tried to stop with ten events — but too much has happened of transcendent importance and organizational development.  Some of you may find important milestones missing.  We may have skipped something of great import.  We invite you to submit your ideas to join these twenty significant moments or movements in Church history.  But you’ll have to explain yourself.  So here are our picks.  We look forward to hearing from you about yours.

Dedication of the Nauvoo Temple ? 1846

When Joseph died, the temple was only one story high.  Only eleven months later, in May of 1845, a people eager for their temple ordinances and bound to show themselves that truth would prevail were ready to place the capstone. As persecutions grew around Nauvoo, work on the temple intensified.  In what must have been a poignant scene, in the fall of 1845, two kinds of building projects dominated Nauvoo — the building of the magnificent white and gold temple and the constructing of wagons which they would use to roll away and abandon it.

Why work so hard on a temple they would leave behind and never see again?  The temple, with its inscription “Holiness to the Lord,” was the symbol of their faith and their sacrifice.  When the rooms opened on December 19, 1845, they flocked to the temple for the sacred ordinances.  In January, Brigham Young wrote, “Such has been the anxiety manifested by the saints to receive the ordinances, and such the anxiety on our part to administer to them, that I have given myself up entirely to the work of the Lord in the Temple night and day, not taking more than four hours sleep upon an average per day, and going home but once a week. In all, 5,615 would receive their endowments before they shut the temple doors behind them and turned their faces west.

Though some had received their endowments in the top floor of Joseph Smith’s store in Nauvoo, not until the Nauvoo temple was opened were the ordinances available to the great group of Latter-day Saints.  It was through their covenants that the Saints had the power to make the journey west and stay intact. 

With the Nauvoo temple, Latter-day Saints began to make the saving ordinances the center of their lives. .

The Journey West — 1846-1869

The covered wagon is an apt symbol for the early history of the Church, the Latter-day Saints, driven from their homes and journeying across a wilderness, all the time feeling like they were re-enacting the journey of the Children or Israel and heading toward their own promised land.  For Latter-day Saints, even in this Church of converts, the pioneer who is willing to separate himself from Babylon to find God still resonates deeply.  As one writer said, “Cut us open, and there is the trail.”

In an experience that could have destroyed the Church, but instead only fortified it, pioneers ? pushed out of their homes in winter ? and people speaking a hubbub of languages from countries all across Europe, made a walk to the West and into our psyches. We have rescued the handcarts pioneers of the Martin and Willie companies, caught in the early snows of the Wyoming highlands, a hundred times in our minds.

The pioneers made it, populated a forgotten desert region, and then saved their money through the Perpetual Emigration Fund to finance others on the trek.

The pioneer ended with the completion of the railroad, and at least one of those first pioneers who came as a child across the plains in several weeks flew back in his old age in just a few hours.

Reorganization of the Relief Society ? 1867

In the spring of 1842, women who wanted to sew shirts for the men working on the temple asked Eliza R. Snow to write a constitution.  When she read it to Joseph he replied “that the constitution and by-laws were the best he had ever seen. ‘But,’ he said, ‘this is not what you want.  Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and He has something better for them than a written constitution.” [ii]    He told the sisters to meet in the room over his store the following Thursday afternoon, saying, “I will organize the sisters under the priesthood after a pattern of the priesthood.” [iii]   He further said, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” [iv]

When the Saints left Nauvoo, however, the Relief Society ceased to function, and it wasn’t until 1867 that Brigham Young reorganized the Relief Society, calling Eliza R. Snow as general president.

President Young said, “We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counters, study law or physic, or become good bookkeepers and be about to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large.


[v].

The Relief Society has continued since that time and become the largest women’s organization in the world.

Mutual Improvement Associaton — 1869

In 1869, Brigham Young told his daughters:

“All Israel are looking to my family and watching the example set by my wives and children.  For this reason I desire to organize my own family first into a society for the promotion of habits of order, thrift, industry, and charity; and above all things I desire them to retrench from their extravagance in dress, in eating and even in speech …I am weary of the manner in which our women seek to outdo each other in all the foolish fashions of the world.

“I want you to set your own fashions.  Let your apparel be neat and comely, and the workmanship of your hands.  I have long had it in my mind to organize the young ladies of Zion into an association so that they might assist the older members of the Church, their fathers and mothers, in propagating, teaching, and practicing the principles I have been so long teaching … I wish our girls to obtain a knowledge of the gospel for themselves” [vi]  

And thus, among Brigham Young’s his own daughters was the Mutual Improvement Association born.

Organization of Primary Program ?1878

Several sisters, including Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells, were returning from a Relief Society conference, when they stopped at the home of Aurelia Spencer Rogers.  As they visited, they began to speak of the rough manners of young boys and Aurelia asked, “What will our girls do for good husbands, if this state of things continues?  Could there not be an organization for little boys, and have them trained to make better men.” [vii]

Eliza R. Snow took the matter to Brigham Young, who approved the idea, and as she began organizing, she felt the girls should be included too.  She stood on the steps of the meetinghouse in Farmington, Utah, and watched as the children arrived for that first historic meeting.

Pearl of Great Price Formally Accepted as Scripture ? 1880

At the 1880 October conference, a voice vote was taken and the Pearl of Great Price was formally accepted as scripture.  The Doctrine and Covenants, which had been divided into chapters and verses, was recanonized.  From this point, the Church now had four Standard Works of Scripture.

Manifesto Ending Polygamy ? 1890

In response to the practice of polygamy among the Latter-day Saints, the United States issued the Edmunds Tucker Act that resulted in the confiscation of nearly all Church property and the arrest and jailing of many members of the Church.  During a conference in 1890, President Wilford Woodruff announced that the Lord had instructed the Church to stop practicing polygamy and read the Manifesto.

“After praying to the Lord and feeling inspired, I have issued the following proclamation which is sustained by my counselors and the Twelve Apostles.

“Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.” [viii]

Dedication of the Salt Lake Temple ? 1893

The Salt Lake Temple wasn’t the first temple constructed after Nauvoo, even though the spot for it had been picked by Brigham Young.  On July 28, 1847, he walked with the Twelve, planted his cane in a certain spot, and said, “Here is the 40 acres for the Temple.  The city can be laid out perfectly square, north and south, east and west.” [ix]

Yet, it would take forty years to complete the massive monument, which became the very symbol of Mormonism to the world.  Seventy-five thousand people attended thirty-one dedicatory services over a nineteen-day period.  In his dedicatory address, President Woodruff promised “… the power of the adversary should be broken, … that the enemy would have less power over the Saints and meet with greater failures in oppressing them …a renewed interest in the gospel message would be awakened throughout the world.” [x]

Temple building was and would be the joy and responsibility of the Saints.

Revelation on Tithing ? 1899

Before his death, President Woodruff wrote, “The Presidency of the Church are so overwhelmed in financial matters, it seems as though we shall never live to get through with it unless the Lord opens the way in a miraculous manner.  It looks as though we shall never pay our debts.” [xi]

After President Woodruff’s death, President Lorenzo Snow continued working on the pressing money woes seeking a solution.  Then in the spring of 1899, President Snow received the impression that he should travel to St. George to hold a special conference with the Saints.  They had been experiencing one of the worst droughts in their history, having gone several months without rain.  Wells had dried up and crops had withered.  Starvation seemed imminent.

As President Snow made that journey to St. George, he still did not know the main purpose of his visit.  His son, LeRoi, was serving as clerk and recorded what happened.

“It was during one of these meetings that my father received the renewed revelation on tithing.  I was sitting at a table reporting the proceeding, when all at once my father paused in his discourse.  Complete stillness filled the room.  When he commenced to speak again, his voice was strengthened and the inspiration of God seemed suddenly to come over him, as well as over the entire assembly.

“‘The word of the Lord to you is not anything new.  It is simply this.  The time has come now for every Latter-day Saint who calculates to be prepared for the future and to hold his feet strong upon a proper foundation to do the will of the Lord and to pay his tithing in full.  That is the word of the Lord to you, and it will be the word of the Lord to every settlement throughout the land of Zion.” [xii]

Joseph F. Smith Revelation ? 1918

Near the end of Joseph F. Smith’s life, his physical strength declined and he told the Saints at the 1918 October conference, “I have not lived alone these five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination, and I have had my communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously…” [xiii]

He said:

“On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures:

“And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world…

“As I pondered over these things, which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.

“And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality. (D&C 138: 1,2,11,12)

He described the joy and gladness of those who were about to be delivered and saw how Jesus organized his missionary force.


 

Following the conference, President Smith recorded his vision and nearly 60 years later on April 3, 1976, it was formally accepted and authorized to be included as Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Watch for the next ten events in Part 2, coming tomorrow in Meridian.

An excellent source and overview of Church history is the book  Latter-day History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  by Brian and Petrea Kelly, published by Covenant Communications. It was used as a resource in compiling this article.

 

 


[i] Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, eds. The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City; Bookcraft) p. 223.

[ii] Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, History of Relief Society: 1842-1966 (Salt Lake City:  The General Board of Relief Society, 1966), p. 18

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] John H. Widtsoe, ed.  Discourses of Brigham Young, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co. 1954)  pg. 216/

[vi] Susa Young Gates and Leah D. Widsoe.  Life Story of Brigham Young. (New York:  The MacMillan Co. 1930).

[vii] Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, A Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1982)  p. 256.

[viii] B.H. Roberts. A Comprehensive History of the Church, 6 vols.  (Salt Lake City:  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saings, 1902). Pp. 220-221.

[ix] Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, July 28, 1847.

[x] Matthias Cowley. Wilford Woodruff:  History of His Life and Letters, (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1964) p. 583

[xi] Roberts, 6:352

[xii] Milton R. Hunter, Will a Man Rob God? (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.) p. 55

[xiii] Joseph Fielding Smith. The Life of Joseph F. Smith. (Salt Lake City:  Deseret News Press 1938) p. 466