Although the Church has deep roots in rural areas, it also has long-standing ties with cities and a history of offering strength to those living in centers of population.
Ever since the Church was organized in Fayette, N.Y., on April 6, 1830, it has focused, and continues to focus, on population centers. Early converts were called upon to gather, first at Kirtland, then in Missouri, then Nauvoo and finally the Great Salt Lake Basin.Though these areas were essentially rural and frontier when the saints arrived, the saints' intent was to build a city as soon as possible. The saints enjoyed associating one with another in whatever numbers were practical and found strength together to meet their challenges.
While members were gathering to LDS population centers, missionaries found their efforts succeeded well in cities. Messengers found converts as they attracted crowds in populated centers and discoursed in the most prominent square or halls. Many early converts came from the labor class in industrial metropolitan areas.
Today, the preponderance of stakes have been organized in cities or suburbs. Missionary work is generally done in cities where membership has been established so growth can occur "from centers of strength outward."
Steven L. Olsen, manager of operations for the Museum of Church History and Art, a historian and anthropologist, described the attraction of a typical 19th century industrial city:
"The economics and advantages of industrialization were so strong and compelling that many people put up with its disagreeable aspects," he said. These disagreeable aspects included sanitation problems, the threat of destructive fires and environmental hazards.
"As a result, cities became known as centers of crime and squalor - not very nice places to live."
Despite the reputation of cities of Joseph Smith's day, the Prophet proposed the ideal lifestyle would be in the "City of Zion," explained Olson.
"The ideals of Zion were all urban - not industrial, but urban," he said. The economic and social diversity that is characteristic of cities were ideals [of the ProphetT. Cultural advantages - the arts and education along with flowers and gardens - were also anticipated as part of the ideal environment of Zion.
Brigham Young continued in this pattern. He sought to establish settlements that were "little cities," that had all the advantages of urban living and none of the disadvantages of rural living, said Olson.
"This was done primarily for ecclesiastical reasons. This was a religion for every day . . . and he wanted a whole religious environment. The concept had economic and political consequences, but it was fundamentally religious."
In England in the 1840s and 1850s, converts were primarily biding their time before emigrating, said Dr. Malcolm R. Thorp, a history professor at BYU. Even so, their membership in a branch seemed to be a commitment to help one another. "Meeting together often" offered strength to face trials of life in England's industrial cities.
"Members [in England] believed they were living in Babylon and that the only way out was emigration," he said. As a consequence, no welfare programs were formally established, although members contributed to the Perpetual Emigration Fund, a revolving fund to assist Mormon emigrants.
They did "have a very deep commitment and feeling of charity for those less-fortunate than themselves," he said, noting that their meager contributions to help fellow saints comprised a very real sacrifice. In the 1850s, formal fast days and offerings were implemented to assist the poor.
Although the challenges of today's urban living are vastly different from those in Victorian England or pioneer frontier cities, Church members continue to thrive on togetherness, and the command to "meet together often," appears to offer solace for today's challenges as it did a century and a half ago.
Wards and branches in cities grapple with few of the same problems as did historical branches since many such problems have been greatly reduced. However, additional challenges have emerged.
In the Houston Texas Stake, Pres. Collins W. Steward said members live a fast-paced life among a cosmopolitan population. One challenge is serving the needs of a growing number of active but transient singles. "The singles in the city area are professional people who live in apartments. We really weren't meeting their needs.
"One of the best things we've done in a long time is organize a singles branch," he continued. "When the branch was organized, we decided to make it a service-oriented branch."
He said the women in the branch volunteer with various organizations that need women to fill a "big sister" role, such as to unwed mothers. The men in the ward join them in serving those involved in the Special Olympics and other such programs.
"They do all kinds of service work, and the more service they do, the better they love it," said Pres. Steward. "They probably have half a dozen service projects going all the time - and that's probably why the branch is so successful."
Youth are scarce in the Seattle Washington North Stake, said Bishop Paul Tucker of the Seattle 3rd Ward. Concerned that the stake's teenagers had no friends within the Church, stake leaders found a solution through the Church Educational System.
"We have one early-morning seminary class for all the youth. After the seminary class, the students separate and go to about 10 different high schools.
"The standards of some youth [outside the Church] are so different. If our youth are around them all the time, they may start to think it is OK to do things not in keeping with Church standards.
"We feel it is really important that our youth are exposed to friends who have the same standards that they have."
He said youth living in the city do have a rich opportunity to share in other ethnic cultures. "In our ward, we think it is wonderful to have diversity," said Bishop Tucker. "It helps me understand that people who are very different than I am can be really good people and very good members of the Church."
In the Philadelphia (Pa.) 2nd Ward, Bishop David Perkes said one of the main problems of living in a major city is the use of drugs.
One challenge is helping drug-users along the path of rehabilitation.
"We try to focus on their potential and offer help where it is needed," Bishop Perkes said.
"We give support through the ward structure, and get them involved in rehabilitation. The Church certainly has the ingredients to help a person overcome a drug problem.
"The ward has a good support base, the ability for people to draw help from God beyond their own, and the power of the priesthood.
"The combination seems to work," said Bishop Perkes. "The challenge is getting them focused on the people who need them."
- Next week, Church News will feature the Milwaukee City Branch, which serves members living in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wis.