Did you know that shortly before his death in 1877, Brigham Young made significant changes to the structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? He organized the church into geographically based congregations and called a bishop to safeguard the spiritual and temporal welfare of the people in that area.
It's an example of an event in LDS Church history that likely few know about, yet it played a role in shaping the worldwide faith as it is today.
The pivotal event is featured in a new book, "What You Don’t Know About the 100 Most Important Events in Church History" (Deseret Book, $22.99) by Casey Paul Griffiths, Susan Easton Black and Mary Jane Woodger, three church history professors at Brigham Young University.
"We hope this book starts a conversation about some of the lesser-known things from church history, crucial events that have shaped us as a people," Griffiths said.
The 321-page volume consists of 100 vignettes written by the authors that highlight well-known events such as the First Vision and the pioneer trek West, as well as lesser-known events such as then-Elder Heber J. Grant's mission to Japan, the founding of seminaries and institutes, and the statement of the First Presidency on war. Each event draws from the most current scholarship and resources available and they are listed in chronological order. Historic images and interesting facts supplement each short essay.
"The number 100 felt like a nice round number that gives us a chance to cover the classics and include new ones people might not be aware of," Griffiths said. "It forced us to look back at events in church history and say, 'Boy, that is amazing but it didn't really have a lasting impact,' or, 'This is something hardly anybody really knows about and it changed the way we look at things.'"
The trio of church historians debated which events to include or leave out before the book was published, and in the short time since its release, readers have already been wondering why certain events were left out, Griffiths and Woodger said.
"One of the concerns was we didn't include enough international events," Woodger said. "I wish we could have singled out more specific temples that had an impact on church history."
The authors hope the information they have presented can supplement resources like the church's gospel topics essays and the Joseph Smith Papers.
"We hope it has something for everybody — a good introduction to church history if you are a young person, or if you are somebody who knows church history that you might find a few events outside your typical study range," Griffiths said. "We also appreciate that we've had inspired leaders in all eras of church history."
As a sample of what readers will find in the book, Griffiths has written summaries of five lesser-known but crucial events in LDS Church history in the 20th century.
Heber J. Grant's mission to Japan in 1901
Perhaps no other mission faced greater challenges than the small group led by Elder Grant, then a member of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, when they arrived in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. Even Elder Grant felt apprehensive.
"I do not know when anything has struck me harder than being called to Japan," he wrote later. "I look upon the European mission in comparison to opening up the work in Japan as a picnic on the one hand and a great labor on the other. However, I shall go and do the best I possibly can."
The missionaries immediately met with serious opposition, with more than 160 editorials and essays published in the Japanese press, both for and against the introduction of Mormonism in Japan.
Scholar Shinji Takagi wrote, "The amount of press coverage given the Mormon missionaries during the first month or so was unprecedented and has not been surpassed in the subsequent history of Japan."
Elder Grant and his companions struggled to find converts, and the mission struggled through the subsequent decades. When the mission was closed 21 years later, only 174 people had received baptism. Despite its seeming failure, the opening of the Japanese mission represented an important step in the globalization of Mormonism and its entry into the countries of east Asia. Robust growth in the region after World War II has now led to a membership of more than 128,000 in Japan and the dedication of three temples in the country.
The Chicago experiment
In the early 1930s, LDS Church Commissioner of Education Joseph F. Merrill personally chose several young teachers to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School and obtain higher degrees in religious studies. The church had already seen several prominent intellectuals with leaders such as Orson Pratt, B.H. Roberts and James E. Talmage, but Merrill’s aim was to jump-start Mormon studies by providing several young scholars with top-tier training in the discipline of religious studies.
The graduates from Chicago returned home to spread a new level of religious scholarship not seen before in Mormonism. Sidney B. Sperry, one of the most prominent of the Chicago teachers, effectively founded a new discipline of Mormon apologetics that continues to influence the church today.
Other Chicago graduates raised concerns among the leadership of the LDS Church, prompting J. Reuben Clark, a counselor in the First Presidency, to give a landmark address, “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” which still influences the approach taken by religious educators in the church today.
Creation of church radio, media and publicity committee
Throughout its history, the church has always been at the forefront of developing new media to spread its message. In 1922, the church-owned radio station, KSL, began broadcasting from a tin shack atop the roof of the Deseret News building. The launch of KSL radio was the first full-time broadcasting operation between the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific Coast.
The beginning of a unified approach using media, however, began with the arrival of a young returned missionary named Gordon B. Hinckley at LDS Church headquarters in 1935. He was sent with a letter of recommendation from his mission president, Joseph F. Merrill, who lauded the young man’s abilities as "a writer of narratives." After several meetings, church leaders hired the 25-year-old Hinckley, who later became president of the LDS Church, as the first employed publicity professional in the church. He served as the executive secretary and day-to-day director of the Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee. He soon began producing radio dramas, print campaigns and other innovative approaches to spread the teachings of the church.
Throughout the 20th century, this new emphasis on media spread, prompting the church to produce the famous Homefront series of public service announcements that won several honors, including back-to-back Emmy awards in 1997 and 1998. By President Hinckley’s death in 2008, the church was exploring new approaches in reaching online audiences.
Beginning of church correlation
Even though LDS Church members are drawn from hundreds of cultures around the world, there is a unity in doctrine and teachings rarely found in organized religion. This remarkable characteristic exists in large measure because of efforts undertaken by church leaders during the 20th century to develop a unified curriculum and approach to the gospel.
The Committee of Correlation and Adjustments was established in 1907. The committee went through several name changes in the ensuing decades but retained its purpose to "correlate church organizations in their structures, curricula, activities and meetings."
In the 1960s, as the church began a rapid stretch of international expansion the correlation effort was led by future church President Harold B. Lee, who coordinated the efforts of all church organizations to present a unified message to all. Today the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles lead the correlation effort to provide a coordinated message. Church manuals and teachings are translated into dozens of languages with one purpose: to bring souls unto Jesus Christ.
President N. Eldon Tanner even declared church correlation to be "the closest blueprint yet in mortality to the plan presented in the Grand Council of Heaven before the world was created."
Establishment of LDS Humanitarian Services
In January 1985, the First Presidency asked members of the church worldwide to participate in a fast for the starving people of Ethiopia. The $6.4 million raised from this fast marked the beginning of what became Latter-day Saint Charities, or Humanitarian Services. As a branch of the Church Welfare program, Humanitarian Services has a stated mission to "relieve suffering, to foster self-reliance for families of all nationalities and religions, and to provide opportunities for service."
The fast for the people of Ethiopia marked the beginning of major efforts to improve the lives of all people around the globe.
For instance, after the executive secretary of Humanitarian Services visited Ngorika, Kenya, a major effort was launched to provide funding to build a system to bring clean water to the region. When the system was dedicated, one local woman remarked, "For the past 40 years I have walked 8 miles one way every day to get water for my family." She then pointed to the water flowing from the new system and said, "This is like a dream."
The yellow shirts of Mormon helping hands volunteers have become a familiar sight in places such as Tonga, Indonesia and New Orleans that have experienced disasters. When Hurricane Andrew swept across Southern Florida in 1991, Latter-day Saint volunteers poured into the area to help. When all three presidential candidates from that year — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot — spotted volunteers in yellow shirts during a helicopter tour of the region, their pilot responded, "Those are my friends, Mormon volunteer rescue workers who have come here to help." In response, one of the candidates replied, "God bless the Mormons."
In a typical year, humanitarian services will ship 8 million pounds of shoes and clothing, 300,000 hygiene and school kits, and 12,000 quilts to relieve suffering in more than 50 countries. Its efforts have brought a whole new level of visibility and respectability to efforts of Latter-day Saints around the globe.