(by Trent Toone deseretnews.com 4-3-17)
This spring marks two lesser-known anniversaries in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and both involve wars and general conference.
On April 6, 1917 — 100 years ago — the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. The LDS Church opened its 87th annual general conference on the same day.
In 1942 — 75 years ago — events related to World War II disrupted a special Relief Society celebration and Mormon missionary work, closed the doors of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, limited conference attendance to church leaders and led the First Presidency to release a historic statement.
Christine Marin, an archivist and general conference specialist in the Church History Department, said these conflicts affected everyone.
"There was such a significant impact across the United States and the world, specifically for members of the church around the world," said Marin, whose parents served in the military during World War II. "It was a different time, a time of fuel rations and limited food. .… So many Americans had the gold stars in their windows. … We are still feeling the ramifications of World War II today."
Marin recently reviewed with the Deseret News many of the significant events from World Wars I and II that intersected with general conference.
World War I
About three months after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith spoke in the Sunday morning session of the October 1914 general conference. He said missionaries serving in Germany, France, Austria and parts of other involved countries had been safely evacuated. The prophet also offered a "prayer of peace" for the world.
"We wish this morning to remember the admonition of the president of the United States, to offer prayer for peace to come upon the distracted nations of the world, for peace to abide upon those who are at peace, and to abound more abundantly," President Smith said. "I pray God that this spirit may especially enter into the hearts of this people … and that from them this spirit of peace and love for God and for our fellow man may go out into the world."
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson stood before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war on Germany. That declaration was formally accepted on April 6, the same day Latter-day Saints opened their 87th annual general conference. By June, Gen. John J. Pershing arrived in France with the first American forces, Marin said.
On Oct. 7, 1917, in general conference, President Smith asked members to vote on if the church should buy liberty bonds. The vote was unanimously in favor of buying the bonds, Marin said.
Latter-day Saints contributed to the war effort in other ways. In the October 1918 conference, President Smith said the Relief Society sold years of stored wheat to the government, Marin said.
The Great War Armistice took place on Nov. 11, 1918. President Smith died eight days later, on Nov. 19.
World War II
In April 1941 general conference, President J. Reuben Clark, first counselor in the First Presidency, gave a talk titled "To Be Peacemakers, the Destiny of America." In his remarks, President Clark said entering World War II was inevitable for the U.S.
"It does look as if only divine intervention of some kind can keep our sons on our own soil, fighting for our own cause, in defense of our own freedom and liberties," the church leader said.
Eight months later, on Dec. 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and in the process killed President Clark's son-in-law, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, who was aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. The Hawaii bombing brought the U.S. into the global conflict and changed America's way of life.
On Jan. 4, 1942, church members observed a special fast Sunday in conjunction with a national day of prayer called by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marin said.
Because of the war, the Relief Society was asked to curtail a celebration commemorating the centennial anniversary of its founding. Instead of a large event, smaller celebrations took place on ward and branch levels, Marin said.
In March, the First Presidency announced that for the duration of World War II it would call only older men who had been ordained high priests or Seventies on full-time missions, Marin said.
A state of wartime emergency was declared from March 1942 to August 1945. The Salt Lake Tabernacle was closed to the public, although radio broadcasts were allowed to continue. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's program "Music and the Spoken Word" continued in the Tabernacle. No one was invited except on the Sunday of general conference weekend, Marin said.
Because of fuel rations and limited travel, the April 1942 general conference was closed to general church membership. Only general authorities and presidencies of local stakes were permitted to attend. Conference sessions were moved to the Assembly Hall on Temple Square and the assembly room of the Salt Lake Temple. Some sessions of conference were broadcast on the radio, Marin said.
All radio stations were reduced in power, and KSL was cut back to 39,000 watts. KSL was later increased to 50,000 watts in October 1945, Marin said.
On April 6, 1942, President Clark delivered a landmark statement on war from the First Presidency. The message, later distributed as a pamphlet, gave direction and comfort to thousands of Latter-day Saints and their families who were serving in the military, Marin said.
"The church is and must be against war. … It cannot regard war as a righteous means of settling international disputes; these should and could be settled — the nations agreeing — by peaceful negotiation and adjustment," said President Clark, citing Doctrine and Covenants 98:16, which admonishes members to "renounce war and proclaim peace."
"The church itself cannot wage war, unless and until the Lord shall issue new commands. … But the church membership are citizens or subjects of sovereignties over which the church has no control."
Therefore, when Mormons are called "into the armed service of any country to which they owe allegiance, their highest civic duty requires that they meet that call. If, harkening to that call and obeying those in command over them, they shall take the lives of those who fight against them, that will not make of them murderers, nor subject them to the penalty that God has prescribed for those who kill, beyond the principle to be mentioned shortly," President Clark said. "For it would be a cruel God that would punish his children as moral sinners for acts done by them as the innocent
instrumentalities of a sovereign whom he had told them to obey and whose will they were powerless to resist."
LDS servicemen were promised the Lord would be with them if they prayed and kept the commandments, and regardless of what country they fought for, according to the Lord's will, they could return home and live happy lives, according to the book "What You Don't Know About the 100 Most Important Events in Church History."
Several future apostles and one church president served in World War II, including Elder David B. Haight, Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder L. Tom Perry and President Boyd K. Packer and President Thomas S. Monson.
The First Presidency's position on war has not changed during subsequent conflicts.
In July 1942, church welfare leaders urged members to plant gardens, bottle fruit and vegetables, and store coal, Marin said.
The following month, the USS Brigham Young, a Liberty=class ship was christened, Marin said.
German forces surrendered in Italy on April 29, 1945, and a total and unconditional surrender was signed the first week of May. About a week later, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant died. A few months later, in August of that year, the Tabernacle was reopened to the public. The war in the Pacific ended in September. The first unrestricted conference in the Tabernacle since the start of the war opened on Oct. 5 of that year, Marin said.