About every 50 years in US history there’s a major conflagration of political turmoil. This manifests with both positive change along with sometimes negative changes or retrenchment. The last major turbulence in the US (and in many ways the west in general) was in the late 60’s through early 70’s. We’re now in a similar period which almost certainly has yet to reach its peak. It’s hard not to notice that when looking at Church history that major changes in the Church are loosely tied to these periods.
For instance the period of political turmoil in the early 20th century included the first world war, massive strikes and violence associated with labor demands, along with the beginning of the shift to what we’d call cosmopolitan modernism. At the same time there was racial retrenchment, particularly under the Wilson administration in the United State who reversed a lot of integration in the federal workplace. People were jailed for sedition for being socialists or communists. However it was this period of turmoil that women’s suffrage really made a lot of progress including the ratification of the 19th amendment. The ACLU was formed during this period due to the view that civil liberties were not being respected. I’ll not bore people with all the changes during this period, but it was a key moment in history that often gets neglected in people’s historic knowledge.
The same time these changes were taking place in American history the Church was rapidly changing under Heber J. Grant. He became President in 1918 in this period of turbulence nationally. While many changes to the Church had begun earlier, such as with the first manifesto on polygamy, it is really with Heber J. Grant that we see the rapid change of the Church into the modern era. It’s under Heber J. Grant that the Church becomes recognizable as the Church as we have it today. A lot of credit (and by some blame) for correlation is laid on David O McKay’s feet. Yet it’s Heber J. Grant that gets the ball rolling with far more centralization of budgets and programs. Under Grant the first stakes outside of the mountain west get organized paving the way for an international Church. The first temples outside of Utah since the trek west are dedicated. It’s under Grant that attending Church meetings such as Sacrament becomes emphasized and a key part of Church life. It’s really under Grant that the Church fundamentally shifts away from the polygamous period and culture. Anti-polygamy measures became strongly enforced with conflict with groups that broke off from the Church. Grant himself was the last President to be a polygamist, although by the time he was President only one of his wives was alive. He bridges that gap between the old polygamist culture of Brigham Young and the new cosmopolitan monogamist capitalist culture. Grant himself was a banker and very much aware of the capitalist finance and manufacturing culture that was rapidly replacing agrarian culture.
Politically it is in this period that you see the shift in the Church towards what we might call conservatism. Grant, while a Democrat, adamantly opposed Roosevelt whom he saw as implementing socialist policy. He wasn’t alone in that view with J. Reuben Clark and David O McKay also opposing Roosevelt’s reforms. This opposition to government based socialism is somewhat at odds with communitarianism and agrarianism of the prior century. The end of prohibition was a defeat for Grant, at least as he saw it. In particular Utah was the deciding vote overturning prohibition. That in turn I think led to big shifts in how the Word of Wisdom was used in the Church as a practical matter. It was during this period that some saw caffeine as the reason for coffee and tea’s inclusion in the Word of Wisdom. That was largely due to an article by University of Utah geologist Frederick Pack who argued Coca Cola was against the Word of Wisdom because of its caffeine. That view persisted until very recently. It was only last year that regular Coca Cola was sold at BYU. While Grant didn’t oppose Coca Cola, it quickly became a common if far from universal view. More significantly the Church pressured to make Word of Wisdom prohibitions a key aspect of being a fully committed member.
During the next period of turmoil in the early 70’s we have the drive to rid the Church of the priesthood ban. While the revelation itself only occurred in 1978, it’s the earlier protests of the 1968-1974 era that really make it a necessary change. While society viewed the Church negatively over the issue part of the issue was the conservatism towards change. Had the Church issued Official Declaration 2 a decade earlier in 1968 I think it would have been seen as far more progressive towards racial issues. My point though is that it was this period of rapid change starting in the late 60’s that led to this substantial change in the Church.
There were limits on what the Church could do during the turmoil of 1968-1974 primarily due to the health of the Presidents. David O McKay was enfeebled and ill the last years of his administration that ended in 1970. It was during that era the many problems like overbuilding by Henry Moyles led to the near bankruptcy of the Church. The next Presidents – Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B Lee each had short administrations and were quite ill. Under these figures their assistants who did most of the work, limiting the ability for significant change until Spencer Kimball became President. Still it is during this era that the last major centralizations take place of lessons and magazines for the Church. N. Eldon Tanner became a counselor in the First Presidency in this era. Historians often see this call primarily to repair the finances of the Church and make the Church more responsible fiscally. It seems that with this key transition that the Church truly become corporate not just legally but in terms of many day to day business functions.
Much of what constitutes the Church for the next 50+ years happens as Pres. Tanner is directed to organize the Church in a reliable and sustainable fashion. While one may argue that’s not tied to the turbulence of the era, nonetheless it is well in keeping with the corporatism that comes to characterize so much of American life after the late 60’s. If we see a shift to most restaurants following a corporate structure with the rise McDonald’s, Burger King and even higher end franchises it’s not surprising that this model gets replicated in so many fields in American life. Not just restaurants become corporatized but so too do charities, activist groups and, as we see with the Church, even religion. It’s out of that period of change that this trajectory becomes set.
Once Spencer Kimball is made President, despite his own very ill health, the Church is able to make even more changes. It is the extremely important revelation on priesthood that truly opens the Church to the world for the first time. However this is also a period of some retrenchment. Issues of feminism that arose during the late 60’s are rejected by the Church for even more emphasis on tradition role for the sexes. The Church opposes the ERA amendment that was the culmination of feminist activities during the larger American era of turmoil. While the constitutional amendment doesn’t expire until later in the early 80’s, the change in Church society through the earlier opposition shows the retrenchment. The Church isn’t alone in this. Evangelicalism and other broader Protestant changes also develop an unique characteristic due to opposition and retrenchment to this and other social changes on sex and sexuality. Many of these positions appear to go back to Heber J. Grant and David O McKay. However it’s their definition and significance in opposition to the social changes of the late 60’s that really give them the form they have for the next 50 years.
We’re now in an other period of social change. How much of this is inevitable and how much is due to the accident of who is in key positions of power is unclear. I tend to think that there are larger social forces at work. Figures like Trump may escalate these tensions but do not cause them. While it’s too early to know what Pres. Nelson’s legacy will be, it is interesting that he’s much more like Heber J. Grant than David O McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee or even Spencer W. Kimball. Despite his advanced age he appears in compelling health. Unusually so given his age. Perhaps because of his relationship with Spencer Kimball he has also sought to prepare his successor Dalin H. Oaks. Presumably that’s to ensure not only a smooth transition but common view of what changes they wish to make over the next few years.
Already we’ve seen some minor changes. The shift to the 2 hour block may seem significant. Even relative to the shift to the single 3 hour block it is ultimately a pretty minor change though. Unifying priesthood quorums as a practical matter is important, but again pretty minor when looking over the last 120 years. Especially compared to what happened under Kimball and Grant. The major changes that society and some members are agitating for is much deeper involvement in leadership by women along with a desire for inclusion of homosexuals and transgendered individuals. It’s not clear what will happen here. It’s important to note looking back at these transitory points that sometimes there’s significant retrenchment and other times rapid change. What a vocal minority agitates for change over doesn’t really correlate well to how the Church responds.
Of course faithful members argue that it’s revelation that’s so key at these transitionary points in Church history. What we might believe politically about issues ultimately doesn’t matter. Despite that, as we saw with elements around the Word of Wisdom, social change isn’t necessarily driven by clear revelation on the matter. It’s inevitable that during periods of rapid social transition that the Church must react. That might be through defining itself in opposition to change or by embracing the social changes. What we can say is that ten years from now the Church may very well look quite different.