Hey guys! So World War I began in July of 1914 and ended in November of 1918. On one side of the conflict, you had the Central Powers — mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey — fighting against the Allied Powers — mainly France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and eventually the United States. In this video, we’re not going to be talking about the history and causes of the war itself. This is a Latter-day Saint channel, so we’re going to talk about what was going on with the Church and its members during World War I. Let’s do it.
During the war, there were about 350,000 Latter-day Saints living in the United States and an additional 100,000 living in countries outside of the states, including about 7,500 German members.
The war began in 1914, but the United States wasn’t pulled in until 1917 and was thus neutral for most of the war. Many Americans saw it as a European conflict. A tragic one, but one they were not directly involved in, yet. Similarly, the Church was also neutral, and members around the world were left to follow the dictates of their own consciences. This naturally meant that there were Latter-day Saints on both sides of the conflict.
But we’ll get to more on that in a bit. As hostilities broke out in Europe, the Church worked to evacuate missionaries from dangerous areas and invited members to participate with the rest of the nation in a day of prayer, which happened to overlap with the October 1914 general conference. In the first session, Charles Penrose of the First Presidency offered a prayer for peace, which you can pause and read. Of course, the Church’s efforts didn’t stop at thoughts and prayers, and you can read more about those efforts here.
After the U.S. joined the war in 1917, members worldwide were still allowed to support their individual nations, but the Church was largely still an American church, and the vast majority of members and leaders “rallied to support the cause of the Allied nations.” Some leaders were quite vocal in their opposition to Germany. In one general conference, “Elder [Anthony W.] Ivans even declared that German policy was the embodiment of the anti-Christ spirit.”
In the April 1917 general conference, right as the United States was entering the war, Joseph F. Smith asked potential enlistees to serve with honor and to “go forth in the spirit of defending the liberties of mankind rather than for the purpose of destroying the enemy.” He said, “You must not condemn the people … Their leaders are to blame, not the people. The people that embrace the gospel are innocent of these things, and they ought to be respected by Latter-day Saints everywhere.”
He reminded members that in the Church, “…there is neither Scandinavian, nor Swiss, nor German, nor Russian, nor British, nor any other nationality. We have become brothers in the household of faith, and we should treat the people from these nations that are at war with each other, with due kindness and consideration.”
The United States initially asked for less than 900 men from Utah to serve. They got over four thousand. By the end of the war, about 25,000 Latter-day Saints had served for the United States, and about 700 died. And I’ll also add that by the end of the war, some 75 Latter-day Saints had died while serving in the German military. When the Red Cross asked for $350,000, Utahns got them more than half a million dollars. Instead of purchasing the requested $6.5 million in war bonds, Utahns bought $9.4 million. “The LDS Church’s efforts on the home front to prove its loyalty to the United States and to sincerely aid the country helped to dispel negative feelings that Mormonism was by nature un-American.”
Some fun facts for you: there were 3 Latter-day Saint chaplains in WWI: Herbert Maw (a future governor of Utah), Calvin Smith (one of six of the sons of Joseph F. Smith that served), and the renowned Latter-day Saint historian, B. H. Roberts. Roberts was technically too old to serve but got permission, thanks to some help from Senator Reed Smoot.
Bullets and bombs were not the only danger during the war. To bring things from bad to worse, 1918 brought with it an influenza epidemic, which killed about 50 million people around the world. By comparison, about six and a half million have died from Covid-19. It was bad. Less than a month before the war ended, the flu claimed the life of a soldier in France named Stanford Hinckley. B. H. Roberts had been with Stanford in his final hours and wrote to his family in Salt Lake City to break the news. Stanford’s younger brother, future Church president Gordon B. Hinckley, later said it was the first time he’d ever seen his father cry.
In the midst of all of this death, in October 1918, President Joseph F. Smith received the revelation now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138, which contains further details about the status of the spirits of those who have passed on.
The Great War ended on November 11th, 1918. Apostle James E. Talmage wrote in his journal, “The city was in a state of uproar between 1 and 2 a.m. owing to receipt of the official announcement that the armistice had been signed … This city seemed to spring into life. Bells were tolled. Whistles blown, and within an incredibly short time, hundreds of automobiles were dashing about the street, most of them having tin cans, sheet iron utensils, and other racket-making appendages attached to the rear…. Such a day as this has never before been witnessed in the world’s history.” At 80 years old, President Joseph F. Smith passed away only 8 days after the armistice.
As horrific as the war was, “Involvement in the war brought Mormons fully out of their seventy-year isolation in Utah, permitting them to mingle with other Americans in the common cause.” We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic. Check out the resources in the YouTube description to learn more. If you want to read about what Latter-day Saint soldiers experienced, the best source I’ve been able to find is this book, about half of which is dedicated to telling their stories. Go get a library card and check it out. And have a great day!
- “Mormons and Germany, 1914-1933: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Germany and its Relationship With the German Governments from World War I to the Rise of Hitler,” by Jeffrey L. Anderson (BYU Thesis): https://bit.ly/3CJeIE9
- “The Influence of the First World War on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” by James I. Mangum (BYU Thesis): https://bit.ly/3CIrhPJ
- “Joseph F. Smith and the First World War: Eventual Support and Latter-day Saint Chaplains,” by Kenneth Alford (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3VLyQOj
- “World War I,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3EEF6l9
- World War I diary of Private June B. Sharp: https://bit.ly/3VgJoVH
- “The Truth About the Mormons” WWI British handbill: https://bit.ly/3yAwIPN
- Timeline of declarations of war (during WWI), via the Library of Congress: https://bit.ly/3SVe0ua
- “World War I,” via the Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3rTNFkm
- “World War I,” via the Utah History Encyclopedia: https://bit.ly/3TpV1Ik
- “BYU and the Great War,” via BYU Magazine: https://bit.ly/3DkmSEv