Hey guys! So in the last episode, we covered a little bit of what was happening with the Church and its members during World War I. Of course, you can’t just cover one of the World Wars, so today, we’re going to be talking about the Church during WWII; let’s do it.
As the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, the Church really came under the microscope. The Church was never banned in Germany, but “Gestapo agents frequently observed Church meetings, and most branch and mission leaders were thoroughly interrogated by the police about Mormon doctrines, beliefs, and practices, and were warned to stay out of political matters. By the mid-1930s, Latter-day Saint meetings were often canceled during Nazi rallies, and the Church was forced to drop its Scouting program because of the Hitler Youth Movement.”
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Church had about 860,000 members worldwide. The United States entered the war in December of 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As was the case during World War I, Latter-day Saints were allowed to follow the dictates of their own consciences, and there were members on both sides of the conflict. In 1942, J. Reuben Clark read a message from the First Presidency in general conference:
“The whole world is in the midst of a war that seems the worst of all time. This Church is a worldwide Church. Its devoted members are in both camps … On each side, they believe they are fighting for home, and country, and freedom. On each side, our brethren pray to the same God, in the same name, for victory. Both sides cannot be wholly right; and perhaps neither is without wrong. God will work out in His own due time and in His own sovereign way the justice and right of the conflict, but He will not hold the innocent instrumentalities of the war, our brethren in arms, responsible for the conflict.”
“At the height of the war, an estimated 100,000 LDS servicemen from numerous countries fought on both sides of the battlefield. And while exact numbers are not known, [researcher Robert C. Freeman] estimates that more than 5,000 LDS servicemen were killed in combat.”
“At the time of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, Church membership in Germany was ranked third in the world.” By the end of the war, about 550 German members (mostly soldiers) had died, and 85 percent of German members were homeless.
Many Church leaders that you might have heard of served in WWII. For example, Neal A. Maxwell and Bruce R. McConkie served in the army. Thomas S. Monson served in the Navy. Boyd K. Packer and James E. Faust served in the Army Air Corps. And L. Tom Perry served in the Marine Corps. Gordon B. Hinckley attempted to join the Navy but was rejected due to “his history of allergies and hay fever….”
The president of the Church during the war was Heber J. Grant. Five of his grandsons fought in the war. One of them never came back. Only two came back.
WWI featured 3 Latter-day Saint chaplains. During WWII, there were 46. “The work of LDS chaplains was indispensable in facilitating contact between the Church and its servicemen.” Of course, it wasn’t always easy for chaplains to keep track of Latter-day Saint soldiers, so they sometimes had to get creative. For example, chaplains marked this vehicle with a beehive, the word “Deseret,” and an angel Moroni in the hopes that Latter-day Saint soldiers would make contact, which many did.
Soldiers tried to hold their own studies and church meetings when (and where) possible. And there was even the occasional church conference to look forward to. With so many young Latter-day Saint men joining the military, the Church’s missionary program understandably suffered. “While 1,257 new full-time missionaries had been called in 1941, only 261 were called two years later.”
By the end of World War II in 1845, between 40 and 50 million people had died. The European portion of the war finally ended on May 8th, 1945. The war in the Pacific ended a few months later, on September 2nd. As an interesting side note, President Joseph F. Smith died only 8 days after WWI ended. President Heber J. Grant died only 6 days after the European portion of WWII ended. He was succeeded by President George Albert Smith.
During the war, the Saints in Germany and other parts of war-torn Europe were largely cut off from Church headquarters in Utah. After the war, the Church sent apostle Ezra Taft Benson to re-establish contact and get a feel for the Saints’ situation and needs. Traveling so soon throughout post-war Europe was a diplomatic nightmare, but in the words of Ezra’s biographer, “He knew how to cut through red tape.” And he did. “From February until December of 1946, Elder Benson traveled over sixty-one thousand miles and administered over four million tons of food and supplies to war-ravaged Europeans.” Here he is in Geneva at what looks like the warehouse from Indiana Jones, but instead of historical artifacts, those boxes contain food and other supplies.
Elder Benson saw first-hand the effects of the war — communities destroyed, people starving and cold, and the horrifying aftermath of genocide. In short, he wrote in his journal, “I witnessed scenes that seemed almost outside this world.”
Now, if you want to read about what Latter-day Saint soldiers experienced during the war, the best source I’ve been able to find is this book, which contains like 400 pages of their stories. Also, this entire book is just stories from the lives of German Latter-day Saints during the war. The first entry is from Dieter and Harriet Uchtdorf. So check those out, and check out the resources in the YouTube description if you want to dive deeper into this. And have a great day!
- “The Saints During WWII,” via the Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual: https://bit.ly/3SUCGCc
- “World War II: preserving the history of LDS in conflict,” via the Church News: https://bit.ly/3sJdMLp
- “The Church and World War II,” via the Church News: https://bit.ly/3DPTLZF
- “Photographs of Church Meetings among the U.S. Military in World War II,” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3zbIReh
- “Succession in German Mission Leadership during World War II,” by Roger P. Minert (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3DOppXI
- “The Church and the Present War,” address by David O. McKay (April 5, 1942, general conference): https://bit.ly/3TTN6mU
— Suggested literature:
- “Saints at War,” by Freeman and Wright
- “The Story of the Latter-day Saints,” by Allen and Leonard
- “Out of Obscurity: The LDS Church in the Twentieth Century,” the 29th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (see the essay by Robert Freeman)
- “Germany Saints at War,” by Freeman and Felt