The Church in Action, ca. 1973

By April 13, 2015

While doing a close reading of Rick Turley’s essay for our #JMH50 roundtable series, I came across a tidbit that was new for me. He writes,

Beginning around 1970, our department had sponsored newsreel-style movies under the series title The Church in Action. These annual or five-year retrospectives used existing footage to feature newsworthy events like the international travels of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Brigham Young University’s dance teams. Useful though they were in featuring Church events in multiple countries, these films did not begin to capture the depth of Church history around the globe. [1]

As a scholar of religion and media, my ears perked up. In what contexts & settings were such films screened? The notion of a pre-feature newsreel was completely passe by the 1970s, so this seems a fascinating model to have promoted in that decade. Were they broadcast before or between general conference sessions, as the Global Report is now? Were they sent or loaned or distributed out to church units somehow, or only kept centrally in Salt Lake as a form of denomination-wide journaling for the ages? The series doesn’t seem to have been digitized (yet), so we can’t go back and look in depth at each one (but if we could: master’s thesis, anyone??).

However, all is not lost. Afficianados of the 1980s will be thrilled to learn that 5 years (1981-1985) of The Church in Action were included on the Church’s 3-disc DVD “Church History” collection [2]. Screening them might be a future Family Home Evening with my teenagers. But in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure and critical cultural studies analysis, I give you The Church in Action, 1973, uploaded to Youtube by some kind soul.



The 22-minute film captures a fascinating moment in LDS and world history in the last year of Harold B. Lee’s presidency. The church had 630 stakes and close to 3.4 million members, and was translating its materials into 17 languages (contrast that with the stats given at the April 2015 conference, with 3114 stakes, 15,372,337 members, and many more languages for conferences and curricula). Growth outside the US had ballooned 350% since 1960. 1973 marked the organization of the first stakes in Korea and the Phillippines, and a giant European area conference held in Munich’s Olympic Hall (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir took the opportunity on that trip to sing in the Oberammergau Passion theater). Agricultural and hygiene missionaries served in developing countries, on a sort of Peace Corps model. American POWs were returning home from Vietnam; President Lee gave radio addresses over the Armed Forces network. MIA (“Mutual”) was reorganized under priesthood stewardship, no longer a separate auxiliary, just as the Relief Society had been a few years earlier. Huge dance festivals were held in stadiums in the American West (check out the cultural appropriations in the costumes, people) and the “Mormon Miracle” pageant was launched at the Manti temple. The General Primary President was named to the National Boy Scout Council. Church History worked on microfilming its entire archives. We get a message from former YW General President Florence Jacobsen, hard at work curating “pioneer relics.” The film reports on the work of the relatively new departments of Welfare Services and Social Services, and on the expansion of church schools, Seminary and Institute. Brigham Young University dedicated the Mariott Center, and broke ground for a new law school which accepted its first graduating class. Both ABC and NBC carried documentary programs about the church on their networks; a clip of the ABC program shows “a typical Family Home Evening” in a boring-looking family oddly devoid of small children. The Church planned construction of a building in New York City’s Lincoln Square, renovated the Polynesian Cultural Center, dedicated restored historical buildings in Nauvoo, and designed a building for the 1974 Spokane World Expo in the shape of the golden plates, to feature dioramas and narration on the theme “Ancient America Speaks” (see timestamp 14:35 [3]).

Spokane74ExpoBldg

In the film’s last few minutes, it takes a somber turn to describe the death and cover the rainy Christmastime funeral of Harold B. Lee and the initiation of Spencer W. Kimball as president of the Church, who pledges simply to “carry forward the work.” The reel ends with a watery fanfare of trumpets and the slogan “Achievement, Challenge, Change! On an Ever-Enlarging International Scale!”

It’s a little gem of a primary source, showing the church’s ambitions to cement itself as a worldwide global enterprise and a going concern, and its strong push for improved public relations and cultural acceptance in the U.S. A delightful snapshot of a moment light years apart from our own in some ways but also – not so very long ago.

Notes

[1] Richard E. Turley, Jr., “Global History of the Church,” JMH Winter 2015, 133.

[2] Church History, Home and Family Collection DVD boxed set, item #54116 (Intellectual Reserve, 2005). The set contains 29 church-made films. Now out of print, but seems easily available used, or if you’re lucky your local meetinghouse library might stil have it.

[3] Yes, it got built. For a view of the finished building at the fair, see here.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Movie Reviews


Comments

  1. Fascinating. Thanks, Tona.

    Comment by David G. — April 13, 2015 @ 7:48 am

  2. This is a lot of fun. Thanks for publicizing this as a resource. Who’s bringing the popcorn?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 13, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

  3. That is incredible!

    Comment by Saskia T — April 13, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

  4. Awesome.

    Comment by Ben P — April 13, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

  5. Great fun.

    Comment by WVS — April 18, 2015 @ 3:11 pm


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