It’s the time for year-in-review articles and retrospectives, as we get ready to kick 2016 out the door. I’m not sure how to put my thoughts about this year into coherent words, so maybe I’d rather write about some other proxy year instead. Some months ago, I posted about the Church’s annual Church in Action films by profiling the 1973 version. I recently began teaching Institute in my stake and because of a boundary change I took over mid-semester in the Cornerstones class about Church history and the Restoration. Joey Stuart’s thought-provoking piece earlier this fall on Mormonism’s biggest “change year” challenged me to find a way to present some of the rapid transformations in Church demographics, policies and practices that have taken place in recent decades for the last class in the semester. I thought bringing in one of the Church in Action recaps might highlight both continuity and change in recent Mormonism. It definitely did; we had a lively discussion about the film and what had / hadn’t changed since then.
Aside: Being aware of and explaining BOTH continuity and change is one of the key concepts in historical thinking. There are several different models of historical thinking, but all of them deal in some way with this concept. See, for example, the Carnegie “Teachers for a New Era” 5 C’s (Change Over Time, Causality, Context, Complexity, Contingency) … or Canada’s Historical Thinking Project (Historical Significance, Primary Source Evidence, Continuity and Change, Cause and Consequence, Historical Perspectives, and Ethical Dimensions) … or the National History Education Clearinghouse framework for K-12 educators over at TeachingHistory.org … or the SHEG Historical Thinking Matters website.
But I digress.
Fortunately, most of the Church in Action series is posted online, thanks to the Youtube channel “Hard-To-Find-Mormon Videos” (which is a well-curated collection of golden oldies for your holiday viewing enjoyment), and I picked 1975, because it seemed like a good in-the-middle sort of a year – before the 1978 end of the priesthood and temple ban for people of African descent, before the 1980 Churchwide 3-hour block schedule, but well after the consolidation of Church magazines, finances, and the correlation effort was underway.
Turns out, 1975 was a really interesting year to pick, not least for the 28-minute film’s capture of cheesy 1970s graphics and fashion (e.g. the “inspiring” Brazilian cultural festival depicted at 19:35).
The organizing principle was Spencer W. Kimball’s memorable exhortation to “Lengthen Your Stride,” followed by profiles of how each of the Church’s various central bureaucratic divisions was carrying this motto out in their respective areas of responsibility. One is immediately struck by how tidy and centralized the film’s perspective was, with everything radiating outward from the newly-constructed Church Office Building (6:25) to the global neural ends of a vast communications network. Yet let’s remember that the distribution formats for mid-1970’s Mormon messages was print manuals and magazines, visitor’s centers dioramas, film, vinyl records, and filmstrips. General Conference reached viewers by radio or over cooperating television networks (and in the pre-cable era, I might need to remind readers, most people only got 3 or 4 channels total), although 1975 was the first year that General Conference was broadcast by satellite, a hint of the possibilities of global, cable and digital delivery to come.
Some stats: in 1975, Church membership stood at 3.5 million, with 700 stakes, and 23,000 missionaries serving in 134 missions. New temples were announced for Seattle, Tokyo and Sao Paulo.
Projects in the works in 1975:
- Filming “The First Vision” (1976) and distributing “Go Ye Into All the World” (1974)
- Retrofitting of temples to accommodate filmed endowment instruction (4:30)
- Dedication of the New York Manhattan Visitor’s Center (6:00), creation of the LDS Exhibits Division, construction of the Provo MTC (called the “Language Training Center” in the film), and announcement of the LDS Womanhood Monument and sculpture park to be put in Nauvoo.
- Centennial of BYU, with dedication of the bell tower Carillon and the Law School.
End of an era: in 1975, June Conference along with the various annual auxiliary conferences held in Utah were discontinued, which had included Primary, Sunday School and Relief Society (12:00). June Conference, you may ask? It was a 3-day youth/YSA conference with speakers, dances, cultural festivals, banquets, sports tournaments, testimony meetings and training for youth leaders about the year’s theme. (Someone needs to write about the history of June Conference, please!). It was replaced by regional youth conferences and by the advent of EFY in 1976.
One of the most interesting moments in the film (around 13:00) is a short clip of President Kimball receiving an elk-skin award from the BYU pan-Indian organization, the “Tribe of Many Feathers,” at an “all-Lamanite” meeting during BYU’s Indian Week.
Also, the Church threw itself whole-heartedly into patriotic hyperdrive with its American Bicentennial observance a whole year ahead of 1976, mounting a heritage festival at the Salt Palace (16:00). And President Kimball personally greeted some of the several hundred Vietnamese members arriving in the United States as refugees (16:30).
The last ten minutes depicts regional Church conferences in South America and Asia (Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Philippines, and Hong Kong), with associated cultural dance festivals and announcements of temples in those regions.
I’d say some of the most important events in 1975 turned out to be two that were rather lightly passed over in the film: designating global Area Supervisors (9:23) and, for the first time, calling members into the First Quorum of the Seventy [*], which to that time had been a dormant quorum with only symbolic council leadership (10:10). Church growth now meant distributing the responsibility for Church administration and stake creation and reorganization among a wider range of General Authorities. In retrospect, that’s been a significant feature enabling the Church to organize and manage its global growth, towards the current era when the balance of membership has shifted to the majority of members residing outside the United States, although we still have a long way to go when it comes to achieving international diversity in Church leadership.
What do you find interesting or notable about the mid-1970s as a Church inflection point? How much does, or doesn’t, happen in a single year, anyway? What can we learn from the blend of intentional messaging and unintentional cultural freeze-frame in this film, as with any Mormon media text? What’s surprising about what’s included, or not included, here? What other thoughts do you have, as 1975 recedes even farther into the past and as we’re putting 2016 in the rearview mirror too?
[*] including George P. Lee, first Navajo General Authority