The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized on April 6, 1830 in Fayette, New York, with six members. Today, congregations of the Church are found in more than 160 nations and territories. With more than 10 million members, it is one of the fastest growing religions in the world and one of the largest Christian churches in the United States.
From the outset, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a missionary church. In the mid-nineteenth century, converts were encouraged to gather with the Saints. However, swelling ranks of immigrants from Europe and the eastern United States soon provided fuel for growing opposition.
To escape the escalating turmoil, Church headquarters moved from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and later to Illinois. In 1839, the Latter-day Saints established the community of Nauvoo, Illinois on a tract of swampland bordering the Mississippi River. Under the leadership of Joseph Smith, they drained the swamps and began erecting a community of homes, farms, and businesses. They also built a temple.
By 1844, Nauvoo rivaled Chicago in population. But mounting suspicion and anxiety within neighboring communities fed an atmosphere of extreme agitation and distrust. "Nauvoo grew so quickly and rose to such political power that the locals wondered if those they has once befriended would come to dominate their lives. The once prevailing sense of sympathy gradually deteriorated into suspicion, economic jealousy, distrust, and fear, bordering on hysteria."1 Newspapers in neighboring towns began to call for the Latter-day Saints' extermination.
At the height of this turmoil, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot to death by an armed mob in nearby Carthage, Illinois. Mobs attacked Latter-day Saint settlements in the region, burning crops, destroying homes, and threatening to exterminate the people. Church leaders knew a move was once again at hand. This move would become one of the largest westward migrations in American history.
Pursuing a revelation initially articulated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young prepared the Latter-day Saintsperhaps 17,000 of them by that timefor an historic trek across the vast wilderness to the Rocky Mountains, 1,300 miles to the west. In 1846, the Saints were driven from Nauvoo. After trudging across the Iowa plains, they rested on the opposite side of the Iowa territory, in a place they called "Winter Quarters." The first pioneer party departed from Winter Quarters early in the spring of 1847 and arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake on July 24 of that year.
During the next few years, thousands of other Latter-day Saints struggled across the Great Plains to the newly found refuge. Some of the pioneers crossed the plains in wagons. Others were equipped with small, light-weight handcarts. Ten handcart caravans crossed the plains in the next four years. Eight made the journey with relative success, but two endured tragedy and saw hundreds perish of hunger, fatigue, and exposure.
After their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, members of the Church were commissioned by Brigham Young to establish colonies throughout the West. In all, the pioneers settled more than 600 communities in a broad swath stretching 1,350 miles from southern Alberta into Mexico.
When Utah was granted status as the nation's 45th state on January 4 1896, Church membership totaled a quarter of a million, the majority living in Utah, with a modest number scattered in colonies throughout the western United States, southern Alberta and northern Mexico. By 1930, only about half of the membership lived in Utah, but the remainder was still largely North American. As the Church reached membership milestones throughout the twentieth centuryone million in 1947, two million in 1963, three million in 1971, and four million in 1978the demographic makeup remained primarily American but was beginning to change markedly. Similarly, the Utah proportion became smaller and smaller.
Membership of the Church reached ten million people in the fall of 1994. Of that total, approximately one sixth reside in Utah, and one half in the United States. In late February of 1997, Church membership outside of the U.S. surpassed Church membership within.
- Richard E. Bennett, We'll Find the Place, p. 5.