The Church has kept faith with the brave pioneer men and women who believed and sacrificed for a cause they counted more precious than life itself, President Gordon B. Hinckley said to an international forum here March 6.
Speaking to some 2,300 people at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, President Hinckley outlined the Church's current status and recounted its pioneer history, including that in California. In doing so, he shared a broad sense of optimism for the future.After he completed his remarks, delivered at a downtown hotel, he received a standing ovation by the record audience, which was 100 more than the previous largest gathering addressed by presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.
The dinner audience at the longstanding forum included diplomats, local and state dignitaries and officials, and a number of Church members. President Hinckley was accompanied to the dinner by his wife, Marjorie; Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy and president of the North America West Area, and his wife, Sharon.
President Hinckley also spoke to some 1,100 missionaries from five Los Angeles area missions and to Greater Los Angeles Area young single adults in meetings March 7 at the Glendale stake center. (See related article on page 7.)
In his address at the World Affairs Council, President Hinckley said, "We are trying to keep faith with those of the past. From them has grown something wondrous and great. The cause for which many of them gave their lives has now increased to nearly 10 million members scattered through 160 nations. Its number includes leaders in the professions, in business, in education, in government, in the arts and sciences."
He noted that at the centennial of the Church's organization in 1930, half its membership resided in Utah. "By 1996, only 17 percent of the membership of the Church resided in Utah, but today we have four times as many members in Utah as we had in 1930. Last year we had more converts in the state of Utah than we had in all of the United Kingdom.
"I am told we are the second largest Christian denomination in California and the seventh largest denomination in the United States," he continued. "A year ago we passed the point where we have more members of the Church outside the United States than we have in the United States."
He told the audience that in the past five years, the Church had donated $138 million in humanitarian aid throughout the world to recipients, most of whom are not LDS.
The Church maintains a missionary force of 55,000, and grows at a rate of about 4 percent per year. Some 350 to 400 new meetinghouses are constructed each year. A major construction project will begin this summer in Salt Lake City when ground is broken for a new assembly hall.
President Hinckley pointed to an ongoing study by a UCLA professor that indicated that Church members enjoy better health because of adherence to the Word of Wisdom. He also explained that the Church's 23,000 congregations have a local, unpaid ministry. Within these congregations is the world's largest women's organization, the Relief Society, which has 3.9 million women who are led by a "presidency of strong and able women."
He said also that the Church is free of debt.
"I think I can safely say that in the year 1997, we have, in large measure, kept faith with those who came West a century and a half ago," he continued, noting that many who came West were involved in California history. He told of the Mormon Battalion arriving in San Diego after a "long and terrible march."
President Hinckley explained the battalion contributed to two events that changed the history of California forever - the treaty under which California became part of the United States and the discovery of gold. The battalion's march was part of the war with Mexico that ended with a treaty yielding California to the United States. And after their term of service was completed, some battalion members traveled north, earning money from various jobs as they went. A few of these were hired by John Sutter near Sacramento to build a sawmill. It was in the millrace that gold was discovered, and it was in the journal of one of the battalion members that the date of the discovery was preserved, said President Hinckley.
The Church leader said that after the discovery of gold, another Church member, Sam Brannan, announced the discovery on the streets of Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, where a large group of members resided. This group was made up of members who had sailed from New York "around the horn" to the West Coast by ship. Many later went to the Salt Lake Valley.
On Feb. 4, 1846, the same day that the ship sailed from New York, the first pioneer wagons began the trek west as they crossed the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Ill.
"To the farmers of Iowa, this movement of thousands upon thousands of people - their wagons slowly creeping through the mud with tens of thousands of livestock - looked like something out of the Old Testament, the march of Israel from the land of Egypt to the wondrous place called the Promised Land," said President Hinckley.
A year and several months later, on July 22, 1847, the first wagons arrived in the arid Salt Lake Valley, where Brigham Young declared, "This is the right place."
"I stand in awe of that statement," said President Hinckley. "They might have gone on to California or Oregon where the soil had been tested, where there was ample water, where there was a more equable climate. Jim Bridger had warned them against trying to grow crops in the Salt Lake Valley. Sam Brannan had pleaded with Brigham to go on to California.
"Now they looked across the barren valley with its saline waters shimmering in the sun to the west. No plow had ever broken the sun-baked soil. . . . Thousands of their numbers were coming behind them and there would yet be tens of thousands. They accepted Brigham Young's prophetic statement."