"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Church in Europe: 20th Century

by Douglas F. Tobler

For Europeans, Church members included, the dawning twentieth century would bring historic and cataclysmic changes. These included two devastating world wars with literally millions of casualties and a debilitating depression in between, fascism and communism, the Cold War and Americanization, prosperity and the rebirth of Europe, and finally, by 1990, the extension of freedom and democracy to most of the people of the continent.

Leipzig Relief Society (1907). Many residents of eastern Germany joined the Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

There were also significant changes in European LDS life. Emigration gradually declined, allowing the European population to grow and more permanent LDS congregations to emerge. New countries, first in the West, then later in the East, were opened to missionary work; and some, such as France, Belgium, and Italy, that had been opened but later closed, reopened and became more fruitful. Freedom of religion and the end of religious persecution spread as democracy overcame a variety of tyrannies. The discontinuance of polygamy and the accommodation to the broader palette of political realities in the world emphasizing the spiritual mission of the Church opened doors.

The defeat of Germany and the Central Powers in World War I, though viewed as a disaster for the people, did have a bit of a silver lining for the Church, especially in Central Europe. The coming of democracy to Germany and Austria permitted the return of missionaries. A vigorous branch was established in Vienna that would serve as a strong foundation for the Church in Austria. The rigors of war and defeat had produced a poverty and humility among the people that helped make them more receptive to the gospel message. Missionaries streamed into post-World War I Germany and, especially in the first years of the Weimar Republic, baptisms were at an all-time high. By 1930 there were more Latter-day Saints in Germany than in any other country outside the United States of America, and expectations ran high for continued growth.

The coming of Hitler to power changed life for the Church and its members, not only in Germany but eventually in the rest of Europe as well. Soon the omnipresent police state was making life in Germany more difficult for the Saints, especially the missionaries; many anticipated the Church would be closed down, but it never was. Both members and missionaries made every effort to get along with the regime while rejecting its excesses. What was important to them was to be able to continue to preach the gospel, to stay in the country, and to keep the branches together and prospering after so many years of struggle. Moreover, their numbers were small and they had little leverage with the regime. The Church grew slowly throughout Europe in the 1930s, and the growing tension in society made missionary work progressively more difficult.

In the fall of 1938, at the time of the Munich conference, missionaries were taken out of Germany temporarily; this became a valuable dress rehearsal for the situation a year later, when the Church was forced overnight to withdraw all missionaries from Germany and eventually from all of Europe. After European Mission President Thomas E. McKay left in April 1940, the local leaders of the Church units on the Continent were on their own throughout the war.

The cataclysm of World War II prompted Church leaders to send Elder Ezra Taft Benson to Europe in 1946 to survey the damage, find the Saints, arrange for temporal help, and, most important, let them know that the Church cared about them. Elder Benson found decimated but devout congregations of Saints wherever he went, from England to Austria. He lamented over their circumstances and was inspired by their devotion. He also arranged for them to meet, and he set in motion the wheels that would bring the welfare supplies that had been accumulating in America to the needy in Europe. Years later, members vividly and gratefully remembered this mission of mercy and found in it hope and encouragement to face a difficult future; one non-Mormon German professor recalled having received his first pair of shoes after the war from the Mormons. Soon help began to pour in as CARE packages of relief supplies arrived from friends and fellow Saints in America. The Saints in the Netherlands, which had been invaded and occupied by Germany, sent potatoes. Trainloads of welfare supplies were sent from Utah to needy Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It was a great expression of Christianity in action, and the image of the Church in Europe began to change for the better as a result of its participation in this collective humanitarian effort.

Missionaries began to return to Europe as early as 1946. Soon missions were reestablished and some mission presidents had to locate scattered Saints, but others found things intact. Members met where they could, sometimes in bombed-out quarters, sometimes in members' apartments, and sometimes out in the open. A new mission was also established in Finland in 1947. During the first decade after the war, efforts focused again on the traditional interests of strengthening the Saints and gaining new ones.

Prior to the war, European members had never been able to attend a local Church temple. Many had been diligent in doing genealogical research, but unless they had immigrated to the United States or had been able to visit there, they had not had the opportunity to attend a temple and receive the blessings given only therein.

But all this was to change dramatically. Members in post-World War II Europe soon acquired all of the blessings and responsibilities of Saints in America. In 1952, a year after he became President of the Church, David O. mckay announced plans to build the first temple in Europe just outside of Bern, Switzerland. This temple was dedicated in September 1955; a second one was completed and opened near London in 1958. The building of these temples symbolized the inauguration of the new age for the Church in Europe. In the 1980s, the Church dedicated a temple in 1984 at Västerhaninge (near Stockholm), Sweden; in 1985 at Freiberg, then the German Democratic Republic (GDR); and in 1987 at Friedrichsdorf (near Frankfurt), then the Federal Republic of Germany.

Some other important changes were the creation of new missions and the establishment of Europe's first stake in 1961. In addition, the progress of secularization, with its emphasis on freedom of religion, the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, and the presence of American LDS service personnel helped to break down the traditional prejudices and make it possible for the Church to gain a real foothold in Italy, and later in Spain and Portugal. New vigor was experienced in France as baptisms increased; membership in France grew from 1,509 in 1960 to 8,606 in 1970. Most significant was the conviction that it was now possible to do missionary work among the Catholics of Western Europe in the same way, and with as encouraging results, as among Protestants.

The Saints became not only more numerous but also more prosperous and better educated; Europeans such as F. Enzio Busche (Germany), Charles A. Didier (Belgium), Derek A. Cuthbert (England), Jacob de Jager (the Netherlands), and Hans B. Ringger (Switzerland) were called as General Authorities. Stakes, wards, and new missions were organized with leadership essentially in local hands; European LDS youth were better educated in Church doctrine through the establishment of seminary and institute classes; a new and larger wave of missionaries from Europe joined the worldwide force; and Central and Eastern Europe were, especially after the political revolutions of 1989, opening their doors to the Church.

In Europe the image of the Latter-day Saints and the Church was changing. The coming of real democracy, with its basic human rights, including the freedom of religion; the pervasive influence of the United States as the primary defender of an exposed Europe in the Cold War; the mobility and growing prosperity that came to Europe; and the continuing growth of the Church generally gave it a more favorable press.

At the same time, the deepening Cold War made life progressively more difficult for some seven thousand Saints in the GDR. Strong anticommunist rhetoric from America, plus Russian influence and strong communist prejudices against churches and people of religious conviction, brought Latter-day Saints behind the Iron Curtain continued surveillance and harassment. The erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 left them largely to their own devices, with only occasional visits by Church authorities from the West. Some, in order to make their peace with the new order, withdrew from Church fellowship, but a majority banded together to form a strong, cohesive LDS community.

In the 1960s, the Church began a vigorous program of building chapels for European congregations that helped to meet the needs of the Saints as well as to gain some respectability in society. By 1970 chapels dotted the Western European landscape; they attracted some positive outside attention and gave members a new sense of accomplishment. They also helped Saints begin to shed the "sect" image and mentality and to move more confidently into their various national societies after years of persecution and disrespect.

In an attempt to strengthen the LDS European youth, the seminary and institute programs of the Church were established in the early 1970s. These would help LDS families teach their children the gospel and prepare them for missions and lifetimes of service. Gradually, an increasing number of young men and women did serve missions. The 1970s also brought area conferences at which the European Saints were able to see how many of them there actually were and to be counseled anew by Church leaders to remain where they were and help strengthen the Church in their own areas.

EASTERN EUROPE. Prior to the 1960s, LDS success in Europe had been confined largely to the Protestant countries of Western Europe. A few converts, such as Janos Denndorfer, had been made in Hungary around the turn of the century, and a few others later in Czechoslovakia, but the turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century and the dropping of the Iron Curtain around Eastern Europe effectively precluded the early introduction of the gospel and Church into those countries.

In the 1960s, attempts were made to begin missionary work in Yugoslavia, but it was not until Kresimir Cosic came to Brigham Young University, became a convert to the Church, and later was a basketball hero in his native country, that the Church could take hold there. A few missionaries were allowed to enter, but their opportunities to teach the people were circumscribed.

Vienna became the center of attempts by the Church to push into Central and Eastern Europe, much as it had been the capital of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire of the nineteenth century. In the 1970s a few missionary couples were called to serve in Budapest, Hungary, and by the early 1980s they had established a branch comprised of more than one hundred capable, educated Hungarians. This gradual breakthrough almost exactly mirrored the gradual turning of Hungarian society and government away from the strict subservience to the Communist masters and toward the West.

For President Spencer W. Kimball, the need to preach the gospel everywhere in the world, especially in the large areas from which the Church had heretofore been excluded was a consuming passion. He had no political agenda. A major breakthrough came with the work of Ambassador David M. Kennedy in gaining official recognition of the Church in various areas and in the dedication of Poland for the preaching of the gospel by President Kimball in 1977. This represented a major change in Church policy toward communist governments and paved the way for even more significant opportunities in the late 1980s. It became the basis for a policy that allowed contacts with scattered Saints in Czechoslovakia and brought the Church recognition and respect from the communist leadership of the GDR, in all a breakthrough in that part of Europe. The most dramatic results of this changed relationship were the 1985 erection of the temple at Freiberg, GDR, wherein for the first time hundreds of lifelong Latter-day Saints were able to fulfill their dreams of temple worship, and the subsequent admission of LDS missionaries into the country for the first time in nearly forty years. In 1989 the first missionaries allowed to leave the GDR arrived in Salt Lake City to be sent throughout the world.

The nearly bloodless revolutions of 1989 presented the Church with an opportunity to begin a new epoch in Central and Eastern Europe. As the communist order crumbled and more democratic regimes were established in one country after another, one common demand was for freedom of religion. As a result, by the end of 1990 the Church in these countries existed under virtually the same conditions as in Western Europe and the United States. The reunification of Germany applied all of the rules of the Bonn Constitution to what had been the GDR. Missions have been established in Poland, Hungary, and Greece, and reestablished in Czechoslovakia. Leaders of these nations have welcomed Latter-day Saints because of their strong Judeo-Christian values and their wholesome families. Missionaries are currently proselytizing on a limited basis. Congregations of the Church have been officially recognized in the Soviet Union, and it has good prospects there, and in Yugoslavia, for the immediate future. Missionaries have been permitted into Romania and Bulgaria, the first significant breakthroughs in those countries. Thus, at the beginning of the 1990s, THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints in Europe stands on a new threshold. Its major challenge, in both East and West, is to become better known and respected. Europeans are generally unaware of its dynamic worldwide growth, the nature of its teachings, or the quality of life it offers.

In Western Europe, the Church is growing slowly, with the exception of its clear success in Portugal, but a process of consolidation appears to be taking place. Strong second-, third-, and even fourth-generation LDS families are appearing everywhere. Church members are taking advantage of expanded opportunities for education, especially higher education, and are thus better able to contribute to and benefit from the prosperity of Western Europe. European Latter-day Saints are sending out more of their own as missionaries than ever before, and two and three generations of indigenous leaders are heading the Church in Europe.

Finally, from an LDS point of view, Europe is still divided. The Western countries are awash in secularism, prosperity, and religious apathy that pose a major challenge for the Church to find new ways to gain the interest and respect of these secular societies. For Central and Eastern Europe, the new decade and the coming new century will undoubtedly see thousands of new LDS converts and congregations. Perhaps even as the people in these countries have brought a new inspiration of freedom and human rights to the West, they will also bring a new spirit of religious desire that will benefit the Church.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Church Organization and Priesthood Authority home page; The Worldwide Church home page)


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Europe, including the British Isles and Scandinavia, as of January 1, 1991.

Elder John Taylor, one of the first LDS Missionaries in continental Europe, began the French publication Etoile du Deseret ("Star of Deseret"). Courtesy Rare Books and Manuscripts, Brigham Young University.


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir on world tour in Paris, 1955.


Babbel, Frederick W. On Wings of Faith. Salt Lake City, 1972.

"Encore of the Spirit," Ensign 21 (Oct. 1991): 32-53.

Sharffs, Gilbert W. Mormonism in Germany. Salt Lake City, 1970.



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